The Higher Yearning

If you based your notions on academic life from some of the recent movies (Elegy, The Squid and the Whale, One True Thing, etc.), you’d think that most professors slept with their students. This is especially true of teachers in literature departments; you don’t often see professors in the scientific disciplines following suit. As one not far from the academic fray, I can report the “reality” depicted in the cinema is nothing but a myth.

Nevertheless, there is some truth to this academic stereotype, one that I became aware of gradually over the years, as I developed very close friendships with some of my students. It is one that is intimate, but in this case it is an intimacy of the mind. In his essay, Love on Campus, in the Summer 2007 American Scholar William Deresiewicz writes eloquently about what is often a fairly intense intimacy between a student and professor.

“..the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention….The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces of the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification.”

While it didn’t change my relationship with students once I recognized the power of this situation, I realized the time a student is in college is a critical period, one not unlike the critical period in which all forms of animal life form an attachment to a parent or a surrogate parent. Who does not remember their favorite professor, the one who has to this day exerted a powerful influence on their life? No doubt there is more than one.

Deresiewitcz reminds us that all this was known to Plato who, in the Symposium, described the powerful attraction Socrates had on his students. “This is why, for the Greeks, the teacher’s relationship with the child was regarded as more valuable and more intimate than the parents. Your parents bring you into nature but your teacher brings you into culture.”

In my own teaching I eventually came to see that I was at my best when I was helping students realize things they might have already known or, if not known, find a way to discover them in the exchanges we had with one another. And in the process of doing this, I learned that teaching, as Deresiewicz says, is “about relationships. It is mentorship, not instruction.”

Perhaps that’s because I taught at a small liberal arts college, where the classes were small and where teaching often involved tutorial sessions on a weekly basis that, at times, went on for hours. I suspect at the larger universities, where teaching is largely synonymous with lecturing, the kind of intense intimacy this form of instruction develops is far less likely to occur.

In his essay Deresiewicz treats at length the inability of our culture to understand these ideas. “Can there be a culture that is less equipped than our to receive these ideas?” He argues that we simply don’t have the necessary vocabulary to comprehend, let alone accept this kind of intimacy.

This point interests me less, than the reality of the experience itself, the way in which a professor can become a student’s muse. As one of Deresiewicz’s students says, “I wanted to have brain sex with him.” In the vast majority of cases then, the real attraction between students has little to do with their bodies but far more with their minds.

In her essay, The Higher Yearning, published in Harpers a few years ago, Cristina Nehring goes even further claiming, “Teacher-student chemistry is what sparks much of the best work that goes on at universities, today as always. It need not be reckless; it need not be realized. It need not even be articulated, or mutual. In most cases, in fact, it is none of these. In most cases, academic eros works from behind the scenes. It lingers behind the curtain and ensures that the production on state is strong. It ensures that the work in the classroom is charged, ambitious, and vigorous.”

The intimate bond between teacher and student may often last a lifetime. Deresiewicz concludes, “…the feelings we have for the teachers or students who have meant to most to us, like those we have for long-lost friends, never go away, even when the two are no longer together.”