Why Teach?

IT is hard to convince a business man that college teaching is work. My business friends, although they may envy me for nothing else, envy me for what they are pleased to call my leisure. One of them, who sat behind a window in a bank and with nicely modulated hauteur regarded those who approached, never failed to congratulate me on my spare time. Even though my deposits and withdrawals did not seriously affect the yearly reports of his institution, he could unbend to me as one softens toward a care-free child. I was one who lived apart from the machinery of business, supplying it, as it were, an occasional meagre drop of oil — one to be protected from the flying spokes and pistons. ‘Naughty, naughty,’ he seemed to say; ‘must n’t touch!’ when I ventured a remark on the condition of the ‘street.’

Not very many college professors ever looked in at his grille; I guessed this, and therefore did not begrudge him his patronizing airs and graces. In his eyes I was a learned infant, not the less in need of a nurse because I was too old to have one. I took his advice in good part and let him bask in my atmosphere—not exactly paradisiacal, but in some degree supramundane or interlunar (not to say mildly lunatic). He had never been at college himself and his ideas of college professors were ingenuous. I think that he pictured me as one likely to boil my watch and time it with an egg, or to pat my own child’s head on the street and say, ‘Whose little boy are you?’ He had many such stories, always of college professors, and he enjoyed them so much that I gave him several others. This made him still more glad to see me; for a tired business man likes to have something to chuckle over during his hours of recuperation.

I was especially interested in his notions of my employment. I had once told him that I taught twelve hours a week, and his arithmetical brain instantly fell to figuring. After a minute or so, he whistled softly.

‘Gee!’ said he; ‘leaving out Saturdays and Sundays, that makes only two and two-fifths hours a day! And do you mean to tell me they pay you good money for that?’

‘But that is n’t all I do,’ said I.

‘No, of course not,’ he assented delicately: ‘you have to read up.’

‘ Yes.’

‘But even so, after a year or two you must know your subject pretty well, and then —’

He paused with a faraway look on his face, as of one who was gazing on and on and on through interminable vistas of leisure.

It would have been too bad to disturb his dream, and I left him. When I appeared a month later, however, his first words were, —

‘Did you say twelve hours?’

‘Yes,’ I returned; ‘but you remember I told you that that is not all I do.’

‘No, of course,’ he agreed reluctantly; ‘I’ve thought since that you have to write your lectures.’

‘I never write lectures,’ said I. ‘I don’t believe in it.’

‘Holy cat!’ said he.

The man behind me coughed significantly and poked me in the back. I moved on once more, and left my friend the teller shaking his head over me.

At my next visit he was very arch.

‘You’re not overworking, I hope,’ said he.

‘No more than usual,’ I replied.

He took this for humor and laughed.

‘I suppose,’ he continued, ‘that if you professors worked like us business men, you’d all be dead in a month.’

‘Yes, possibly,’ said I, ‘but not of overwork.’

And once more I left him, this time to puzzle over my occult remark. What he made of it I do not know.

When my business friends think that they know me well enough, they invariably quote Bernard Shaw to the effect that ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ They except present company, of course, for they have no desire to hurt my feelings; yet they really cannot resist the quotation. I am not sensitive, probably because I have not the business man’s admiration for doing (in all senses). I realize, too, that Shaw’s apothegm might read with equal truth or falsity if, instead of ‘teach,’ the last member was ‘preach’ or ‘talk’ or ‘write,’ all of which verbs express Mr. Shaw’s own specialties; and to turn the point of a jest against the jester is always cheering.

It is the lack of practical advantages and material rewards that makes the business man dubious of teaching as a profession. In any practical sense it certainly is the most futile of professions. Possibly the business man, contemplating himself as one product of teaching, catches a hint of the futility — But that is neither here nor there; commonly enough, at any rate, he cannot see why any human being should pursue a vocation the results of which are so impalpable. A physician cures diseases and makes money; a lawyer wins cases and makes money; even a clergyman, although he makes little money, secures conversions and fills churches; but what, what does a college professor do?

