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Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue by Maurice S. Friedman


Maurice S. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of religious studies, philosophy and comparative literature at San Diego State University. Martin Buber (1878-1965).was a Viennese Jewish philosopher and religious leader who translated the Old Tetament into German. He was a Zionist. He sought understainding between Jews and Arabs. Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1955 and reprinted in 1960 by Harpers, N.Y. as a First Harper Torchbook edition. This material prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 20: Education


Education, to Buber, means a conscious and willed ‘selection by man of the effective world.’ The teacher makes himself the living selection of the world, which comes in his person to meet, draw out, and form the pupil. In this meeting the teacher puts aside the will to dominate and enjoy the pupil, for this will more than anything else threatens to stifle the growth of his blessings. ‘It must be one or the other,’ writes Buber: ‘Either he takes on himself the tragedy of the person, and offers an unblemished daily sacrifice, or the fire enters his work and consumes it.’ The greatness of the educator, in Buber’s opinion, lies in the fact that his situation is unerotic. He cannot choose who will be before him, but finds him there already.

He sees them crouching at the desks, indiscriminately flung together, the misshapen and the well-proportioned, animal faces, empty faces, and noble faces in indiscriminate confusion, like the presence of the created universe; the glance of the educator accepts and receives them all. (Between Man and Man, ‘Education,’ pp. 89 f., 83-96, quotation from p.94).

The teacher is able to educate the pupils that he finds before him only if he is able to build real mutuality between himself and them. This mutuality can only come into existence if the child trusts the teacher and knows that he is really there for him. The teacher does not have to be continually concerned with the child, but he must have gathered him into his life in such a way ‘that steady potential presence of the one to the other is established and endures.’ ‘Trust, trust in the world, because this human being exists -- that is the most inward achievement of the relation in education.’ But this means that the teacher must be really there facing the child, not merely there in spirit. ‘In order to be and to remain truly present to the child he must have gathered the child’s presence into his own store as one of the bearers of his communion with the world, one of the focuses of his responsibilities for the world.’ (Ibid., p. 98.)

What is most essential in the teacher’s meeting with the pupil is that he experience the pupil from the other side. If this experiencing is quite real and concrete, it removes the danger that the teacher’s will to educate will degenerate into arbitrariness. This ‘inclusiveness’ is of the essence of the dialogical relation, for the teacher sees the position of the other in his concrete actuality yet does not lose sight of his own. Unlike friendship, however, this inclusiveness must be largely one-sided: the pupil cannot equally well see the teacher’s point of view without the teaching relationship being destroyed. Inclusiveness must return again and again in the teaching situation, for it not only regulates but constitutes it. Through discovering the ‘otherness’ of the pupil the teacher discovers his own real limits, but also through this discovery he recognizes the forces of the world which the child needs to grow and he draws those forces into himself. Thus, through his concern with the child, the teacher educates himself. (Ibid., pp. 96-101)

In his essays on education Buber points to a genuine third alternative to the either-or’s of conflicting modern educational philosophies. The two attitudes of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ educators which Buber cited in 1926 are still dominant in educational theory and practice today. On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the importance of ‘objective’ education to be obtained through the teaching of Great Books, classical tradition, or technical knowledge. On the other, there are those who emphasize the subjective side of knowledge and look on education as the development of creative powers or as the ingestion of the environment in accordance with subjective need or interest. Like idealism and materialism, these two types of educational theory represent partial aspects of the whole. Looking at education in terms of the exclusive dominance of the subject-object relationship; they either picture it as the passive reception of tradition poured in from above -- in Buber’s terms, the ‘funnel’ -- or as drawing forth the powers of the self -- the ‘pump.’ (Ibid., p. 89) Only the philosophy of dialogue makes possible an adequate picture of what does in fact take place: the pupil grows through his encounter with the person of the teacher and the Thou of the writer. In this encounter the reality which the teacher and writer present to him comes alive for him: it is transformed from the potential, the abstract, and the unrelated to the actual, concrete, and present immediacy of a personal and even, in a sense, a reciprocal relationship. This means that no real learning takes place unless the pupil participates, but it also means that the pupil must encounter something really ‘other’ than himself before he can learn.

