Lesson 1: difficulty of being excellent

December 5, 2003

Laurie Taylor goes a few rounds with the funny man behind the George Steiner myth

When my turn comes in the taxi queue at Cambridge station I find I'm being gestured towards a people carrier. Perched in the middle of the second row, I feel like the first-night audience at a new comedy venue, but I can do with the space. I'm carrying enough intellectual and emotional baggage to fill a furniture van.

That's the way it is with George Steiner. Mention casually that you are off to interview the eminent philosopher and critic about his new book on learning and teaching - Lessons of the Masters - and you are soon laden with anecdotes, opinions and dark warnings. Even those who, I suspect, know of him only from the television or from a memorable appearance on Desert Island Discs are anxious to mark your card.

One distinguished social scientist bends my ear with news of the courageous lecture Steiner once gave in Jerusalem, in which he contrasted the huge range of Jewish intellectual achievements with the pathetic crop harvested by modern Israelis. "But we were busy nation-building," shouted an exasperated voice from the back. "Exactly," Steiner said.

Another academic remembers the time she heard Steiner telling a roomful of African and Asian academics that the third world could not afford the luxury of universities. "And they sat there and took it from him."

I am also variously warned about his elitist championing of European high culture ("talk about canonical, he's positively papal"), his capacity for portentous generalisation (Anthony Grayling dismissed one of his books as "pretentious intellectual bombast"), his bitterness about not having received proper academic recognition in this country and, over and over again, his insensitivity to the aesthetic claims of popular culture ("I honestly doubt if he's ever seen a single episode of Coronation Street ").

I can't pretend that all this advice was completely unsolicited. I was rather grateful for the help. Although I have read many of Steiner's essays and several of his books, my love of his writing and thinking is chiefly based on two of his rather more idiosyncratic works. One was nothing more (or less) than a primer, an introduction to Heidegger published back in 1978 in the classic Fontana Modern Masters series: it's a stunning illustration of Steiner's contention that difficulty is an abiding and intrinsic feature of great art and philosophy, as well as being a magisterial example of how to unravel just such complexity. The other is The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. , one of those rare novels that eschews quivering sensibilities in favour of tough ideas: in this case a powerful dialectic confrontation between Hitler, a fugitive in the Amazon jungle and his obsessed pursuers. It was a book (and, eventually, a play) that incurred rather similar criticism to that directed at the Heidegger volume. How could Steiner, the very Jewish Steiner, the Steiner who had spent so long talking about the impact of the Holocaust on western thought and character, allow so many good lines to a figure who surely merited only disgust and loathing?

What none of my personal or newly acquired knowledge had prepared me for was my interviewee's demeanour. I had expected a slow, thoughtful, slightly impatient recluse. What I got, bobbing and weaving down the hallway to meet me, was a bantamweight boxer with a broad grin on his face that suggested that he was positively looking forward to going a couple of brisk rounds with someone he suspected was not even in the contender class.

"I don't really want to talk about the details of your new book," I told him as we negotiated over chairs. "I want to deal with the general subject of teaching and learning." (I'd decided to start with generalities in case I got quizzed on the more esoteric literary and philosophical examples, the hermeneutic stepping stones that punctuate Lessons of the Masters like scenes from the great unfolding drama of western thought.) "Why don't we start with the present discontent among academics. All those whingeing dons. Do you have any sympathy with them?"

He leant forward. "You are a sociologist, so let us start at that end of the stick. In my own childhood, to teach in the sixth form and then in university carried immense prestige. A teacher was an honoured visitor to one's house. Today, the starting salary of many young people in the City exceeds at the beginning of their career the salary of a professor at the end of his working life. There's the double diminution. The diminution of prestige in the culture and in economics. I can understand why morale is low."

I suggest to him that his new book about the relationships between the teacher and the taught could be read as an account of how that lowering of morale came about. "Oh yes. In this new little book I have tried to show how much of the whole relationship between teacher and student at university was underwritten by the history of western Judaism and Christianity, by the idea that it had some kind of link - allegorical, symbolic - with the teaching of scripture, with the teaching of the church fathers, with the teaching of the great philosophers of the past. Once that assumption was strongly undermined, once a Sartre said he wouldn't be caught dead being a professor, and a Nietzsche said you can't teach in a university, once you had some of the most creative voices dissenting from the very notion that institutions could communicate first-rate values, you were in trouble."

But couldn't his views about the authority that teachers once enjoyed be nothing more than a lament for elitist times when an authoritarian figure could lay down the law to students without real fear of contradiction? Didn't we now live in more egalitarian times?

