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Monday, September 6, 2010


Good teaching requires, First, that one understand the subject being taught so thoroughly and well that one can see a simple, direct, clear story line leading from the problem to its solution, or from the topic to its elucidation; and Second, that one be able to put oneself in the place of the student and grasp what the student needs to know at each stage of the explanation in order to follow it successfully and with steadily growing comprehension. The first desideratum is difficult enough, to be sure, but it is the second that defeats even quite intelligent and knowledgeable would-be teachers.

All of us who have guided doctoral dissertations are familiar with the student who is so deeply into the details of his or her research as to be utterly incapable of explaining it to someone less familiar with the topic, or perhaps completely unfamiliar with it. In preparing doctoral students for job interviews, where they will be expected to say something about their research, I tell them that they should be able to give four distinct answers to the question, "What are you working on?" The first answer is a phrase ["Kant's Ethics"], the second is a sentence. ["I am tracing the sources of Kant's ethical theory to twelfth century cabbalistic teachings." Just a joke, folks.] The third is a five minute overview of the entire project, suitable for the interview, and the fourth is a one hour job talk, in effect a short publishable journal article. Even students who can do a quite creditable job of the fourth find the first and second difficult and the third nigh on impossible. They are so far inside their work that they simply cannot imagine the state of mind of an interviewer who is intelligent but relatively clueless about the student's field of specialization.

Precisely the same skills required for good teaching make for effective explanations in a political setting. All of us, I am sure, have listened to politicians talking about some piece of legislation whose discourse is filled with acronyms, shorthand phrases, and other bits of inside-dopester jargon that are simply incomprehensible to the general public. The sense they communicate, roughly, is that they are experts on the subject who cannot be bothered to explain things to people who have not, in W. S. Gilbert's immortal phrase, "got up all the germs of the transcendental terms." The result is off-putting, condescending, and utterly unpersuasive.

As an example of good teaching [and I say this without n shred of false modesty, a vice of which I have never been accused!], take a look at, the blog on which I expounded Game Theory and Collective Choice Theory over many days. This is very difficult material, but I dare say at every step along the way, I have introduced things in such a manner that even someone completely unfamiliar with the subject can follow along and understand how one gets from one step to the next. The same thing is true of my exposition of Classical and Marxian economic theory in my book UNDERSTANDING MARX, and of the central argument of the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON in KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY.

Now, Barack Obama is obviously an extremely intelligent and extraordinarily knowledgeable person. My guess is that when it comes to something like the health care reform legislation, he has a level of detailed knowledge and understanding that rivals that of people for whom the ins and outs of such legislation is their bread and butter. But smart and knowledgeable though he may be, Obama is a simply terrible teacher. He has not the slightest idea how to explain things so that they are, at one and the same time, clear, simple, precisely correct, and attuned to the state of knowledge and comprehension of those to whom he is speaking. Like many intelligent people who are bad teachers, he manages to communicate the sense that he understands these things and thinks that people who hold wrong-headed views about them are just dumb. He is an inspirational speaker, a speaker capable of gravitas, of humor, of elevation. But he just is not a good teacher.

Consider, for example, the grotesque charge leveled by Sarah Palin and then taken up by supposedly serious [and certainly very dull] Republicans like Charles Grassley, that the health care reform bill had in it a provision for Death Panels. Obama knew that that was nonsense, and I suspect he had contempt for anyone who was stupid enough to think it was true [as do I, by the way], but instead of explaining simply and clearly what was in the bill, and why it was silly to call that "Death Panels," he just denied the claim, which left him looking like someone who was trying to conceal a terrible and inhuman provision that he and similar Seniors-hating Liberals had sneaked into the bill.

It is interesting to contrast Obama with Bill Clinton, another extremely intelligent presidential policy wonk, who, whatever his other faults, is vastly better than Obama at the business of teaching.

I suspect that Obama actually thinks that he is a good teacher [he did, after all, teach Con Law at Chicago for a while], and therefore has no sense at all that there is a skill he needs to develop. If I ever get to speak to him [sure sure], I will tell him.


Chris said...

I'm sure you're familiar with the academic, and renowned philosopher Cornel West. I recently heard him interviewed on NPR. He claimed he tried to stress similar points to Barack Obama, when they last met (a month or two ago, rather suddenly). And that Obama merely belittled him and spoke down to him as a "cub scout" not understanding the "scout leader" (West description). So there seems to be much truth in what you're saying. Of course West was also perceptibly pissed.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is fascinating. I did not know Cornell had met with Obama. What Cornell reports is very distressing, albeit not really surprising. Is there someplace on line that I cna access the west interview?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It's ok. I found it and listened to it. He was indeed irritated, with good reason, I suspect.

