Charles L. Brewer
In 1892, William James presented a series of lectures for teachers of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and published the speeches in a small volume, titled Talks to Teachers, in 1899. The book was reissued in 1939, with an Introduction by John Dewey and William Kilpatrick, who noted that psychology had changed dramatically during the intervening years. Specifically, they pointed out that the study of psychology had greatly expanded, new methods of investigation had appeared, topics formerly beyond the range of scientific inquiry had been brought within its scope, and several branches of psychology had grown from infancy to maturity. They suggested, however, that what James said to a previous generation of teachers was even more important because of such progress. They extolled Jamesís ìability to set forth scientific generalizations in vivid and popular . . . language, indicating that he could state general principles stripped of everything irrelevant to actual teaching (p. iv). The ìnew spirit of Jamesís psychology, they claimed, was enduring. His emphasis on active learning, on ìthe vital connection between expression and impression, and on the inseparability of body and mental processes of the learner led James to demand that teachers think of their students as ìbehaving organisms, a principle that contains ìwhat is sound in later ëbehaviorismí without its exaggerations (pp. v-vi). They singled out the perennial timeliness of Jamesís chapter on habit, his discussion of attention and interest, and his comments on moral education to indicate why the book was still important for teachers and those preparing to teach. They concluded: Happy are these beginning teachers when they can catch thus early not only the insight, but the fine enthusiasm, the ëinflamed ardor of zest, from so competent a guide as William James (p. vi).
Reading Talks to Teachers now, one gets the impression that much of what James said is quaintly homiletic and irrelevant, and that some of his points were less than prophetic. For example, he claimed that the United States had the most comprehensive and favorable educational organization of any country. He suggested that ìall we need is to impregnate it with geniuses, to get superior men and women working more and more abundantly in it and for it and at it, and in a generation or two America may well lead the education of the world (pp. 4-5). He looked forward with confidence to the day when that would be an accomplished fact.
Nevertheless, James (1939) made some notable points. First, he insisted that ìpsychology is a science, and teaching is an art (p. 7) and that ìsciences never generate arts directly . . . .; instead, ìan intermediary inventive mind must make the application, by using its originality (pp. 7-8). In his words,
To know psychology . . . is absolutely no guarantee that we shall be good teachers. To advance to that result, we must have an additional endowment altogether, a happy tact and ingenuity to tell us what definite things to say and do when the pupil is before us. That ingenuity in meeting and pursuing the pupil, that tact for the concrete situation, though they are the alpha and omega of the teacherís art, are things to which psychology cannot help us in the least. (p. 9)
Second, James emphasized the importance of the teacherís exploiting what he called the studentís ìimpulse toward completer knowledge, especially in younger students (p. 46). Third, he stressed the importance of stimulating students to think critically and to remember things in meaningful ways. For practical purposes, he insisted that ìthe art of remembering is the art of thinking and to fix a new thing in oneís mind, the best strategy is ìto connect it with something else already there (p. 143). Note that this point preceded the so-called cognitive revolution by more than half a century. I suspect that some psychologists who are talking so excitedly about the ìrecent cognitive revolution are a little weak in the history department. Perhaps they never read Jamesís two-volume The Principles of Psychology published in 1890.
I strongly recommend Jamesís Talks to Teachers, presented in 1892, the same year in which the American Psychological Association (APA) was founded. Judge for yourself whether this book or the APA has better stood the test of time.
With this as a backdrop, and without presuming to be William James, I now want to talk about teaching. Be forewarned that my comments are devoid of empirical evidence; they are purely idiographic and may not reflect the experience of any other person on the planet.
The banality of teaching has been recognized for centuries. A Greek proverb says that ìschoolmasters spend their lives telling the same people the same things about the same things. Adam Smith said that ìthe great secret of education is to direct vanity to proper objects. And a pedagogue is described as ìone who casts false pearls before real swine. Teachers have been a sorry lot for a long, long time! Since Allan Bloom ìclosed the American mind in 1987, however, we have seen an almost unprecedented flurry of reports about the shameful shambles in education. If we believe some recent prognostications, the demise of teaching, alas, is just around the corner.
