Dangerous Liaisons...

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Education is like seduction. James Heartfield charts the history of teacher-student relations since Socrates corrupted the youth of Athens

Teachers ought to give everything for their pupils, and students understandably admire a great teacher, so why don't they fall in love more often? Education is a kind of seduction. Teachers set out to impress their students, and to draw them into an as yet undiscovered world.

In Antiquity the future Athenian general Alcibiades fell in love with his tutor Socrates. "Whenever I listen to him my heart beats faster than if I were in a religious frenzy," he said, and pursued him, "behaving just like a lover who has designs upon his favourite."

But as Kenneth Dover explains in Greek Homosexuality (Duckworth, 1978), love between men and boys was one model of social initiation in an Athens that did not differentiate between pedagogy and paedophilia. The men of Athens enjoyed the company of boys, and in return tutored them in the city's life and culture.

Their taboos were different from ours, since they frowned on love affairs between boys and men that persisted into adulthood - just the moment when they become more acceptable to our time, saying that the razor that shaved the first beard must sever the ties of love. Perhaps Socrates's own explanation of his trial at the hands of the Athenians, that "young men with wealthy fathers and plenty of leisure have deliberately attached themselves to me", carries an unspoken meaning.

Later ages might have taken a dimmer view of relations between teachers and students but it did not stop them happening. Kitty, Anglo-Indian daughter of the British resident (ambassador) at Hyderabad, James Kirkpatrick, turned the head of her tutor, who fictionalised her as Blumine in his own self-mocking autobiographical novel: "It was appointed that the high celestial orbit of Blumine should intersect the low sublunary one of our Forlorn." The Forlorn was Thomas Carlyle who made himself the preposterous Teufelsdrockh in Sartor Resartus to ridicule his own infatuation, which ends with the understanding that the tutor is too lowly: "What figure, at that period was a Mrs Teufelsdrockh likely to make in a polished society?"

In 1955 novelist Vladimir Nabokov gave us the predatory educator Humbert Humbert who fixates upon his landlady's 12-year old daughter Lolita at the cost of his own humiliation and eventual destruction.

And in the Alexander Payne film Election (1999) teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) fixates on a precocious student Tracy Flick (Reece Witherspoon) whom he thinks needs to be brought down a peg. However, in a telling scene, McAllister's hatred slips unconsciously into lust, announcing his own slide into ruin.

A quick straw poll of my friends, all adult, finds that a surprising number of them had their first sexual experiences with teachers. Such experiences can be very difficult, since the recollection mingles the infatuation of the time, with the present-day assessment that the seducer must have been a creep, at best. When I went to school in the 1970s it did happen that teachers had affairs with their former students. Howevet, it tested the boundaries of sobriety, raising the obvious question, "When did it start?"

The extension of the rule against teacher-student relations has only been extended from schools into universities in the last decade, leaving quite a few stable couples wondering if their marriages are now considered abusive, as if people of 18 years or more were unable to make their own choices.

Education is like seduction, but it is not seduction, at least not since Socrates "corrupted" the youth of Athens. The erotic element of the Athenian love of boys arises out of an inequality in sexual relations, in an age where men simply could not enjoy their wives as equals. It is the slow democratisation of personal life in the intervening years that makes so manifestly unequal a relationship as that between teacher and pupil repugnant when it becomes more than educational.

Teachers know that they feign emotions like affection, approval and disappointment towards their students, but only feel them by mistaking the process of education for something else.

James Heartfield teaches adult education at Kellogg College, Oxford, and wrote 'The Death of the Subject Explained' Sheffield Hallam University Press (2002)

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