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Perishable Thoughts — Why Teaching Is So Agonizing

We just finished a lap teaching — first at Cornell University, then Michigan State and, finally at UC Davis. Sometimes we were working with undergrads, sometimes grad students, occasionally faculty and sometimes executives from industry.

So when Scott Danner, Chief Operating Officer of Liberty Fruit Co., Inc. and our most prolific contributor to Perishable Thoughts, sent this one along, we just couldn’t resist.

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.”

Letter to Morris Raphael Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the College of the City of New York, defending the appointment of Bertrand Russell to a teaching position

The New York Times
By Albert Einstein
March 19th, 1940

We have been fortunate to establish our relationships with the above-mentioned schools many years ago with minds none would consider mediocre. We have learned more from people such as Ed McLaughlin at Cornell, Jack Allen at Michigan State and Roberta Cook at UC Davis than we have ever taught.

Yet it does strike us that this quote speaks to the reason why teaching, done correctly, is so agonizing. It is easy enough, more a clerk’s job that a teacher’s, to present the conventional wisdom on any subject.

To sit staring at that most frightful of things — a blank word document — and to carry the burden of not just telling students what the clerk would say but rather, in horrifying solitude, thinking originally about the subject, finding connections others have not seen, pointing to weaknesses in arguments that others have not realized and seeking a synthesis between the known and unknown, the suspected and the barely dreamt of, there is little but agony.

To go before students and try to give them one little flash of brilliance, one light that will pierce the fog in which we have no choice but to live… To hand each student one burning ember, not a fire, not even a flame, but one ember that if properly tended and fanned will create the great burning light that will illuminate a life… This is the burden a teacher has each time the teacher stands before a class.

The difficulty is so great, the responsibility so weighty, it is why we finish a lecture drained as if all we had we gave and there is just nothing left. This is why great teachers deserve so much respect. The gift they give us and our children is beyond our capacity to measure.

Funny enough, teaching is not always appreciated and I think this is what Einstein was speaking of. Yes, if one parrots the conventional wisdom in a clever way, then one will not press for too much thought, and thinking is very hard work. Happy at having avoided it, one will be praised by colleagues, administrators and students alike.

Challenge people to think, make them doubt what they know and the trouble starts.

Interestingly enough we find that undergraduates are the ones most certain of what they know. It is the adult learners, perhaps having lived long enough to see first hand how much they were once certain of that turned out not to be so, that are most open to new ideas. Or maybe it is a consequence of being in business, where failure to change can equal bankruptcy. Whatever the cause, it is a wonderful human characteristic, this capacity to not merely learn, but to grow in one’s openness to learning.

We sort of make a specialty of trying to express opinions courageously and honestly; we’ve had more than our share of Einstein’s, independent thinkers in the industry who have gone to bat for us time and time again when others wanted us to hew to the party line. For that we are exceedingly grateful.

The quote can be viewed here:

Einstein on Peace (Google Books snippet) (PDF attached)
By Albert Einstein, Otto Nathan, Heinz Norden
Schocken Books, 1968
704 pages, Pg. 310

Einstein Lived Here: Essays for the Layman (Google Books snippet)
By Abraham Pais
Clarendon Press, 1994
282 pages, Pg. 219

Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing (Google Books)
By Larry Chang
Gnosophia Publishers, 2006
817 pages, Pg. 153

The quote can be purchased here

Einstein on Peace(Amazon)
By Albert Einstein, Otto Nathan, Heinz Norden
Schocken Books, 1968
704 pages, Pg. 310

[ Einstein — By Philipp Frank, George Rosen, Shuichi Kusaka]

“When Bertrand Russell, the English Mathematician and philosopher, because of his critical attitude toward traditional views on marriage and religion, was prevented from being appointed as professor of philosophy at the College of the City of New York, Einstein backed him. He felt that it was harmful for the development of science when attacks of personal and political opponents could prevent the appointment of a scientifically outstanding professor.”


[ Wikipedia]

Albert Einstein, along with Albert Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell, lobbied to stop nuclear testing and future bombs. Days before his death, Einstein signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which led to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.


[ Wikipedia]

Morris Raphael Cohen (July 25, 1880 — January 28, 1947) was a Jewish philosopher, lawyer and legal scholar who united pragmatism with logical positivism and linguistic analysis. He was father to Felix S. Cohen.

Cohen was born in Minsk, Belarus (then Russian empire), but moved with his family to New York, at the age of 12. He was educated at the City College of New York and Harvard University, where he studied under Josiah Royce, William James, and Hugo Münsterberg; obtaining a PhD from Harvard in 1906.

He was Professor of Philosophy at CCNY from 1912-38. He also taught Law at City College and the University of Chicago 1938-41, gave courses at the New School for Social Research, and lectured in Philosophy and Law at Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and other universities.

Cohen was legendary as a professor for his wit, encyclopedic knowledge, and his ability to demolish philosophical systems. “He could and did tear things apart in the most devastating and entertaining way; but … he had a positive message of his own,” Robert Hutchins. Cohen helped give CCNY in the 1930s its reputation as the “proletarian Harvard”, perhaps more than any other faculty member. The Cohen Library at CCNY is named in his honor.

[ Wikipedia]

Bertrand Russell: After the Second World War, Russell taught at the University of Chicago, later moving on to Los Angeles to lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was appointed professor at the City College of New York in 1940, but after a public outcry, the appointment was annulled by a court judgment: his opinions (especially those relating to sexual morality, detailed in Marriage and Morals ten years earlier) made him “morally unfit” to teach at the college. The protest was started by the mother of a student who would not have been eligible for his graduate-level course in mathematical logic. Many intellectuals, led by John Dewey, protested his treatment. Dewey and Horace M. Kallen edited a collection of articles on the CCNY affair in The Bertrand Russell Case. He soon joined the Barnes Foundation, lecturing to a varied audience on the history of philosophy; these lectures formed the basis of A History of Western Philosophy. His relationship with the eccentric Albert C. Barnes soon soured, and he returned to Britain in 1944 to rejoin the faculty of Trinity College.

Many thanks to Scott Danner and Liberty Fruit Co., Inc., for sending along this thought-provoking quote.


Perishable Thoughts is a regular section of the Perishable Pundit. If you have a favorite quote that you would like to share with the industry, please send it on. You can do so right here.

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