Feature: Teach me tonight…


One thing isn’t very clear, my love
Should the teacher stand so near, my love?
— Dinah Washington


Every so often — and with seemingly increasing regularity — our news feeds are inundated with what can be loosely termed sex for grades scandals, where a professor has, where professors have, been accused of inflating students grades in exchange for sex, and occasionally even a slew of expensive gifts. Leaving aside, if that is possible, but perhaps at least momentarily, our judgment on the morality of such relationships — one should bear in mind though that a relationship of equal power is, at best, a comforting illusion — what has been brought to the fore is the question of the relationality between a student and a teacher.

Which is also a question of: what does it mean to teach, alongside, what does it mean to be a teacher?

A common critique of said professors is that they have abused their positions as teachers: for, even if love might have been at play — as some involved have readily testified — the professor should have known better.

Which translates to: one’s position as a professor — as teacher — means that one is above mere feelings.

We see this logic play out each time a person in public office falls from grace: what they are accused of is falling prey to their own desires as humans; regressing from one who adopts a particular role to merely being a person. The other, related, critique is that a teacher is supposed to be impartial: that grades are awarded on merit. Thus, a ‘good teacher’ is one who is able to divorce her or his self from her or his role as teacher.

In other words, (s)he should be able to become non-human.

Whether this is realistic or not is beside the point: the fact that the public continues to be shocked each time this happens suggests it is a fantasy that is expected to be maintained. Perhaps this is why we tend to be harshest on the ones who call themselves ‘public servants’: their fall from grace only serves to remind everyone else that if the alleged best that was on offer is that bad, what more everyone else; and even worse, what more ourselves.

What more if the one being judged is a teacher: a figure that is supposedly highly regarded.

All of which are valid sentiments of public opinion, outrage even — if only they did not miss the point.

For, the role of the teacher is distinctly anti-public, anti polis. As Socrates reminds us, the role of philosophy is the corruption of youth — not by turning them away from what is good, but by opening the love of wisdom, by opening thought, thinking, questioning, in them. And love in the specific sense of philia: two-way, in-relation-with, whilst never claiming to fully know another, whilst being open to the possibility of the other. Which suggests that this is a relationality that is reasoned, reasonable, within the boundaries of rationality; but always also open to the unknown, to the potentiality that is unknowability. That even though this is a relationship of love, it is not totally haphazard: it involves craft, discipline, tekhnē. However, even as it is not completely reliant on chance, Socrates teaches us that wisdom only comes to one from elsewhere, beyond; only comes to one at the point where the daemon whispers in one’s ear. Which means that even as one can attempt to teach another, that even as one might be able to be taught, teaching is limited to the manner in which one might approach wisdom, and not wisdom as such.

And if teaching, alongside learning, involves an approach, this suggests that it requires practice; that it is through constant repetition that one potentially begins to develop the skills required to open oneself to the possibility of the whisper. For, as Socrates teaches us, at the point when one hears the daemon, it is the craft that becomes art — nothing is said of the craftsman. There is no artist — only the gestures of the possibility of art.

At the point of wisdom, there is no teacher — only gestures of the possibility of teaching.

Did you say I ‘ve got a lot to learn?
Well, don’t think, I’m tryin’ not to learn
Since this is the perfect spot to learn
Oh, teach me tonight!

However, as Jacques Rancière — channeling Joseph Jacotot — reminds us, “like all learned masters, Socrates interrogates in order to instruct. But whoever wishes to emancipate someone must interrogate him in the manner of men and not in the manner of scholars, in order to be instructed, not to instruct. And that can only be performed by someone who effectively knows no more than the student, who has never made the voyage before him: the ignorant master.” [1]

“To teach what one doesn’t know is simply to ask questions about what one doesn’t know.” [2] The condition of this though is that “the student is emancipated, that is to say, if he is obliged to use his own intelligence.” [3]

Her too J&J — always her as well.

Thus, the role of the teacher — the pedagogue — is to guide, lead the ones being taught. For, it is not a direct transference of information, or even knowledge, but a leading by example; where the habits of the teacher — and by extension the teacher’s habitus — is the very site of teaching.

The teacher and the student are in a relationality — and teaching, learning, takes place on, and in, their very bodies. Which might be why Martin Heidegger teaches us that, “the real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than — learning. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by ‘learning’ we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information. The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they — he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. The teacher is far less assured of his ground that those who learn are of theirs.” [4]

Likewise you, dear Martin — hasn’t Hannah taught you anything at all!

