Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Teaching is about more than sharing knowledge

Academically, I discovered, I was underprepared.

I chose an unusual major, culture and behavior, an academic creation of the 1960s that combined psychology, sociology, biology, and anthropology. I chose it because it sounded fascinating, a comprehensive study of the human being, which would help me understand people’s objectives and motivations.

But I still had a way to go on the basics. There were only eight of us in the class and four professors assigned to teach us. Many of my peers came from the best prep schools in the country. Not only did they all seem to know each other, they also knew the work.

My first English paper was on Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. I got a 68. I then got a 66 on my second. I was failing.

My instructor, Alistair Wood, asked me to his garret office for a meeting. He was a young man dressed like an elderly professor, wearing a tweed sweater and a J.Press sport jacket with patches at the elbows, a tattersall shirt, and a green knit tie.

“Mr. Schwarzman, I want to talk to you about your papers.”

“There’s really nothing to talk about,” I said.

“Why is that?”

“I had nothing to say, and I said it poorly.”

“My G--, you’re not stupid. I couldn’t have put it any better myself. So I have to teach you how to write, and after that, I’ll teach you how to think. Because you can’t learn both at the same time, I’ll give you the answers to the next several essays and we’ll concentrate on the writing. Then we’ll concentrate on thinking.”

He saw I had potential and systematically set about equipping me with what I needed. I’ll never forget his patience and kindness.

Teaching, I came to believe, is about more than sharing knowledge. You have to remove the obstacles in people’s way.

In my case, the obstacle was the gap between my education up to that point and the education of my peers. That year, I went from failing to the dean’s list, at the top of my class.
Source: What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence by Stephen A. Schwarzman

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