The way of the teacher, Part 1

Imposters are all around us. We learn to recognize them by first becoming familiar with things as they really are.

Imposters are all around us. We learn to recognize them by first becoming familiar with things as they really are.

My guiding vision when I was a high school principal was that a school educated most effectively by how it operated. The daily conduct of a school’s business—staff evaluations, student discipline, the creation and implementation of board and administrative policies—was its most authentic teaching about how reasonable adults might live out their understanding of the fire they stole from history and literature.

When we make decisions, especially about how to deal with trouble or bad behavior, we can’t avoid revealing our core values. As with characters in a novel, every action we take reveals something about our character (at the same time it forms that character). To the chagrin of imposters, some kids read us quite well. They see what we do and know who we are.

So it is that a mindful school intentionally aligns the curriculum taught in classrooms with the board policies, the student handbook, and the day-to-day decision-making that gives the institution its character.

Obviously, operating a coherent school devoted to teaching enduring principles of human conduct requires leadership that is wise. It should also be obvious that the alternative is incoherence, unless the authorities suppress the teaching of great literature and true history (which happens albeit most often in subtle ways).

Suppose students study “Hamlet” in the classroom and gain a glimmer of insight into the trouble we find in places infected with seeming and posturing. The prince learns, here a little and there a little, that the people around him (except Horatio) are pretending and dissembling. Because the truth is hidden, he cannot find what he needs to know if he is to see that justice is done. The play suggests that where lying is tolerated bad people thrive and good people are stymied. The linkage between truth and justice has been understood since ancient times, though that linkage is vanishing from popular thought and many young people have never encountered it in imagination, so they cannot see it in their own experience.

Shakespeare crafted an intricate story about a young man experiencing evil, manifest in the wheels within wheels of political plotting and social game playing of a typical human society. What are students to think if they leave the classroom analysis of the play and see, here a little and there a little, adults treating problems as public relations crises that call for techniquing others—dissembling, spinning, and manipulating all while preening as though such corruptions of our fundamental duty to the truth are merely skillful and sophisticated maneuvers? In other words, if they see chronic dishonesty among the humans in charge? If they are smart—and they often are—they may conclude that honesty isn’t truly valued at school. They may suspect that neither the school nor its staff deserves their assent. They will likely be susceptible to the knee-jerk cynicism of pop culture demigods for whom seeing through things is all they know of vision.

I talked with a school superintendent a few years ago about the challenges of leadership in a diverse community. Most of the “conversation” revolved around his habitual translation of routine events into familiar little political dramas which gave him a stage to display his skills at manipulating and strategizing. His speech was a string of cliches and platitudes. “I believe in practicing the art of the possible.” “I don’t fight that battle anymore.” “Perception is reality.” “Sacred cows make great hamburger.” “Don’t tug on superman’s cape.” “Don’t build bridges where there is no river.” “School boards are like underwear. They need to be changed once in a while.” “The toes you step on today may be attached to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.” “Sometimes a person needs to rise above his principles.” It is a sort of wisdom, in the tradition of Polonius.

When I am around such people for long, Hannah Arendt watching the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem comes to mind. She was trying to understand his particular brand of evil, and she concluded that it was related to a dangerous form of mindlessness: “He was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. . . .Despite his rather bad memory, [he] repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. . . .The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.” On my last day at a school that was going through the usual decline following the arrival as of superintendent pretending, among a mass of other dishonesties, to be an educational leader, the newly acting principal came to me and uttered a string of untrue justifications for his inaction. A nasty phrase came to mind: “You’d make a good Nazi.” Those who did well in the Third Reich were mainly careerists, doing what they convinced themselves they had to do to keep their positions or perks. Such always staff the Regimes of Lies which gained epic proportions during the 20th century. Polonius would have flourished in Hitler’s court, or in Stalin’s or Mao’s.

For such people, the key to advancement is not to try to improve people or situations but to position oneself to maximize gain. The superintendent with his quiver of catch phrases rarely viewed problems as teaching opportunities. He viewed them as problems to be evaded or papered over, but to attempt to teach is to attempt real change at the level of understanding and perception. It’s hard work and it is often rebuffed or attacked rather than praised. Still.

The world’s great tradition views the daily problems of life as teaching opportunities. Call it the way of Socrates, or the way of the teacher. The way of the teacher leads through different terrain than that visible to people on the make. Teachers approach problems by deepening their understanding. They have found a faith that life makes sense, always, and that squabbles can be dissolved if people can see the situation more accurately and more completely. There are lots of reasons why such seeing is hard to realize, but it remains the real work for leaders who are in their hearts teachers rather than controllers.

I don’t believe the little superintendent was pondering such things. Passing his life as a small-town politico filled his mind: inventing strategies, pretending his way to success (which he understood in the usual terms: money, status and survival). His life as an impostor passed through familiar stages: the triumph of being hired and installing his cronies was followed by the struggle to survive against an accumulating cast of enemies, and this was followed by a costly (to the district) buyout of the years remaining on his contract. Schools in Montana all too often pay careerist administrators to leave town. So he left with a pocketful of money, without chagrin at having damaged an institution intended to rescue the young from the prison of ignorance.

Two roads diverge in a wood, and the less traveled one leads to the high country of things as they really are. Words are important to those on that journey. It’s no accident language is a primary battleground in the war against being good and being true. Kierkegaard saw the issue clearly. As Kevin Vanhoozer notes, he asked us to imagine “a country in which a royal ordinance goes out. Instead of complying with the command, however, the king’s subjects begin to interpret. Each new day sees new interpretations of the ordinance; soon the populace can hardly keep track of the various offerings: “Everything is interpretation—but no one reads the royal ordinance in such a way that he acts accordingly.” Kierkegaard imagines God’s response: “My house is a house of prayer, but you have changed it into a den of thieves.” English departments, which could have been keepers of the word have, seeing the main chance, become charnel houses of interpretation.

What has not changed is that people who want to see things as they are will need to guard against corrupted words, which dissolve everything. We cannot sustain right action if we cannot say in clear language what is right. Since ancient times, luminaries of human communications have wrestled with the connection between ethics, politics and speech. It was a constant preoccupation of Plato’s Socrates and later of Rome’s greatest orators. Richard Lanham called it the “Q” question, referring to the ancient Roman orator and rhetorical theorist Quintilian. Quoting Cato the Elder, Quintilian argued that a great speaker must have both outstanding gifts of speech and excellence of character. It’s true there have been louses who could move a crowd with words, but they do not move them to attempt great endeavors. That would require vision of the sort that links individual well-being to the overall health of the community.

Inevitably, such vision is experienced as a distraction from what many leaders today would prefer to imagine, which is their own glory.

The question to ask of a person auditioning for the role of school leader is simple. What does he have to teach? That’s the beginning of the conversation that defines schools worth attending.