While I’m the only member of my family who isn’t a teacher, what it means to teach others has always been on my mind. And so, comments from recent posts make me ask questions like these:
If we believe that something like rock music is clearly lesser than classical music; or that the likes of James Patterson are clearly lesser than the likes of Dostoevsky; or that TV and movies are clearly lesser than novels and poetry; or even that, in an ideal world, texting and email and the internet are clearly lesser than phonecalls or face-to-face communication; and if we believe a clear decline in our culture or civilization makes these and other assertions pretty obvious;
or if we believe the opposite of each of these statements; or if we believe there is a more nuanced response available for each assertion beyond a thumbs up or thumbs down;
…no matter what we believe, what is the best way to communicate that opinion, that belief? And in the realm of culture and religion, which inevitably involve the expression of beliefs to some end of individual and collective improvement, how do we communicate our concern to others in a way that will be convincing, and not alienating? (We’ve all heard of the Sunday school teacher or English professor who only made their students despise religion and reading.)
Personally, I always come back to the words of the late Joseph Campbell, who when asked why anyone should care about mythology—the study of which he had given his entire life—he replied, “Well, my first answer would be: go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this. I don’t believe in being interested in a subject because it’s said to be important. I believe in being caught by it somehow or other.”
As much as many of us may see decline in our culture or civilization, and as much as this situation inevitably comes to resemble a crisis situation, it seems more and more to me that this passive way of communicating belief and meaning is the way to go. Cultural or intellectual equivalents of the forced conversion, or the military regime change, may appear successful if only due to speed and a show of strength or numbers, but it breeds a kind of certainty and stridency that are both illusory and cannot last.
That’s what I would say anyhow. I know my fair share of people who subsist on a diet of light rock, popular novels and ESPN, yet they simply find deeper meaning elsewhere, whether in friendships or religion or family, in cooking or gardening. I wouldn’t dare tell any of them how much better off they would be reading and listening and doing the things I do; but at the same time I hope my presence when I’m around them is a suggestive lesson in its own right, should they ever wonder what makes me tick. Difficult to admit, but true: they really don’t need my love of prehistoric cave art, religious history, Caravaggio or Beethoven or Van Gogh, William Wordsworth or Walt Whitman. But I also don’t need what they love. The example of our lives teaches in another way.
Teach by not teaching, some Zen fellow might say; or, Teach by living. This of course has nothing to do with school, but the best school has always seemed to be less about learning than preparing one for the real learning of living. This kind of teaching almost invariably guarantees that we won’t be around to see the fruits of our labor, or hear a word of thanks from those we didn’t realize we taught, but that is small price to pay.