Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dead Poets and the Power of Persuasion

I don't usually do this but I'm turning my last comment from the last post into a post of its own. Matthew and Tanti got me onto a slightly different topic than I originally brought up, but its one I really think about.

Matthew said: "I caught myself enjoying the feeling I was getting from bestowing. I realized I was in a position of power, and that I was taking pleasure in that. It kinda horrified me."

This hits at something. Certainly there must be a legitimate pleasure to be had in "bestowing"? Certainly the teacher must be allowed to enjoy his/her "craft"? But there is a (horrifying) pleasure in ones power and a (good?) pleasure to be had in the topic, the productive discussion, and the sight of light-bulbs going on above student's heads.

I think anyone who has taught or presented knows that simultaneously good and horrifying feeling you refer to Matthew. I cringe at it myself, though I paradoxically seek it. For good reasons or bad do I seek it? And can I be sure when I'm seeing it in others? How do I tell the passion for the subject or the pupil or the discussion from a passion for one's own power or esteem or position? I think we get a sense of it, and it turns us off, but we aren't always right in our sense.

I stood up awhile back at a preaching conference and asked the main presenter (a famous preacher) about this. Certainly he must know the power in his own rhetorical skill. None of us could deny it. I told him that he had the power over us as an audience that if he wanted to he could persuade all 400of us in the crowd down to the kitchen to sing happy birthday to the cook, even if it wasn't the cook's birthday.

I told him that many in my generation are suspicious of such wielded power, that such power is a dangerous thing, even when used for good intentions. I asked if he would ever consider "dialing down" his rhetoric for the sake of something greater, something more genuine, something which engaged people less potentially manipulatively? (I was not this articulate in my question, but that was the jist).

He said he couldn't imagine "dialing it down" when he believed so passionately in the cause for which he spoke. If his best efforts with his talents won people over, he was gonna keep doing his best. It was his conviction. He was passionate about it. Why dial it down?

This didn't sit well with me. But I was convinced that for him it was not necessarily the thrill of pride so much as the passion for the topic. Enjoyment of bestowing, you might say. But there is a danger in it, isn't there?

And isn't that the subtext of Dead Poets Society? After all, for all we take from it, the movie is a Tragedy. Mr. Keating wins Mr. Perry over to his Romanticism for life, sees him careening to a conflict with parents, tries to steer him to deal with it well, but can't keep him from the suicidal edge of that conflict. Mr. Keating's power of persuasion and his passion for the topic (depicted without a hint of pride, thouch certainly it would be there) do great damage, or at least have a big part in the damage. The film ends with us wondering what he (and others) would do different if they had to do it all over.

It is a frightening thing to have that power, even more frightening to enjoy it. It seems for me whenever I get caught up in it as a preacher I get humbled. I hate that, but am deeply thankful for it too.

This is huge for pedagogy (the philosophy of teaching). At the end of the day our passion has to be for our topic, we must be allowed to enjoy our trade, and even a productive discussion, and yet we need a deeper motive, a driving motive that grounds us in humble perspective and causes us to do all to benefit the other. I think when this is in place we can have a cautious, but pure, enjoyment of the teaching practice.

Of course, you hate to dial down passion to a mediocre passivity, don't you? Perhaps in an environment where grace prevails upon the group and the input and engagement of others is valued alongside the teacher's passion and skill, there can be more freedom for personality and persuasiveness. I don't think a teacher's self-aggrandizing pride helps this much, though, and whenever it is welling up it ought to be, as Matthew put it, a "horrifying" gut check.

Most of us leave Dead Poets applauding Mr. Keating (metaphorically standing on our own desks) and lamenting the situation he was in. But if even his teaching, as pure and genuinely as it is portrayed, can have such devestating consequences when mixed with the wrong circumstances, it must at least leave us with a certain gut-checked perspective to go with all that stirred-up passion. We have to wonder if going from there he will teach quite the same way, don't we?


Colin Toffelmire said...

What's interesting is that as I've grown older the so-called "subtext" of DPS has become the primary text. Not that Keating is manipulative or wicked, but that he is, after a fashion, unaware of his own power. His humility (or self-deprecation) is actually a problem.

I've done a lot of teaching and I have been both very good and very bad. I know I've been very bad, and in some cases atrociously bad, because I know there were times when I wanted to be approved of by my students. I didn't care so much that they learned or grew. I wanted them to think I was great. Nothing about that is good, and whenever it happened my teaching was terrible, even worthless.

I've had a lot of great teachers, but the one this post makes me think of is my first OT prof and current doctoral supervisor Mark Boda. I know Mark cares about me, he is invested in me, he does his best to make me better. But I also think that he has no particular need for my approval. Not that he wouldn't like it I guess, but he doesn't need it. That, in my mind, is vital because if he needed my approval he would be unable to carry out his role as my teacher. You can't truly teach someone if you need them to approve of you. It just doesn't work. Teacher/student relationships are hierarchical, and must be for a season at least (like parent/child relationships).

That feeling Matt talks about in his comment from the last post (which I've had too), that is just the tip of what it feels like to see a student really get it. Like the difference between initial attraction and true love. They're the same, yet worlds apart, and you know the difference as soon as you feel it. And the difference, I think, is more about what's happening in the heart of the teacher than in the heart of the student.

