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Teaching and Its Spiritual Power

By Louise Cowan

Though the official authority of teachers has been greatly diminished in the past century, their moral and spiritual authority is indestructible. And by spiritual authority, I'm not referring to anything connected with religion. I mean the ability to testify to the full dimensions of reality, to the enduring vitality of our myths and our mysteries.

The Greeks had a word for that region of memory where great heroes and great events reside. They called it kleos, something that is timeless, a dimension of memory and mystery attached to human events and just as real as empirical data. A people without access to this realm is badly hampered on its quest for greatness. And teachers are the "high priests" of this region of communal memory. Without teachers, only bits and pieces of it can emerge to ordinary life, and perhaps in distorted form.

Because I've spent a long lifetime of teaching and, from the vantage point of universities, viewed with frustration what has been happening in public schooling during that lifetime, I write without caution. I write of this realm of mystery surrounding our ordinary lives, the ignoring of which is having deleterious effects on our national destiny.

This realm is what Keats discovered in the "Ode to a Nightingale," in which the poet, after following his aching heart in drowsy numbness, enters the dark wood where he hears the nightingale sing. The bird carries within its voice the living past. And through the untroubled song of the nightingale, Keats can commune with that past.

Only the teacher as "shaman," as a kind of nightingale, can guide his or her pupils toward the dark wood of shared human memory. Having said this, however, we must admit that in our time, a teacher's ability to be a conduit for the past is insufficiently recognized. The world wants teachers to instruct students in practical matters, how to be adept in current procedures, so that the next generation can take over in processes that already exist. Thus, the task of the teacher is seen to be a work of relevancy, instruction, and skills necessary to maintain the status quo. The teacher's traditional role of spiritual guide, then, already shaken in the past by dubious education theory, has in our time been all but demolished.

This determination to reduce learning to practical skills is likely to raise questions concerning the necessity of having teachers at all, except to handle electronic media, making their role that of manipulator rather than teacher. The increased emphasis on standardized testing also poses the danger of reducing the instructional role even further to educational clerk or drill master.

But despite all the misunderstanding of the role of teachers, to ask what authority they have is a little like asking the same question about mothers or fathers. The teacher's authority is one of those ancient immemorial verities, like a parent's, that we ought to take for granted, trusting that it's simply in the nature of things. Poets over the centuries have given us images of the teacher's stature: the Titan Prometheus; the centaur Chiron; the goddess Athena; the archetypal wise Old Man in so many myths and legends, from Merlin, the wizard of ethereal legends, on up to Prospero in The Tempest. And in all of these, the teacher is connected with a kind of magic or at least some sort of occult powers. This "sorcery" is an important symbol, for it signifies the ability to enchant and hence points to another dimension found in the ordinary.

Yet ours is an age of unbelief in mystery. Teachers have to find an equivalent for this magic that can enable the young to pull swords from stones. For Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, this magic is "active love," which transforms the painful events of the world. For some of us, it's the great books whose spells are just as potent today as ever.

Though teachers are increasingly prevented from exercising their full "magical" powers in our schools, we can say at the outset that they are not and cannot be considered mere educational tools or equipment. Teachers bear a responsibility to the human race that is neither mechanical nor biological. Thus, it might best be said that teachers provide a way to rise above fate. And in the same way, they're not part of the political establishment. Their work is to impart not official knowledge, subject to the politics of the day, but a timeless heritage, a body of wisdom belonging to the human race that teachers alone transmit.

Teachers represent—I'm not saying they possess—an entire body of knowledge. Through their very dedication to the task of learning, they have a bridge to another world, we might say, which, like magic, they use for the purpose of transporting others. So it's not facts or any sort of ready-made knowledge that makes the effective teacher. Mechanical means can possibly handle better the transmission of facts. It's a commitment to and a faith in intangibles, qualities, moral and spiritual values that ride on the back of the information being taught. It's these signals of transcendence that the teacher gives out, an awareness of an arena of spiritual wisdom.

The spiritual perception is necessary to the body politic. In fact, it's irreplaceable in producing free persons. And though this depository of wisdom to which teachers bear witness is referred to in books or manuscripts, accessible to private individuals, it is through teachers that this wisdom is preserved and confidently explored. Only the teacher approaches this wisdom, not to possess it but to point toward it, to profess that it exists.

I don't mean to argue that teachers have, or even should have, encyclopedic knowledge. I'm suggesting that, as teachers, they have faith in the transforming power of the realm of intangibles to which they bear witness, for they are members of a profession and a calling that guards a cumulative body of knowledge. Just as we accept the fact that doctors' authority stems from their representing the whole history of medicine, and that lawyers' authority stems from the great tradition of law, so it is with teachers—wisdom, knowledge, invisible presences stand behind them. The discipline represented by the teacher is the tradition of learning that has the power to transform those who encounter it. And so, when we use the word transformation, we're speaking of a kind of magic work by teachers, which satisfies an essential need in society.

The practical world depends on the professions. Without lawyers, a society would have to try to arbitrate to make just rulings, as it would have to make medical diagnoses without doctors. But those decisions would be erratic and difficult, some brilliant and some misguided. And the same may be said of the teaching profession. People can learn without teachers, and certainly will nowadays from the Internet, but without a teacher, their learning is likely to be erratic, some of it enlightening, but a great deal of it misleading and even dangerous.

Teachers are members of a heretofore respected profession, and their concern for learning is a concern for others and hence a service to the community. Society can't do without them, and what they profess apart from the specifics of their teaching is the moral and spiritual wisdom necessary for the survival of our civilization. Individuals can no doubt make contact with this vast reservoir of achieved knowledge on their own. But its full volume and, in a sense, its public dimension are lost if we ignore those who take as their life work its dissemination.

Teachers guard, interpret, and transmit the treasures of their discipline. Without the teaching profession, we would lose general literacy not only in the verbal but also in the mathematical realm. The authority of teachers comes not from their having an extraordinarily large body of information themselves but from a commitment to the preservation of their discipline, to putting information in perspective, consenting to be its medium, and using whatever spiritual powers are available to effect its transmission. Teachers are the bearers of something they consider more significant than themselves, more important than any method, something of enormous value to the culture.

Louise Cowan is a founder of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and a former chair of the English department and dean of graduate studies at the University of Dallas. A recipient of the National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she has written widely on the American South, Faulkner, and the Russian novel. This article is excerpted from a lecture she gave at the Dallas Institute in 2010.

Reprinted from American Educator, Spring 2014