Teaching can be understood in terms of Derrida’s notion of the gift and, then, in Levinasian terms of the ethical imperative of the face-to-face response-ability of the self for the other. I want to very briefly examine these ideas. I do not have the space or the time to fully explore the implications of either idea; I do, however, have an inclination to start some kind of rich conversation about the ethical gift.
Derrida defines the gift as something freely given without any expectation of something in return. The gift does not create an obligation on the part of the receipient nor does it derive from any sense of obligation on the part of the giver. Gifts are, in this sense, spontaneous acts of kindness on the part of the self for the benefit of the other. When the ‘gift’ is given because of a sense of obligation, creates a sense of obligation or otherwise is not freely, and without expectation of return, tendered an duty is created by the act itself and it is no longer a gift.
In the tradition of the Jewish Sages an idea of benevolent giving is placed on a continuum of righteousness from lowest to highest. In this tradition, giving selflessly to care for the widow, orphan, and stranger is, perhaps, the single most important commandment one can follow. There are, however, levels of giving that correspond to the value of the gift to the giver. At the lowest end of the scale is the gift given for personal recognition. These gifts are only given when the giver is publicly recognized, say in the back of a playbill as a supporter of the theatre company. At the highest level is the gift given anonymously where the recipient doesn’t even know from whom the gift came.
Teaching is an act that falls out near the highest level of the continuum. While not completely anonomyous, the teacher is, after all, a known comodity, teaching does not require an expectation of an obligatory return from the student. The act of teaching is selfless, freely given to each student by the teacher. While teaching is a paid job, the act of teaching itself, what goes on in the classroom, is the gift. The face-to-face relationship the teacher has with her students is not subject to remuneration. It is in that relationship, the relationship of response, the dialogic of the classroom, that establishes the gift, not the external source of income that is provided the teacher through an external and impersonal board of education. The relationship of teacher and student is one that builds on the teacher’s response-ability to the alteriety of his students.
It is in this response to the alterity of the student that teaching takes on the ethical imperative described by Levinas in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being and elsewhere. This imperative rests on the idea that the self has the absolute duty, one that was not requested but nevertheless exists, to care for the wellbeing of the other. In teaching, the role of the teacher is one of caring, of becoming response-able for the welfare of the other, even at the expence of one’s own safety. There is no answerability of the other to the self in this transaction. It is a one way street, one that, if properly nurtured, may, over time, produce benefits for both teacher and student but for which the student as recipient has no obligation to become engaged in the first place.
So this is just a starter. I’ll write more later but for now no more rambling.