On Power. Or: How To Teach Students By Persecuting Them

Dietrich von Hildebrand

Dietrich von Hildebrand

I prowled the classroom, glancing at my department chair, who was there to evaluate me. “Okay. So who’s going to stop me?” Dead silence from my students. I waited a beat, studying their faces. “What’s wrong?” After another stretch of quiet, a student offered me a hesitant, “We’re scared of you.”

I laughed. “Really? You know me by now. I’m a marshmallow. You’ll be okay, I promise. Now, try and stop me from torturing you!”

The task was both simple and complex: we had been reading Dietrich von Hildebrand’s memoirs of his intellectual and moral struggle against National Socialism in the 1920’s and 30’s (recently collected in My Battle Against Hitler), a struggle that eventually earned him a death sentence in absentia. Von Hildebrand was a Catholic philosopher who ended up at Fordham in New York, having escaped the Nazis. The task for them in the class was to use von Hildebrand to argue in response to me and my evil professor plans, a dim reflection of von Hildebrand’s situation. Thus they themselves faced a terrible imaginary fate. My malevolent scheme was to pretend that I was convinced one of them had stolen a copy of my exam, and that in a fit of rage I was determined to punish all of them for it or else have the guilty party confess. Everyone would fail unless I got my way or unless they endured a series of torturous assignments that might give them a better grade. Maybe. They couldn’t be sure.

All of this required them to be aware of what they had read (please, God) and to apply it to a new situation, which demands a deeper and more creative understanding. I knew this would be a challenge, and yet engaging in a way much more immediate to their own experiences. In the class before, they’d had trouble imagining Europe of the past. They couldn’t populate it with themes and places and faces.

I, being ever so wise as their observant and farsighted professor, figured out a way to help about ten minutes before class actually began. To be honest, it was a gamble. But I’ve never been able to refuse a chance at crashing hard and bursting into flames.

Right. And my boss was there. For a pre-tenure evaluation and write-up. So. Now was clearly the time to try something absolutely new.

And this new path required them to trust me. To imagine with me. To dare.

And they were afraid.

I could picture them standing at the edge of a pool, wearing floaties, shivering as I swam around and tried to get them to hop into the water. How were they supposed to know whether I’d drown them and laugh an evil laugh?

So I gently reassured them of my own past behavior, my consistent affection for them, and they began to speak. As we reviewed the easiest themes to find – inherent human dignity, being made in the image of God – I set myself to reinforcing their feelings of safety and support. Rather than playing it straight, I announced my evil self’s counter-arguments with dramatic and absurd unreality. I swiftly took up their side the moment they offered anything, and I helped them to expand their claims.

It is hard to play with ideas. There is such risk in it, especially with the unspoken power of the teacher present and expectant. Failing does not seem like an option, or at least not a good one. Thus I worked to show them that my own power over them was bent toward helping them, even while such power was explicitly on the table for our consideration.

We shuffled through von Hildebrand’s various illuminating themes, through his memories of the people he knew, the fellow Catholics who surrendered their minds to the thoughts of the day.

Aware that we had danced around the most obvious objections to the Nazis, I posed a further problem: the seniors, desperate to graduate and therefore not to fail, had formed a bloc of sympathizers. They worked to placate their depraved professor, had plans to blame someone for the stolen exam so they could be free. What, then, must the class do?

Von Hildebrand suddenly revealed himself to them as a careful dismantler of elusive rationalizations, as a man bent on unmasking lies. Beneath the stable face of National Socialism, even very early in its rise, he saw a terrifying and nihilistic will to power. He saw power without reason, without value. No value he could call real. Appeasing the beast meant offering one’s soul for consumption. Von Hildebrand couldn’t bear it, and indeed was driven from Germany because of his lectures.

The class could not safely appease their evil professor. It was clear, after all, that I wasn’t interested in them in the least. I gently assured them that I wasn’t, softened the fiction further with a small grin. Power in itself, power loved for itself, is insatiable and cruel.

At this a new silence arose. A fumbling awareness that there was a problem without a clear solution. I could see their minds racing, fighting to catch on something, anything.

I closed my eyes, lifted my chin. “I’m picturing… That everything is in black and white. Somehow. And we’re all in Victorian clothing for some reason. It’s grim.” I opened my eyes to laughter.