The old, authoritarian theory of education does not understand the need for freedom and spontaneity. But the new, freedom-centered educational theory misunderstands the meaning of freedom, which is indispensable but not in itself sufficient for true education. The opposite of compulsion is not freedom but communion, says Buber, and this communion comes about through the child’s first being free to venture on his own and then encountering the real values of the teacher. The teacher presents these values in the form of a lifted finger or subtle hint rather than as an imposition of the ‘right,’ and the pupil learns from this encounter because he has first experimented himself. The doing of the teacher proceeds, moreover, out of a concentration which has the appearance of rest. The teacher who interferes divides the soul into an obedient and a rebellious part, but the teacher who has integrity integrates the pupil through his actions and attitudes. The teacher must be ‘wholly alive and able to communicate himself directly to his fellow beings,’ but he must do this, in so far as possible, with no thought of affecting them. He is most effective when he ‘is simply there’ without any arbitrariness or conscious striving for effectiveness, for then what he is in himself is communicated to his pupils. (Between Man and Man, ‘Education,’ pp. 83-90) Intellectual instruction is by no means unimportant, but it is only really important when it arises as an expression of a real human existence. As Marjorie Reeves has shown in her application of Buber’s I-Thou philosophy to education, the whole concept of the ‘objectivity’ of education is called in question by the fact that our knowledge of things is for the most part mediated through the minds of others and by the fact that real growth takes place ‘through the impact of person on person.’ (Marjorie Reeves’ Growing up in a Modern Society (London: University of London Press, 1946), pp. 9-12; cf. pp. 34-38.)

Two well-known English thinkers, one a leading educator, and the other a prominent poet and writer, each make Buber’s essay on ‘Education’ the centre of a book on that subject. One of these writers obviously proceeds from the side of the older education with its emphasis on absolute values, the other from the side of the newer education with its emphasis on freedom and relativity of values; yet they are in virtually complete agreement in their acceptance of Buber’s thought about education.

Sir Fred Clarke states in Freedom in the Educative Society that while the popular educational theory in England is that of ‘development,’ the popular practice is that of an imposed code. Following Buber, he redefines education as the creative conquest of freedom through tension and responsibility. Freedom is the goal and discipline is the strategy. This does not mean imposing from above or converting persons into instruments but the recognition that education is releasing of instinct plus encounter. Educational discipline, Clarke says, is just that selection of the effective world by the teacher which Buber has outlined. The teacher concentrates and presents in himself a construct of the world, and this must be understood as a practical artistic activity, not as a technique. The teacher is disinterested, yet he is very much a self, for he is a living embodiment of a world rather than an abstract social code or system of morality. (Sir Fred Clarke, Freedom in the Educative Society, Educational Issues of Today, ed. by W. R. Niblett [London: University of London Press, 1946], pp. 53-67.)

Buber’s doctrine offers to contribute to English thought on education a balancing force of which it stands in grave need.... For he places educational authority on a ground which is not merely consistent with freedom, but is also the necessary condition for the achievement of such freedom as a wise education can guarantee. Moreover, he appears to find the secret in a peculiar and paradoxical blend of self-suppression and self-assertion in the teacher. (Ibid., p. 67 f.)

Clarke stresses that Buber’s secret lies not in any science of teaching or philosophy of education but in the supreme artistry that teaching demands in practice. He is joined in this emphasis by Sir Herbert Read, who reports in Education Through Art that his visits to the art classes in a great many schools have shown that good results depend on right atmosphere and that right atmosphere is the creation of the teacher. The creation of this atmosphere, according to Read, depends above all upon the gift of ‘enveloping’ the pupil which Buber has defined. Here Read is referring not only to the teacher’s selective embodiment of the world but also to his experiencing the teaching process from the pupil’s as well as from his own side. He agrees with Buber and Clarke that it is not the free exercise of instinct that matters but the opposition that it encounters, and he states further that the whole structure of education envisaged in his book depends on a conception of the teacher similar to that of Buber. According to Read, Buber’s conception completes the psychological analyses of the child made by such psychologists as Trigant Burrows, Ian Suttie, and Jean Piaget. It avoids the taboo on tenderness on the one hand and undue pampering on the other. It can thus play a part in the ‘psychic weaning’ of the child, for it gives us a new, more constructive conception of tenderness. (Ibid., p. 68; Sir Herbert Read, Education Through Art (New York: Pantheon Books, 1945), 2nd Ed., pp. 279-289.)

