What is a teacher?

Dr Robert Goddard at Clark University-photo courtesy of NASA

Dr Robert Goddard at Clark University(photo courtesy of NASA)

As teachers we tend to talk too much. We are obsessed with the sound of our own voices, we relish another day of “talking to” our students when in fact we bore their nerve endings and stifle their imagination. We teachers are not there to impress our students, we are supposed to be there to teach our students how to impress us!

Teachers extol the virtues of listening, discussion and debate all the while lecturing in the context that what we are saying is nothing short of coming from some prophet or another directly from the fount of wisdom. Nothing could be further from the reality.

Our students have an authentic voice, we have taken on the task of helping them find it, nothing more. If, by now, we teachers have not found our own authentic selves in these wrappings of academic gowns, then we are more lost than our students will ever be. Thinking about these things led me to this article in one of the best of a thinking person’s writing arsenal: The New York Review of Books (NYR).

Tony Judt writes in Meritocrats (NYR)
“My greatest debt, though I did not fully appreciate it at the time, was to [John] Dunn, then a very young college Research Fellow, now a distinguished professor emeritus. It was John who—in the course of one extended conversation on the political thought of John Locke—broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.”

That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum. No doubt such tolerant intellectual breadth was not confined to King’s. But listening to friends and contemporaries describe their experiences elsewhere, I sometimes wonder. Lecturers in other establishments often sounded disengaged and busy, or else professionally self-absorbed in the manner of American academic departments at their least impressive.”

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