Buber on some ethical elements in teaching

While Marcel, qua philosopher, envisioned himself to be less a teacher as conventionally defined and more an “awakener,” he nonetheless implied that being a great teacher (in his case, of philosophy) also required being a “seeker,” engaged in what he called a “vocation” (1973, p. 19).

Buber too viewed the teacher at his best as pursuing a calling, and it is in part for this reason that I want to summarize Buber’s observations about what constituted this specific kind of work, the great teacher who was trying to awaken his students to the “growth of the spirit” (Buber, 1965, p. 89)?

Buber would quite likely agree with the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, a professor of English Renaissance literature and president ofYale University: “Teachers believe they have a gift for giving; it drives them with the same irrepressible drive that drives others to create a work of art or a market or a building” (Malikow, 2010, p. 42).6 Indeed, for Buber, like pastors, psychotherapists, and parents, teachers have an asymmetrical relationship in terms of responsibility to their students; they ideally give without expecting or needing reciprocation from those in their charge. A teacher should lack Eros (self-serving desire) and the will to power in his way of relating to his students. While Buber’s I-Thou relationship between, for example, lovers is rooted in mutuality, reciprocity, and equality, the “subspecies” of I-Thou relationships between teacher and student work a bit differently, though also reflecting the teacher’s genuine responsibility. “Genuine responsibility,” said Buber, “exists only where there is real responsibility'. Responding to what? To what happens to one, to what is to be seen and heard and felt” (Buber, 1965, p. 16). In other words, the work of education, the teacher’s calling, is the “growth of the spirit” via communion, “freedom in education [as opposed to coercion, brainwashing, or propaganda] is the possibility of communion” (ibid., pp. 89, 91). In this section, I want to briefly describe some of the qualities of mind and heart that a teacher has as he tries to morally' educate his students, Buber’s main focus suggests that the teacher is animated by the “instinct for communion” (ibid., p. 88), which points to “something more,” “something higher,” and “something better,” to addressing the Eternal Thou, the divine, or the transcendent. This is when the teacher’s comportment is inspired and inspiring, reflecting a relationship to the totality of circumstances that constitutes his work as a calling. Indeed, in his description of the teaching practice, Buber employs evocative language that he used in I and Thou to suggest a sense of revelation. Revelation is less about specific content than about a powerful Presence often sensed in contexts of great Beauty (e.g.,the Sistine Chapel),Truth (e.g.,the iconic video of the lone man resisting the tanks at Tiananmen Square), and Goodness (e.g., Mother Teresa selflessly tending to the poor and sick): “Wherever the action of nature as well as spirit is perceived as a gift, Revelation takes place” (Buber, 1973, p. 26). Revelation can be described as welcoming the wholly new with a dedicated openness to dialogue. Similar to the receiver of revelation, the student is transformed from the dialogical encounter with the teacher with a plenitude of trust and meaning. One can think of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood as an everyday placeholder. Indeed, Fred Rogers was an icon for his commitment to the best interests of children, as manifested in his creativity, kindness, and spirituality (he graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister of the United Presbyterian Church at age 35, always renewing his ordination via regular church attendance). Affectionately described as “America’s favorite neighbor,” he exploited his varied talents to inspire, nurture, and educate.

Following his assumption about what constitutes the human condition, his philosophical anthropology of personhood,7 Buber believed that education was not mainly about the appropriation of knowledge and the received wisdom of the day, the enhancement of creativity, or even about changing the internal world of the student—all important aspects of the educational process—but rather, it was the transcendent goal of modifying the way students relate to others, such that they can enter into dialogical relationships. The teacher, conceived of as a change agent, is thus willing and able to use his own personhood, including his strongly felt, flexibly and creatively applied, transcendent-pointing moral beliefs and values, that are primarily other-directed, other-regarding, and other-serving, to create genuine mutuality between himself and his students, a relationship lodged in trust. Buber wrote that while a teacher does not typically choose his students—that is, they are the other to him as he is to them—the great educator views “each of these individuals as in a position to become a unique, single person, and thus the bearer of the special task of existence which can be fulfilled through him and through him alone” (Buber, 1965, p. 83). The teacher’s task is to create the psychological and moral conditions of possibility for the aforementioned to be actualized in his students, and this centrally means acting as role model for confirmatory relations. Confirmation means the teacher takes a stand in the presence of the student, being to being, affirming, accepting, and supporting him in his uniqueness, and challenging him when it is required (Kramer &Gawlick, 2003, p. 202).

