Thursday, July 12, 2007

Eros and university teaching

Here's an interesting article from The American Scholar, 'Love on campus', about the erotic aspect of university education. It's somewhat polemical in tone, but it's worth reading just in order to wonder whether its attempt to point to Plato's Symposium as a model for a positive kind of passionate learning is successful; is it in fact something we can or should want even to try to emulate? (There you are, perhaps there is something worth thinking about in Plato's Symposium, even for philosophers...)

There is, I admit, something to the rhetoric of the piece. For example:
Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification. But the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught.
The link to Plato is made explicit just below:
I’m not saying anything new here. All of this was known to Socrates, the greatest of teachers, and laid out in the Symposium, Plato’s dramatization of his mentor’s erotic pedagogy.
What is not said is that even for Diotima in the Symposium the love of souls is not the final resting point of the ideal conversion of the soul towards its proper erotic object. So the 'brain sex' (I kid you not, that is the phrase the article uses) of a teacher and pupil, although a step up from bodily sex, is not the be all and end all by any means. Still, I do encourage you to read the piece. It's quite funny, in an odd sort of way, as a kind of apologia. It is certainly an interesting example of the ongoing idealisation of Greek cultural practices through the prism of, first, an original Platonic idealisation of pederastic sex and courtship and, later, an idealisation of Plato as a touchstone for educational excellence.

I've wondered here before about the often supposed link between teaching (especially, for some reason, teaching philosophy) and erotic attractions of various sorts. Right now, I'm thinking about it again because I've volunteered to give a talk at the Cambridge Faculty of Classics Sixth Form Open Day (on 26 September) on the question 'How Platonic is Platonic love?' (One of those occasions when you come up with a title long before you've really thought about what you want to say about it.)

1 comment:

bisquaesitus said...

The author of the article marks but doesn't analyze a certain ambiguity between the "burning desire for (the professor's) attention or approval" and a passion for "the fruits of the mind." I think you're right that in order to sanitize educational (= "Platonic" = better-than-sex) eros in the way he wants to do, he needs to bring in Diotima's shift away from interpersonal relationships. But this is precisely the part of the Symposium that has been sticking in the throats of this century's critics. Whether or not Plato means us to read the "ladder of love" as a set of diachronically discrete steps, it seems Deresiewicz's argument pushes him in that direction (this at least is one way to prise apart "burning desire for approval" and "desire for knowledge"). But then his warm words for "brain sex" would become a liability, especially since he wants to insist that even from the first, students only "mistake(nly)" associate their desire with "sexual attraction." Do we really believe that anyone who says s/he wants to have "brain sex" with an instructor is, as Deresiewicz claims, now safely beyond sexual attraction? Or are we going to go the Philebus route and call this "false sexual attraction" (like "false pleasure")? Perhaps the greatest problem here is that, while Deresiewicz's argument gestures toward subtle relations between self-discovery, desire for approval, "sexual" desire, and the desire for knowledge, he then falls back on simple dichotomies between "soul" and "body," between "animal" and "human" natures, between "carnal" and "pure" attractions. He doesn't need these antitheses to carry his argument, and what's more, it's impossible to convincingly map the dynamic he's describing onto them. I order to speak convincingly about probable or possible relations between education (Philosophy) and attraction, I suspect we'd need to be a little more sophisticated on these points.