A student suddenly added, “And you’re wearing a hat.” Then another: “We’ve all got gloves on. And dark make-up.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I said, nodding. “Now that we’ve got it all pictured, let’s think again.”

I remember how terrifying a professor’s knowledge could be. How it seemed so vast and so unassailable. It loomed like some massive invisible mountain, glittering behind their eyes. Threat more than treasure.

So we worked together to unhinge the hungry teeth of amoral power.

A student began to insist that it was the imaginary TA who did everything. It wasn’t any of them. Just that crafty TA. She was sure of it. I liked that. It highlighted the arbitrariness of my fictional actions.

Luckily for me, or perhaps un-luckily, a student with whom I am very close decided to make an appearance. He sprints around on campus on a little scooter, as walking is difficult for him. He’s not at all in that class of mine. Grinning, he sped into the classroom and halted at my side.

“Alex!” I said without missing a beat. “We’re trying to figure out how to stop me from committing a terrible act of professor-ing against everyone in the class. Glad you’re here.” Alex nodded. I turned to the class. “The seniors have decided to offer up a sacrificial lamb to me, and I’ll subject that person to lectures on pythagorean number mysticism. Alex, you are that victim. You’re not even in the class.”

Giggles echoed in the room. Alex accepted his grim fate with brave grace. He kept trying to lie and say that he did it, that everything is okay now, and I kept telling him to stop it. He offered to take the punishment anyway. I scowled at him and said he was ruining everything.

Alternate realities have a way of battling each other in imaginary games. So, too, in the real world. We can sometimes see the world with vastly different imaginations. But those offered realities are not of equal value. Von Hildebrand insisted that National Socialism was a fiction, that it wasn’t even German, was laughably and ironically un-German. It wasn’t real. It could only pretend, and had to scream and punish to get others to follow along. There was no joy or play; there was no wide space made from values.

So we came to the profound crisis of von Hildebrand’s life. It wasn’t a crisis in the sense that he wasn’t sure what to do. He was very sure. He saw it clearly. He didn’t mind the cost, and his wife was at his side. It was a crisis because of what it revealed, what it unmasked. The terrible insight that offered the clear decision.

I know that underneath my gentleness there is a certain ferocity, and it surfaces in subtle and striking ways. Though diminutive and soft-spoken, I can command a classroom without raising my voice. I am fully able to intimidate. Students are aware, and seem sensitive to how I use the skill.

We talked, then, about poor Alex – who was not being helpful – and what really ought to be done, and what was really very wrong about my evil self. I had claimed that my actions were perfectly within my rights, even if I couldn’t be sure who had done what I said, even if I clearly didn’t mind accepting an accusation against a student who wasn’t in the class, even if I obviously cared nothing for the goodness their very existence demands of me. We’ve all heard stories of mean professors. My kind are famous for it. That’s what a real professor is: intellective command.

I leaned back against the board. “Is that really the case, class? Am I using my power, my very real power over you, in a way that a real professor should? No, not at all. Not in the slightest, famous stories and stereotypes be damned. I’m here to help you learn, and nothing I have done in this scenario has even remotely helped you learn anything. Perhaps you’ve learned to be afraid. What must we do as we watch Alex, as we are faced with a decision, as we are given an impossible choice between guilty freedom and our own suffering?”

I had them look at the page in which von Hildebrand recalls his response to a German census that forced its citizens to name whether they were Aryan or non-Aryan. Von Hildebrand was so furious and disgusted at the very question that he checked “non-Aryan.” The Third Reich was apoplectic, and it was good he was in Rome rather than in Germany then.

Quiet for a moment, I looked at my students. “Sometimes,” I said, voice low, “we must refuse the test itself. We must reject the very question, the very terms. ‘No, professor,’ you must say, though it might not end well. ‘You are not being a professor. We will not surrender one of us, and you must not, are never allowed, to hurt us simply because you can.’ Sometimes you’ve got to say No to the whole thing.”

I left my class with this thought, hoping that we had imagined ourselves into reality. Hoping that we had divested myself of power, and consecrated it back into my hands to be wielded for goodness and truth alone.

And, faced with a frightening impossible, would that we all had strength enough to refuse its terms.

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