Scenarios at a dinner party

I am going to write about being a teacher, and a teacher of English, not even a proper teacher such as those persons who master the arcane mysteries of mathematics or physics. This a high risk area and I feel, even now, gentle reader, that your eyes have glazed over and you are skimming words hoping that my text will transform into something more desirable, such as a lemon meringue pie. Few species understand their prey as well as the writer does her audience. It is bred in the bone, this trait, and as necessary as air for the purposes of survival. It is equally true that a writer must eat, and I mean that metaphorically, a writer must feed in unlikely places and my taste is for a cultural prejudice with deep and amorphous roots that will always appease my particular appetite.

Experiential and anecdotal evidence has convinced me that teachers have been relegated to the lowest rung in professional and social caste in Western culture. It is a truism that teachers in the public arena are perceived as social death. Few mortals will admit to knowing them outside the confines of the school system and it is a brave host who will invite one to dinner. Somewhere within our social paradigm a notion of mortification and teachers has evolved and has become an insidious cultural dictate. Why are teachers, before having spoken a word, (Or is it the possibility of those words?) assumed to be boring, stuffy, stuck up, authoritarian, fussy and pedantic? I suspect that both class and gender have contributed to its malodorous construction. And yet is has, as a word, a very classy history. Teach: from Old English, tecan, Germanic: telk or talk. One should particularly note that part of the Greek etymology of the word references the ideas of punishment and discipline. The plot thickens.

If I were to practice Shamanism, a word which resonates with exoticism, modem primitives, orgiastic feasts of mind altering substances, opening the closed doors of perception, than I suppose I could not admit to the practice of shamanism as essentially a teaching profession. If I was a practicing guru and announced this profession at a dinner party, I dare say my hosts would be rather chuffed at having procured such an exhibit ‘for the dinner table and I would be feted. It is after all a reified and rather dignified job. If I were to dine at the Academy with my Fellows and discourse upon the philosophy of knowledge, pedagogy and taxonomy I would be accorded the proper attention applicable to such evidence of intelligence. Although it is true that Research Fellows would suspect me of teaching and snigger at my aspirations since they understand perfectly that my place is not high in the pecking order of tertiary institutions. They would suspect me of trying to get above myself and it is possible I could upset their digestion. Academics are delicate creatures and must be managed with skill.

There are a number of other titles associated with teaching and one could make a decent argument as to the gender specific nature of those titles. The master is always male, so is the tutor, lecturer, professor, consultant, coach and even the facilitator. Somewhere within those titles lurks a mistress, a governess and, most dreaded of all, a nanny. Serious people who study statistics and social history can no doubt correct me on this contention. It is, I believe, the connection between class and gender that has really spoiled the brew; this is an arduous argument and best left alone for the purposes of this article. Any decent practicing thamaturgist could explain the nature of name and essence; indeed the magic is in the name or, in the case of teachers, is not in the name. (1.) Regardless of this digression it would seem that teachers and the art of teaching have become constellated around dubious archetypes and there is much submerged conflict in attitudes to both the work and the people who practice it. The spiritual teacher appears to be well regarded even now, although many may not make excellent guests at table, they do have a kind of mystical reputation that places them above the rest of us. There is an emerging genre of teachers known as life coaches and they appear to be highly desirable accoutrements in an age where we have forgotten the rudiments of mating, parenting and aging. The word mentor has made a reappearance although no one is really quite clear about what it means. There is some discussion in the media on the importance of elders and I imagine that they are referring to a teaching type of person. New or old words, as the case may be, will not seriously change the entrenched attitudes to the profession. They may make it sound a tad more appetizing, but the meat is still the same.

It is important to discover the source of this distemper for its effects on young and old may be more distressing than at first evaluation. I happen to believe that we have all had a particularly obnoxious experience with a teacher, somewhere during those frail years of youth we have met our nemesis in the schoolroom and we have never recovered. For the real truth is that teachers wield an awesome power in that little understood environment that is loosely described as the classroom. Canadian novelist, Robertson Davies, a master of the teaching art, describes the archetypal teacher repeatedly in his trilogies and he has an eye for the best. In The Deptford Trilogy the narrator remarks:

My colleagues … were equally divided between good men and good teachers, awful men who were awful teachers. And those misfits and grotesques who are often the most educative influence a boy can meet in school, If a boy can’t have a good teacher give him a psychological cripple or an exotic failure to cope with; don’t just give him a bad, dull teacher. (2) (p 120 The Deptford Trilogy 1970 Penguin USA)

One imagines Davies is referring to girls as well. It is a fascinating exercise to compare media archetypes in film in regard to teaching. Duality abounds in a love-hate dichotomy that seems unassailable. Films such as Dead Poet’s Society sit uneasily with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Other films such as A Brilliant Mind, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Finding Forrester showcase the lugubrious underworld of the teacher’s psyche. It would appear that none of the central characters really wanted to be teachers at all; a job that keeps the wolf from the door while a brilliant artist is systematically decimated by the vociferous demands of the young and the system is hardly a good recommendation for a profession. A more recent film entitled Half Nelson confounded its audiences and explored some complex ideas and themes that appeared to be self-contradicting at times. The History Boys, another confronting film, touched on dark and sexualized themes that had some conservatives screaming for it to be banned. In both of these films there appeared to be a confident rejection of dated stereotypes and yet they raised a much more compelling and realistic set of ideas about human frailty and human complexity. For teachers are not above any number of flaws; they are not lesser Gods/Goddesses to Doctors and Lawyers in our peculiar culture, they are humans entrusted with a responsibility that is, at times, almost overpowering.

