The Pedagogy of the Guru

by Michael Rossman

        These days, when I watch how so many people are learning wonderful things about body, mind, and spirit, I sometimes feel like a sour old man afflicted with the dry grumbles. In my youth, back in the misty 1960s, I didn't have much leisure for such wholesome pursuits; I was too busy dodging tear gas and clubs in the streets, or stirring up trouble on campuses. I got so involved in trying to change the conduct of an unjust war and a stifling educational system that I picked up the awkward habit of questioning how people relate to systems of authority. Later, I had time to study Tai Chi, psychic healing, and sex therapy, and help found a new religious order. But nothing helped; the habit stuck with me, like the relic of a trauma I just wasn't ready to let go. As obsessives do, I rationalized it. Sometimes when I'm feeling particularly arrogant and insufferable, I think of it as a form of higher consciousness.

        All this is to excuse the dry caricature which follows, as I meditate—as one concerned with the politics of learning—on the educational transaction between the Guru and his Organization, and the person who submits himself or herself to their method. I mean, it must be a caricature, because it doesn't fit anyone I know. Everybody says "My teacher isn't like that" and "That's not how I relate to the group and what I'm learning there," and I do have good reason to believe each person. So perhaps I'm only making a straw man to poke pins into.

        If so, it is indeed a kind of exorcism that I pursue, of a spirit which is not simply my private neurotic ghost, but widespread in our lives. And caricature may serve at least to suggest the nature of a different spirit, in which I still believe we might learn to live.


        Typically, the student enrolls in what appears to be an innovative school which teaches new or ultimate truths about what is it to be human or how to handle the project—knowledge of a sort that must be experienced rather than described. But the process of learning these truths is an experience in itself, with perhaps more dimensions than are intended or acknowledged. For the student learns not only the curriculum of the Guru's truth, but a higher curriculum, a "metacurriculum" whose subject is learning itself.

        What the student learns about learning has both a social and a personal face. He learns about the processes of social relation in which individual learning is configured, i.e., about education as institution; and learns about the private processes of his own learning. Together these are the student's "metalearning," or would be if they were ever discussed as such. More usually they are just the student's unconscious conditioning to seek more of the same kind of school and personal style for future learning; and to think of these as natural and proper, normative. Or rather, to go on thinking of them this way—for in general, what the student learns about learning, through engagement with the Guru and his Organization, is no new lesson at all, but a reinforcement of the metalessons taught by the usual workings of society.

        The personal and social lessons are intertwined. The student learns that to learn involves being treated as an object—howsoever nicely; to be seen and to offer herself as a raw material which can receive a universal and impersonal imprint. For how else to judge the matter, if one believes, with Buber, that our relationships are either I/Thou or I/It, with no middle ground? I/Thou is generally impossible in the guru clime: for to be involved with the organization characteristically demands that one deny one's existential peership with the Guru, and this relation is a model for all the others.

        The student learns that to learn she must sacrifice autonomy—not simply by joining in something collective, but by letting another define what is of value and how to learn it. The more admirable, complete, and thorough the Guru's Method is, the more it helps the student learn this lesson, and the more she unlearns how to take her own responsibility for the process of learning. This is the schooling of dependent learners, who cannot create their own courses without authoritative direction. It is crudest and most mystifying when the student is being done to, in the name of teaching her what to do to be “free.” And no matter what or how valuable the nominal curriculum is, this schooling is disastrous for citizens of an age of social and personal chaos and crisis; for in the growing absence of reliable authoritative answers, we must depend increasingly on self-directed and genuinely cooperative skills of learning to determine our futures, or even to survive.

        The student learns the habits of totalitarian systems. He learns not to question or to interfere with the Guru's purposes and judgments, but instead to accept the centralization of power—of informational, organizational, and decision-making power—and its disposition in hierarchies of status, as fundamental institutional principles. The student learns not to question the social structure and processes of the Organization, but instead to accept his place within them, transforming himself rather than the Organization if there is a misfit. He learns to achieve status and rewards not through the process of his own unique growth and individuation, with the inescapable deviance and tensions these generate in relations with any group, nor through self-governed work as a citizen in a democratic ensemble; but instead by accepting the Organization's terms and working within them to further them. In so doing, the student serves the interests of the Guru and the Organization, substantively and spiritually, reinforcing their terms by re-creating them within himself. He does not actively betray his own interests; rather, he learns to serve them by serving the organization's, identifying himself by and with it. In all of this, the student learns both functionally and psychologically to accept the operation of authoritarian social forms, and to integrate himself in their operation.

