There’s a common division in philosophy and religion between “esoteric” schools of thought and “exoteric” schools. Exoteric thought is, if you will, predigested. The book, Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar, is an example of exoteric philosophy. Words mean one thing, and one thing only; alternate interpretations are frowned on; instruction is usually one-way. The Nicene Creed and the Westminster Catechism are both exoteric: either you know it or you don’t. Memorizing Shakespeare or Chaucer is exoteric: it’s right, almost right, or wrong.
Exoteric teachers frown on variability. When I memorized the first fifty lines of The General Prologue of Geoff Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, my English teacher was dismayed at my pronunciation. “Chaucer read aloud with a Cheapside accent,” he’d say, shuddering in mild disgust.
The esoteric philosophies and religions, on the other hand, are grounded in personal experience. Zen, with its emphasis on practice and internal stillness, is esoteric. So is Qabalah, the original Jewish mystical track that has left deep imprints on Christianity and Islam and western culture. So is Sufism, with its emphasis on chanting and spinning.
It’s difficult to turn one kind of philosophy into the other. Neoplatonists don’t easily turn into evangelical Christians or vice versa. You don’t find Congregationalists and Rastafarians in deep conversation about the Calvinist roots of Hailie Selassie’s speeches.
But there’s a similarly complex and difficult-to-navigate relationship between the esoteric and exoteric teachers in another kind of school system: not the philosophical academies of Plato and Aristotle, but the modern academies of Dewey and Mann. Fill in the blank tests and vocabulary workbooks where every word has only one meaning are clearly exoteric. Reading the Iliad and Odyssey and Howl, and keeping a journal about what they mean to you, and producing a film with your classmates about them, is esoteric. In the first, there’s only one way to earn a perfect grade — place the orthodox answers with the orthodox questions. In the second, joy appears in the process of doing and learning and growing.
The real challenge we have is that businesses and government want esoteric schools. Those are the kinds of places that train bright, competent, creative people. Our school system is largely exoteric: only right answers unlock the doors to greater scholastic achievement.
Are you an esoteric or an exoteric teacher? Is your school exoteric or esoteric? How do you navigate between the two?