Being your own authority

At some point during one of his talks during the second year of the Amherst Feldenkrais® Teacher Training, Moshe Feldenkrais was extolling the philanthropy of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. For instance, by 1930, Carnegie’s charity had funded the construction of half of the free public libraries in the United States.

Some of my classmates had the temerity to challenge Moshe, pointing out that Carnegie was known as a robber baron and was associated with the Homestead strike, one of the bloodiest and longest labor confrontations in US history. MF responded to this by goading the challengers on, calling them out as socialists and, once he got sufficiently riled up, critiquing them for not being able to argue both sides of an issue, declaring it showed how limited they were in their thinking.

That summer I was one of Moshe’s three cooks. To be honest from the get-go, I’m pretty sure I was the least favorite of the three of us who prepared dinners for him that summer. Not only was my food on the natural and healthy side — using only very little salt and keeping the meals I made on the lean side —  but I was also a recovering vegetarian, meaning I was just not that good at cooking meat. MF was a hearty omnivore who enjoyed rich dishes. When I served a leek and potato soup (aka a vichyssoise), Moshe tasted it, nodded approvingly, and told me it reminded him of a dish he’d had in Paris in the 1930s, all the while proceeding to empty a generous amount of salt into the still steaming bowl.

Whatever he thought of the meals I prepared for him and for his numerous guests, dinner was followed by what fellow Jews would call a pleasant conversation and others might refer to as an altercation. However one might refer to our conversations, we’d talk for hours, usually long after everyone else had left the table. It was usually midnight or later by the time I left. 

When I made a comment about politics one evening during the days of the Carnegie debates, Moshe wasted no time branding me a socialist. I protested, saying that although Marxism might be an interesting and insightful historical perspective, it wasn’t any way to deal with the injustices it recognized and explained. When he responded by asking what I was if not a socialist, I couldn’t resist stirring things up by saying, “I’m an anarchist.”

“Oh, I see,” he replied. “You just want to throw Molotov cocktails and destroy society.”

I countered, saying that anarchy isn’t the same thing as chaos and disorder. Going back to the original Greek roots of the word (without a ruler), I explained that I was talking about anarchy as promoting leaderless institutions. We ended up having a somewhat academic conversation about self-governing societies and what it means to oppose hierarchy and authoritarianism. I pointed out that an anarchist’s perspective was congruent with one of the guiding notions of his method, that of being your own authority.

That’s when Moshe exclaimed, “I think I’m an anarchist, too!”

I demurred, “Hmmm, maybe. “

He responded, “You don’t think I’m an anarchist?” 

Thinking about his paradoxical manner of teaching — encouraging us to be our own authorities while doing so in what was often a rather authoritarian way — I responded, “Well . . . if you’re an anarchist, you’re a special kind of anarchist.”

“What kind is that?” Moshe asked.

“The kind of anarchist who wants to be the head anarchist.”

(Rest assured, that was one of the only conversations we had where I got the last word.)

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  1. I think humankind could build a society based on the principles of feldenkrais teachings on learning, …. My guess is that, the way to build such a society must make use of Feldenkrais teachings. Such a society is only possible if people are aware and responsible for them selves and fully understand the reach of their actions… A few years ago I have visited a school in Portugal that gave, for some years, important steps on that direction, Escola da Ponte, they did not had students organized in classes neither classrooms nor curricula packed and served in lessons; each student studied according to his on pace and whill in working rooms organized in round tables. Each teacher was teacher of each student and each student was student of each teacher, and students learn with each others, and where evaluated by other students and teachers. They learned a lot, much more than “normal” school students learn. Based mainly on natural curiosity they built their own knowledge, the knowledge they needed to build more knowlegde… I think that they had a big inspiration on the High-Scope Foundation (California) teaching method and developed it to build a micro society of “aware ad responsible people”. I would not call anarchist, but self regulated by students themselves. By the teaching-learning community as a all. Each year they had to discusse and approve the school regulations, in fact that was the first task of the elected general assembly board, composed only of students. Students also had to elect each year a commission of students to adress behavior issues among them (actually they use to have a court, but they quit on that, because, punishment does not solve agression, …, of any sort), …, … Somehow all this came to my mind… Maybe a word that expresses the concepts of katharó and krátos, a net power, like the net of information that is welding the global society, could express better, rather than an absence of an authority or leadership, like in anarchy or acracy.

    1. Wow, João.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I appreciated the specificity of what you had to tell us about the school in Portugal.

      Great food for thought . . . especially when I start to ask how do these ideas speak to the way we work with our students.


      1. Hi Larry

        I’m glad my response inspires your mind

        So, if you don’t mind, i would like to go a litle bit more into “escola de ponte” methods.

        Student’s knowledge is verified only when they feel (know) they’re ready and ask for.
        In each working room, a sheet of paper hanging on the wall, with the title “i know”, is filled by students, and collected twice a day by teachers. Each student, when ready, writes his name and the subject matter he claims to know. ( for instance i saw: “i, name, know the sum”, …) Then, a responsable teacher and the student make an appointment, and, on the agreed working room and hour, they sit together, side by side, on a round table (among other students and teachers working, minding their own business). The student answers the questions on the test sheet and immediatly after, on the same moment, the teacher verifies the truth, or not, of the claim of the student. Student by student, subject matter by subject matter. A procedure that changes the mindset of students (and teachers) regarding evaluation and enhances, from a certain number of evaluations on, selfconfidence (“i know that i know what i know” we could say about it), with no chance for the student to cheat, providing total confidence on the teacher’s evaluation; and saving the late much time (students don’t ask to be evaluate if they think they don’t know). So, if the student is aware of his knowledge he asks to be evaluated and in that frame a teacher is not loosing his time with failed examinations…

        Another, sheet on the wall, is the “i can explain” sheet, a list of volunteer students, and corresponding subjects they are able to explain to the other students. When a student is exploring a certain subject, if he stucks on some difficulty, he goes to the list and looks for some coleague to help him, before he adresses a teacher about that. If that does not work, after trying on his own, and after looking for help, only then, he may go to the teacher asking for an explanation, that he receives, if he proves that he tried before, he must show the pages of the books he consulted and the pratical exercises he tried to solve (if that’s the case). These explanations are in fact the only moment of the expositive method. In small groups ( each teacher identifies the same need in several students and gathers them in a momentary class group), in short classes (about twenty minutes), available only once a week.

        Students, however, do not go for some exploration of interest individually, they have to form groups of interest, and ask for permission to explore that interest, as a group. Because of that, to avoid dysfunctional groups, tests, of what kind of element in a group each student is, are performed before they start. No missing element or doubled element is alowed if a group is to be accepted for exploration…