Teachers and students are interdependent. You can’t have one without the other. Society lauds the teachers, especially when labeled as 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 student’s thirst determines whether he’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 for the best teacher? This usually centers 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 key to my teaching success was not getting 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 is amazing how well this approach works. The only true requirement was being patient and connected, i.e., 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 a lifetime. 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 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 tone 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.
Overall, the social component accounts for ≥ 90% in teaching, while the teacher’s command of the material merely ≤10%. This makes sense if you accept my view that one can only understand that for which one already has an intuitive base. Granted, that is hard to swallow in a culture like ours that sees 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 knowing. 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 a far more socially achievable relationship than giving and receiving a teaching. In addition, our thirst for social connection, rather than knowledge, is our strongest need. Yet we hold knowledge in the highest esteem — knowledge is power! Society resolves this inconsistent snag by making the receiving of teaching appear like the receiving of a fish. Exalting the teacher’s role helps do that. Yep, there’s a reason why things are the way they are.
A case in point: Back in the late 70’s, I began teaching yoga. I soon noticed how many of my students began to see me as their guru. I was striving to teach them the yoga equivalent of teach a man to fish. Most weren’t thirsty for that; they wanted the yoga equivalent of being given a fish, and lauding me as their guru appeared to be their way to get that. This was not intentional on their part; it was simply innate social (tribal) dynamics. Personally, I’m not thirsty for that type of teacher/student relationship (1), and I did what I could to discourage it. I didn’t thirst to play the Teacher role; I was just hungry to help. Similarly, I don’t thirst to play the student role either, even though I consider myself a student through and through. It is just that I find the teacher in everything and everywhere. Perhaps chapter 20 describes this innately 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 way. Frankly, civilization is just too incomprehensible for me to feel connected. A small hunter gather group around 20,000 B.C. would have been more my speed.
(See: The Further One Goes , for background on this ‘Times of Yore’ series of posts.)