Teachers and students are interdependent. You can’t have one without the other. Society admires the teachers, especially the esteemed professors, gurus, or senseis (xiansheng 先生). In reality, students are the more important part of the equation. After all, teachers can lead students to water, but only the students’ thirst determines whether they’ll drink. As chapter 41 says, When the best student hears about the way, he practices it assiduously; when the average student hears about the way, it seems to him one moment there and gone the next… and so on.
If this is the case, what makes a good teacher? At first glance, many may think this depends on the capability of the teacher and their command of the material. However, after home schooling my kids, I discovered an important, yet under-recognized, side of teaching that I’ll try to recount here.
Home schooling turned out well for my children. This was obviously not due to my command of the material. In some areas I have sufficient knowledge, yet in others, just minimal. Either way, I never really taught them much of anything, at least overtly. The real key to my “teaching” success was not to get in their way! That allowed them to follow their curiosity — their thirst! However, that doesn’t mean laissez-faire! Chapter 17 served as my model… The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects.
For example, Luke was learning computer programming and whenever he ran into insurmountable difficulty, he would come to me. I know next to nothing factual on the subject. I would just be a sounding board, occasionally asking questions, or offering observations based upon my overall life experience. It amazes me how well this approach works. The only true requirement was to be very patient, and generally curious and interested.
I reckon my sons learned what they know through what I didn’t say rather than anything I said. Indeed, of the things I did say, they took either too seriously or not seriously enough. That taught me that understanding hinges greatly upon intuitive knowing, and that arises from within and ripens over time. Attempts to bypass this, as we usually do, end in misunderstanding.
Knowing when not to say something is most important. That allows a child to stumble as a child, which you may recall, is how we learn to walk and talk! What would have happened if our parents hovered over us, correcting every misstep as we learned to walk and talk? Not fun! Not helpful! Not efficient! Doing life ‘wrong’ is a necessary step on the way to doing it ‘right’. Sparing us from our missteps would actually have hindered us greatly. As the old maxim says, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’.
I only set the overall quality of the environment and refrained from micromanaging anything. This allowed them to take on as much responsibility as they wished, no more and no less. This let them fulfill whatever innate potential they had. As chapter 72 advises, Do not constrict their living space; do not press down on their means of livelihood. It is because you do not press down on them that they will not weary of the burden.
I feel that the social component accounts for ≥ 90% in teaching, while the teacher’s command of the material merely ≤10%. This is realistic if you agree that we can only truly understand what we have an intuitive sense for (see I understand, but do I know? p.70). Granted, that is hard to swallow in a culture like ours that views students as empty vessels into which a “good” teacher can pour knowledge. Rather than pour knowledge in, the trick is having favorable social circumstances that nurture a student’s thirst and intuitive sensibility. Ability and knowledge will come in due course naturally.
Finally, let’s go back to the question of thirst. Is the person thirsty for learning or thirsty for something else? They say it is better to teach a man to fish than give him a fish, but what if he’d rather be given a fish than taught? Giving and receiving fish is far more socially achievable than any true teaching. In addition, our thirst for social connection is far greater than for knowledge. Yet we hold knowledge in the highest regard — knowledge is power after all!
Society evades this discrepancy with the myth touting a teacher’s actual ability to teach. In reality, all this mostly amounts to mimicry. True learning blossoms in the mind of the student. A truly effective teacher merely sets the stage.
A case in point: When I began teaching yoga, I soon noticed how some students considered me their guru. I was striving to teach the yoga equivalent of teach a man to fish (yoga approach), but most weren’t thirsty for that. They only wanted the equivalent of being given a fish (yoga practice). Regarding me as their guru appeared to be the social dynamic that supported that. Personally, I’m not thirsty for that type of teacher/student relationship (1) and tried to discourage it. I didn’t thirst for the Teacher role; I was just hungry to help. I don’t thirst for the Student role either, although I consider myself a student through and through. It is just that I find ‘the teacher’ I need in everything and everywhere. Perhaps chapter 20 describes the inherently weaker social nature of Taoists — or at least of the one writing this post…
(1) That changed some with my own family and kids. As a father, I naturally fell into the role of teacher, albeit in a shadowy presence kind of way. Frankly, civilization is just too massive and incomprehensible for me to feel very connected. A small hunter gather group around 20,000 B.C. would have been more my speed.
(See: The Further One Goes , [Biographical Notes p.xii ] for background on this Times of Yore series of posts.)