Perpetual beginners

Teaching is a strange experience, at least for someone who is not regularly teaching much, which is my case. More experienced colleagues offer words of support and encouragement, bordering on warning: students tend to be lazy, one needs to be careful, and erring on the side of strictness rather than of over-leniency. Pro-active brightness is not to be expected; expect the obtuse and the undereducated. And so forth.

The thin reservoir of my experience probably prevents me from identifying easily with such premonitions. Yes, the students are fumbling and floundering. Even more so than I expected – to an extent that is provoking doubts in me: whether the contents of the course are not per se unsuitable for my students, or whether I am not a spectacular failure of a teacher.

And then one hour later I read hastily scribbled notes I made earlier, for the purpose of transforming those thoughts into a proper article later. The notes are just as fumbling and floundering as my students’ seminar entries, and I am encountering almost the same kind of difficulty understanding those notes – understanding whether they are actually telling anything, or just think they are telling something. When asked for a commentary on a passage of text, my students are playing for time and trying to fill the room with some words, whatever words – as many words as are needed to satisfy the authority to which they are answerable. Am I not doing the same when putting together words for philosophical articles? Filling the room with a random heap of words in whatever way that will satisfy the authority to which I am answerable? Perhaps.

And (I think) I don’t feel any more confidence of understanding than my students feel, and when I do, it is just as likely to be misguided. Every time I start writing a new piece, I sense intensively that the clarity of my thoughts does not justify any enthusiasm as to why it should be me (of all the people) who is going to write this text, about this topic. And yet, write it I must; though not because I am following a profound inner call. Perhaps teaching philosophy means spreading this sense of loneliness and incapacity – and by that I don’t mean any kind of thrill driving a “Socratic” examination of anybody’s (oneself included) shortcomings of knowledge. Just like any other philosophers, those with Wittgensteinian inclinations have their own set of favourite platitudes to rely on. Philosophy starts with a sense of confusion, it is a quest for understanding something one does not understand, and so forth. With just a spoonful of sugar anything goes down, I guess. There is nothing intellectually exciting about feeling lonely face-to-face one’s work; which is something that students currently locked-down in their homes understand probably even better than their teachers. Being unhappy is not the same as being driven. This thought leaves you with very little you could, with any right, hold against your students.

Students have every right to be beginners. But some philosophical adults, too, will never be much more than perpetual beginners, fumbling, floundering, and faking. (Philosophy appears to be one those areas where there appears to be some truth to “If you can fake it, you can make it”. But it takes a rather special kind of people to feel happy – in the long term – about such an achievement.) The words of support and fellowship you receive from your peers in the teaching business may be stemming from the perceived need of a community, companionship with people who are lonely in ways similar to you. Only a thin line divides this companionship from the kind of companionship that oppressed and persecuted people sometimes feel when they have an opportunity to oppress and persecute someone even weaker. And, at any rate, the sensed common ground is often illusory, too.


Goodbye Godspeed,

I can't give you what you need

If I've sounded distant thus far

It's 'cause I'm as lost as you are

Catatonia, “Godspeed”

Ondřej Beran