To be a good teacher, must one be an erudite academic or a perceptive pedagogue? The debate is endless. Jean-Paul Brighelli brings a new element to the discussion: knowing how to teach is knowing how to seduce.
In these days, when the master’s degree and other requirements fall thick and fast from the Education Ministry, when some would like to emphasize the disciplines, knowledge and true competency, while the others intone the great song of professionalization and other pedagogical nonsense, I thought it would be useful to look into what makes the essence of this profession and which is deplorably neglected by the eggheads who study us – I want, of course, to talk about the ability to seduce.
What Makes a Good Teacher From Kindergarten to University?
It is someone who not only gets students to remain seated for hours in a chair without fidgeting too much (a broadly anti-physiological, anti-psychological situation – as proved by the appeal of recess and those millions of secret glances toward the clock), but who, in addition, succeeds in imposing labor – sometimes even suffering – for a benefit that is very rarely immediate: work, be diligent and careful, (perhaps) you will benefit from it – later. School is the site for differed gratification.
So, how does the teacher succeed – in such an a priori unfavorable context – in getting silence, attention and even submission, day after day, week after week? Or, as a corollary: why, too often, does he not? Why, like Adjani in “la Journée de la jupe,” does he dream of pointing a Glock at the head of his recalcitrant students to get them to absorb, for once and for all, that Molière’s name was Poquelin, or that the square of the hypotenuse …
Seduction, she says …
That sums it up: when one reflects on it for five seconds, the “good teachers” we’ve had at one time or another(1), were all great seducers, merciless charmers. Yet, the seduction that is at work here does not have a goal of immediate satisfaction, unlike erotic seduction – even if that dimension is not entirely absent from the classroom; look at what Plato and his contemporaries said about the pedagogical relationship between the erastus and the eromenos: Eros takes on many faces, among which the sexual is not necessarily the most meaningful – and is sometimes even the most hollow.
Yes, but how does one seduce them? How does one learn to do it?
Personal charisma, which, like all charm, has an aspect of magic, plays a part. But if we were to insist that future teachers all have charisma (and that is something that makes itself felt when people go through a competitive recruitment – as its absence is also immediately detectable) would we still have any candidates at all, while even now there is a shortage of them?
There’s a Certain Cruelty in All Seduction
I have often begun the school year with an analysis of “The Raven and the Fox”– the definitive model of successful seduction. What does the Fox do? He speaks – he is even a master of language. He has complete possession of his subject (and if one really pays attention, one notices that, like all great charmers, he does not talk about himself, or very little). And he gets what he wants. Teaching, like seduction, is a sales art.
And one must, first of all, master the language – because, essentially it’s that very mastery we sell first of all: the art of pedagogical seduction is also the art of learning seduction(2). And how do we transmit this taste and this ability if we do not ourselves possess it – totally?
Language, however, cannot run on empty: competence alone sustains it – and not a superficial competence (the new CAPES [high school teacher qualification exam (a form of civil service exam)] , which has just come out, would limit teachers’ knowledge to the programs students are supposed to swallow – while in fact we all know that you only convey the easier material with the harder, the alphabet with the encyclopedia, second-degree equations with the mastery of integrals etc.
A teacher must be remarkable at least, admirable, if possible. On the other hand, not necessarily loved: there is, deep down, a certain cruelty in all seduction – one may love one’s students and never show them that: in general, they know anyway.
On the other hand, it is useless to get on one’s high horse and humiliate them systematically (even though, in tiny doses…). No one makes himself big by diminishing others – quite the contrary. It’s also useless to favor one or the other: the eromenos is the whole class. And seduction may function equally well in the positive or the negative – one may appear affectionate to some, hateful to others; what’s crucial is that one appear to put feeling into it when, in fact, one is covertly using technique: seduction is learned.
Earlier I referred to slight humiliation … I was thinking less about the cutting dig, which is pointless except when confronted with a major aggression, than about the despondency that sometimes takes hold of students faced with the tasks they’ve been assigned, faced with the extent of their ignorance (but assessing that ignorance is already circumscribing it – which is something the idiot who thinks he knows everything cannot do). There is in competence itself such I have in mind – such as I once saw Barthes display in his classes(3) – something overwhelming.