Read loses sight of Buber’s concept of dialogue, however, when he suggests that Buber’s teaching shows how to replace the inter-individual tensions of the classroom by ‘an organic mode of adaptation to the social organism as a whole’ and when he reinterprets the teacher’s concentration of an effective world as a selective screen in which what is kept in and what is left out is determined by the organic social pattern through the medium of the teacher’s ‘sense of a total organism’s feeling-behaviour.’ (Education Through Art, p. 287 ff.) Buber does indeed point a way out of both isolated individualism and the ‘oppositeness’ between the pupil and the teacher. He does so, however, not through any attempt to recapture organic wholeness in the classroom nor through any positing of organic wholeness in society, but through the dialogical relation in which the I and the Thou remain separate and really ‘other’ beings.

The task of the educator, writes Buber, is to bring the individual face to face with God through making him responsible for himself rather than dependent for his decisions upon any organic or collective unity. Education worthy of the name is essentially education of character. The concern of the educator is always with the person as a whole both in his present actuality and his future possibilities. The teacher’s only access to the wholeness of the pupil is through winning his confidence, and this is done through his direct and ingenuous participation in the lives of his pupils and through his acceptance of responsibility for this participation. Feeling that the teacher accepts him before desiring to influence him, the pupil learns to ask. This confidence does not imply agreement, however, and it is in conflict with the pupil that the teacher meets his supreme test. He may not hold back his own insights, yet he must stand ready to comfort the pupil if he is conquered or, if he cannot conquer him, to bridge the difficult situation with a word of love. Thus the ‘oppositeness’ between teacher and pupil need not cease, but it is enclosed in relation and so does not degenerate into a battle of wills. Everything that passes between such a teacher and a pupil may be educative, for ‘it is not the educational intention but . . . the meeting which is educationally fruitful.’ (Between Man and Man, ‘The education of Character,’ pp. 103-108)

There are two basic ways by which one may influence the formation of the minds and lives of others, writes Buber. In the first, one imposes one’s opinion and attitude on the other in such a way that his psychic action is really one’s own. In the second, one discovers and nourishes in the soul of the other what one has recognized in oneself as the right. Because it is the right, it must also be living in the other as a possibility among possibilities, a potentiality which only needs to be unlocked -- unlocked not through instruction but through meeting, through the existential communication between one who has found direction and one who is finding it.

The first way is most highly developed in propaganda, the second in education. The propagandist is not really concerned with the person whom he wishes to influence. Some of this person’s individual properties are of importance to the propagandist, but only in so far as they can be exploited for his purposes. The educator, in contrast, recognizes each of his pupils as a single, unique person, the bearer of a special task of being which can be fulfilled through him and through him alone. He has learned to understand himself as the helper of each in the inner battle between the actualizing forces and those which oppose them. But he cannot desire to impose on the other the product of his own struggle for actualization, for he believes that the right must be realized in each man in a unique personal way. The propagandist does not trust his cause to take effect out of its own power without the aid of the loudspeaker, the spotlight, and the television screen. The true educator, in contrast, believes in the power which is scattered in all human beings in order to grow in each to a special form. He has confidence that all that this growth needs is the help which he is at times called to give through his meeting with this person who is entrusted to his care.(‘Elements of the Interhuman’ op. cit., p. 110 f.)

