Should Teachers Interpret the Course for Their Group?

This is a response Robert wrote on the CCC Teacher’s Blog, in response to a discussion about whether or not a group leader should offer an interpretation of a Course passage being read by the group, or merely point the students back to the passage itself and their own guidance about its meaning.

I just wanted to chime in here on this issue of whether the group leader interprets the Course for the students. Personally, I see this as a core function of the group leader (who thereby becomes a teacher). The Course only takes on meaning for us through our interpretation. Without that, it’s just a bunch of funny little ink blots on a page. So, obviously, it has to be interpreted. And in my experience, people have a terribly difficult time interpreting it for themselves. Indeed, I think that most students do not have much of a direct relationship with the Course as it is. Rather, they are mainly in relationship with their own mental copy of the Course, one that, like a modern painting, does not much resemble what it supposedly depicts.

So students are in desperate need of help with interpreting. Many are consciously hungry for it. Some don’t want it (though they still need it), in which case they may just want a place to expound. Some don’t realize they need it, but are glad when they receive it.

I think, though, that there is a middle ground between the teacher simply declaring that “this is what it means,” on the one hand, and, on the other, stepping back and offering no guidance about the interpretation. That middle ground is to provide an interpretation but frame it as “this is my best understanding and here are my reasons.” I think both sides of that are important. First, it is crucial to frame it as an interpretation, as your interpretation. This leaves room for the possibility of error, or just incompleteness. You aren’t the author, so you are just trying to arrive at your best attempt at capturing the meaning. Second, it is often important to show them some of why you have arrived at your interpretation, so that they can see for themselves why you think that, and learn how to do the process on their own.

I think both of the extremes I mentioned earlier are unhealthy. The teacher that says, “THIS…IS…WHAT…IT…MEANS (BECAUSE I SAY SO),” is basically attracting bodies to worship at his shrine (as the Psychotherapy supplement says). Unfortunately, those bodies do come. I have a visceral reaction to that sort of teaching. The teacher who is offering no guidance on the interpretation level looks healthy and egalitarian, but is subtly abandoning his students. They need someone to throw them a lifesaver, but in the name of equality this teacher refuses to do so. (Can you imagine seeing someone drowning and saying, “I can’t throw you a lifesaver because that would imply that I’m not in there with you”?) I think this latter role can be appropriate when the group leader really doesn’t know more than anyone else. In that case, they should openly admit that, but also strive to quickly pull themselves up to a place where they can be of more help.

As I write, I more and more see the resemblance between the situation I am talking about and the discourse given by Jesus to Bill about teaching. That discourse was all about the need for Bill to find that middle ground, between the authoritarian teacher and the one who opts out of teaching altogether. Jesus wasn’t addressing this exact issue—providing Course interpretations to students. But I think his discourse does apply to that. What I see it implying is this: See your greater knowledge and experience as a benefit to the student, and then play the role of guide. Don’t control them, but don’t leave them to their own devices. Instead, just offer your guidance, leaving it up to them to follow.