In Praise of the Carpenter's Son, a Teacher
One of the most remarkable episodes in the Gospels is John 20:11-16:
But Mary was standing without at the tomb weeping: so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and beholdeth Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turneth herself, and saith unto him in Hebrew, Rabboni; which is to say, Teacher.
"Teacher." That word, in any language, has a kind of magic, as captured so perfectly by St. John. Spoken as an appellation, as by Mary Magdalene here, it has the power to define or redefine human relationships instantly. "Teacher" means "master" (which is how the King James version translates "Rabboni"). Its use expresses a respectful submission to a natural hierarchy in the realm of understanding; a teacher is superior to me, as one who knows.
The standard of rank ordering implied in this hierarchy is knowledge versus ignorance, wisdom versus the desire for wisdom. The world in which this hierarchy rules is a realm of voluntarism, of spiritual and intellectual self-awareness and seeking. There is a great feat of self-understanding in calling someone "Teacher" (not as a job title, but as an expression of relative rank), just as there is great humility in accepting that title without succumbing to the tyrannical temptations of authority.
Teaching and learning, knowledge and the search for knowledge -- in a word, education -- is the free, voluntary realm of what modernity used to call the "spiritual aristocracy," which is to say the intellectual meritocracy.
Western civilization, for two thousand years, has been moving in the orbits of two supreme teachers: Jesus and Socrates. A consideration of the West in which these two figures are not central is inconceivable. Other civilizations and peoples have educational hierarchies of their own, of course, but their definitive men and archetypes, their indispensable figures, are typically emperors and other earthly chieftains -- i.e., men of political, and hence coercive, authority. The West, by contrast, is defined by teachers.
Real education is more than just a voluntary realm in itself. It also promotes freedom, implicitly, by holding truth higher than political authority, the mind higher than force. The history of Western civilization, seen in a certain light, is a series of confrontations between education and authority, the individual soul and political power. The two archetypal teachers, Jesus and Socrates -- both sentenced to death for their teaching -- defined for all time the struggle of truth versus power. And their stories define that struggle to the exaltation of truth, and the belittlement of power.
This is why we must understand individual liberty as the definitive political goal of the West; this civilization, despite its various convulsions and regressive moments, has an inherent, essential impulse towards freedom. Its history was the long argument between two great educators and generations of would-be emperors. The teachers won, even in death.
Now, however, in an alliance that, in light of what we have just seen, must be described as fundamentally anti-West, the political and educational establishments have been joined as one. Compulsory and universal public schooling violates the principle of true education -- voluntarism in the quest for truth -- just as it contradicts the spirit of the true teacher, as represented by Jesus and Socrates. To subsume education as primarily a state function is to break human thought to the saddle of political authority, to poison the definitive realm of voluntarism -- the search for self-knowledge -- with the invasive weed of coerced indoctrination, and to make Jesus and Socrates pariahs even among those who nominally share their job title, the so-called professional educators. (Just ask any public school teacher who has tried to teach against the norms and goals of the established curriculum and methods.)
Jesus was a carpenter's son. This means that he too was, by trade, a carpenter. Socrates was a stonemason's son, and hence also a tradesman himself. Basic education for these men, as for most in their times, consisted of being trained in their fathers' crafts and family morals, along with perhaps elementary literacy and numeracy skills. Beyond this, they would have listened to or read what they could, when they could, compelled primarily by their own desire to learn.
And then, most importantly, they took their received notions to the mountains, as it were. They thought over what they had acquired, and developed it into a world-changing education, through private and solitary reflection. We have specific accounts, for both men, of their having remarkable capacities for quiet concentration, for leaving society behind, physically or psychologically, while they contemplated how to proceed with their teaching.
Through these sundry means of learning, and this private self-examination, they developed the independence of thought and the originality of spirit that has made them the teachers for the ages, the fountainheads of a civilization, and living monuments to the dignity of the individual soul.
They had no certification, no teachers' college; they were not union members, received no state funding, benefited from no training in "advanced" methods of pedagogy, and worked without teachers' guides and answer keys. And yet, at his death in prison, Socrates was surrounded by his students, whom he gently chastised for weeping at his loss. And, on John's account, the resurrected Jesus appeared first to Mary, whose only word upon recognizing his voice was "Teacher," the ultimate expression of voluntary submission to spiritual, uncoercive authority.
Christmas is, among other things, the day to celebrate the birth of a teacher in the truest sense of the word. A teacher is a man who places knowledge above power and upholds the quest for the true and the good in a world forever endangered by coercive schemes that would demand deference to the false and the evil. In other words, education, in the sense defined for Western civilization by Jesus and Socrates, is the spiritual realm in which, in defiance of all demands and dictums of temporal authority, individual men are free to seek truth.
The fight to preserve Western heritage against today's encroaching authoritarian hordes is, at its base, the battle to save education from the clutches of government. It is the battle to save and restore a remarkable civilization in which the teacher, rather than the emperor -- wisdom rather than power -- is the defining idea.