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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
Do the best teachers teach lessons only once to a single child? Do the best teachers teach lessons only once to an adult? These questions prompted the late American anthropologist Loren Eiseley to write about and lecture on what he called The Hidden Teacher. A collection of his essays was published in 2016.
As a college professor, I find the subject intriguing. We teachers do not usually talk about being a hidden teacher. Eiseley wrote, “We think we learn from teachers, and we sometimes do. But the teachers are not always to be found in school or in great laboratories.”
Eiseley formulated the concept of the hidden teacher before the Computer Age and the current 24/7, social media-linked Millennial Age.
Are college professors or K-12 instructors hidden teachers? If you ask students, you might get a blank stare, since students see their teachers in the classroom daily or online 24/7. These teachers are anything but hidden.
Development of the Hidden Teacher Concept
Eiseley started thinking about this hidden teacher concept after he took a walk one morning after it had rained. He noticed a spider’s web glistening in the tall grass and how the web had definite beginning and ending points.
Eiseley surmised that the spider was alert to anything that touched any part of her intricate web. He thought, “It was her universe, and her senses did not extend beyond the lines and spokes of the great wheel she inhabited.”
Eiseley theorized that everything he could see that was not touching that web would be unknown to the spider. In fact, the world outside her web simply did not exist. Eiseley could see the spider and her web world (her universe), but the spider could not see him or care.
According to Eiseley, we humans live in many different universes or in our own “spider webs.” But as humans, we pass through each other’s web if we want to, are invited to or by accident. We live in teams or groups, such as:
- Office workers
- Members of a tribe or a club
- Members of organizations such as the military
That spider does not share such rich relationships. Does this disturb you? It did Eiseley. He saw that spider as a hidden symbol of humankind in miniature.
If we observe nature at work, we can glean some truly astounding lessons on how we should live. Nature becomes a hidden teacher.
Nature has taught us one hidden lesson about ourselves: we age, become ill and die. We are all programmed with DNA from Mother Nature, so we have her hidden lessons about what to expect in our lives and in the lives of those who come after us.
We listen to the hidden teacher of life. The various seeds of life, from plants to humans, are stored in vast internal vaults so that the lessons of the past can again be retold in a new life. The seeds carry the hidden teacher’s instructions or lessons in their makeup.
Hidden Teaching and When It Becomes Useful
We teachers teach ideas, concepts and an ability to respect the truth of data or information. But when do these ideas become useful to our society?
The usefulness of those ideas depends upon the time horizon. Any idea can be useful, but what if an idea is presented in the wrong time horizon or the wrong century?
For example, the Hindenburg was a wonderful idea for transatlantic travel. Even today, airships are used for research and observation. But the Hindenburg disaster made it clear that the concept was an idea that was too soon.
Similarly, artificial intelligence (AI) was emerging during the 1980s as a way to solve decision-making problems for the military. It became the backbone for autonomous vehicle transportation.
However, AI-based cars seemed to have trouble with understanding the difference between shadows and the black asphalt of roads. But the hope of a vehicle using AI persisted during the 1990s. University, military and private researchers felt sure they would solve that problem any day.
It is now 2018 and the news is starting to show that cars that can be autonomous, but are still not 100% reliable. Is the AI car still too soon an idea? These failures of time horizon for an idea are themselves a hidden teacher, a sobering reflection on our hopes and dreams and engineering complexity.
Even Archaeology Is a Hidden Teacher
When an archaeologist uncovers an artifact buried in a tomb, there is a lesson in viewing that artifact. There is a hidden teacher speaking to the archaeologist and to others who view the artifact.
The hidden lesson from that artifact turns into ideas and concepts. As humans we teach with words. The hidden teacher’s message is converted into words we share along the threads of our own web of life.
Does this Internet Age of 24/7 social media communications enhance the hidden teacher concept? Is the hidden teacher the same as it was before the computer age?
In the 1960s, teachers were in the classroom with their students. There was no online university or online teaching. Email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and instant messaging services were beyond the concept of reality. Do these instant connections created by these technologies also create more hidden teachers than in the day when the telephone was the only way to actually talk to someone other than by meeting face to face?
Hidden Teachers Are Still Around
Eiseley saw Mother Nature as a hidden teacher. Nature still is a hidden teacher, instructing us how to live with runaway forest fires or floods by gleaning lessons on how to react to similar events in the future.
I had a hidden teacher once. Her name was Doris Thorne. She taught English in my junior and senior years in high school and scolded me often, forbidding me to write notes in my textbooks. She told me to never underline or write words in the margins of any book, not even my comic books.
Would Ms. Thorne be proud of me today? Yes and no. The book I am reading about Loren Eiseley is all marked up with my notes that I used for this essay. Ms. Thorne is my hidden teacher in this essay and in all my writings. I think of what she would say each time I finish an article. She would be proud of the article, but not of my habit of my ignoring her admonition not to write notes on the pages of my books.
Are there hidden teachers today in the world of 24/7 social media? Is the iPhone a hidden teacher? Is the text message from your child or wife or husband part of a lesson from a hidden teacher?
I disagree that life outside the spider web does not exist for the spider. After all, she chooses to spin her webs where she knows that insects gather. Eiseley died in 1977 before the computer age. Eisley answered that question for me when he wrote, “What is it that we do not see?” Nature is a teacher and is often hidden.
Maybe the hidden teacher concept is more about airing an idea in public to be seen, heard and reacted to. Perhaps the idea of the hidden teacher is more than learning a new idea? Maybe hidden teachers are also about the free release of ideas trapped in people’s heads or in the instinctual behavior of spiders?
Eiseley’s seed of a concept has sprouted in the Internet Age into a new form of hidden teacher. Who exactly are the hidden teachers in 2018? It’s worth considering.
There are now millions of hidden teachers. The hidden teacher concept of 50 years ago is now a way to expose anyone’s ideas for review, comment and use — a millennial age hidden teacher.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.