Teachers are certainly not high on the totem poles of prestige and remuneration--far below accountants, computer scientists, physicians, football coaches, and rock stars. What can we tell about a societyís values when a fired football coach gets half a million dollars for agreeing not to coach at another university for 5 years after his firing? For not working, he will earn about the same as three or four full-time assistant professors, each of whom will teach more students per year than the coach would have coached. In addition to the fired coachís $500,000, the same university now pays a new coach more than 1 million dollars for a 5-year package deal, with more perquisites than the former coach enjoyed. Unlike the new coach, however, the assistant professors will not have the benefits of a full professional staff, a house and two cars furnished by the university, liberal expense accounts, their own television shows, a series of lucrative summer camps, or a booster club that raised almost 6 million dollars last year. Could you improve your academic program with such generous resources? Would you like to try it?
I am not a football coach or a rock star and never hope to be. I am a teacher who takes my job more seriously than some of the pesky doomsayers seem to think. Despite incredibly hard work, low social status, and vows of poverty, teaching is the most exciting, the most challenging, the most difficult, and the most rewarding thing that I have ever done--I simply cannot imagine doing anything else! As you might have guessed, therefore, I have not come here to bury teaching but to praise it. By doing so, I hope to counterbalance some of the vacuous pessimism that pervades our profession. I hope also to encourage some young teachers who are so disheartened by the worst of what they see that they fail to appreciate the best of what might be.
Trying to tell anyone how to teach is presumptuous and inappropriate, so I shall not do that. This decision probably surprises some of my friends, who think of me as both presumptuous and inappropriate. Teachers have to work out their own styles by trial and error, which is sometimes frustrating and painful. What works wonderfully for one person may be a total disaster for another. Instead of telling you how to teach, I want to share some of my thoughts from almost 3 decades of trying to teach.
I have learned many helpful things from reading what some people have written about teaching, but I have learned far more from watching a few good teachers practice their craft. Comparing what I read with what I see, I have decided that authors seldom write about one of the most important traits of good teachers--and that is passion. Good teachers have passion. It is harder to write or talk about passion than it is to practice it, but you must have passion to be a good teacher.
Good teachers have a passion for learning, but they realize that facts are not answers--they are only the tools for asking more questions that might eventually lead us from the darkness into the light. Good teachers have a passion for learning and teaching principles that go beyond the facts. They recognize that facts fade fast and that general principles will serve better in the long run. Good teachers also have a passion for asking and trying to answer interesting questions. They learn, and encourage their students to learn, simply for the sake of knowing. They understand that learning is a lifelong process and they believe that one of the most important things is to have a passion to go on learning. Will Rogers put it aptly when he said: ìEven if youíre on the right track, youíll get run over if you just sit there.
Good teachers recognize that all things are related, so they have a passion for learning in areas outside their own specialties. In his short autobiography, Charles Darwin (1887/1958) wrote a revealing passage about the importance of keeping this passion alive. He said:
If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. (p. 139) You may cavil about Darwinís specific analysis and conclusions, but you will surely get his main point.
For many years, I have been pontificating about what some students and colleagues pretentiously call Brewerís Fourth Law, which says that everything is related to everything else. But today--right now!--I will make a public confession. I recently discovered that several other people said the same thing a long time ago. For example, John Muir put it almost as succinctly: ìWhen we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. And, in his own inimitable and prolix way, William James (as cited in Viney, 1989) insisted that. . . when you come down to reality as such, to the reality of realities, everything is present to everything else in one vast instantaneous co-implicated completeness--nothing can in any sense, functional or substantial, be really absent from anything else, all things interpenetrate and telescope together in the great total conflux. (p. 1262)
Frankly, my students prefer the less convoluted version: ìEverything is related to everything else. And the formal corollary is: ìand, damn it, donít you forget it.
