Breaking the tablets

Last week, my tenth-grade students read the prologue of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra; to supplement this, I had them listen to part of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 and read Exodus 32 (about the breaking of the tablets). The former has lyrics, sung by a contralto, that are only a slight rearrangement of “Zarathustra’s Roundelay”; the latter is important because Zarathustra speaks of seeking out tablet-breakers as companions. On my own, I have been thinking about how teachers are (or can be) breakers of tablets. I am making this analogy cautiously, so take it with all the salt you need.

In Exodus, Moses comes down to the mount to see that the people have made a gold calf idol (well, they brought Aaron the gold, and he made the idol for them). Moses arrives, sees the idol, and breaks the tablets in anger, the tablets that he had received from God. (Later, in Exodus 34, God gives him the words for the new tablets.) Moses then asks Aaron, how did this occur? And Aaron replies, “thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief” (King James version).

Now, I would suggest that one aspect of being a student (whether you’re attentive in class or not) is learning to set idols aside. At times a teacher has to break the tablets and create new ones.

On an immediate level, this might take the form of a teacher changing the lesson plan when it’s clear that the students don’t understand or aren’t paying attention. But it’s possible to see this as a single and permanent event.

A teacher comes with a sense of the subject (and often a love for the subject). She has something she wants the students to see, grasp, and make their own. She knows they won’t get it right away, and she wants them to persevere until they get it.

The students are not always open to this. Either they want nothing to do with it, or they make partial attempts toward limited goals (such as a good grade). Some learn to fake their way through; some distract themselves during class and at home. Sometimes this reaches a pitch where those who don’t take class seriously dominate the lesson. They have essentially erected their idol.

The teacher then realizes that something has to crack. Breaking the tablets here would mean: recognizing that this is going in the wrong direction, stopping right there, and starting over with something more basic, so that the students can build up to the subject. It doesn’t mean making the subject “relevant” or eliminating its challenges and strangeness; it does mean rewriting the tablets so that they actually reach the students. (This may relate to the distinction Michael Lopez made in his excellent recent post.)

But isn’t it wrong for a teacher to get angry at the students? It depends on the kind of anger. There is a warm kind that wakes the students up, helps them see the situation, and points toward the good. Sometimes a teacher must say, “this has gotten out of hand.” Even in college and graduate school, professors do this; the students may be distracted not with chatter, but with this or that intellectual fad or bad habit. I remember a professor raging over the ubiquitous misuse of the verb “subvert.” That’s almost a case in point.

I say “almost” because the individual instances don’t really do this justice. Many teachers have a turning point in their practice. It may recur, in different contexts, but they will always draw on that first experience. It’s where they realize that they aren’t reaching the students (or many of them) and that they must reach them. They break not only the lesson, but their conception of what they are doing, and start with something else.

Now, that new approach may be incomplete. (Maybe it’s inevitably so.) It’s a common error for an educator to “see the light” and then think that his or her new method is all that’s needed. It isn’t. What matters here is the gesture of breaking through to the students. In one sense, this gesture happens over and over; in another, it happens only once.

This is where the likeness breaks down. One can’t compare a teacher’s “new covenant” with the new tablets that Moses inscribes. There’s a gulf between the two, whether or not one regards Exodus as sacred text. Still, there’s something to the analogy, for all its imperfections.