Open Secrets: Literature, Education, and Authority from J-J. Rousseau to J.M. Coetzee

Open Secrets: Literature, Education, and Authority from J-J. Rousseau to J.M. Coetzee

Open Secrets: Literature, Education, and Authority from J-J. Rousseau to J.M. Coetzee

Open Secrets: Literature, Education, and Authority from J-J. Rousseau to J.M. Coetzee

Synopsis

Open Secrets reflects on contemporary humanistic pedagogy by examining the limits of the teachable in this domain. The Goethean motif of the open secret refers not to a revealed mystery but to an utterance that is not understood, the likely fate of any instruction based purely on authority. Revisiting the European Bildungsroman, it studies the pedagogical relationship from the point of view of the tutor or mentor figure rather than with the usual focus on the young hero. The argument is not confined to works of fiction, however, but examines texts in which the category of fiction has a crucial and constitutive function, for a growing awareness of limited authority on the part of the mentor figures is closely related to fictive self-consciousness in the texts. Rousseau's Emile, as a semi-novelised treatise, whose fictiveness is at once overt and yet unmarked, is relatively unaware of the imaginary nature of its envisaged authority. Passing through Laurence Sterne, C. M. Wieland, Goethe and Nietzsche, the situation is gradually reversed, culminating with the conscious impasse of authority in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. All these writers have achieved their pedagogical impact despite, indeed by means of, their internal scepticism. By contrast, in the three subsequent writers, D. H. Lawrence, F. R. Leavis and J. M. Coetzee, the impasse of pedagogical authority becomes more literal as the authority of Bildung is eroded in the wider culture. The awareness of pedagogical authority as a species of fiction, to be conducted in an aesthetic spirit, remains a significant prophylactic against the perennial pressure of reductive conceptions of the education as form of instructional 'production'.

Excerpt

My theme is the limits of the teachable. Certain technical topics can perhaps be fully taught, but in the humanistic realm there is always an element that cannot be imparted by authority. Maybe this is only a small part, too small to notice, yet what if it is nonetheless the vital element on which everything else depends? and if there is such a black hole at the centre of the activity, how does this, or should this, affect the exercise of pedagogical authority? How far does authority surreptitiously substitute for understanding? the more powerful the teacher, the more urgent the question; which is why it was inescapably central for Socrates and Nietzsche. Conversely, what does it mean for the pupil to have understood in such realms? How is understanding imparted, and how do we know it has been imparted? If the pupil fully absorbs what has been taught, and reproduces it perfectly, can we, or the pupil, infer that it has been independently understood? Indeed, can these questions be given any truly useful force, let alone answers?

Since the topic is as elusive as it is important, it may be helpful to start with a homely example that all experienced teachers will recognise. I once concluded a course of 'introduction to poetry' in America by inviting the students to summarise the principles which had emerged from the classes. Having done so, they claimed that had these been given at the outset it would have made everything faster and easier. When assured that these principles had indeed been set out in the very first session, they stoutly, and with manifest sincerity, denied this but as they drifted from the room I was approached by the class note-taker. He was that familiar figure, the universal amanuensis to life, who if told to take no notes will solemnly inscribe the instruction. Bemusedly, he confirmed what I said, though his tone suggested that only the evidence of his notebook would have convinced him. of course, the students were in a sense quite right. What was said on the first day had seemed comprehensible; neither the words nor the conceptions were unfamiliar or puzzling. But while the experience was lacking, the words had no real content and had been quite naturally and healthily discarded. At the same time, the instruction had not . . .

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