More than many other disciplines, psychology is well suited for stressing this point and what it implies for education. Stimulating students to see that what they learn about one thing gives them a better understanding of something else is one of the important roles of a teacher--and that covers everything from archeology to zoology. Recognizing that people with diverse backgrounds and training address some of the same questions using different modes of inquiry, and that their work illuminates other approaches, is one of the marks of a maturing mind. Hence, even if Brewerís Fourth Law is not original, I shall continue to stress, with passion, that everything is related to everything else.
Because enthusiasm is contagious, good teachers have a passion for enthusiasm. No matter how many times you lecture on a topic, you need to convey the kind of excitement when you discuss it with your students that you would if you had learned about it this morning. I can say, with confidence bordering on certainty, that if you are not enthusiastic about what you are teaching, then your students will not be excited about it either. Having somehow survived those first few frustrating years of staying only a few pages ahead of the students, one is tempted to use the same lectures year after year. Doing so will almost surely produce the lethargy that signals disappointment.
Many young teachers feel pressured by the requirements for ensuring tenure and promotion, which sometimes also ensure intellectual inertness. The best teachers I know are excited about learning and teaching, even after years of doing both. Their verve has not been jaded by the fatuous inflexibilities that some institutional settings impose. The saddest people I know are teachers who have lost their passion for what attracted them to the profession in the first place. They merely go through the motions of teaching and often remark how wonderful it is to have no students around during holidays and vacations. When teaching is no longer fun, take up something else--grow geraniums, play golf, help with Habitat for Humanity, watch soap operas, become a football coach or a rock star. You will be far happier and so will your colleagues--and especially your students.
Good teachers have a passion for parsimony. Some academicians work very hard to speak and write so that nobody can understand a thing they say, hoping that pomposity will be mistaken for profundity. Clear thinking usually precedes clarity, conciseness, and felicity of expression. Good teachers have a passion for clear thinking, clear speaking, and clear writing--and they do everything they can to instill the same passion in their students. They try to avoid being the kind of pedant that Theodore Roethke described by saying that ìhis thoughts were few and very between. Clarity and conciseness of expression require hard work, but the result is worth the effort. Strive always for style and grace. I long for the day when more scholars can say it as well as one country journalist who wrote: The baseball game was played in Mrs. Smithís cow pasture, and ended abruptly when a runner slid into what he thought was second base. Before you write another sentence, read the latest edition of a marvelous little book titled Elements of Style. William Strunk and E. B. White (1979) were good teachers with a passion for parsimony.
Good teachers have a passion for preparation. They agree with Louis Pasteur who said that ìchance favors the prepared mind. And, I would add that the better prepared you are the more chances you will get. In her autobiography, Eleanor Roosevelt (1961) expressed what should be every teacherís creed:
Perhaps the most important thing that has come out of my life is the discovery that if you prepare yourself at every point as well as you can, with whatever means you may have, however meager they may seem, you will be able to grasp opportunity for broader experience when it appears. Without preparation you cannot do it.
Like all good teachers, Eleanor Roosevelt had a passion for preparation. (p. xix)
Good teachers have a passion for excellence, and they expect their students to have it too. For most of us mere mortals, however, an important prerequisite for excellence is persistence--so good teachers develop a passion for persistence. One of the most forgettable American presidents said one thing worth remembering. Listen to silent Calvin Coolidge:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
Early in my career, I learned that I am less talented, less of a genius, and less educated than many of my confreres. Like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the mountain again, and again, and again--and like the horse in George Orwellís (1945) Animal Farm--I vowed to work harder and harder and harder--and am still doing so. Thank heaven for persistence!