The significance for education of Buber’s distinction between propaganda and legitimate influence can hardly be overestimated. The ordinary approaches to this problem have tended to be anxious and unfruitful. One of these is the desire to safeguard the student by demanding of the teacher an illusory objectivity, as if the teacher had no commitment to a certain field of knowledge, to a method of approaching this field, and to a set of attitudes and value assumptions which are embodied in the questions which he raises. It is also impossible to safeguard the student by any distinctions in content, such as what is ‘progressive’ and what is ‘reactionary,’ what is ‘patriotic’ and what is ‘subversive,’ what is in the spirit of science and what is not. These are in essence distinctions between the propaganda of which one approves and the propaganda of which one disapproves. They betray a lack of real faith in the student as a person who must develop his own unique relation to the truth. The true alternative to false objectivity and to standards set from the outside is not, of course, that subjectivity which imprisons the teacher within his own attachments or the absence of any value standards. It is the teacher’s selection of the effective world and the act of inclusion, or experiencing the other side, to which Buber has pointed.

The real choice, then, does not lie between a teacher’s having values and not having them, but between his imposing those values on the student and his allowing them to come to flower in the student in a way which is appropriate to the student’s personality. One of the most difficult problems which any modern teacher encounters is that of cultural relativism. The mark of our time, writes Buber, is the denial that values are anything other than the subjective needs of groups. This denial is not a product of reason but of the sickness of our age; hence it is futile to meet it with arguments. All that the teacher can do is to help keep awake in the pupil the pain which he suffers through his distorted relation to his own self and thus awaken his desire to become a real and whole person. The teacher can do this best of all when he recognizes that his real goal is the education of great character. Character cannot be understood in Kerschensteiner’s terms as an organization of self-control by means of the accumulation of maxims nor in Dewey’s terms as a system of interpenetrating habits. The great character acts from the whole of his substance and reacts in accordance with the uniqueness of every situation. He responds to the new face which each situation wears despite all similarity to others. The situation ‘demands nothing of what is past. It demands presence, responsibility; it demands you.’ (Between Man and Man, ‘The Educational Character,’ pp. 108-116) The teacher is not faced with a choice between educating the occasional great character and the many who will not be great. It is precisely through his insight into the structure of the great character that he finds the way by which alone he can influence the victims of collectivism. He can awaken in them the desire to shoulder responsibility again by bringing before them ‘the image of a great character who denies no answer to life and the world, but accepts responsibility for everything essential that he meets.’ (Ibid., pp. 113-116)

Just what this attitude toward the education of character means in practice is best shown by Buber’s own application of it to adult education. He conceives of adult education not as an extension of the professional training of the universities but as a means of creating a certain type of man demanded by a certain historical situation. The great need in the state of Israel today is the integration into one whole of the peoples of very different backgrounds and levels of culture who have immigrated there. To meet this need Buber has set up and directed an institute for adult education which devotes itself solely to the training of teachers to go out into the immigration camps and live with the people there. To produce the right kind of teacher the institute has developed a method of teaching based on personal contact and on living together in community. Instruction is not carried on in general classes but individually in accordance with what each person needs. (From an informal address by Professor Buber on ‘Adult Education in Israel,’ edited by me from a transcript of the recording and published in Torch, the Magazine of the National Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs of the United Synagogue of America, June 1952.) The education of these future teachers toward the task which lies ahead of them would be impossible if the teacher were not in a position to get to know the students individually and to establish contact with every one of them. ‘What is sought is a truly reciprocal conversation in which both sides are full partners.’ The teacher leads and directs this conversation, and enters it without any restraint. The teacher should ask genuine questions to which he does not know the full answer himself, and the student in turn should give the teacher information concerning his experiences and opinions. Conversely, when the teacher is asked a question by the student, his reply should proceed from the depths his own personal experience. (Martin Buber, ‘A New Venture in Adult Education,’ The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Semi-Jubilee Volume [Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, April 1950] p. 117 f.)

In order to be able to teach in an immigration camp, the student has. to learn to live with people in all situations of their lives, and for this. reason the teachers at the institute are prepared to deal with the person lives of the students. This concern with the students’ personal lives do’ not mean that the students do not learn the classics, Jewish and otherwise, but they do so in order that they may become whole persons able to influence others and not for the knowledge itself. ‘Adult education is concerned with character,’ says Buber, ‘and character is not above situation, but is attached to the cruel, hard demand of this hour.’ (‘Adult Education in Israel,’ op. cit ).

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