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What Is the Meaning of “Pupil”?

In the October 1995 issue of A Better Way, I wrote an article entitled, “The Teacher-Pupil Relationship: Does the Manual for Teachers Describe it?” There I argued that the Manual does indeed openly describe a situation in which a newer student of the Course is personally shepherded by a kind of Course mentor, a more experienced student of the Course. I called this idea the teacher-pupil relationship, although I have since discovered that the Manual has its own term for this exact idea, a term it uses ten times: “the teaching-learning situation.” I had four lines of argument in support of this idea:

  1. The title, Manual for Teachers, clearly implies this role (if one takes that title’s meaning in a normal course and applies that meaning to this course).
  2. In its opening two sections, the Manual unambiguously describes the teacher-pupil relationship in this way.
  3. Pupil and teacher (according to the Manual) are in their roles specifically because of their differing degrees of experience with A Course in Miracles (making it clear that the Course is what is being taught by teacher to pupil).
  4. Six of the Manual’s final sections instruct teachers of the Course in how to shepherd a newer student of the Course.

I have been met with a wide range of responses to this idea, ranging from “of course” to “impossible.” Those who have disagreed with me have almost universally responded by saying that, for one reason or another, the Course simply could not be teaching such a thing. However, I have not yet heard any good alternative interpretations of the passages in which the Manual talks about it. Whatever the Course ought to say pales in significance to what it does say.

When talking about this idea, I noticed that other people often used a slight variation from my terminology, calling it “the teacher-student relationship” rather than “teacher-pupil relationship.” “Pupil,” however, is the actual word the Manual uses for the junior in this relationship. It never once calls this person a “student.” Over time I realized that this slight difference in terminology makes a huge difference in meaning. A student could be a student of anything: of the Course, of the spiritual path, of life. The word “pupil,” on the other hand, carries a far more specific meaning–a meaning that actually makes my entire point about the teacher-pupil relationship.

I looked up the word “pupil” in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary. What I found was significant:

pupil, n.

  1. a person, usually young, who is learning under the close supervision of a teacher at school, a private tutor, or the like; student.
  2. Civil Law. an orphaned or emancipated minor under the care of a guardian.
  3. Roman Law. a person under the age of puberty orphaned or emancipated, and under the care of a guardian.

Of course, the definition we are concerned with is #1. This definition makes clear a critical point, that inherent to the meaning of “pupil” is the idea of learning under the supervision of another person. Definitions #2 and #3, while specialized meanings that do not directly concern us, also affirm the theme of being under another person. If we take the common denominator of all three definitions, we see a significant fact: A pupil is not always someone who learns, but is always a person under the guardianship or tutelage of another person. This is the essential meaning of the word, which comes from the Latin pupillus, meaning orphan or ward.

The dictionary then gives a list of synonyms, providing both the meaning they hold in common and their special variations on that common meaning:

-Syn. 1. APPRENTICE, NOVICE, PUPIL, DISCIPLE, SCHOLAR, STUDENT refer to one who is studying, usually in a school. A pupil is one under the close supervision of a teacher, either because of his youth or of specialization to some branch of study: a grade school pupil; the pupil of a famous musician….A student is one attending an institution of higher learning, or one who has devoted much attention to a particular problem: a college student; a student of politics.

Here we can see the clear difference between a pupil and a student. A pupil studies under the close supervision of another person, a teacher. A student just studies; no human teacher is implied. This is why, for instance, you would not call yourself a pupil of A Course in Miracles. And no one does. You cannot be a pupil of a book, only of a person. Using the example from the dictionary, for instance, you can be a student of politics, but not a pupil of politics.

Because the meaning of the word “student” is more broad, if the Manual used that word it might be talking about all kinds of situations. However, because the Manual uses “pupil,” the meaning is far more specific. Through that word, the Manual signifies that these pupils are pupils of another person. They are pupils because they study under someone else. They may in fact be students of the Course (and we know they are from other things the Manual says), but the term “pupil” does not tell us this. Instead, it tells us that they are studying something under another human being. That is their defining characteristic. That is what a pupil is.

This single word, in fact, makes my entire case on this subject. To see this, let’s go back to the dictionary definition. It told us that someone is a pupil for one of two reasons: “either because of his youth or of specialization to some branch of study.” Since the Manual is talking about adults, the situation must be the latter. The Manual’s pupils are such because they are learning a specialized branch of study.

All we need do is apply this definition to the context of the Course-making the Course the “specialized branch of study”-and we get the very situation I am arguing for. Simply by mentioning pupils in terms of this course, the Manual specifies a whole set of interrelationships between three things: the pupil, the teacher and the Course. It describes people who are learning A Course in Miracles under the close supervision of a teacher, someone more experienced in A Course in Miracles. Just as “the pupil of a famous musician” (to use the dictionary example) is tutored by his teacher in how to play a musical instrument, so the pupil of a Course teacher is intimately guided in how to use this instrument–the Course. He is closely supervised by his teacher in learning how to walk the spiritual path of A Course in Miracles.

Based on the above, then, let me add a fifth line of support to my argument:

  1. Due to the meaning of the word “pupil,” the pupils in the Manual are people who are learning to walk the path of the Course under the close supervision of another person. They are pupils of a Course teacher.