Good teachers have a passion for patience. They are patient with their students, and especially with themselves. Shortly before his death in 1936, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov published a touching piece intended for students. Listen to what he said:
This is the message I would like to give to the youth of my country. First of all, be systematic. I repeat--be systematic. Train yourself to be strictly systematic in the acquisition of knowledge. First study the rudiments of science before attempting to reach its heights. Never pass on to the next stage until you have thoroughly mastered the one on hand. Never try to conceal the defects in your knowledge even by the most daring conjectures and hypotheses. Practice self-restraint and patience. Learn to do the drudgery of scientific work. Although a birdís wing is perfect, the bird could never soar if it did not lean upon the air. Facts are the air on which the scientist leans. Without them you will never fly upward. Without them your theories will be mere empty efforts. However, when studying, experimenting, or observing, try not to remain on the surface of things. Do not become a mere collector of facts but try to penetrate into the mystery of their origin. Search persistently for the laws which govern them.
The second important requisite is modesty. Never at any time imagine that you know everything. No matter how highly you are appreciated by others, have the courage to say to yourself, ìI am ignorant. Do not let pride possess you.
The third thing that is necessary is passion. Remember that science demands of a man his whole life. And even if you could have two lives, they would not be sufficient. Science calls for tremendous effort and great passion. Be passionate in your work and in your search for truth. (as cited in Babkin, 1949, p. 110)
Even when he was 87 years old, Pavlov stressed passion, patience, persistence, and principles. So, to young Candides who aspire to be teachers, I give this advice. As you search the world for your own academic Lady Cunegonde, always take Martin and Dr. Pangloss with you. After all their travail, remember, Voltaire left them eating candied fruits and pistachio nuts--and working in the garden.
Good teachers have several other passions, but I want to conclude on an embarrassingly personal note.
A Pedagogical Odyssey
From the moment of conception, I may have been genetically determined to be a teacher. I cannot remember ever considering any other career. We lived across the street from the elementary school where Miss Laverne Kennaway taught the third grade. She was a family friend, the most beautiful and vivacious woman I had ever seen, and a wonderful teacher. My first crush was on Miss Kennaway. When I was 4 years old--2 years before entering first grade--I would frequently slip across the street, steal into the back of her classroom, and spend the morning with my favorite teacher. I do not remember one thing she ever said, but I remember very well how much I liked going to her classroom, and how disappointed I was when my mother came to fetch me for lunch. Was my inclination toward teaching determined by heredity or by some especially salient environmental cue? My first grade teacher, Mrs. Dampf, was okay but she was no Miss Kennaway! My full year in Miss Kennawayís class as a real third-grader was the highlight of my early scholastic career--but I still cannot remember one thing she said.
I sailed through elementary, junior high, and high school without doing much serious academic work but making top grades, just as many students do now. Most of my time in high school was spent running the student council, editing the school paper, acting in dramatic productions, and playing varsity football and basketball. Many of you will be (a) surprised, (b) shocked, (c) disappointed, or (d) all of the above to learn that I was an all-star basketball player! I liked most of my academic subjects, especially English and history, but was not always diligent in pursuing them.
For reasons that are still unclear, I never thought about going to any college except Hendrix in Conway, Arkansas--a small, private liberal arts college that manages to maintain a good reputation despite granting degrees to people like me. My cavalier attitude toward academic work in high school extracted its toll. As an undergraduate, I was forced quickly to develop what William James (1939) called ìthe impulse toward completer knowledge (p. 46). Like Eugene Gant in Thomas Wolfeís (1929) novel, Look Homeward, Angel, I was obsessed with the idea of trying to read all the books ever written, in English at least. I read everything I could--some bad, some good. Nevertheless, I spent an inordinate amount of time on numerous activities that distracted 18- to 22-year-old college students in the early 1950s. I was heavily involved in what we called student government, which I now recognize as an oxymoron, much as military intelligence is a contradiction in terms. Like many of my own later students, I took various liberal arts courses with little thought about a coherent program pointing in any particular direction, except that I knew I wanted to teach something. When the administrative authorities insisted that I declare a major before the end of sophomore year, I was in a quandary about what to tell them. Would it be English, history, political science, philosophy--or what? Then, I took General Psychology with Dr. John Anderson--and that changed my life! Soon afterward, I proudly declared that my major was psychology; the registrar and dean were almost as relieved as I was. After all these years, I still have the textbook used in that course. Dr. Anderson was a PhD from Columbia University--knowledgeable, articulate, sophisticated, enthusiastic, and one of the most demanding and effective teachers I have known. He was strictly serious about learning and expected--yea, even demanded--that his students be of similar persuasion. He did not expect instant perfection but insisted on steady improvement, which, I have learned, is a sound approach. Dr. Anderson must have read Emersonís comment that ìour most important want in life is someone to make us do what we can, because he made us do more than we could. He epitomized the best in teaching, and he opened splendid vistas for me and countless other students. He also called my attention to the quotation attributed to George Bernard Shaw that ìHe who can, does. He who cannot, teaches. Dr. Anderson added his own corollary that: He who cannot teach, teaches others to teach. Undeterred by such grim warnings, I knew then that I would be a teacher of psychology--but not a teacher of teachers--primarily because of one special teacher. I suspect that most of you can identify some rare person who influenced you in similar ways.