        Every school is a school of citizenship in the commonweal; for whatever else it teaches, it teaches shapes in which to create society and one's own participation in society. What teaching, then—what social forms for learning, what training in learning styles—are appropriate for the dream of a democratic society in an age in which, in deepest privacy and all our collectivities, we struggle with the urge to reassert rigid, secure control over what often seems an ungovernable chaos of change? This struggle is inner, spiritual; it is external, political. In both respects, it is crucial. And I think we are badly served in it by the implicitly authoritarian lessons of the Guru and the Organization—which are the same lessons that the established institutions of education teach citizens, as can be seen by rereading these remarks with Teacher and School in place of Guru and Organization.

        There is a deeper aspect to the metalearning of the Guru's Method, which I can express only in a metaphor which suggests an essential violence, however more subtly it may actually happen in practice. The student comes with a world view, a framework of understanding about her nature, place, and purpose in the universal and human cosmos she inhabits. The framework may be cramped, or, in these discordant times, gaping oddly open. The Guru's Method blows her mind, dynamites the structure or what remains; and even before the dust settles, the student is given a full prefab structure to put in its place, to inhabit (at best) in her own way.

        It isn't so simple, of course. Few who are taken as Guru intend this to happen this way. The dynamite is not to be found in the Guru, the Method, or the Organization alone; it is mainly in the learner, whose needs and perspectives prepare the impact of the encounter. But often enough it comes out this way. This educational process is no great trick to pull off, and it is quite the most efficient way for many purposes. But it cripples the development of crucial skills of learning: in particular, the ability to create for oneself new frames to inhabit from the materials available, one's own individual frames.

        Privately, in our associations, in society as a whole, we live in a rich chaos of input, fragmentary information, ill-understood tools, mixed energies, partial understandings, uncoordinated parts and promises of ourselves. We are caddis worms, we are mound-building ants, accreting the skins of our personas and our collective home from this mix. We need to learn more skill at this eternal task, rather than to have skill atrophy from disuse. To accept from the Guru the magic touch which opens one to mysterious realms of experience is one thing; to accept from him simultaneously a prefabricated frame, however glorious, in which to understand the experience, is quite another. It is a cheap style of self-actualization, in which the self is diminished even as it grows -- or so it seems, if we judge self-actualization not by how far one gets but by the quality of the process itself.

        And likewise in the social sphere: even if the Organization's Answer to the problem of social harmony is workable, something godly about us and some true fulfillment are sacrificed in the process of buying it ready-made, rather than forging it in a process of collective struggle and invention. What the student does not learn from the Guru and Organization is how to create the self, society, and meaning anew, autonomously, in mutual responsibility, as the continuous act of being human.

        Behind all this sour appraisal is a proposition: that there is another kind of education possible, necessary and appropriate to making our potentials real, both in persons and society. I think of it as democratic, for it depends on and develops the powers of self-governance and mutual governance. In its purest form, it proceeds as people, alone and together, define their problems and tasks for themselves, decide on approaches, try them out, evaluate for themselves the results, and continue the cycle, all the while recognizing and using the resources within and between themselves, drawing on each other's knowledge and direction as autonomous peers. In the process, they configure a society of learning in which authority and power are not fixed, centralized, and hierarchical, nor demolished entirely, but rather are mutable, transient, and shared; in which people recognize and bring into being each other's unique authorities and powers, not only in the transcendent realm but in the world. There is still a place in this society for the Guru's specialized expertise, but its style of employment is different.

        To unfold this image further, to speak of it in realistic rather than Utopian terms, is to engage with the living tradition, the literature and work, of "alternative" education, which seeks more humane and fulfilling processes of learning, and institutions to match them. The school of the Guru and the Organization is an old one, showing little trace of the educational explorations that have been going on elsewhere in our society, whatever its other daring may be. This is not the place to discuss the details of an alternative, but one thing about method bears mention here.

        Confronted with chaos, cognitive dissonance, unresolved ambiguity, and tension, the primal impulse both within the self and in society is to close these out, simplify things, make secure our frames of understanding once again, by whatever means. Yet if there is one prime educational need for us as citizens of our time, it is to learn how to endure chaos, to appreciate it, survive in it, build in and from it our structures of meaning anew, accepting their dissolution and re-creation as the process of life. For the self and for the group, the full potentials of development are foreclosed whenever a frame is too quickly decided upon or adopted to govern a world seen anew. As in any rich solution, it is a slow process of crystallization, rather than a hasty gelling, that produces the rich forms of which our substance is capable. The implications of this for learning, whether of the self or of society, are many, and are mostly refused by the process of the Guru's school.


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