William Butler Yeats, “Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors”

At the opening of the Metaphysics, Aristotle proclaims “all men naturally desire knowledge.” Is it true? I wonder if people in the Middle Ages read those words and broke into open laughter or were completely amazed anyone could believe such a thing. Maybe their shock led some them to study the Metaphysics for the rest of their lives. I suspect “knowledge” does not encompass topics such as “Did aliens originally land in Antarctica?” or “Princess Diana was killed by the same people who killed JFK.” If it does, Aristotle is absolutely correct.

But if it doesn’t—if we suspect that men naturally desire other things, which they believe knowledge may or may not aid—then a look at how knowledge itself pleases is in order. That inquiry won’t answer the question of whether Aristotle is correct or not, whether all men by nature desire to learn. It should help us understand how we can take Aristotle’s statement earnestly. Yeats declares his “Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors,” stating his respect not only for his instructors but whatever they taught. Whatever he learned must have revealed its truth in his life long after he forgot his teachers, if he had ones he could identify at all:

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors
William Butler Yeats

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

What they, the unknown instructors, undertook to do / They brought to pass. “Unknown Instructors” poses a challenge. If Yeats thinks himself informed primarily by tradition, a ubiquitous instructor, then he has learned the ways of the world and can seriously act in it. Tradition certainly causes things to pass, as it makes people its instrument. Is there room in “Unknown Instructors” for a higher notion of education? For those who may simply know better in unjust, ignorant societies or those who genuinely seek to know beyond conventional limits?

For my part, I read Yeats as crediting both traditional instruction and the incubation of more radical ideas, but leaning heavily toward the latter. The “Unknown Instructors” “undertook”—they intended and committed to their intention. Because they “undertook,” because they made themselves the grounding of a greater task, they brought forth, “brought to pass.” The present, and perhaps the future, was shaped by them. How do we know? Because Yeats, their student, is declaring himself grateful for them. He is not angry at being manipulated, he sees himself in their service, he demonstrates consciousness of a debt.

I need to say more. I have had the honor of teaching so many thoughtful and self-motivated students. I am aware of another sort of student: one who at best goes to class, gets the work done, pays lip service to education. Going to school for them is a means of getting a degree, and getting a degree is something family and society declare valuable. So I’d better take a risk and explain how an unknown instructor may actually present a valuable teaching, one that might not unfold unless one pays careful attention far after, say, a class is over.

At least for me, it is becoming clear how aware my teachers in high school and in college were of what I was trying to achieve and how many obstacles were in the way. In short, they were aware of how stupidly racist the world was and how many advantages others had. They tried to convey this to me through praise, but it didn’t take in part because they were so encouraging and helpful that I couldn’t believe the world was anything but a level playing field. Now I see what they saw—I see students looked down upon before they’ve done anything that could possibly make an impression—and I know I have to help cultivate the appropriate awareness in them. They can’t afford to be victims, as victimization is an empowering privilege for majority faction. Some of them will have to be better than the best ever were, simply to open up fields to others like them.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are things you are being taught, in classrooms you find boring, which are of tremendous moment. You obviously have to be open to them. I’m so lucky I remembered those interactions, interactions where I felt I was being unnecessarily praised or that I had messed up and was receiving pity. If you go to the classroom dead set that you’re not going to remember anything from it, I honestly think you’d better think hard about how you would raise kids. You don’t have to be a perfect student, but resistance to education is very hard to square with the skillset needed to show someone how to survive, love, prosper, and give that much more.

Yeats concludes with a riddle of an image: All things hang like a drop of dew / Upon a blade of grass. The unknown instructors brought their undertaking to pass. They created a mind that was open and receptive. Now that mind sees the nature of “all things.” Being is fundamentally potential—all things, all beings, hanging like a drop of dew upon a blade of grass. But what a small image! The wet earth, the one that proves fertile, the one accompanying the dawn, is composed of lots of small drops of dew resting on grass. There will be growth, but what Yeats wants us to realize is the necessity of beauty. It’s really beautiful to admit you’ve learned something, and I can’t emphasize enough how countercultural this claim is. How many people do we run into, every day, who insist they know everything? Who can never be wrong? Who must always be told they are right and only listen for gaps in a conversation to fill? In order to truly grow, one needs to able to appreciate small, beautiful moments, like waking up and walking at dawn.

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