George Steiner, literary critic, essayist, teacher, and novelist died last month at the age of 90. He was renowned in academic circles for the breadth of his classical humanism and among literati for his work as a book reviewer at The New Yorker for thirty years beginning in 1966.
He remains renowned in my mind because of a Jesuit priest named Tenny Wright.
When I was teaching full time, the joke used to be that the two things faculty members hated most were grading papers and departmental meetings. Actually, it wasn’t a joke, and I imagine both are still high on the list. Tenny made our meetings less of a chore by doing things like passing around a bottle of single malt scotch and teaching resources to lift our spirits, especially toward the end of the academic year.
One time Tenny brought Steiner’s Lessons of the Masters (2003), a collection of lectures Steiner gave at Harvard during 2001-02. Our department chair graciously paid for everyone to have a copy. I still have mine. It is filled with notes, comments, and sketches as well as decorated in at least four different colors of highlighter. It is the best book on teaching I have ever read.
When so much teaching has been reduced to “instruction” and instruction used as an opportunity to satisfy the ego or dump data onto confused students, Steiner reminded his audience that, “To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being.”
And what is most vital? For a humanist like Steiner, it is the soul. “The whole idea of the soul’s equilibrium, eudaimonia, is founded on a compelling intuition of moral rectitude, of justice towards others and oneself.” But Steiner doubted that morality could be taught in any systematic way by an institution, especially higher education. “Teach at Harvard?” he asked, quoting Ezra Pound. “It cannot be done.”
Steiner believed that intimacy lies at the heart of teaching and that both teacher and student become vulnerable. Ironically, the way teachers should honor that vulnerability is by not teaching at all. “Socrates’s teaching is a refusal to teach,” he said, since “Socrates himself professes ignorance.”
Interestingly, Bobby Bronco picked up this theme in his comedy set on teaching at the Gotham Comedy Club. He called it “FIOS” for “figure-it-out-stupid.” Steiner wouldn’t have put it that way exactly but would have agreed.
Chuck Lau and Tennant Wright, SJ
Tenny Wright did the same thing. His teaching did not consist of teaching but needling. He would get you to make a statement, take a stand, or put yourself out there in a way that made you vulnerable. Then he would probe for inconsistencies in your argument and push you to explain yourself until you saw the absurdity of your own thinking.
Still–and here’s the key–he did it in a respectful way, not making fun of you but pointing out how we are all enveloped by a cloud of absurdity and murky thinking. I remember him targeting me with his Socratic method once after I said something banal about the liturgy and how people did not participate they way they should.
“Well, I wish you could see it from my side of the altar,” he said finally. “These people participate in a very humble, simple way.”
This took place in Belize at a parish where Tenny worked during the summer serving Mayan villages. We were colleagues at the time and he had invited me down for two weeks. We avoided each other after that. My taking a camera afterward to film some of the villages didn’t help. I got a dressing down by both Tenny and the resident Jesuit when we got back to the parish.
But Tenny saw through the haughtiness and conceit to my inner goodness, what Steiner would call my soul. Acting as my teacher, “the soul of my soul,” Tenny did not give up on me, because he saw something there and paid more attention to that than the stuff that came out of my mouth.
I try to do that now with others, but, as anyone who has lived past fifth grade knows, it ain’t easy. It’s just about the hardest thing in the world to do. That and teaching.
And the Lord’s prayer, which comes to us from another teacher. After all, it is Lent even though the churches are locked tight. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
I’m still trying to learn the lesson.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Tenny Wright, SJ. Happy birthday, Mrs. Josephine Brancatelli.