Friday, August 21, 2009

Self-Doubt and Teaching

A while back, I told a friend about my students, "Every year I'm a year older and and every year they're the same age." He didn't quite get why I'd have trouble relating to them and I realized that I'd explained myself poorly. I'd like to take another shot at it here.

It’s not that I don’t relate to them, although the cultural gap is growing—not all of them have seen Star Wars, for example, and most sitcoms I watched they haven’t. They still know who Madonna is. The problem is that I became me because of a charismatic experience of being taught by someone who could really do the job when I was their age. In comic book terms, to be a perfect geek, it was my origin.

I face my origin every time I teach. I face that romantic passion that propelled me down this course. When a man is a young, he is willing to pay any price for the object of his passion. All you can see is the Holy Grail, shining, clothed in white samite. No price can be too great to taste again this holy glory. This moment is, at its essence charismatic, in the Weberian sense of the term.

Charisma is the experience of the divine. This can, but need not refer to a deity. Rather, it is the experience of newly found power against the monotony and limitation of everyday life. Most students have experienced this only in its romantic form, which we call infatuation. You meet that special someone and, suddenly everything becomes possible. Their very presence is intoxicating. You feel you can do anything at all when that person is with you. I ask the students if that feeling is love. I always love their emotional response. They know that it’s not but, looking in their eyes, you can feel the pain that accompanied their discovery that it wasn’t. The students tell you it’s not because it doesn’t last, that you don’t really know the person yet and that when you do, they’re never as magnificent as they seem while you’re infatuated

I explain to them that the reason that the person seems perfect is that because our image of them is one-sided. We can see only what we like. Invariably, everything has another side and the thing that we like contains things that we don’t like that are associated with it. In fact, we often learn that the thing that we like needs that thing that we don’t like in order to work at all. So while what we imagine is more imperfect than the world in the sense that the world is much more complex and our vision is invariably too simple and reductionist to be of practical use, what we imagine is more perfect than the world in the sense that it is inspiring, it lets us know what we desire to change the world into. But the imagination has a powerful impact on our emotions. Human beings love power and the imagination is at the root of that love. You have to be able to imagine the world differently in order for power to be meaningful.

Well, when I was their age, I took up the quest to become a professor. I loved what a good teacher could do and loved theory. I wanted to be the one and forge the other. The price didn’t matter; I would take up the quest. When I said I would do anything, I had no way of understanding what that word “anything” meant. I did not understand pain or sorrow in anything but the most superficial sense. This is the essence of innocence. Innocence is a strange thing in that it is both beautiful and a source of shame. We try to preserve it in our children because of its beauty. Yet losing it shows us that we cannot be who we imagined ourselves to be and this is a source of pain and, for a moment at least, shame.

I see that innocence in their eyes. I loved the intoxication of charisma, the romantic zeal, the passion of being young. I see a very young Talal in their eyes and I know the road that they will walk and what they will learn on that road. Because I am, sadly, very romantic I remember the pain all too vividly. I cannot shield them from it. I would not be their teacher if I did.

I know what my teachers were for me and I know, therefore, the limits of what I can be for them. I remember how I judged my teachers when I was their age. Because I know the pain of their journey and how badly I needed a teacher when I was young, I live in fear of their judgment. But it is not really their judgment. It is the judgment of that young Talal whose innocence I have spent. I know his suffering exactly. It is his passion that I have spent and if he were to look at me and ask, “What have I become?” I feel as if I would wither and die.

Now and then, there is a student whom you must perforce disappoint because they want to be indulged in a childlike way and you must be stern. Most of the time, I do this without difficulty. But, now and then, there is one who reminds me very strongly of the old Talal. Now the old Talal was a great believer in legitimate power. But now and then there were times in which he could not defer and then he was quite defiant. When it happens that I have a student who reminds me of the young Talal and he or she is defiant with me, even though I am certain that I have not wronged him or her, I cannot help but wonder if I have become that which I hated as a young man. I do not believe I have. But there is always room for doubt.

One can’t do without self-doubt. It is central to good leadership. Machiavelli said something along the lines of, “A leader needs good information, but hierarchy distorts good information. All you can do is reassure your subordinates that they can tell you anything. But if they can actually say anything to you, it because they have no respect for you.” For this reason, a leader needs self-doubt. Because in the final analysis, the leader is responsible for his actions and must actively work to compensate for the fact that the better he does his job, the less able others are to check him and the worse his flow of information becomes. Without self-doubt, any leader will become a tyrant.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll keep coming back. But seeing myself through their eyes is the part that gets harder on me every year.

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