In defense of lost causes; on teaching, or to sir with love ...

[dedicated to Yanyun Chen—dearest friend, collaborator, colleague]

One thing isn't very clear, my love
Should the teacher stand so near, my love?
Graduation's almost here, my love

Come on and teach me tonight!
(Dinah Washington)

As Singapore is coming to terms with what has been dubbed the “sex for grades” scandal [1]—where a university professor has been accused of inflating a student’s grades in exchange for sex and a slew of expensive gifts—what has been brought to the fore is the question of the relationality between a student and a teacher. Which is also the question of: what does it mean to teach alongside what does it mean to be a teacher?

The most common critique of the said professor is that he had abused his position as a teacher. That even though—as his student readily testified in court—there was love involved he should have known better. Which translates to: his position as a professor means that he is above mere feelings. We see this logic play out each time a person in public office falls from grace: what they are accused off is falling prey to their own desires as humans, regressing from one who adopts a particular position, role, to merely being a person. The other, related, critique is that a teacher is supposed to be impartial: that grades are awarded on merit. Thus, a ‘good teacher’ is one who is able to divorce her self from her role as teacher. In other words, (s)he should be able to become non-human.
Whether this is realistic or not is beside the point: the fact that the public continues to be shocked each time this happens suggests, it is a fantasy that is expected to be maintained. And as we have learned from Stalin, the moment appearances are ruptured, reality itself collapses: it is not just that one has to agree with Stalin all the time, one also has to maintain the illusion that free discourse is possible; otherwise the fantasy that Stalin has been freely chosen to lead the people, that he is the first servant as it were, is destroyed. And the whole game comes crumbling down. Perhaps this is why the public is harshest on the ones that call themselves “public servants”: their fall from grace only serves to remind everyone else that if the alleged best that was on offer is that bad, what more everyone else; and even worse, what more ourselves. This might be why Silvio Berlusconi’s non sequitur of a defense—“I’m no Saint”—rankles everyone so badly. Not because it isn’t true, but because he is being absolutely honest. And it is this brutal candidness that ruptures our illusions.

The importance of being keeping up appearances is appreciated fully by the incumbent party in Singapore: which is why any party member that is deemed to have transgressed (no matter how irrelevant the transgression in relation to and with either the job-scope or her/ his role as a politician) is made to resign. In fact, one could even argue that the ability to do the job is almost less important than maintaining the image of spotlessness, faultlessness.

What more if the one being judged is a teacher: a figure that is supposedly highly regarded in a state that claims to be founded on Asian Values. To compound matters, where the said professor is not just a professor of law, one who professes the law but also a district judge. For, we might expect lawyers to be fibbers—Socrates famously did not trust them—but surely not those who pass judgment on the law itself. And this is particularly crucial considering the ideology of Singapore is meritocracy: where faith is put in a particular system of fairness, managed by the person(s) judging. The trouble with this case is that by appearing to be partial, bias, he has foregrounded himself as the one judging. And even worse, he has shattered the myth of impartiality itself: if one is a subject, objectivity is, at best, a useful fiction. 
All of which are valid sentiments of public opinion, outrage even—if only they did not miss the point.

For, one must never forget that the role of the teacher is distinctly anti-public, anti polis. As Socrates reminds us, the role of philosophy is the corruption of youth—not by turning them away from what is good (after all, the one who loves wisdom is also a lover of beauty and the truth) but by opening the love of wisdom, by opening thought, thinking, questioning, in them. And love in the specific sense of philia: two way, in relation with, whilst never claiming to fully know another, whilst being open to the possibility of the other. Which suggests that this is a relationality that is reasoned, reasonable, within the boundaries of rationality; but at the same time always also open to the potential unknown, to the potentiality of unknowability. For, we must not forget that even though this is a relationship of love, it is not haphazard, not completely reliant on chance: there is craft, and discipline, involved. But even as there is craft in thinking, even as there is method in this journey of thought (meta hodos; over a path), Socrates teaches us that wisdom only comes to one from elsewhere, from beyond; only comes to one at the point where the daemon whispers in one’s ear. Which means that even as one can attempt to teach another, that even as one might be able to be taught, the teaching is limited to the manner in which one might approach wisdom, and not wisdom as such.
And if teaching, and learning, involves approach, involves craft, this suggests that it requires much practice; that it is only through constant repetition that one might even begin to develop the craft required to open oneself to the possibility of the whisper. For, as Socrates never lets us forget, at the point when one hears the daemon, it is the craft that becomes art—nothing is said of the craftsman. There is no artist; only the gestures of the possibility of art.

At the point of wisdom, there is no teacher; only gestures of the possibility of teaching. The teacher—the pedagogue—only can guide, lead (agogos; leader) the ones (paida; boy) being taught. Thus, it is not a direct transference of information, or even knowledge, but a leading by example as it were. Where the very habits of the teacher—and by extension the teacher’s body (habitus)—is the very site of the teaching. Which is why Martin Heidegger teaches us that, “the real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than—learning. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by ‘learning’ we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information. The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn that they—he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. The teacher is far less assured of his ground that those who learn are of theirs.” [2] Thus, the teacher and the student are in a relationality, where they are open to the possibility of learning—and where this learning takes place is on, and in, their bodies.

Which brings us all the way back to where we began, to the most important point—that of love. And the fact that “we were in love” is the very condition of learning itself.

Perhaps then, the only accusation that is valid is that the professor is being unprofessional. Not because it is a charge, but precisely because that is what a teacher should be, that is what one should be taught to be: an amateur. To be one that loves, to be one in love (amore). Keeping in mind that love always entails a fall—it is never safe, and one opens oneself to its dangers. Not just in one’s mind, but in one’s body: for one should also not forget that as one practices one’s craft, as one constantly repeats, as one builds certain habits, these write themselves onto, shapes our, habitus, bodies. This is why one’s parents always warn against having bad habits; for the habit and one’s body are often intertwined, inseparable.  

Which is not to say that teaching always entails sex, or expensive gifts. Far from it. After all, discernment, choice, saying no, is a mark of intelligence. “Discriminating what you want to learn and remember is critical from a cognitive standpoint … If culture did not filter, it would be inane—as inane as the formless, boundless Internet is on its own. And if we all possessed the boundless knowledge of the Web, we would be idiots!” (Umberto Eco) [3]

However, just because we discriminate, we select, does not mean that we are not open to possibilities, does not entail an a priori dismissal. For, an intelligence choice can only be made after considering, consideration, after a certain care is taken to think—which means only after the possibility that one is open to something, someone, is first considered.  

Thus, a categorical dismissal of the potential relationality between a student and a teacher—even if this relationship extends to a sexual nature—is to make teaching a profession. Which is not just to sterilize the one who teaches—it is the devastation of the possibility of thought itself.


[1] Running an online search with the terms “sex for grades trial Singapore” would lead you to numerous articles, and newspaper reports. The two pieces highlighted above are:

Alvina Soh. ‘NUS law prof in sex-for-grades scandal likely to go on trial’ in ChannelNewsAsia. (23 August, 2012):

Walter Sim. ‘Darinne Ko arrives for day-two of sex-for-grades trial’ in STOnline (11 January, 2013):

[2] Martin Heidegger. What is Called Thinking? Translated by J. Glenn Gray. New York: Perennial, 15.

[3] Umberto Eco. ‘Interview: The Art of Fiction. No. 197’ in The Paris Review (Summer 2008, No. 185): 



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