Education as a Voyage
The act of education is the undertaking of a guided voyage towards mastery. The guide is an original pathfinder who serves as a model for imitation. He guides our actions via the instrument of desire. We desire what he has or, more precisely, what he is. For example, if our model is deep in the subject we wish to master, then we desire to be what he is–deep in that subject. And it is this root desire which stimulates the act of learning. At its core, education is the actualization through imitation of the desire to be what another already is.
The Teacher as Shipwright
To make a voyage, one needs first to own a ship. A ship for an educational voyage cannot be bought and yet they are too valuable to be loaned by another. You must either build one yourself or stay home. Only experienced voyagers know what is required, and it is to these that we turn. Experienced voyagers, in this case, are teachers. Teachers have many options for conveying their experiences, however, a good way to begin is articulated here:
To help someone build a ship, don’t teach them to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
–Antoine de Saint Exupery
Even in approximating this quote, it still does not quite say what I wish. Its wisdom lies in the reminder that ships are built for seas. But the fundamental question remains, why long for the sea? And we return to the original model, in this case the teacher. The prospective ship-builder wants to build a ship to go to sea because his model has been to sea. He does not wish to merely obtain the experiences of going to sea, but he wants to be his model in that he wants to be one who has been to sea.
The Student as Novice Sailor
All desire is triangular and is mediated by another. As educators, we should use this to our advantage. Our students do not simply want to know what we know, they want to be what we are. They will long for the sea when they know that we go to the sea. But again, it is not the sea that they wish to gain, it is our very selves that they wish to be. By humble example, we should recognize that the educational desires of our students are invisibly and unconsciously mediated by our very existence as experienced seafarers. Furthermore, we should encourage our students to imitate us as we imitate our own models. Think of St. Paul’s charge to the Corinthians, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” It is in this chain of imitation that true education is fostered.
An advantage that we enjoy is that our students are younger than we are and live in another stage of life. Therefore, we will always remain external mediators towards them. There should be no danger of rivalry in this situation. The danger of rivalry becomes apparent when the student and the model are too similar, whether in age, stage of life, abilities, etc. Think of two neighbors racing to build the first ship. It is not the sea that they want, it is to defeat the other. More deeply, it is to be the other. One wants the ship and the sea only because his neighbor wants the same. Since neither neighbor has been to sea, they exist in the same realm and therefore become rivals.
Educators as Experienced Seafarers
Too often, students choose peers instead of teachers as models. Just think of the dynamics of a public school and its consequential emphasis on social status. Less often, but also true, is that sometimes teachers debase themselves to appear as peers of their students, which is also dangerous. Modern educators often lack the confidence to assume their external position. It is, perhaps, difficult in today’s individualistic society to maintain the distinctions between student and teacher; however, this difficulty does not remove the necessity. This is one reason why educators are chosen from the class of degree holders and not merely from the reservoir of the naturally gifted. Educators should remain as external mediators and students should respect them accordingly. An external mediator, to repeat the analogy, is one who has been to the sea. An internal mediator is one chosen from amongst the neighbors, the students, who have not yet been to sea.
As educators, whether we are teaching our own children or those of others, we must accept with gratitude and humility the role God has determined for us in the lives of our students. We should tell them of the sea and teach them how to build their own ships. We should let our love of our subjects shine into their imaginations. In so doing we will not only teach them to long for the sea, but we will help them get there.