Thursday, November 08, 2012

Teacher in America

It all seems so long ago and far away, the first time I stepped into a classroom of my very own and greeted a dozen inquisitive students armed with #2 pencils and wire-bound notebooks. I smiled and introduced myself; they smiled and tipped their pencils to their pads.

In fact, it was only a short walk across the campus from where I sit now. I believe the subject of that first class was Intermediate Mechanics, and I was determined to succeed. I told them where we would begin, where we were going, and how we would get there. I wrote the first equations on the board. I was an EDUCATOR.

Except I wasn't an educator. That's something I soon learned from the scholar/critic Jacques Barzun, who died last week at age 104. Many young college profs of my generation read Barzun's Teacher In America, eager to learn from a master what education was all about. What we learned, on page 4, may have been the most important lesson of our professional lives: the difference between education and teaching.

The business of the teacher, wrote Barzun, is not education, but teaching. Teaching is something that can be good or bad, brilliant or stupid, plentiful or scarce. It can be provided for, changed, or stopped. Education is something else entirely. It can only happen within; it is a person's own doing, sometimes because of teaching, sometimes in spite of it. You can teach a puppy; you cannot educate a puppy. Computers can teach a child (we might say today); they cannot educate.

The best teachers are those who create the motivation for education, which will or will not continue long after the teacher has left the classroom. It has nothing to do with the equations of intermediate mechanics, say, as important as those might be, but with conveying, explicitly or tacitly, the ways education can enhance a life and ennoble a civilization.

We hear lots of talk about how to reform education. Of course, there is nothing politicians can do to educate a populace. What we can do is support great teaching and education will take care of itself. These days, we tend to demonize teachers, make them scapegoats, instead of honoring and rewarding those who successfully convey the value of the thing that can't be taught -- an education.

In a footnote near the end of his book, Barzun recounts this exchange with a former student who was now a commodiously educated man: "Do you know what changed my whole attitude to study?" :No" [replies Barzun]. "Well, when I was a freshman you assigned some readings in Samuel Butler, and when I came back to report, I began telling you what I had learned. But you broke in and said 'Yes, yes. What I want to know first is, Was it fun?'"