Heidegger on Teaching

As I return once more to Martin Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking?, I am stepping away from the thread of his argument for a moment to take up some comments that he makes on the the nature of teaching.  “Teaching is more difficult than learning,” he says, “because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn.  The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than – learning.  His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by ‘learning’ we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information.  The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they – he has to learn to let them learn.  The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices.”  Then, a few pages further on, he returns to the subject, saying, “Learning, then, cannot be brought about by scolding.  Even so, a man who teaches must at times grow noisy.  In fact, he may have to scream and scream, although the aim is to make his students learn so quiet a thing as thinking.”

The question of teaching and learning is one that continually preoccupies me, as my longtime readers will know, and I am particularly concerned with how to teach, not literature as such, but learning through literature.  I am interested, to use Heidegger’s language, in how to teach students to learn, in how to provoke them to learning, in how to draw them into learning.  The difficulty is that I must accomplish this within the constraints of institutional education, according to the demands of grades and credits and degrees, demands which remain operative on students generally even if they are alleviated, at least to some extent, in my own class?

In response to these questions, I am toying with several ideas for my fall class, and I am interested in Heidegger’s claim that to teach is to let learn, but that this letting learn is not necessarily a quiet or a passive thing, that it sometimes involve a good deal of noise, a good deal of screaming.  In other words, if Heidegger is interested in what provokes us to thinking, I wonder whether we might take another form of this word and suggest that he is interested also, at least to some degree, in the provocative, insofar as it relates to thinking, and the question for my own teaching becomes about how to provoke learning, how to provoke reading, how to provoke reflection, how to provoke conversation, how to provoke writing, and to do so entirely apart from the entirely artificial and deformative stimuli of grades and credits.  How would a teacher be provocative in this way?  Would it require a certain noisiness at times, as Heidegger suggests?  What would be required for a teacher to provoke in our school stoday?

  1. John Jantunen said:

    The students, I think, would have to feel ownership of what you are trying to do, in the very least. By this I mean, they themselves have to be the process, not part of it, not beneficiaries, not end users, but the very process itself. How this is achieved within the context of an English class I couldn’t say but when I was facilitating an outreach program in rural NS (The Rural Youth Education Project for anyone who cares to take a peak) our premise was that we operated outside the formalised educational system and therefore had a certain flexibility that it did not. We started with a few little things, like rearranging the desks and asking the students to come up with a list of guidelines for how the class was to be run and implementing discussion time at the end of each session (basically composed of several activites that allowed the students to confront or maybe, better, to reveal to themselves and their classmates things like what their boundaries were, what hurtful language really does, what their self image is, what it feels like to be a victim of a bully etc etc.) Part of the process initially involved training student facilitators who would help organize the classes and, we hoped, would model the kinds of behaviour the class sought to highlight. Now it didn’t always work; the excercises were often awkward, the student facilitators were sometimes shy or easily embarassed, most of our male facilitators never bought in and were just there for the girls, but there were successes, especially when we split uop the genders, had free form discussions then got back together so that each “side” could see how differently the other “side” thought on the same issue. Personally, I got in a little trouble for allowing some off colour comments to be white boarded by the guys, and some downright vulgar ones, but found it very useful to allow a safe space for the young women to confront the young men with how these comments made them feel (even if my bosses had reservations about letting it go this far). A few times, we went off the map and I have to say that more often than not when we did so we fell a little flat. But then that was part of the process too, something to talk about with our facilitators and our class, failure being a vital lesson that has little room in the modern, quantitatively structured classroom. And ultimately that’s what it all came down to. Did we initiate a good discussion? Did we get them talking?* If we did, then it was a success. ABCDF, notwithstanding.

    *(My favourite conversation starter was: What did it feel like when I wrote cocksucker in bold letters at the front of the class, followed by, And what did it feel like when you got to then fill the page with words of your own choosing?)

  2. John,

    I agree that the students need “to feel ownership” of the process, though I would probably phrase it more actively and less emotionally and say that they need to take responsibility for their own learning. I also agree that there are ways to stimulate this, even if not everyone will consent to be so stimulated. My question is, what might it mean to let students learn, not by giving them space and support, as we often assume, but by being noisy, even by screaming, as Heidegger suggests? What sort of noisiness could be said to let students learn?

  3. Is it possible that Heidegger is not referring to being actively or actually noisy, but proper marketing and fanfare which makes learning a spectacle to be ravenously absorbed and participated in? I come to think of that Python History Sketch, where they name off all the historic topics, whilst in bed with a scant clad women, upon finishing the itinerary, they then say, ‘But first a bit of fun!’ Implying displays of sex, designed to get you into it. This could also account for the basic popularity in war history, in many circumstances so much more popular than others, and the habit in present day historical approaches is to talk about the brutality or philosophies or the policies that most lead to catastrophe or blood shed- they’re, not without reason, though not without their exceptions, more interesting, and easier to teach.

  4. Curtis,

    I can assure you that Heidegger is not an advocate of teaching by pandering to the lowest common denominator of salacious interest. He is most certainly not interested in marketing learning. He is interested in provoking people to a patient and disciplined life of thinking. For example, he tells his students that they are not yet ready to read Nietzsche, that they should go and read for ten years before they make the attempt. This is clearly not someone who is trying to lure people into thinking with sex and violence.

  5. Luke & everybody else;

    You seem to be presenting ‘teaching’ as a subject/object negotiation, it isn’t. I invite you to read my recently posted blog “The ‘Leap'” at http://beyondheidegger.blogspot.com. It might clear a few things up for you or it will add to any confusion you may have. Read it anyway, I think you will enjoy it.

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