In my last post, I hinted at an alternative to atheism that does not involve a god-like power that has superhuman intelligence and agency, where that alternative is that of a teacher of those behaviors that we consider to be instincts. I described instincts as learned behaviors where the teacher is inaccessible to all but the student of the teaching. The teacher’s targeted student is exactly the ones who need to know the lessons and who have the capability to productively use that teaching.
As an aside, I intend to follow up on the spiritual aspects of this idea. This idea of immaterial teacher is different from a god in that the teacher only interacts with immaterial behaviors while a god had at his disposal direct agency on the material world. Immaterial teachers can only train immaterial behaviors of physical entities, especially the stuff of life. The goal of the teacher is merely the transference of the mastery of the necessary skills. It is the student, the specific individual’s material instance, that determines the intent to use those skills. The teacher is not responsible for the consequences of the student’s use of the skills. In contrast to a theory of god, the theory of cosmic theories have the default assumption of free will.
Actually there innumerable such teachers of interlocking disciplines, so complex it useful to create a short-hand that describes the entire population as a singular teacher, even though the teachers are independent of each other. The cosmic teacher is omniscient because every necessary behavior has a teacher available to teach it. The cosmic teacher is omnipresent because it is available at all locations where the behavior needs to be taught. The cosmic teacher is omnipotent, at least in terms of life, because all of the consequences were made possible by the teaching of all of the behaviors that contributed.
The cosmic teacher is not responsible for the actual performance of those behaviors. The teacher has no access to the physical world, only the student has that access. It is the free will of the student that determines the events in the world. With this concept, the problem of how evil can exist. The teacher is benevolent and perhaps even loving toward each student, but the teacher can not control any aspect of the physical world, not even the tiny part that the student contributes through the exercise of the learned behavior.
I think the various gods in religions are misrepresentations of teachers. The actual gods are just teachers, but through their lessons they train students who use the behaviors to accomplish a vast range of accomplishments from operating internal machinery of cells to detonating atomic bombs.
As mentioned above, this is an idea that I’ll need to work on more. For now, I want to contemplate on my thoughts on teachers. In particular, these thoughts are of my frustrations of being denied access to good teachers and of what I see as teachers who are frustrated by their students. Teaching is a necessary part of life, but it is also a frustrating part.
First of all, I want to clarify what I mean about teaching. Modern society employs numerous people who consider themselves having teaching careers. Each of these are teachers in my definition, but most of what they are paid to do is not what I consider to be teaching. Especially for teachers from primary education to undergraduate college education in modern times, or through high school in prior centuries, the bulk of the job is the training of specific material needed to pass exams to quality the student for advancement. The ultimate end of that advancement is to assign a student to the type of teacher I have in mind. In college terms, it is when a student becomes a research assistant. In other terms, it is when a student obtains a mentor or other guide who will devote more attention to the specific student’s development over a long period of time.
While I distinguish the primary job duties of lower education teachers from those of more advanced students, the lower education teachers can still be teachers by imparting what I would call extracurricular wisdom to the students. Unlike the primary curriculum where the learning is explicitly tied to examinations, the extra-curriculum teaching is received by only those students who are receptive to that learning. For example, a receptive student will pay attention to how the teacher presents the material in addition to paying attention to the material itself. Doing so can train the student how to be a good teacher, or how to think through similar problems. There can be many other examples, including how the teacher balances the competing demands of different students or how the teacher motivates the class — teaching the student about the other students and consequently about the difficulties of working in a diverse society.
The modern age has made it more useful to distinguish curricular and extracurricular teaching. With the availability of vast data and automated tools on the Internet, it is possible to automate or at least mass-produce curricular training whose purpose is to pass qualifying examinations. We don’t need live human teachers for this aspect of learning. There remains a need for live teaching for the extracurricular education, or what I had previously talked about as experiential education.
Most of the time when people acknowledge exceptional teachers, they are describing experiential teaching.