Which, of course, has nothing to do with demonstration. For, to explain something to someone is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself … explication is the myth of pedagogy, the parable of the world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid. The explicator’s special trick consists of this double inaugural gesture. On the one hand, he decrees the absolute beginning: it is only now that learning will begin. On the other, having thrown a veil of ignorance over everything that is to be learned, he appoints himself to the task of lifting it. [5]

And that is, for Jacotot, ultimately the principle of “enforced stultification.” [6]

Keeping in mind that “there is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another.” Therefore, “the two faculties in play during the act of learning, namely intelligence and will, had to be separated, liberated from each other.” In this case — because both the teacher and her student are learning, and neither are claiming to know, to fully understand the object of their learning — “a pure relationship of will to will had been established between master and student … [with] the intelligence of the book [being] the thing in common [between them].” Thus, “the student [is] linked to a will, Jacotot’s, and to an intelligence, the book’s — the two entirely distinct.” And this separation is called, “emancipation.” [7]

For, “there is no one on earth who hasn’t learned something by himself and without a master explicator.” [8]

Which brings us back to where we began, to the most important point — that of love. And, the fact that love is the very condition of learning itself.

And, perhaps more precisely, a love for learning itself.

Keeping in mind that if love is the openness to the possibility of another, it is only when both (or more) parties remain wholly other to each other that this relationality is possible. Otherwise, it is nothing other than the consumption, subsumption, of one by the other.

Perhaps then, the only accusation that is valid is that the professor is being unprofessional. Not because it is a charge, but precisely because that is what a teacher should be, that is what one should be taught to be: an amateur.

To be one that loves, to be one in love (amore).

Keeping in mind that love is always risky — it is never safe, and one opens oneself to its dangers. Not just in one’s mind, but in one’s body; that as one practices one’s craft, as one constantly repeats, as one builds certain habits, these write themselves onto one, shape our very bodies.

And at this juncture, if your spidey-senses are tingling, and alarm-bells are going off about the possibility that we are encroaching dangerously close to the terrain of paedophilia — they should be. For, if love is the premise of learning, of teaching, one should bear in mind that teaching, learning, quite possibly always already entails a fall — where the ones involved potentially do what they otherwise might not have, perhaps transgress not just mores, norms, but their very selves.

Where to be in love is to open oneself — with all that it entails.

After all, “to emancipate someone else, one must be emancipated oneself. One must know how to be a voyager of the mind, similar to all other voyagers: an intellectual subject participating in the power common to intellectual beings.” [9] Thus, free, out, away (ex-) from the grip of ownership (mancipum), the hand (manus); more specifically from that of the father, pater, from authority; from the law, all governing rules, itself. Along with the dangers of being out of hand, control, and quite possibly also away from the grasp (prehendere) of knowing, comprehension, knowledge. Where one is “similar to all other voyagers” precisely because (s)he is lost, because (s)he knows not what (s)he does.

Where all (s)he can do is open herself to the possibilities of the voyage.

Where, perhaps, love and emancipation are not exactly the same, but potentially indistinguishable.

Which is not to say that teaching — just because it is unhinged from the law — always entails sex, or expensive gifts. Far from it. For, discernment, choice, saying no, is a mark of intelligence.

 However, just because we discriminate, select, does not mean that we are not open to possibilities, does not entail an a priori dismissal. For, an intelligent choice can only be made after considering, consideration, after a certain care is taken to think — which means, only after the possibility that one is open to something, to someone, is first considered.


Keeping in mind that teaching involves dissemination, spreading, growing, germination, trimming, cutting, pruning — quite possibly insemination.

Thus perhaps — whether one likes it or not — to teach, if by teaching one is opening one’s students and oneself to possibilities — to the “intelligence of the book” as it were, to whatever it is that we, both the student and the teacher, are thinking about, meditating — even if one is taking all care to say no, is to always already inseminate one’s student; insofar as one is always also being inseminated by her, him, them.

And, a categorical dismissal of the potential relationality between a student and a teacher — even if this relationship extends to a sexual nature — is to make teaching a mere profession.

Which is not just to sterilise the one who teaches — it is the devastation of the possibility of thought itself.

Jacques Rancière
. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, translated, with an introduction, by Kristin Ross. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991: 29.


[1] Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 29. And, even though Rancière — through Jacotot — seems to be against Socrates, we might also open the possibility that he is performing a very similar act to Plato: that of speaking in, and through, the voice of another.


Which, even as Plato rages against it, is perhaps the instance par excellence of love.

After all, to speak in the voice of another is always also to open oneself to not only that voice, but to being a conduit, channel, medium: to being the voice for that very voice.

[2] Ibid, 30.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Martin Heidegger. What is Called Thinking?, translated by J. Glenn Gray. New York: Perennial, 2004: 15.

[5] Rancière. The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 6.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] Ibid, 13.

[8] Ibid, 16.

[9] Ibid, 33.

Jeremy Fernando


A truncated version of this piece was first published in Berfrois: Intellectual Jousting in the Republic of Letters.

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