Earlier this week, there was a stampede during one of the stages of the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, where overcrowding and (apparently) the presence of a Saudi prince who quickly left the scene once the stampede began led to the death of between 700 and 1500 Muslims in an atmosphere where the Saudis have attempted to deflect the blame for the deaths away from themselves. People from other countries, from whom the deceased Muslims came from, have often sought to pin the blame on the Saudis for incompetence, considering that stampedes are a frequent occurrence in one of the parts of the Hajj, namely the rami al-jamarat, the stoning of the devil, where pilgrims walk along a pedestrian bridge and throw stones at pillars representing various devils who tried to deter Mohammed from his mission, demonstrating the divided nature of Satan’s kingdom particularly dramatically. This particular ritual, the last ritual of the Hajj, is the most dangerous because it involves large crowds in a confined space with tight schedules that are not always adhered to. Given the simultaneous tendency for the limited routes to and from the bridge to be closed whenever Saudi princes and their large entourages visit the area, the resulting logistical challenges often lead to a fatal press of people in a partiuclary ironic part of the Muslim worship ceremony . Given the refusal of the Saudis to learn how to better manage the crowds or improve access to avoid the ritual being a fatal chokepoint, it is clear that the Saudis wish to teach but not be taught, and lives are lost as a result.
While this is a particularly dramatic example of religious leaders being entirely impervious to learning, this lesson is not limited at all to religious people nor is it always a matter of immediate life and death. As someone who has experienced my fair share of opportunities to teach, I speak from both observation and experience that one of the easiest and most profound ways to learn something is to teach it. This does not mean that one is scrambling to study what one is teaching so that one can be a few pages or chapters ahead of one’s students, but rather that the process of attempting to explain something to others often helps us clarify our own understanding better. What we know in a vague or meandering or general sense we learn in a more focused and in-depth way through instruction, especially if that instruction is to active and bright and clever people who ask plenty of questions for themselves that force us to clarify our answers and often our own understanding. To be sure, clever and questioning students are more difficult to handle than those who are quiet and docile, but it is the honest questions that come from such people that often help those who teach them understand matters all the better.
Teaching as a profession has a varying degree of importance around the world, and depending on who is being taught, and there is often a great deal of fragmentation in teaching professions depending on who is being taught and the age and occupation of students. In the United States, for example, many areas felt it necessary to import teachers, and teaching children has not traditionally been a high-status profession, despite its obvious importance. Even more than that, teaching has become embroiled in a large number of larger cultural and political matters that have brought significant disrepute onto the teaching profession regarding the content of classes, the politicization of teachers (including their willingness to strike to receive increased salaries from taxpayers), and the difficulty of cooperation between parents and teachers. On the other hand, teachers have a much higher degree of status in other nations and cultures, and those who teach higher levels of students, or serve as consultants teaching managers and executives, often have a great deal of status if a lower disparity in terms of authority between themselves and those they teach. At least within American culture, for reasons that are somewhat obscure, the status of a teacher increases as there is greater equality between a teacher and student, which bodes well for those of us of a fairly egalitarian mindset to begin with.
As a student of the scriptures, it is interesting to note a contrast in attitudes towards teaching in the books of Hebrews and James. James 3:1-2 reminds us: “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.” Yet, at the same time, the author of Hebrews states in Hebrews 5:12-13: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.” Here we see a tension that has implications for all of us who teach on some kind of level, whether in our families, on our jobs, in our congregations, whether as part of our profession or whether as an aspect of our service to others in our communities. The tension is that while on the one hand becoming a teacher and receiving the honor and respect due to teachers brings upon us a greater judgment because our example and not only our teachings serve to instruct others, whether intentionally or not, while on the other hand spending a long time learning something implies that we should be competent to teach others. The resolution appears to be that there is the expectation that our growth should lead us to be better able to serve others, while making us subject to greater judgment and accountability along with that service.
What drives all of these problems with teachings are questions of accountability and humility. A Saudi prince is not a humble man, and he wants special privileges but does not want to be held accountable for the death of his brethren as a result of his special privileges, nor does he want to be seen at the scene of the crime, where he would be expected to do something about the damage he and his people caused to others. All too many people who teach want to be the fountain of knowledge and do not expect others to respond actively to their teaching with questions or further comments that demonstrate the extensive knowledge base of the students, which may at times be greater and more profound than those who are in official roles as teachers. Those teachers who seek to feather their nest or to seek wider cultural power to change the way that children think and believe prompt conflicts if those principles are not just and moral, and become part of larger cultural warfare in a given society about authority and belief systems. Likewise, if teaching provides a great deal of influence over others, it also brings us into greater judgment because of that influence. As is the case in so much of life, education is a complicated matter , and it reveals the complications present in ourselves and in our own lives and attitudes and ambitions, for we never reach an area of life where we cease to need learning and instruction, while many of us are placed where we are required at least occasionally to instruct others to help them along their way. Ideally, we should be able to learn from each other, although that is often easier said than done when we shut ourselves off from learning from those around us, as is too often the case in our lives.
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