One finds the occasional female portrait of the feminine experience in works such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Indeed to really explore the female experience one need only to dip back into the works of the Brontes, George Elliot and the inimitable Jane Austen. All those fabulous governesses seething in black bombazine as tall, dark and enigmatic heroes stride through their academic endeavours. The Victorian novelists all knew their stuff; there was little opportunity for a woman to better herself in those days. The teaching profession offered a glimmer of respectability, a small niche in which a woman could attain a moderate degree of financial independence in a dark patriarchal world. (3) Sex and the flesh were best left out of it. These women were never insouciant at the dinner table and had mastered the art of total self- effacement. One is forced to wonder exactly what has changed. Such novels are not well read in these olden times and I have often regretted the loss of such a distinctive female history. My female students have exhibited a similar disaffection when I have attempted to beguile them into these worlds; it is, I suspect, the power of a non reading culture in an electronic era (4).

Let us return to the central dilemma. In ancient Greece young Plato sat at the feet of the master, Socrates; well bred young men held carefully supervised discussions under the watchful eye of the hired pedagogue; often these persons were slaves. One cannot find an account of a young woman doing anything remotely similar. I am still unclear as to what the young Athenian woman’s life offered her; certainly not a training in philosophic discourse. In the era of Judea-Christianity things declined in the teaching profession and lashings and beatings attended the hapless scholar. Hence the sense of punishment that wafts through the appellation of teaching. As time progressed and public education was undertaken for the purposes of literacy in a free and democratic Western world, ordinary teachers were paid according to the number of students who successfully passed examinations. The idea of a broad education for the upper classes arrived with the idea of childhood, a very young construction and barely 200 years old. (5) Adolescence was described a little later as the ruling classes became too vapid to manage their own children. Teaching became a little more serious when it reached University level and was historically the field of middle class male aspirants. With both the Industrial and Technological revolutions came an enormous demand for new knowledge bases. Teachers were vaguely in demand, but only in the right fields, those that would yield access to economic success. The profession was, and still is, badly in need of a spin-doctor, an image-maker, a new lens through which to perceive the work and its processes. More recently there has been an attempt to legitimize the work of the profession; this has been driven by a market economy with students perceived as potential economic outcomes and teachers as service providers. Somewhere within the recent discourse the human factor was ditched entirely. This can only be described as another tragedy.

If we counter pose the world vision of so-called primitive cultures to the western tradition we would find that they have an ability to describe their teaching without any recourse to a disclaimer. Nor do they necessarily discriminate between disciplines in teaching. It is as important to count the livestock, to locate them as it is to know the stories of the clan (6.) These cultures are as dependent on knowledge transmission across generations as they are dependent on food. Food and story are balanced, for story almost always involves the resident deities and one ignores them at great personal and communal cost. The young of the tribe are both its wealth and its responsibility and everyone is in accord with these relatively simple goals. One must not offend the Gods for the food will be compromised and in order not to offend must know the stories of the Gods. And therefore be able to worship accordingly. The whole business is organic and non reductionist; and before the various cultures interacted with the capital of the west, it would seem that the system worked (7).

Let me now return to where I began, for I fear, gentle reader, that I have meandered far from the origins of this argument. It is a well worn myth that almost anyone can teach in the discipline of English. After all if you can read or write, how hard can it be? As it happens it is a little more complex than that. Literacy, in all its forms is probably the most contested and debated subject area in the entire curriculum. Without literacy we are bereft of the first set of tool necessary to navigate the labyrinth of Society and the State. Without basic skills a citizen cannot vote, access medical and health resources, negotiate work agreements, read a menu, pay a bill and they remain at the mercy of truly terrifying institutions such as the ATO and Centrelink. They are the easy prey of any number of negligent and indifferent Governmental monoliths which orchestrate their lives, and are bewildered by the Medusa like capacities of the languages of medicine and the law.

There is now a substantial body of evidence that illiteracy is the single, highest contributing factor to violence and alienation in young person (8) Somehow this failure is laid on the shoulders of their teachers, despite overwhelming evidence that literacy begins with primary orality,(9) usually generated within a child’s immediate familial environment. Nor are English teachers merely technicians, teaching the basics of reading, the craft of writing, mysteries of grammar and spelling and the ability to articulate their ideas within the privileged, public speaking places of class and stage. They are also expected to invoke, in a range of sometimes disinterested young people, an understanding and appreciation of the literature which is reified as The Western Canon. Some philosophers have argued that an understanding of this literature is as essential as

An extra organ of perception that enables us to sense attitudes towards time, space and movement…which mediates our relationships between ourselves and others… Literature can also act as a genre which reverses high and low positions…using parody to neutralize the harmful power of official political and religious languages.


