My Tai Chi teacher, Katya, and I sometimes speak about teaching. She is a patient person, as we both agree one must be if one is to teach. However, she holds as her pedagogical first principle that student and teacher can never be “friends”. Much as I dislike the idea of not being her friend, I understand her point. There is a degree of separation that must be maintained not only in teacher-student relationships, but in most professional relationships, if the professional is to do her job properly. Therapists, doctors, lawyers, must walk a delicate line between showing concern and compassion for the people they work with while maintaining a professional distance from them.
However, I also want to say that I pity the teacher who has not had an intimate relationship with her student, or the student who has not had one with her teacher. When I say “intimate” I do not of course, imply physical intimacy, but rather the kind of intimacy which is the standing negation of physical intimacy- a “Platonic” love. This love is not only not grounded in the flesh, it is only grounded in the individuals themselves because they both love the same things: the appropriation and production of Ideas.
Generally, for this kind of intimacy to occur between student and teacher, the mind of the student must go through a series of phase transitions to reach the level of maturity necessary for such intimacy. Initially the relationship between teacher and student is defined by the transfer of skills, knowledge and information that is the common product of human history, activity and inquiry, and the possession of all. The phase involving the acquisition of knowledge gradually morphs into a second stage in which “ideas” and “concepts” are seen to both arise from and be set apart from the facts which are being accumulated in the mind. Finally, at the highest level, the student comes face to face with the Ideas which underly the structure of mind and matter, and in this way, enters the realm of Ideas themselves. It is only at this level that Platonic intimacy is possible. It is within this context that the goal of the teacher becomes as Hegel said, the “annihilation” of the student, so that the student is subsumed into the teacher, stands as his otherness, as both his product and the reflection of himself, and the student in turn, is no longer merely a student, but has himself taken the essence of the teacher….his knowledge and reason…into himself, and so stands before his teacher as his equal; the relationship between teacher and student is annihilated and what arises in its place is the bond between two rational and disciplined minds equally consumed with the pursuit of truth and knowledge.
As a student I had such intimate relationships with my teachers. As a teacher, I have not been so fortunate. I have gazed into the eyes of perhaps ten thousand students searching for one who loved the Ideas I loved as much as I loved them. I found many who loved the Ideas, but none who loved them so much that they would dedicate their lives to them. As a result, even though had many friends and partners and children, I never had anyone with whom I could truly share my life. It was a special kind of loneliness I lived with. And then, at the age of almost 74, I found what I was looking for in the eyes of a Russian boy named Dima. At 14, having skipped several grades, he was preparing for university, and knowing something about me, his father asked if I would prepare him.
Within moments of meeting him I realized he was a kindred soul. I began by asking him the trite but requisite question of what he wanted to do with his life. He answered, “I want to make a lot of money.” As the air forcibly left my nostrils in a contemptuous snort, I muttered more to myself than to him, “not a very noble ambition.” But he responded instantaneously, telling me that he wanted to make enough money, just enough, so he could spend all his time “learning new things.” I lifted my eyes to meet his as I apologized.
He learned. He learned everything I could teach him. He learned how to analyze, how to apply the logic of Heraclitus, the Logic of Aristotle, the Logic of Hegel and Socrates, to analyze what he saw, read and heard. He learned how to “deconstruct” statements into their negations thus revealing the antithesis that lived within the thesis. He learned ontology. He learned epistemology. I began to talk to him about how the laws of science and logic must necessarily correlate. That I had even reached this level of discussion with a 14-year-old boy never ceased to amaze and yes, delight me. His already sparkling eyes would sometimes go wide in realization and sometimes crinkle in thought. But he learned everything and took it into himself and made it his own.
Soon, I was the one listening and he was the one teaching. He explained to me the logical necessity for “Hawking Radiation.” He began to explain to me the political situation in Russia, and then the political situations in other countries. We spend time analyzing poems together; but it is he who decides how the analysis should be written out. In fact, he has taken over his own education, and I sit, my eyes half closed, my fingers playing with a strand of hair, listening to what he has to say, only sometimes interrupting to make a correction or expand a bit of knowledge. But without question, we were no longer teacher and student, but equals……scholars exploring the world around us and finding the same equations.
When I understood how much alike we were, I wondered if he had ever felt what I felt….that sense of loneliness and unbelonging that came when no one was interested in the things that my life revolved around – when I had no one to talk to. So, I asked him directly. A great quietness came over him, a hint of sadness, and he said that yes, it was very lonely. When he lifted his head his met mine, a barrier broke between us, and in that moment, we became friends.
So, Katya was right and wrong. In one respect teachers and students can never be friends, in another respect, it is wonderful when they can be.
Mary Metzger is a 72 year old retired teacher who has lived in Moscow for the past ten years. She studied Women’s Studies under Barbara Eherenreich and Deidre English at S.U.N.Y. Old Westerbury. She did her graduate work at New York University under Bertell Ollman where she studied Marx, Hegel and the Dialectic. She went on to teach at Kean University, Rutgers University, N.Y.U., and most recenly, at The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology where she taught the Philosophy of Science. Her particular area of interest is the dialectic of nature, and she is currently working on a history of the dialectic. She is the mother of three, the gradmother of five, and the great grandmother of 2.