On Teaching

Here is Martin Shuster on the task (and pleasure) of teaching.

One of my intellectual heroes, Hannah Arendt, suggests that as moderns, we look at the past as a deep, but chaotic sea floor, ready for ‘pearl diving.’ What I take her to mean is that we are subject to various traditions, some living, others dead, but most buried, often by pain and suffering, and so wholly or partially hidden. As a teacher, I help students dive for pearls, i.e., for items important to them. In this way, I see philosophy as a historical affair, and also a current and ethical one. It is historical because to do philosophy well requires understanding its history, it is a current one because we can also be irreverent towards that past, taking elements we need now, while discarding others; finally, it is an ethical one to the extent that it critically lays bare thoughts, ideas, hopes, and events that otherwise might be forgotten or unpopular.

What a fine credo !


4 comments on “On Teaching

  1. dmf says:

    At the Fishhouses

    Although it is a cold evening,
    down by one of the fishhouses
    an old man sits netting,
    his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
    a dark purple-brown,
    and his shuttle worn and polished.
    The air smells so strong of codfish
    it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
    The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
    and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
    to storerooms in the gables
    for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
    All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
    swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
    is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
    the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
    among the wild jagged rocks,
    is of an apparent translucence
    like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
    growing on their shoreward walls.
    The big fish tubs are completely lined
    with layers of beautiful herring scales
    and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
    with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
    with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
    Up on the little slope behind the houses,
    set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
    is an ancient wooden capstan,
    cracked, with two long bleached handles
    and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
    where the ironwork has rusted.
    The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
    He was a friend of my grandfather.
    We talk of the decline in the population
    and of codfish and herring
    while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
    There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
    He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
    from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
    the blade of which is almost worn away.

    Down at the water’s edge, at the place
    where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
    descending into the water, thin silver
    tree trunks are laid horizontally
    across the gray stones, down and down
    at intervals of four or five feet.

    Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
    element bearable to no mortal,
    to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
    I have seen here evening after evening.
    He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
    like me a believer in total immersion,
    so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
    I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
    He stood up in the water and regarded me
    steadily, moving his head a little.
    Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
    almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
    as if it were against his better judgment.
    Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
    the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
    the dignified tall firs begin.
    Bluish, associating with their shadows,
    a million Christmas trees stand
    waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
    above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
    I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
    slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
    icily free above the stones,
    above the stones and then the world.
    If you should dip your hand in,
    your wrist would ache immediately,
    your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
    as if the water were a transmutation of fire
    that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
    If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
    then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
    It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
    dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
    drawn from the cold hard mouth
    of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
    forever, flowing and drawn, and since
    our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

  2. dmf says:

    Delacampagne But don’t the public expect the critic to provide them with precise assessments as to the value of a work?

    Foucault I don’t know whether the public do or do not expect the critic to judge works or authors. Judges were there, I think, before they were able to say what they wanted. It seems that Courbet had a friend who used to wake up in the night yelling: “I want to judge, I want to judge.” It’s amazing how people like judging. Judgment is being passed everywhere, all the time. Perhaps it’s one of the simplest things mankind has been given to do. And you know very well that the last man, when radiation has finally reduced his last enemy to ashes, will sit down behind some rickety table and begin the trial of the individual responsible.

    I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would not try to judge, but bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea-foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply, not judgments, but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be a sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

    Michel Foucault. (1997) [1980]. ‘The Masked Philosopher

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