I was fortunate to have worked with several other good teachers. After college, I spent an apprenticeship with Miss Emily Penton, a history teacher at Little Rock Central High School. A Hendrix graduate with a masterís degree from the University of Chicago, Miss Penton was a teacher of the old school--in the best connotation of that term. Her no-nonsense approach and rigorous discipline inspired students to learn more about history than they ever expected or wanted to know. I suspect that Miss Penton had also read Emerson! She was a brilliant teacher. She was always friendly, but never familiar, with her students. She was impeccably fair in everything she did. To this day, I remember one of her favorite expressions, which has often buoyed a sagging spirit: Teaching is a great life if you donít weaken, she often said. Think about it: ìTeaching is a great life if you donít weaken.
Later, at the University of Arkansas, I encountered Professors Donald Kausler and Hardy Wilcoxon, who taught me a lot about psychology, and whose exacting standards and teaching styles further laid the foundation for my budding career. Publishing an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology before finishing my masterís degree was a thrill--rivaling my time with Miss Kennaway in third grade.
I mention these early personal experiences for two reasons. First, to illustrate that Alexander Pope was right when he said: ìAs the twig is bent the treeís inclined. Second, to pay tribute. One of John Updikeís characters says that the saddest thing about teaching is that you remember so many of your students and so few of them remember you. I want these special people in my life to know that I remember. I salute them all: Miss Kennaway . . ., Dr. Anderson . . ., Miss Penton . . ., Professor Kausler . . ., and Professor Wilcoxon. Thank you for bending this twig.
Henry Adams may have been right when he said that teachers affect eternity; they never know where their influence stops. The real reason for teaching is to make a difference--to be honorable . . ., to be competent . . ., to be responsible . . ., to be productive . . ., to be unselfish but proud. Teaching is not a profession; teaching is a calling--delightful, invigorating, mysterious, passionate, precious, and sacred.
Good teachers stretch the mind and they stretch the heart. I hope that the acorns I have planted will grow into strong oak trees that will provide refreshing shade on a hot day. I hope that the world will be a little better place because I made a difference to somebody. And that ís what teaching is all about.
Babkin, B. P. (1949). Pavlov: A biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Darwin, C. (1958). The autobiography of Charles Darwin (N. Barlow, Ed.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1887)
James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York: Holt.
James, W. (1899). Talks to teachers. New York: Holt.
James, W. (1939). Talks to teachers on psychology (new ed., with an Introduction by John Dewey and William H. Kilpatrick). New York: Holt.
Orwell, G. (1945). Animal farm. Essex, England: Longman.
Roosevelt, E. (1961). The autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E. B. (1979). Elements of style (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan.
Viney, W. (1989). The cyclops and the twelve-eyed toad: William James and the unity-disunity problem in psychology. American Psychologist, 44, 1261-1265.
Wolfe, T. (1929). Look homeward, angel. New York: Scribners.
1. A version of this article was presented as the Presidential Address at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association, New Orleans, April 1994.
2. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Charles L. Brewer, Department of Psychology, Furman University, Greenville, SC 29613.