In the 19th century when education was dominated by the twin poles of Classical literature and Christianity, comparing Jesus and Socrates was a favorite essay topic for getting students to think in more profound terms about moral and religious values.
In the first of six lectures titled “Lessons of the Masters on the Art of Teaching,” Norton Lecturer George Steiner revisited that venerable comparison.
Currently an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, Steiner is an internationally renowned scholar of Western culture, language, and intellectual history. Introduced by English and American Literature Department chairman Lawrence Buell as “an unstoppably peregrine individual who does not recall a time when he was not tri-lingual,” Steiner held the large Sanders Theatre audience spellbound with a talk that brought together figures from the whole range of human culture, delivered in a style resonant with earnestness and drama.
Indeed, Steiner seemed quite ready and able to meet the inherent challenge he set himself when he asserted that “great teaching is like watching a great actor perform or a musician play.”
Lecture one, “The Unpublished,” discussed Jesus and Socrates as teachers whose influence has been phenomenally powerful and far-reaching despite the fact that neither of them ever bothered to write down his words.
Jesus and Socrates have something else in common. Both of them resolve a dilemma that has inhered in the teacher-student relationship since the beginning – what happens when the student threatens to surpass his teacher? According to Steiner, there are three major types of relationships: those in which the master destroys the pupil, those in which the pupil destroys the master, or those personified by Jesus and Socrates, “in which the relationship becomes one of love.”
In discussing Socrates’ relationship with his students, Steiner dwelled particularly on that between Socrates and his favorite pupil, Alcibiades, a young man renowned for his beauty who later became an important political and military figure. So prominent is this relationship, Steiner remarked, that Socrates’ “whole teaching process is inseparable from the homoerotic.”
Steiner also talked about the importance of the oral tradition in the practice of great teachers. Socrates left it to his pupil Plato to write down his teachings and methodology (using the question-and-answer method to draw forth knowledge from people who didn’t realize it was in their possession).
For Socrates, Steiner said, “A good teacher is nothing but an alarm clock awakening us from a state of amnesia.”
For Jesus too, speech and memory are paramount. Steiner believes that the parables and the Sermon on the Mount “were an oral shorthand meant to be memorized.”
Steiner deplored the fact that memorization has been abandoned as a pedagogic tool.
“What we know by heart will grow and exfoliate within us and cannot be taken from us by the state police,” he said.
In next week’s lecture (Oct. 15), “The Rain of Fire,” Steiner promised to discuss encounters between teachers and students that take place in hell.