28 July 2007

The eros of teaching

Drawing on personal experience and on Plato's portrayal of Socrates in the Symposium, William Deresiewicz writes about Love on campus in The American Scholar, the quarterly journal of the ΦΒΚ Society. The love of which he speaks is not precisely erotic love or familial affection, but the "eros of souls" that draws students and professors to each other in the joy of shared intellectual pursuits. This is something I have experienced for myself over the past two decades of teaching. There is a poignancy to the author's observations here:

Socrates says in the Symposium that the hardest thing about being ignorant is that you’re content with yourself, but for many kids when they get to college, this is not yet true. They recognize themselves as incomplete, and they recognize, if only intuitively, that completion comes through eros. So they seek out professors with whom to have relationships, and we seek them out in turn. Teaching, finally, is about relationships. It is mentorship, not instruction. Socrates also says that the bond between teacher and student lasts a lifetime, even when the two are no longer together. And so it is. Student succeeds student, and I know that even the ones I’m closest to now will soon become names in my address book and then just distant memories. But the feelings we have for the teachers or students who have meant the most to us, like those we have for long-lost friends, never go away. They are part of us, and the briefest thought revives them, and we know that in some heaven we will all meet again.

I discovered all this early in my career, and it is one of the things that makes what I do more than just another job. I expect that many of my colleagues will agree with me that loving students and then letting them go is a source at once of great satisfaction and, to be quite honest, of at least some heartache as well.

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