Chris said...

West has met Obama at least twice to my knowledge, and he's not at all happy with President Obama.


and excerpts:

West: We don't hear our president talking about the need for high-quality jobs for everybody, giving it priority, not just giving a speech in Detroit. That's fine, but speaking to Tim Geithner, speaking to Larry Summers. When are you going to make jobs, jobs, jobs a priority rather than Wall Street, Wall Street, Wall Street a priority? That's what I'm concerned about.

COX: Have you communicated with him personally?

Prof. WEST: Well, I'll tell you, I had not talked to my dear brother since the Martin Luther King gathering in South Carolina, and very briefly Super Tuesday. But he did come and make a beeline to me after his speech on I think it was Thursday morning in Washington, D.C. I hadn't seen him for two and a half weeks, and he made a beeline to me, though, brother, and he was deeply upset. He talked to me like I was a Cub Scout, and he was a pack master, you know what I mean?

I said, well, my mother and father raised me right. I respect my dear brother, but I don't like to be demeaned and humiliated in that way, and I didn't get a chance to respond to him. And I hope maybe at some time we can. But it was very, it was a very ugly kind of moment, it seems to me, and that disturbs me because then it raises the question for me: Does he have a double standard for black critics as opposed to white critics?

Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, a whole host of brilliant, courageous critics say all kinds of things, and he treats them with respect. They get invited to the White House. I say the same thing, he talks to me like I'm a Cub Scout.

I dont like that. It raises the question, too, is, you know, how many black folk need to be sacrificed for his campaign and his governance...

COX: I'll tell you what...

Prof. WEST: ...going all the way back to Jeremiah Wright and Tavis Smiley and Van Jones and even Shirley Sherrod and maybe even Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel. We're going to see what his response is.

I think he's in a very, very delicate situation, and he has to watch himself. He's on a tightrope in terms of how he proceeds politically.

Now, I'm praying for him to stay on the tightrope because I want to fight his right-wing critics. I want to down I want to ensure they don't lie about him. I'm sure they don't demonize him, and too much of that is going on. So I don't want my critiques to be in any way confused with the right-wing critiques, even though I'll fight for the right wing to be wrong in that regard. I want him to know...

COX: Now, Cornel, let me jump in. I apologize.

Prof. WEST: Oh, Jesus loves a free black man, though, brother. I'm not going to put up with being disrespected.

COX: I understand that, and I appreciate it, and I respect what you are trying to say. I just want to let a couple of our listeners jump in on the conversation.

Prof. WEST: Absolutely. I'm sorry to go on so long, but I get fired up.

David Pilavin said...

Concerning "tracing the sources of Kant's ethical theory to twelfth century cabbalistic teachings." -- it's much less of "just a joke" than we may assume at first glance.

I do not know about 12-th century cabbalistic teachings, but the 14-th century Jewish scholastic philosopher Joseph Albo compares, in one passage, a case where one gives charity out of pity with a case in which one gives charity out of duty. He concludes, like Kant, that in the former case one merely satisfies one's impulses so this action is not "really" an ethical action – unlike the latter.

Even earlier, in the 12-th century, Maimonides defines the concept "Lishmah" [="for its own sake"] as "doing what is right because it is right".

I assume that similar passages exist in Christian writings too…

Jesus, as we remember, preaches against entertaining friends at home because they would return the favour. etc. etc.

At any rate, I once saw a responsa written by a contemporary rabbi in which he was asked whether there is something deficient in doing good deeds due to one's inclinations. He replied that if one "feels like" giving charity and the like, one must first get rid of this feeling and only then do what is right because it is right.

There is no limit to Sado-Masochism…

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I should have known better than to make a joke about Kant and Jewish mystical writings! Kant, of course, would have insisted that there was nothing substantively new in his ethical theory Indeed, he would, I think, have taken novelty as an evidence of error. Kierkegaard, as usual, got it right. The essence of the aesthetic os novelty, of the ethical, repetition. Hence Either/Or.

Mike said...

It would appear that Mr. West has made quite a name for himself taking umbrage at the failure of the powerful to acknowledge his brilliance.