I am inclined to echo the query. I do not know what he does. There are many obvious answers, of course. He educates, whatever that may mean; he passes on the accumulated information of the race — at least, he tries to do so, though perhaps he and his clan, when all is said and done, remain the sole carriers of most of it. He may be popular with his students, but is as liable to be unpopular or to be merely tolerated. He earns little money. All things considered, is it any wonder if the practical man, looking over the professor’s rewards and recompenses, seizes on his vacations — that is, the time he spends in not practicing his profession — as the most tangible?

Here and there a teacher frankly admits that he teaches chiefly for the vacations; and it would be affectation for any of us to pretend that we do not like holidays, even though they may be one cause why, during the rest of the year, we work at all hours of day and night, and seldom have time for the business man’s slender solace of thinking how tired he is. They can hardly serve, however, as a sufficient initial inducement for becoming a teacher.

Most teachers, I suppose, wonder at times why they are teachers. When they are despondent, they say that it is because one dark day they began; when they are sentimental, they say that it is because the profession is altruistic; when they are cynical, they say that it is because one must pay one’s bills. There are so many pleasant professions which they might have entered. The grocery business, for instance, has always seemed attractive to me. Think how well one could study human nature across the counter, and how richly one could catch the ‘local color’ of the neighborhood. Weighing out sugar, too, might count as a contemplative man’s recreation, and measuring spices and condiments from the corners of the world would give a fillip to fancy. Even better would be the old-book business, despite its mustiness and dustiness, because of the opportunity it would afford for unmethodical reading— the only kind worth anything. To dip into bundle after bundle of old books, taking them as they chanced to be brought in and without an inkling of the contents, would be even better than browsing in a library.

My interest in these pursuits has been only now and then acute, or at most has been of the nature of an intermittent fever; my desire to be a farmer threatens to become chronic. I have observed, in fact, that all college professors dream of some day becoming farmers; some wishing to grow potatoes, some pickles, some pigs, some peaches, some pigeons. Each has his specialty ‘in Spain.’ Mine is strawberries and raspberries, chiefly, although chickens and apples are not far behind.

I used to subscribe to the Rural New Yorker and the Farm Journal, but they were so scornful of ‘farming on paper’ that I had to give them up. Farming on paper is really rare sport. I have planned entire farms, drawing them neatly on paper, with dotted lines to show the rows of berries and crosses to indicate trees. I have planted my crops, and cultivated them, harvested them, marketed them — always at a surprising profit, and without a moment’s worry about weather, caterpillars, birds, or beetles. My hens have all laid two hundred eggs a year; my berries have all sold for twenty-five cents a box. Not a cow ever had hoofand-mouth disease; not a pig ever had cholera. My farm was always situated on a New Hampshire mountain-side, overlooking lakes and rivers and sunsets. A soil which in reality produces blueberries and sweet fern, where it does not extrude rocks, on my farm is a foot in depth, as soft and moist as brown sugar, and fertile as an English meadow.

In view of such inducements to enter other vocations, I am surprised myself that I have continued to teach. There must be something that keeps me at it, and I can only conclude that I do keep at it because I like it, because it is good fun. Not all my brethren seem to find it fun, or, if they do, they ‘take their pleasure sadly’; but perhaps they are weightier people than I. If they have convinced themselves of recompenses in the profession that I cannot discern, I will not begrudge them.

To the business man the idea that one can enjoy teaching is novel. Perhaps his memory of his school-days is not rosy, but full of irksomeness. Get him to talk about his teachers, and he usually begins with Mr. X, who ‘flunked’ him, continues with Mr. Y, who was a victim of his tricks, and ends with Mr. Z, who was an ignoramus ignominiously unveiled. Obviously, no man who taught him could be happy; ergo, all teachers are disappointed men or incapables or pedants. The logic is shaky, but popular. Whatever the premises, the conclusion is that teaching is not a man’s work.

This observation leads me to another that we will consider parenthetic. It is that the favorite fiction of teachers is the reverse of that of the general run of men. Both imaginatively embroider their youth; but the latter usually convince themselves that they were much lazier and wilder boys than they really were, while the former even more strangely delude themselves into thinking that they were much more diligent and studious.

