The next time someone receives an award as an outstanding teacher, take a close look at the reasons given for selecting that particular person. Seldom is it because his or her students did higher quality work in math or spoke better English or in fact had any tangible accomplishments that were better than those of other students of teachers who did not get an award.
A “good” teacher is not defined as a teacher whose students learn more. A “good” teacher is someone who exemplifies the prevailing dogmas of the educational establishment. The general public probably thinks of good teachers as people like Marva Collins or Jaime Escalante, whose minority students met and exceeded national standards. But such bottom line criteria have long since disappeared from most public schools.
If your criterion for judging teachers is how much their students learn, then you can end up with a wholly different list of who are the best teachers. Some of the most unimpressive-looking teachers have consistently turned out students who know their subject far better than teachers who cut a more dashing figure in the classroom and receive more lavish praise from their students or attention from the media.
My own teaching career began at Douglass College, a small women’s college in New Jersey, replacing a retiring professor of economics who was so revered that I made it a point never to say that I was “replacing” him, which would have been considered sacrilege. But it turned out that his worshipful students were a mass of confusion when it came to economics.
It was much the same story at my next teaching post, Howard University in Washington. One of the men in our department was so popular with students that the big problem every semester was to find a room big enough to hold all the students who wanted to enrol in his classes. Meanwhile, another economist in the department was so unpopular that the very mention of his name caused students to roll their eyes or even have an outburst of hostility.
Yet when I compared the grades that students in my upper level class were making, I discovered that none of the students who had taken introductory economics under Mr. Popularity had gotten as high as a B in my class, while virtually all the students who had studied under Mr. Pariah were doing at least B work. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
My own experience as an undergraduate student at Harvard was completely consistent with what I later learned as a teacher. One of my teachers — Professor Arthur Smithies — was a highly respected scholar but was widely regarded as a terrible teacher. Yet what he taught me has stayed with me for more than 40 years and his class determined the course of my future career.
Nobody observing Professor Smithies in class was likely to be impressed by his performance. He sort of drifted into the room, almost as if he had arrived there by accident. During talks — lectures would be too strong a word — he often paused to look out the window and seemingly became fascinated by the traffic in Harvard Square.
But Smithies not only taught us particular things. He got us to think — often by questioning us in a way that forced us to follow out the logic of what we were saying to its ultimate conclusion. Often some policy that sounded wonderful, if you looked only at the immediate results, would turn out to be counterproductive if you followed your own logic beyond stage one.
In later years, I would realize that many disastrous policies had been created by thinking no further than stage one. Getting students to think systematically beyond stage one was a lifetime contribution to their understanding.
Another lifetime contribution was a reading list that introduced us to the writings of top-notch minds. It takes one to know one and Smithies had a top-notch mind himself. One of the articles on that reading list — by Professor George Stigler of Columbia University — was so impressive that I went to graduate school at Columbia expressly to study under him. After discovering, upon arrival, that Stigler had just left for the University of Chicago, I decided to go to the University of Chicago the next year and study under him there.
Arthur Smithies would never get a teaching award by the standards of the education establishment today. But he rates a top award by a much older standard: By their fruits ye shall know them.