As already mentioned, trust is a key notion for Buber as it relates to the educational process. The teacher has to be perceived by the student as utterly devoted to his best interests, and this involves the student experiencing him as a stable, reliable potential presence. As Buber noted, “Trust, trust in the world

[faith in the world in which one resides], because this human being exists—that is the most inward achievement in education” (1965, p. 98), for it gives a student a feeling of acceptance and self-confidence. This demands that the teacher be willing and able to “remain truly present” as a whole person to the student, as he has “gathered the child’s presence into his own store as one of the bearers of his communion with the world, one of the focuses of his responsibilities for the world” (ibid.). Another way of putting this is that the teacher engages in “inclusion” (a concept described in depth in Chapter 2). Inclusion means “making present,” the act of imagining what the person before you thinks, feels, and experiences (i.e., engaging his otherness), not as detached analysis or abstract content, but as living engagement without relinquishing one’s own existential position (Kramer & Gawlick, 2003, p. 203). One could say inclusion has a “family resemblance” to empathy conventionally understood (but not exactly),“the act of putting oneself in the Other and that of putting the Other into oneself” in the service of enhancing the other (Todd, 2003, p. 153), though for Buber this is what the teacher does but not the student, reflecting the asymmetric responsibility of the relationship. In contrast to inclusion, empathy involves the endeavored participation in the inner experiences of the other, such that provisionally one person becomes identical with the other or, at the minimum, attempts to do so. As Friedman notes, through engaging the otherness of the student, the teacher realizes his own real and imagined limitations, but also “recognizes the forces of the world which the child needs to grow and he draws the forces into himself.Thus, through his concern with the child, the teacher educates himself” (Friedman, 2002, p. 208). Indeed, Levinas s observation, “The other is ... the first rational teaching, the condition of all teaching,” cuts both ways (Levinas, 1969, p. 203).

Thus, for Buber, education as conventionally conceived includes, for example, conveying knowledge, the so-called truths, values, and creative problemsolving skills necessary to function in a democratic society. He acknowledges a potentially useful role for these reality-based student acquisitions in educational settings and beyond. However, he believes that this educational approach alone situates the student too much in the It-world, characterized by subjectobject separation, objectification, and monology. Rather than reaffirming a mode of education that is mainly geared to acquisitions and accomplishing (“achievement” and “success”), in education at its best, the teacher-student relation must be lodged in genuine dialogue. As Silberstein further noted, “Insofar as people actualize themselves by relating to the student as an I to a You [Thou], the teacher helps the student to actualize the inherent capacity [the ‘inborn Thou’] to relate dialogically [i.e., immediately and mutually] to the world and to other people” (Silberstein, 1989, p. 190). It is the teacher’s responsibility to generate the psychological and moral context for dialogue to take place between himself and his students in the service of character building. “The great character,” says Friedman, “acts from the whole of his substance and reacts in accordance with the uniqueness of every situation”; each situation demands heartfelt presence and responsibility for himself and for the well-being of others (Friedman, 2002, p. 214). Moreover, educating the great character demands that a teacher be willing and able to discern appearance and reality, that which is true and false and right and wrong. Admittedly, these are judgments that one makes with great deliberation (including regarding normative considerations), criticality, and in “fear and trembling” (e.g., that one can have it all wrong). Detailing exactly how this is accomplished is beyond the scope of this section. However, Buber makes it clear that for the student to engage in genuine dialogue/relation, the teacher must, for example, act as an intermediary between the student and the external world, which includes offering critical and instructive interventions as he educates the student:

The educator gathers in the constitutive forces of the world. He distinguishes, rejects and confirms in himself, in his self which is filled with the world. The constructive forces are eternally the same: they are the world bound up in community, turned to God.The educator educates himself to be their better vehicle.