Many years ago, I watched many courses from a company called Great Courses that sought out highly rated teachers to come to their studios to record approximately a semester’s worth of lectures on their most highly rated courses. The resulting recordings are informative, and while I was grateful for the knowledge I was also mildly disappointed about not being impressed with the greatness of the teaching. These teachers consistently received high ratings for excellence by their students, and yet the recordings fell short of excellence. I think the reason is that the recordings leave out the part that made the teachers excellent. It is impossible to record the experience of being taught by the live teacher who is at the very least sensing the needs of the students and more likely than not directly interacting with the students. Also, I suspect the absence of recording freed the teacher to explore tangents or even redirect the lecture away from the one that was previously planned. When that happens, it is not just the interactive customization of the material that makes a teacher excellent, but also his demonstrated skill in the impromptu discussion while remaining well informed on the topic. This is the kind of stuff that can’t be recorded.
We experience a great teacher, and when we recognize his greatness we are inclined to boast about it. We’ll tell others that we had a great teacher. The inevitable response will be the question of what makes the teacher so great. Answering that question with the content of the lecture doesn’t work because many teachers teach the same material and also someone can point out that all of these teachers have the same distribution of grades for the students. A better answer is that the only way to know is to take the course, and that is more or less what Great Courses does. That doesn’t work either.
The measure of a great teacher is the production of a great student. This is why I started off distinguishing the early-education teachers from the later-education teachers. The early-education teachers have as their primary the preparation of the student to be qualified for a later-education teacher that can produce great students.
In my own experience, I was thinking about my failed attempt at learning piano. That attempt failed because I never had the proper qualifying musical and keyboard skill education to get access to a great teacher of the piano. I blame only myself for this failing, but it illustrates my point better than talking about academic education.
Good piano teachers are necessarily very discriminating on what students they accept. They only want students who have the capability to learn. The student must have some prerequisite skills (that I never gained). The student must also demonstrate a dedication to learn, to practice diligently and with devoted attention on the lessons being taught. Finally, the teacher must see something only the teacher can see and that is the promise that the student can in fact accomplish what the teacher wants from the student. The student must have the right stuff for the teacher. A unqualified student does not merely waste the time of the teacher, but it engages the teacher into doing something other than teaching, and something other than what the teacher wants to do when not teaching.
I see the cosmic teacher being similarly discriminating. Imagine an immaterial teacher that teaches a protein structure how to do what only that structure can do. Such a teacher will be unavailable to anything else but that precise protein structure, but when such a protein structure arrives the teacher will devote its full attention on it. In this way, the immaterial teacher is completely inaccessible to science. No scientific experiment can engage this teacher just like no advanced piano teacher is going to teach to someone who doesn’t understand a keyboard. However, just like the fact that I can’t have such a piano teacher doesn’t diminish the fact that such teachers exist, the fact that science can’t engage the immaterial teacher can’t prove that the teacher doesn’t exist. The teacher is simply uninterested in engaging, and have every good reason to not engage.
Another analogy drawn from my folk knowledge is a comparison I have of Socrates and the Jesus of the new testament. Stripping away everything else about these people, I believe both historical figures influenced others as being great teachers. Avoiding their specific motivations for teaching, I think think most great teachers are not motivated by immortal remembrance of their teaching.
The ideal teacher I have in mind is only interested in teaching the students in front of him at the time. This concept can’t apply to students living after the teacher’s death because the teacher has no access to the student or to discriminate who qualifies as a worthy student. A defining characteristic of this kind of teacher is that he is very discriminating of who he will teach.
Back to the Socrates and Jesus comparison, my impression is that both were misrepresented by their students. Clearly, their respective students were very impressed with the quality of their teachers. As in my earlier thought experiment, the students exclaimed to others of the excellence of the teacher. The others in turn asked what was learned from this excellence. Here is the problem. The students were uniquely qualified to receive the lessons of the teacher and that means most others people would be unqualified. The lessons may have been excellent, but they were hard to explain to others. Also, great teachers of experiential education teach by example or by experience. Such teachers typically don’t write anything down for others. There is no point in writing down this kind of teaching because it is only accessible to qualified students and also the core of the education is impossible to describe in any language other than direct experience.
