12/09/2019

Jacob Klein: European Scholar and American Teacher

"Seriousness is naturally next. Seriousness is opposed in one respect to levity, for example a leaning some bright students evince toward easily distractible intellectual gadgeteering. In another respect, seriousness is opposed to earnestness, dead earnestness, such as rigidly relentless industriousness. Both evade entering into the “seriousness of the concept” (as Hegel terms it; “Preface” 4, Phenomenology). “Seriousness” here means not belaboring a thought but letting it work on you, not willfully grasping for insights but letting them come, by giving them room or—as I like to put it—by futzing around. Time-taking patience and messing-about belong to liberal learning, because the works don’t open up to strategic invasions.
Serious teachers who join their students in dithering purposefully and procrastinating concentratedly must also sometimes appear in a formidable aspect. Socrates, for example, appears thus formidable just once that I know of, though that leaves its daunting impression: When confronted with a young life going seriously wrong, here that of Callicles, he concludes with an impassioned speech in a tone devoid of any tint of parity or playfulness: He says that he will follow his own account for a life of virtue and bids Callicles and his crowd follow the same rationale of conduct. “For,” he ends, “yours is worth nothing.”(Gorgias, end) On rare occasions I’ve heard that tone from Mr. Klein, a tone utterly distinct from that of powerlessly querulous righteousness sometimes adopted by academics when great perturbations are caused by small differences. These were moments when the stakes were high—our students’ souls or our school’s survival, particularly its resolute non-careerism—for this is, as I’ve said, what the word “liberal” in “liberal education” originally betokens."