But the seduced student must agree to being thus overwhelmed, just as the person one desires to charm must surrender to the other – like a city besieged, says Don Juan.
Sympathy is born from the acknowledgment of knowledge. I would like to be clear: sympathy is born from the acknowledgment of knowledge and not the opposite. It’s a priori futile to be “nice”: the charm may be contained in an unceasingly held back, contained, but underlying violence, in the art of an innocently perfidious phrase, a lightly fatal joke. Language is a hand that knows how to simultaneously slap and caress – pointless, therefore, to go so far as an actual slap.
Second point: seduction is a body language. If there were to be a training that I should like to institutionalize for future teachers, it would be drama training(4).
That supposes thinking through the cut of one’s clothes (students are all arbiters of style and can endlessly comment on the shape of shoes or the line of a pair of trousers – or of your buttocks when you turn your back on them), your mask (look at yourself in the mirror shouting: “Be quiet!” and ask yourself why they continue to talk).
That assumes knowing how to use your body in space – you have to occupy the space. One’s physique has no significance, as long as one masters it, deploys it, imposes it. There are no handsome or ugly teachers: there are charming teachers and indifferent teachers – and sometimes execrable teachers.
Teachers would also learn, through drama training, how to pose, how to master one’s voice and gestures. Acoustics in most classrooms are awful, and a teacher leaves with half a voice only after six hours of classes if she does not know exactly how to set her voice, or where to find it – if she does not know, as in the theater, that it’s not by shouting that one makes oneself heard the best. Record yourself; listen to yourself: an adult’s voice has specific inflections; a child or teenager hears the specific signals – authority, irritation, sarcasm, impotence.
A final point: seduction is like the sea – always renewing itself. One must unceasingly retrieve the Other, go looking for him where he is – still out of breath from recess, still reeling from his sweetheart’s hugs, totally disappointed with the grade on the last test, worried about her parents’ divorce (or their failure to divorce, go figure!), worried about his future in the short or longer term.
Seduction does not end with class: one must know how to say a sentence, or sometimes even give a whole speech, to a student whose unexpressed demand one confusedly feels, the need with no other goal to speak five minutes with an adult who is neither father nor mother – and who sometimes knows how to speak to him as to an adult, without sparing him, without overwhelming him. Just as a mirror.
When I think that the Ministry of Education – if I’ve understood properly – intends to institutionalize two hours of pedagogical accompaniment … But, my dear Mister L*** (before you leave for other skies of the Republic) don’t you know that one accompanies a student all year, every minute, even when he’s not there?
That one worries about him, thinks about her, elaborates strategies so he can get down the seven-times table or the essence of tragedy? Yet, you know very well, my dear L***, that seduction is a profession for the long haul – that one flatters with a look, encourages with the voice, that one sometimes confronts and that one never counts on an immediate result – seducer one day, seducer always: that’s what makes this profession a vocation, a constraint, and, sometimes, a pleasure.
(3) Barthes was not handsome, but he was seduction itself, because he made you intelligent – he gave the poor crows that we were the phoenix’s plumage. One left his voice – he used it with exquisite art – telling oneself that, upon my word, yes, that was exactly what I thought of Goethe or of Racine, but now, Barthes, he formulated it, and so precisely …
If ever the notions of erastus and eromenos had any meaning (including sexual, in that forest of mikes stretched towards him like so many promises of eternity, so many stylized phalluses) it was there.
(4) And give all teachers (the profession has broadly feminized; the size of the average teacher is consequently diminished; and the blackboards too often remain too high) those podiums that once allowed all teachers to be the performers they really are.
Discover other articles by Jean-Paul Brighelli, teacher and author of the just-published book: “La Fabrique du Crétin” [“Manufacturing an Idiot”] (Publisher: Jean-Claude Gawsewitch).
Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.