He used his right jab. "Now, let's go slowly. Slowly. Nobody, nobody, is allowed into a physics or mathematics programme unless they can do physics or mathematics. There is no bluff possible. I'm afraid God is fantastically unfair. He did not make us equal. I say to him day and night, 'How could you be so unfair? How can you create people with immediate genius and understanding, when most of us aspire for merely mediocre results'? It is heartbreaking, but God didn't give everyone the same cerebral chance.

Either you can do it or you can't."

But surely he would allow that a great teacher is the person who can raise the student's capacity to understand? Isn't great teaching a matter of making the previously inaccessible accessible? "I believe that the worst condescension is to make things easy. For 50 years I have tried to make it difficult. Spinoza's 'All things excellent are difficult' has been on my imaginary wall my whole life. I didn't organise the extreme injustice of this dreadful planet. In any case, there are very different ways of living one's life. The notion that everybody should be able to read Kant or Plato is absurd, totally absurd. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the life of the mind to which some of us are committed brings very much happiness for most people. You have to be ready to face the paradox - an enormous paradox central to Judaism - that happiness is an overestimated quality."

Some of the finest passages in Lessons of the Masters rely on equally relished paradoxes: the references and allusions that can be found in the lives and words of Plato, Jesus, St Augustine, Dante, Marlowe, Goethe and Nietzscheto the manner in which the reciprocal trust - the profound love that characterises the relationship between master and disciple - can quickly be transformed into aggression and violence as masters seek to destroy their own disciples or as pupils deliberately strive to subvert their former masters. Steiner is fully alive to the power relations implicit in the teacher-pupil bond and the manner in which these can be exploited. "Eroticism, covert or declared, fantasised or enacted, is involved in teaching - in the phenomenology of mastery and discipleship."

But then: "To teach without grave apprehension, without troubled reverence for the risks involved, is a frivolity." Teaching that fails to take itself seriously is the biggest sin. "It drips into the child's or the adult's sensibility that most corrosive of acids, boredom, the marsh gas of ennui - the subconscious, vengeful mediocrity of frustrated pedagogues."

By this point in our conversation I know exactly why Steiner can take on mediocre teachers with such cavalier ferocity. He is so evidently a fine teacher himself. All that assertiveness, all that bombast, about which some of his critics complain, does not come across as an arrogant claim to certainty. It seems much more like a calculated provocation. Steiner, in the vulgar words of one of his former students, is "an aggressive old sod".

He makes you want to retaliate with a counter-punch, give him some of his own medicine. He must have sent hundreds of students scurrying to the library in search of refutations of his views. And most ended up loving him for it.

"I have students on five continents who invite me to their inaugural lectures when they gain their chairs. We are friends. I love their families. I have a new family every autumn." But that sort of reciprocal bond must also have degenerated at times into betrayal. Betrayal on both sides. "Yes, I've had all those forms of relationship. I've also had the extreme reward - please make sure you get this in - I have had four students more able, more powerful, more creative, than I will ever be. It is a rare fantastic moment. And, yes, among those four I've had someone who swore to destroy everything I believed in but was prepared to pay the price. After telling me that, she went to be a barefoot doctor in Setzuan.

After having got a starred double first. Now, if you do that, you have a right to tell me to go to hell. To say to me 'that is contemptible'. But even that's a reward. A reward full of pain but a great reward also."

His dazzling new book is full of similarly joyful, even ecstatic, references to the rewards of teaching. I wonder if he would have done it for nothing. "Yes, I would have done. All 50 years. I miss my seminars and my students so badly. I have just spent a three-year stint at Queen Mary in the Mile End Road and I already miss it desperately." So, would he regard Lessons of the Masters as an attempt to remind today's disenchanted academics of the joys of teaching? Would it please him if it were read that way?

"Oh, immensely! I think it is a happy book. Of my 15 books I think it is my happiest." I realise that we are grinning rather absurdly at each other. I stir myself. I should get a grip. Tax him with a few more of the reservations about his work I accumulated from friends and colleagues. But all I hear myself saying is that I would have loved to have been one of his students.

Then it is time for tea. Crumpets and chocolate cake are served by George's historian wife Zara, while George tells funny stories about his life and times, some of which even I recognise and Zara must know by heart. But we both laugh happily at each and every one. It's the way he tells them.

There is a final moment of confusion when we both imagine we have heard the front door bell announcing the arrival of my taxi and I find myself standing slightly self-consciously alongside him in the darkened porch.

"Please leave me here," I tell him, "you must have work to get back to."

"No, not at all. I'll stand here with you. It means we have a few more minutes. Time to have more fun. Tell them this was fun, won't you? Tell them I was funny. They don't usually say that."

George Steiner and Anthony Smith debate Lessons of the Masters at the Courtauld Institute on December 10. Laurie Taylor is chairing. For more information or to pre-book tickets, email: tickets@thes.co.uk . Lessons of the Masters is published by Harvard University Press, £11.75.

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