(Buber, 1965, p. 101)

Notwithstanding Bubers claim about “eternally the same” “constructive forces” “turned to God” and elsewhere, “God has one truth, the Truth, but He has no system” (Simon, 1967, p. 544),8 a questionable assertion for most postmodernists; what Buber is emphasizing about the teachers role has been aptly summarized by Hodes, who quotes Buber in their conversation:

Everything depends on the teacher as a man, as a person. He educates from himself, from his virtues and his faults, through personal example and according to circumstances and conditions. His task is to realize the truth in his personality and to convey this realization to the pupil.

(Hodes, 1971, p. 127)

Perhaps most importantly, all of the aforementioned requires exquisite emo-tional/intellectual attunement to the ethical potential of education, what has been called the “ethical turn” in educational theory and other disciplines. The “ethical turn” comprises critically reflecting on the ways in which we conceptualize otherness and how our encounters “with otherness leave intact or challenge the very differences that categorize the Other as other” (Todd, 2003, p. 2). While Todd has been greatly influenced by Levinas, much of what she describes is in sync with Bubers approach to education. For like Levinas, Buber recognized that affirming and respecting the otherness and difference of the student, an otherness and difference which reflects what Buber and Marcel called the “mystery” of existence (e.g., the other as never completely knowable, the transcendence of the other, including over me, as Levinas radically claimed), is the main thrust of the education of character. This is the difference between learning “about” a student, an I—It approach mainly geared to the teachers mastery and control, and learning “from” a student, which, of course, is an intensely emotional engagement that includes Buberian inclusion, love, managing closeness/distance, guilt/reparation, humility, and the like. The latter especially requires respectful listening, being ready (vulnerable and open), responsive, and responsible to the other and maintaining otherness and difference; it is conceived as a non-coercive and non-violent option, while the teacher works toward the education of character (ibid.). In a sense, this involves reciprocity (e.g., being moved by the other), enlarged self-awareness, and the willingness and ability to risk and sacrifice, as in all Buberian-like dialogical participation (Ehrenberg, 1992, p. 48). For Buber, the education of character, what Todd calls “moral education,” profoundly “becomes identified as the domain of educational knowledge that can aid students in the practice of living” a flourishing life (Todd, 2003, p. 5). Moreover, this educational knowledge, conceived as teacher-derived and inspired ethical “knowledge in practice” (ibid., p. 6), is intimately linked to actualizing genuine community and social justice. Silberstein, a Buberian scholar, called this “education for community,” a “radical restructuring of modern society,” along the lines of biblically inspired justice and love (Silberstein, 1989, p. 187).

While there is much more to what constitutes a great teacher, I have given the reader a sense of what Buber thought was important about the educational process. However, the question remains: What from a Buberian point of view motivates and instantiates a great teacher, one who experiences teaching as a calling that points to “something more,” “something higher,” and “something better,” to addressing the Eternal Thou, the divine, or the transcendent?

