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Some 30 years ago, in my radio days, a "master" was the ultimate version of a program or a recording, with all the data in the correct order of presentation, with all the right nuances in the right places. Usually treated with reverence, the "master" was the basis for many subsequent versions copied from it. Recently this term came to my mind while reading George Steiner's latest book, "Lessons of the Masters."

Steiner (born in Paris, 1929) is a master par excellence, a black belt in the teaching arts, full to the brim and overflowing with knowledge in the broad field of "humanities." In 1961 he pronounced the "Death of Tragedy." His latest work is based on the very prestigious Charles Norton Eliot series of lectures that he delivered at Harvard University in 2001-2002. As a matter of fact, he notes, en passant, that he has students on five continents.

"Master" is based on the Latin magister, "chief, head, director, teacher," bearing traces of magnus, "great." In English the principal meaning of the word was "owner, keeper, someone in control" either of an estate, animals or slaves. It is also someone whose teachings or doctrines are accepted by followers. Both those definitions apply well to our Lord and Master. The word suffered some devaluation over time, and for the Elizabethans it was just a term that gentleman used to address one another.

A "master of ceremonies" is someone needed on any stage, and the acronym "MC" (emcee) has become a verb, as in: Who will be emceeing the Oscars this year?

Running the gamut

Steiner runs the gamut of languages and the various meanings that "master" has acquired in them: the Italian maestro, used mostly in reference to top musicians; the German meister, a master artist-craftsman; the French maitre used in the title maitre a penser, "master of thought."

Steiner regrets that the term is no longer in use. But even the English accepted maitre d'hotel - a hotel manager, which is usually shortened in English to a mere "maitre d.'" You can find "masters" in the Far East on any hilltop and under any tree in a monastery courtyard.

The Hebrews did not find the right term for "master," although remnants of it can be heard in mar, the Hebrew word for "Mr." - mister. The best equivalent could have been "rabbi," and indeed that was original function of the rabbi, to be a master and to teach, but "rabbi" became in time exclusively religious in its connotation. Aluf, in Hebrew, implies mastery, but today it is almost exclusively used in military or sports contexts.

Steiner tells the story of tutorship and discipline through the ages: tales of loyalty and betrayal, faith and doubt, total submission and almost always rude awakenings. The stories are almost always about a couple: Socrates and Alcibiades, Ticho Braha and Johannes Kepler (as told by Max Brod, and reflecting his relationship with Franz Kafka; note the initials), Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper and Joseph Agassi. There are also some stories of master-teachers who did not single out any pupils or create any special, one-to-one relationship with them: Nadia Boulanger, and the football coach Knute Rockne.

"Disciple" comes from the Latin discipere - to take apart, analyze. But a disciple is much more than a mere pupil or apprentice; he is almost a believer, someone who could be in time anointed as an apostle. Steiner writes a lot about the element of the seduction and penetration - not always merely spiritual or metaphoric - inherent in teaching relations. As many stories of mastery and discipleship are about males (although there were a few eminent, she-masters - "mistress" is the wrong term to use here, although etymologically correct), there is an element of homoeroticism in them. These are tales of knowledge passed from one generation to the other, full of passion, hovering on the border of the sensual. But most important, Steiner sums up: "Mastery and apprenticeship, instruction and its acquisition must continue so long as societies exist. ... A lust for knowledge, an ache for understanding is incised in the best of men and women. As is the calling of the teacher. There is no craft more privileged."

Allan Bennett's play "The History Boys," now playing in the National Theater in London, is not about teaching per se, although Bennett mentions Steiner's book in his preface. It tells of public-school boys in northern England whose ambitious headmaster is keen on them getting scholarships for Oxford or Cambridge. He brings a young history master, a would-be don, to teach the boys how to impress the committees, and he takes over part of the time usually allotted to Hector, the old and beloved but erratic teacher.

Hector broadens his pupils' minds via literature, both high and low. According to him, the other teachers give the boys education, whereas "I give them the wherewithal to resist it." When he is spotted fumbling with the boys' private parts (while giving them a ride on his motorbike, which they accept as part of their duty), he says, meekly, that "the transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act. In the Renaissance ..." - to which the headmaster responds, "Fuck the Renaissance. ... This is a school and it isn't normal."

But the play's final words are Hector's and they relate to teaching, which is something books can do almost as well as people: "Pass the parcel. That's sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That's the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on."