To return to our subject, the answers to the question how to be happy though teaching are many. If one is a propagandist, one may look upon the classroom as a forum in which to promulgate socialism or sex-antagonism or social service or love of poetry or agnosticism. If one is a moralist, these may not seem equally valuable to the recipients; but in that case one can be very happy combatting the views of one’s errant or erring colleagues. Since, following Emerson’s law of compensation, Nature has seen to it that there shall be no lack of moralists in the profession, all perhaps works out well in the end. If one is utilitarian, one may make efficiency an idol and devise the neatest systems of gauging intelligence, regulating study-hours, composing syllabuses, and imposing quizzes, until recitations proceed with the pressure and dispatch of an engine-room, and the product can be measured in kilowatts and foot-pounds. If one is a sentimentalist, it is pleasant to study the personalities of one’s students, encourage their advances, listen to their spiritual histories, and mingle one’s sighs with theirs, or even one’s tears. Once more, if one is lazy or is endowed with a strong sense of professorial dignity, one may deliver lectures with the impersonality of an oracle; as who should say, ‘Take it or leave it; I have spoken. But ask me no questions, and do not speak to me on the street.’

These are all workable conceptions of teaching, but they are all complicated and burdensome. Perhaps even here ‘it is the lazy man who takes the most trouble,’ for in this modern democratic world nothing is harder to achieve than aloofness; but the others all seem to me to suffer from the teacher’s special complaint, hypertrophied conscience, an enlarged sense of duty. This is an insidious disease aggravated by faculty meetings, educational magazines and conventions, college presidents, and pedagogical cant. The Psalmist had it in mind when he wrote, ‘The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.’ The cure of bad cases is difficult; when the disease is advanced, alleviation is hopeless. Would we ‘cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart, therein the patient must minister to himself.’

We have in this world all kinds of organizations for making bad people good and good people better, but I know of none for making too-good people — well, let us say, normal. We have all known people who would have been greatly benefited by an occasional ‘spree,’with perhaps a night in jail, but whom no one is courageous enough to corrupt. It is not their fault that they are so good: all the forces of their social circle work to make them more respectable.

Analogously, all the forces of the educational world conspire to make us teachers more conscientious — a good deal as if a well-meaning friend, wishing to help Sinbad the Sailor, had filled the pockets of the Old Man of the Sea with cobblestones. This may be good homœopathy, but, as we have seen, in these cases the patient must minister unto himself. Now, the business man has long since recognized the value of mottoes and maxims, and hangs them, neatly printed and illuminated, wherever he can see them often. Seeing ‘Do it now,’ and ‘Have you said “Thank you” and “Good-day”?’ and ‘Close the door softly,’a hundred times a day, he sometimes remembers to do it now, and say ‘Thank you.’ and close the door without banging. Similarly, I suggest that we teachers adopt a few maxims to serve as palliatives or alteratives for conscientious hypertrophy, such as, ‘Beware detail,’ or, ‘No matter what you teach, the student will learn something else,’ or, ‘Hammer essentials,’ or, ‘Teach for twenty years hence.’

Time has a magic sieve which works as does no sieve known to the teamerchant or the ash-sifter. If you are sifting bird-shot and bullets, you can prophesy which will pass through and which will not; but the sieve of Time, which we call ‘memory,’ has a disconcerting way of retaining the little and releasing the big quite as often as of acting as a normal sieve. Perhaps it is because little things have become crystallized while the big things are still amorphous, liquid. If they are so, it is the teacher’s fault: he has taught pettily, not largely; he has hammered details, not essentials, and has taught for to-day, not for twenty years hence.

It is amusing what things we remember from our own teachers: from one, an anecdote; from another, a scrap of information; from another, a point of view; from another, a conviction; and, sad to relate, from many, nothing. They talked to us, let their personalities play upon us, advised us, scolded, bored, cajoled. Undoubtedly, the sum of their influence went to make us different from what we should have been without it; yet often the last thing we remember about them is the facts they taught us. The one who made us work hardest may be the least remembered, and the one through whose classes we dozed and dreamed may be speaking to us clearly still.

There is nothing depressing for the teacher in this. I suppose that it can all be summed up in a maxim or two more: ‘A little man never really taught a large subject’; ‘A teacher is as big as the man inside him’; ‘In teaching, as in art, there is no good work without joy.’ I should like to develop each of them at length, but the impulse to do so probably has its source in conscientiousness. Let us ‘beware detail.’