Anonymous said...

If it's true teaching the concern will be for the student not the teacher. Yes we must be the very best we can be at our craft...but not for us (motive) but for our students. I thought of the use of humor in preaching as i was reading this excellent blog (does that make the blogger feel good?)...why do i use humor?... hopefully to engage the congregation so they aren't bored with the topic. But preaching/ teaching can be Hollywoodish if we're not careful...and political if we're not motivated properly. I need to be sure my content is where it should be, my presentation is how it should be, and my ego no where in sight. Stu.

Anonymous said...

Colin I appreciate your take on the subject. I wonder how Boda and others get to that point where they don't care if their students like them?

I also approach this subject from the preaching side more than the teaching side. It may actually be easier in preaching because you have a personal subject that you are striving to introduce to people. Like John the Baptist said, "I must decress and he must increase." This has to be the motto for preachers and probably for teachers.


Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Terry wrote,
"I must decrease and he must increase."

Now there's a Christian idea.


Interesting post.

I think to be of good to others there is usually a sense of having to sacrifice of yourself for the other person's benefit. I've never been completely at ease with the sense of condescension that will inevitably produce in the helper.

Ultimately my distaste for injustice or my love for progress will force me to support the justice-providers and progress-makers, but I'm suspicious of their intentions.

Oh man, I really am a cynic.

I'm suspicious of those going around looking to offer a helping hand. I'm not sure that I ought to be.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Yes Matt, you really are a cynic ;). And it seems to me that your suspicions of people looking to offer help to others is tied very closely to your reaction to Terry's quote.

jon said...

I think there is a healthy cynicism in there Matthew. For my part I wasn't sure if your reaction to Terry's quote was approving or disapproving or neutral (or all of the above), but it was right.

Good points from Terry and Stu, and thank you to Colin for real honest reflections there. This has all been really insightful for me.

I think the teachers we're all liking from our past liked being liked to some degree or another. But did it overtake them, did it possess them, this desire to be liked, this drive to teach for themselves alone? I think there can be something between self-condescending self-abasing self-loathing and the self-aggrandizing ego-tripper. Or at least I hope so.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Jon said,
"I think there can be something between self-condescending self-abasing self-loathing and the self-aggrandizing ego-tripper."


As far as the John the Baptist quote goes, I do think it is a very Christian idea, and I disapprove of it.

Colin said,
"it seems to me that your suspicions of people looking to offer help to others is tied very closely to your reaction to Terry's quote."

I think that's probably true. I don't want the world's helpers to be pushing aside their egos so much. That leads to a condescending piety, I think. I'd prefer something a little less grand and self-sacrificing, and a little more human. Something where no one has to decrease.

To attack that verse a little more directly:
If God loves us why must we decrease? That quote makes it seem like God just loves himself. I love my girlfriend/family/friends, but I don't want them to decrease. I want us all to increase. You know? This idea in Christianity that we have to be more like Jesus and less like ourselves always made the "God so loved the world" part of the gospel seem slightly disingenuous.

So, there's that whole can of worms.

jon said...

I resonate strongly with what Matthew is saying and am not sure I've heard it so well said. Guilt, shame and self-abasement take center stage in a Christian's psychology quite easily and the reason I know that is because that's my story. It has been a freeing journey (that goes on) to find something more nuanced and mature at the heart of Christianity. Giving of self for the sake of others that comes not from personal insecurity and shame but from the exact opposite, from an acceptance of oneself as God-loved and as a consequence offering that acceptance to all others. Loving neighbour as you love yourself. But the part of this that must still be wrestled with is the realization that God may not wish to leave me as is but can love me now as well as love the me that He sees me becoming, as Christ is allowed to shape me further.

And when we speak of a teaching or preaching role, though unique within history, John the Baptist gives us a pretty good template. However, where JtB was followed by one who could hold his own, we are not. I'm not sure I'd help my students by being so self-deprecating and timid as to assert nothing or pass on little more than good self-esteem to them. If I have no self-respect, I'll likely produce students with no self-respect (or respect).

There really isn't much of a better way to put it than "loving neighbour as yourself", and adding to it for teaching that "I must decrease and Christ must increase." To say this recognizes the room for growth as shaped by Christ, points to the one who really ought to shape others (thus not power tripping), and puts one in a better frame of mind, I think, for teaching out of neither ego nor shame. I don't think it means becoming less like oneself, but if Christ is Creator of each of us in our diversity, then it means becoming more like one's self.

I'm sure you see and feel the self-contradiction as I do Matthew: Wanting all to increase and yet so horrified at your own feelings of pride (my paraphrase). I agree with you though about the thing we're aiming at here. I just wonder what resources you are going to find for the thing you seek, outside of Christ-ianity.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...


I don't know where I'll find the thing I seek. I'm hoping I can find someone who's several steps ahead of me on the same path -who I will be capable of understanding. Outside of that, I'm forging a path based on blind guesses and hunches.

It's nice to feel understood here.

I like your take on "dying to self" a lot better than the one I remember being exposed to in the church. I think if the church had a little more Jon Coutts in it I never would have started looking for a way out.

jon said...

not sure what to say to that! thanks for the discussion all.