Teaching as a calling is another way of describing the teaching process as a spiritual vocation in which the teacher strives to affirm the students’ quest to connect to something larger than themselves—that is, to fashion an affectintegrating, meaning-giving, action-guiding way of being that allows them to engage in a flourishing life, in part, as Freud described it: a life characterized by deep and wide love, to work creatively and productively, one that is also guided by reason and ethics and is aesthetically pleasing.This means, in part, the teacher is a transmitter to the student of the best of his strongly felt, flexibly and creatively applied, transcendent-pointing moral beliefs and values that are primarily other-directed, other-regarding, and other-serving. “What we term education, conscious and willed, means a selection by man of the effective world” (Buber, 1965, p. 85). Indeed, Buber was fond of quoting the great nineteenth-century Polish Hassidic Rabbi Simcha Bunam as saying, “If someone is merely good, he is a beggar; if he is merely pious, he is a thief; and if he is merely prudent, he is an unbeliever” (Simon, 1967, p. 545). In other words, it is through having integrated these three qualities instantiated in everyday life (i.e., love of man) that a spiritual aspirant can best serve God (i.e., love of God).“The educational directive,” said Buber,“is the way from ‘below’ to ‘above’” (ibid.).The teacher never does this value-transmission, of which he is the living embodiment, in a heavy-handed manner (e.g., no ethics “right and wrong” teaching, sermonizing,“fire and brimstone,” and the like), but rather always indirectly and gently, and within the context of the dialogical participation with the student who is discovering the values and his own unique relationships to truth, through his own experience with the teacher (whose job is to elicit it) and capacity to reason. It is through this dialogical process with his students (a kind of reciprocal interaction) that the teacher feels or senses the upsurge of joy that gives him a deep and abiding justification to his existence. As Fred Rogers said, this can be conceptualized as engaging in “love without an agenda”: “Mutual caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain.” Moreover, and this is one of the take-home points for this section about work as a calling, again quoting a Buberian-sounding Mr. Rogers, “The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is” (Zlotnick, https://twentytwowords.com > incredibly-inspiring-mr-rogers-quotes-that-wil...retrieved 12/18/19). In fact, Buber put this point just right by saying that the teacher’s “real goal” (in terms of education of character), acting from the “whole of his substance,” from his personhood, the goal in which in his “destiny lies the very meaning of his life’s work,” is that he helps the student “back to his own unity [roughly the integration of being, life, and action, an identity grounded in responsibility and love] ... to put him again face to face with God” (Buber, 1965, pp. 113, 117). “The highest form of education is this: existential unity,” a unity of actuality and potentiality, in which the teacher facilitates the student’s “becoming” via his encounter with the student (Simon, 1967, p. 544). “Becoming” can be roughly thought of as the upsurge of autonomy, integration, and humanity, rooted in what Buber called “the presence of universal values and norms of absolute validity” (Buber, 1965, p. 108).9 As Erich Fromm noted, when the teacher has faith in the child’s potentialities, education in contrast to manipulation occurs, “Education is identical with helping the child realize his potentialities” (1947, p. 207). Needless to say, this includes moments of high conflict (which can be perspective-shifting, soul-deepening educational moments), in which the teacher and student fight for truth as they see it, but the teacher must always be generous in victory and loving in defeat, so that the student never closes down to further dialogue about moral conundrums.

It should be mentioned that Buber’s reflections on education in Between Man and Man in many ways were a forerunner of the findings of those empirical researchers interested in religion and spirituality in educational settings (Rockenbach & Townsend, 2013). For example, in their path-breaking work, Love and Talbot (1999; Love, 2019) put forth a workable definition of spirituality (admittedly, an ambiguous and debated notion, especially when compared to religion) in terms of five important features: 1) an inner process of questing/fashioning a sense of personal authenticity, genuineness, and wholeness as a critical component of identity construction; 2) the process of persistently transcending one’s self-centric outlook (i.e., inordinate narcissism, egocentricity); 3) the creation of enhanced connectedness to one’s self and others via robust relationships and communal engagement; 4) the process of finding/creating meaning, purpose, and direction in one’s existential odyssey; and 5) developing a greater receptivity to an unseeable, unevidenced pervasive power, essence, or center of value that transcends human existence and rational comprehension (this can be called God, the divine, transcendent, or something else by a non-believer).

Indeed, the aforementioned appears to correlate with many of the descriptions and formulations of Buber (and Marcel). In terms of the focus of this chapter, helping the analysand (or for that matter, the ordinary person) to experience work as a calling, what personifies the dialogical nature of education as Buber describes education of character is that the teacher, like his students, is a homo viator, a spiritual pilgrim. That is, the teacher’s outlook and behavior, including his mode of self-comportment, the questions he raises, and the educational “headspace” he creates for his students, will convey that he too is a homo viator and that he and his students are dialogical partners in nurturing each other’s inner lives—and most importantly, they are “faithfully, and open to the world and the spirit,” where “living truth arises and endures” (Buber, 1965, p. 99). That is, what is life-affirming and identity-defining for the teacher and, in part, joyfully motivates him to press on educating his students year after year in challenging institutional circumstances is the realization that they have a common ground of sacred interconnectedness: connectedness to self, to the natural world, and to diverse others in a pluralistic community, connecting via service and social justice, and of course connecting to spiritual support networks, all in the service of creating a mode of being-in-the-world animated by the spirit (or Spirit) (Rockenbach & Townsend, 2013, p. 586). It is through such meetings that the teacher can both apprehend and fashion his everyday work as a calling.