These are weighty matters and certainly few English teachers would have realized the magnitude of the task they had signed on for; these types of outcomes were unspecified in the job application. Teaching English could be compared to the task of teaching a student how to breathe, sounds simple, should be easy and is absolutely necessary to survival.

I do not know exactly where and when teaching lost its cultural and social value in Western culture, in other societies such as China and Japan it is still highly esteemed. But it is clear that schools, a microcosm of society are increasingly expected to deliver the macrocosm, Societal pressure, driven by governments looking for easy solutions expect schools to solve every problem from childhood obesity to ensuring that no young person is blocked at the exit from school to their chosen careers in every possible manifestation. All manner of protocols, bureaucracies, paradigms, performance measures, instruments of evaluation, legal obligations , mandatory reporting procedure, Senate Enquiries, Research Councils, Corporate interests, all of these vast, and often inhumane forces, have been deployed to investigate and improve the profession of teaching. One wonders if similar powers have been employed in other professions such as Medicine or Law. I think not, schools are peculiarly vulnerable to interventions from outside their immediate environment. Fads in education come and go and funding is often attached to very odd peccadilloes such as flag flying or mandatory chaplains. All manner of demands on the resources of schools are made at the slightest provocation. Few political or social theorists perceive that their central resource lies within the actual participants in education: the teacher and the student. A great deal of work has been done to transform teaching into a respectable science, to masculinise it; pedagogy has fallen prey to the tyranny of objective corollaries, systems of classification, evidence based results. Bloom’s taxonomy, now over 50 years old, was seized upon vociferously and force fed to the system regardless of methodology and applicability to particular disciplines. (11) Once again, actual teaching was sidelined. There is a reason for this, though it is lodged in the murky underbelly of our collective societal experience.

As both a teacher and a writer I am well aware of the power of the construction of history which shadows both parts of my working life. Teaching is an art, as complex and difficult as any other form of creativity. It has its own internal logic, it governing principles and laws. At its very best, in the discipline of humanities, it could be described as a kind of superlative translation of knowledge from one human to another, a translation in which all parties learn. This may sound illogical, if not positively romantic. It certainly does not sound like quantification of higher order thinking, and yet that happens as well. It is an extremely difficult process to describe because it is dependent on dynamic and complex personal inter-relationships which have a nasty habit of defying scientific methodology.

Over the years many people have asked me why I continue to teach, they ask with the faintest hint of condescension; implicit in their question is the idea that perhaps I could aspire to something better. This subtle degradation of an ancient art always irritates me. At various dinner parties I have often shocked the guest by referring at length to Socrates, one of the founding fathers of Western philosophical discourse. What disturbs the guests is a tart reminder that Socrates was forced to drink hemlock, not for his immense contribution to philosophical abstractions, but for teaching, engaging the minds of youth in critical discourse and for that, he had to be executed. But, in truth, I cannot answer the question my fellow diners pose. It has something to do with being down there at the bedrock of teaching when the work is hard and the fare unappetizing and sometimes catching a glimpse, like the hint of gold in a riverbed or opal embedded in a wall, that a student is opening the door on new cartography in the mind. This is the singular joy of the work, a teacher can help map that new country, can help shape something new, almost like alchemy, and re-vision their own unexpected journeys into the country of the mind. And that experience, gentle reader, really is far more intriguing than a lemon meringue pie.

Kate Blattman -McNamara January 2008

I .Levi, Eliphas(1836) Transcendental Magic, London, Rider and Company, see chapters on The Kabala and The Great Work)

2 .Davies, Robertson (1970) The Deptford Trilogy USA, Penguin p.120

3, I am referring here to the works of Anne Bronte in particular, a much under valued author who seems to have got lost in the shadow of her sisters, Charlotte and Emily.)

4, 24-25th July, 2004, an article in the Weekend Australian entitled Books Close on Reading by Luke Slattery draws on research by the American study conducted by the Endowment for the Arts body which contended that 17 million Americans had ceased serious reading in 2002.

5. Cox, Roger (1996) Shaping Childhood Amazon Press, New York

6. Eather Bronwyn, (1976),Studies on the Nakkarun People, unpublished Phd thesis, Australian National University, Chifley Library. Also any number of similar cultural and social references in Barry Saunders’ A is for Ox (1995) Vintage, New York

7. Le Guin, Ursula Dancing on the Edge at the World

8. Saunders, Barry (1995) A is for Ox Vintage Press, New York

9. Ong, Walter J (1982) Orality and Literacy, Methuen & Co, London

10. (p183 Bakhtin , quoted in Philosophy and Literature, from What philosophy is

2004 ed Carel, Havi & Gamez, David, Continuum Books, London)

11. Surjosuseno, T & Watts, V Critique of Bloom’s Taxonomy QJER 15, 1999, online


  1. Tyron Johnson said,

    June 20, 2008 at 1:03 am

    Dear Kate,
    The most enjoyable breakfast I’ve had in years.

  2. December 30, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    thanks a lot for sharing this. heard about something like this for the first time. lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email

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