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December 1944
What is Teaching?
by Jacques Barzun

Always and everywhere, “He is a schoolteacher” has meant “He is an underpaid pitiable drudge.” Even a politician stands higher, because power in the street seems less of a mockery than power in the classroom. But when we speak of Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, and “other great teachers of humanity,” the atmosphere somehow changes and the politician’s power begins to look shrunken and mean. Supreme examples show that no limit can be set to the power of a teacher …

The pupil has some curiosity and he wants to know what grownups know. The master has curiosity also, but it is chiefly about the way the pupil’s mind—or hand—works. Remembering his own efforts and the pleasure of discovery, the master finds a satisfaction which I have called artistic in seeing how a new human being will meet and make his own some part of our culture—our ways, our thoughts, even our errors and superstitions …

The pupil feels resentment arising from the fact that the grownup who teaches him appears to know it all. Even under the best conditions of fair play and deliberate spontaneity, the pupil, while needing and wanting knowledge, will hate and resist it. This resistance often makes one feel that the human mind is made of some wonderfully tough rubber, which you can stretch a little by pulling hard, but which snaps back into shape the moment you let go.

The process may be exasperating for the teacher, but consider how the student feels, subjected to daily and hourly stretching. “Here am I,” he thinks, “with my brains nicely organized,—with everything, if not in its place, at least where I can find it,—and you come along with a new and strange item that you want to force into my previous arrangement. Naturally I resist. You persist. I begin to dislike you. But at the same time, you show me aspects of this new fact or idea which in spite of myself mesh in with my existing desires. You seem to know the contents of my mind. You show me the proper place for your contribution to my stock of knowledge. Finally, there is brooding over us a vague threat of disgrace for me if I do not accept your offering and keep it and show you that I still have it when you—dreadful thought!—examine me!

“So I give in, I shut my eyes and swallow. I write little notes about it to myself, and with luck the burr sticks: I have learned something. Thanks to you? Well, not exactly. Thanks to you and thanks to me. I shall always be grateful for your efforts, but do not expect me to love you, at least not for a long, long time. When I am fully formed and somewhat battered by the world and yet not too displeased with myself, I shall generously believe that I owe it all to you.”

Volume 174, No. 6, pp. 81–87

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