The Great Pretender
I stand in front of people day in and day out and pretend to know what I’m talking about.
Teach: to impart knowledge or skill; give instruction – enlighten, discipline, indoctrinate. It’s a verb, action. The teacher is the noun. The teacher acts, and s/he’s acted upon too. We pretend not always being slightly off-center because of it. Teaching is pretending to be the authority while standing on thin ice; it’s walking a tightrope over a ravine while negotiating our influences and the ever present, ever changing needs of students.
Gaining dominion over a class is a creative struggle between what you know, what you feel and what you see in front of you; it’s the teacher’s sense of her place in the world. This requires an opinion about the world, its history and how it manifests itself today. The place of authority is therefore assumed – it must be so; it is given to the teacher by the cultural positioning of education, first, the teacher, second. Thus the institution and the teacher are one and the same in the mind of the student; authority from the State to the Institution to the Citizen is translated this way. It disciplines and orders. The teacher is forever pretending not to be this socio-political-economic force, which renders her insecure about her sense of self in the institution. So teachers seek out models.
Like writers, painters, musicians, and filmmakers the teacher considers authorities that have come before – honored representatives of knowledge and methods. In the West, the archetypal teacher is Socrates – until we get to Paulo Freire, for instance, who then articulates the way oppression infiltrates the perfect model. “To educate is essentially to form,” says Freire in Pedagogy of Freedom.
In considering the practice and the knowledge that has been placed in my hands by generations of teachers before me, I’m forced to measure their influence, the consequences of what I believe to be the truth in what I think I’ve learned, and look for expressive ways of re-delivering this to new, ever changing audiences. I take in, I filter and edit, and perform knowledge as I see it. It’s not the truth, but a version of it, hopefully. I am the authority. But for a brief moment. Education has formed me, the good and the not so good; and education forms others through me. It’s a classic performance: the teacher imparting knowledge; knowledge, in turn, comes from highly subjective instances of expressions about humanity’s ongoing search for purpose and happiness.
These days, as I look around, do some math – I’m coming to 60, how much longer do I have? – I’m somewhat off balance. I’m a necessity – that’s my value. And how much I’m valued depends on many factors: my academic pedigree, my institutional experience, my current place behind the hallowed ivy – my age. These are harsh truths about education – hard to accept. Education is both a commodity and a necessity. Here lies the tension between teachers and the institution, students, parents and the institution. It’s a cultural tension concerning the ambiguous place of the teacher and how we appreciate – or not – knowledge. Is it knowledge for my benefit? Is it a benefit for humanity as well? This means that I’m essential and property. I can be routinely dismissed, many hungry mouths eager to replace me with their own versions of how to perform their understanding of our time.
I look down and around a seminar room. I’m talking and students are writing. They’re writing what I say. It’s incredible to think that young minds are recording my performance; that they’ve come to understand that because I am the institution I’m worthy of trust. I stand before them and pretend to know what I know. This is the commodity space: students pay and I impart – quid pro quo. I’m useful now, in the moment, re-vitalizing old knowledge.
But how long will this newfound knowledge last? Am I saying anything at all that makes a difference – anything? Has the performance turned into a pantomime? Do I want it to because maybe, just maybe, it might be more effective, a dramatic pantomime?
“Let us examine the question of man,” argues Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. “Let us reexamine the question of cerebral reality, the brain mass of humanity in its entirety whose affinities must be increased, whose connections must be diversified and whose communications must be humanized again” (Richard Philcox, trans. 2004).
Over fifteen years ago, a student that took 3 different classes I taught, a carpenter finishing up his B.A. in night school, comes up to me and asks, “Professor, would you write a letter of recommendation for me, please? I’m applying to Lehman College to finish up because I want to do what you do.”
I chuckled and said, “Why would you want to do that?”
He critiqued my performance romantically with words like inspirational, knowledgeable, courageous. Yet, knowing that what humanity really needs is a re-examination of itself, of what it means to be human, as Fanon teaches, I was certain my performance fell short, focused on canonical texts, instead, reading them as they’ve always been read, and not challenging the consequences of doing so, blindly and obediently following a school of thought without question.
Yes somewhere in this performance I meant something to this young, American working class hero. Maybe it had something to do with how my performance enabled him to assume a proximity to a knowledge he felt somehow residing outside himself – and me – but reachable, something he needed to touch and he was willing to work late into the night for this ambiguous future imparting knowledge of himself to the unknowing.
I stand in front of people day in and day out and this is all I know.