Socrates’ fortune was to have Plato as a student, and this student committed to language many books describing the teaching of Socrates. These writings are in my opinion rightly criticized as being more about Plato’s philosophy than Socrates’ although I think there is some essence of Socrates in the writing even though it is impossible to figure out exactly what that is. My person, largely uninformed, opinion is that Socrates was critical of the intellectuals of his time and engaged in arguments to express that criticism. I doubt he had any answer himself, but instead he was more interesting in deconstructing the answers of others. I imagine he was pretty impressive in his ability to raise questions about ideas that were previously unchallenged. Clearly he impressed Plato.
My point here is the excellence of Socrates as a teacher was in the experience of him demonstrating to his students his questioning of others. This is something that only the students present at the time could experience. What we learn is a writing about the ideas and even if the writings are mostly Plato’s they don’t tell us much about the excellence of Plato as a teacher. It is the ascendance of Aristotle that provide evidence of Plato’s teaching excellence. Plato’s writing only tells us more of Plato’s philosophy, less about his teaching, and even less about Socrates teaching.
Similarly, the core teaching of the historical Jesus is inaccessible to all but his students or disciples. The evidence that he had disciples is that he must have had some excellence of teaching that was distinct from what eventually was written down. As with Plato’s Socrates, I think most of what actually got written down about Jesus was informed by other thinkers. As with Plato, I imagine the writers had the same sincere intent in trying to capture what was taught, but I doubt that they came very close. The experience of seeing and hearing Jesus interact with the community is what he taught. That experience may have been very profound, but as with other experiential teaching it is nearly impossible to express in language even if that experience involved no miracles. My guess is his more powerful lessons was his recognition of humanity in people or conditions that would normally be denied such recognition: something that anyone can do if they wanted to.
In both examples, what reaches our eyes are stories that were highly influenced by what was taught but may not have been exactly what was taught. I use this analogy to relate to the immaterial teacher. We observe inexplicable behaviors, especially in the living world, while we have no direct access to the teachers of those behaviors.
As with Plato trying to describe Socrates, or the disciples trying to describe Jesus, we attempt to create stories about what the teacher is teaching and in the process edit out the very act of teaching itself. We describe behaviors as instincts, somehow being inherited through DNA or something else. Our being impressed with the behaviors motivates us to describe those behaviors, but the mere act of committing that to language edits out the role of the teacher.
In my thinking, this makes sense. This concept of teacher is one that prefers to be anonymous. In the ideal form, this teacher’s only interest is in the qualified student in front of him. His only goal is that the student absorbs the lesson. His achievement is the success of his student. Human teachers may seek broader recognition in some other aspect of their lives, but for the act of teaching itself their focus is on the qualified student.
To close this rambling, I want go back to the other side of the frustration involving teachers. I think my obsession with the idea of teaching is my personal frustration of never becoming a qualified student for an excellent teacher. This is a mild frustration because I recognize most people experience the same as myself. Only a few people will every be qualified for excellent teaching. I have met others that I subconsciously recognize has having had experienced this level of teaching. I envy them only up to the point of realizing that a big reason why I hadn’t had that teaching was that I never made the effort to become a qualified student.
In fact, I have to admit that I deliberately avoided that qualification, usually by dropping out after convincing myself that I could achieve that qualification but before actually achieving the prerequisite for excellent teaching. I don’t really understand why I keep sabotaging myself this way, especially with the knowledge that this has been frustrating.
Deeper than the frustration in not achieving the qualification of access to advanced teachers, is the discrimination of the student. Like the excellent teacher being selective about qualified students, students can be selective about qualified teachers. I haven’t encountered a teacher qualified to teach me what I’m capable of learning.
This idea of a discriminating student may also be in play with the pantheon of immaterial teachers. Not only does the teacher of a particular protein structure refuse to teach the behavior to anything but that one protein structure, but that protein structure will refuse to be taught by anything other than the right teacher. That’s a thought to work out later because what teaches the protein structure the behavior to choose just the right teacher best qualified to teach the protein structure its best behavior?
I may just want to be my own teacher.