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Soapbox: "Those who can't do, teach."

Every so often on the internet...Okay, ALL THE TIME, when I'm online and I read an article, I'll scroll down and read some of the comments. Most of the time, the comments thread (especially on sites like Huffington Post, CNN, and MSNBC) gets derailed off into left-right political bickering, even if the article is about a relative innocuous, bipartisan topic (it's amazing what people will bring into the discussion when it's completely irrelevant).

I suppose I do this partly out of habit, and partly to keep an eye on what certain discourse is happening. Occasionally, an astute commenter will point out something I hadn't noticed that changes the meaning of the piece. Sometimes, comments will reinforce my initial reaction to the piece, affirming that I hadn't read it incorrectly and that I am not alone in my opinion. Most of the time, debates are just really, really fun to read.

Today, however, I made the mistake of reading the comments on a Media Matters article about Glenn Beck's stance on the Food Safety Modernization Act that just passed Congress (and how he's misrepresented the debate, but that's old news). Media Matters debates usually end up being kind of fun, so I scrolled down and wasted ten minutes reading comments.

I became extremely upset and frustrated when one person began attacking one of the sources used in the article on the basis that he is a professor. This was seriously the person's argument: " An expert in macroeconomics is an expert in macroeconomics. When I get advice on running companies and profits I will get it from someone who is in that business. Not some professor." Later on, this same poster claimed that "A university professor ... has no real world experience."

Now, that's outrageous enough, but I don't ordinarily get so frustrated at random commenters on the internet that I want to write a blog entry about their argument. No, that desire came a few comments later, when this same person (who was arguing back and forth with some other commenters) commented, in defense of their argument, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."

There is a large portion of people who have a propensity to whip out a cliched saying as though that satisfies the burden of proof, then sit back and watch their "wisdom" sink in. More often than not, it is greeted with a facepalm (see above). That poor argument style is nothing new. In fact, this is not the first time I have seen precisely this aphorism used in a debate (the first time was when it was used against me in a discussion of plagiarism in the classroom, of all things).

My problem is with the complete and utter falsehood of the statement itself.

To imply that a person's argument or professional opinion should be discounted because they are currently employed as a professor, and therefore aren't good at the "real world experience" of the thing they are teaching is to perpetuate an anti-intellectual, anti-education, and anti-elitist attitude.

Let's just look at the complete and utter inanity of such a statement: If you're being taught writing, for example, wouldn't you want to take a class from someone who knows how to write? If you're being taught research-oriented science, wouldn't you want information from someone who's actually got experience developing and testing various experiments? If you're learning to play guitar, wouldn't you want to be taught by someone who knows what they're doing? For goodness sake, if you're going to be taught theology, wouldn't you want someone who has experience as a pastor?

Fundamentally, in order to be good teachers, most teachers (especially at advanced level) have experience in that field, not just in the area of teaching. People have this misinformed conception of teaching that all it consists of is walking into a classroom, picking up a textbook, and reading from it, expecting the students to absorb information.

And maybe that is what many people experienced with teachers growing up. But that is not a good teacher.

A good teacher is someone who not only knows how to do the activity at hand, but someone who can explain it in the simplest terms possible.

A good teacher is someone who not only can do the goal of the class (whether it be writing, guitar, science, what have you) well, but knows enough to connect with a student when he or she is not understanding the concept, and be willing to go over it again and again.

A good teacher is someone who not only can tolerate shoddy workmanship, but is able to tell the student how to improve, and have that advice actually work.

A good teacher is someone who gives their time, their money, their sanity in order not to perfect their own craft, but to give others the skills they need to pursue that same craft.

A teacher is someone who takes it upon herself to lead others into the skills she enjoys, to put their improvement ahead of anything else, and to make sure that they leave her class better at the task than before they came in.

In short: "Those who can do well, and can pass on that skill to others should teach."

Being a professor does not discount a person's opinion about an issue, simply because they have chosen to teach about it. Indeed, being a professor reinforces the authority of that opinion because it usually means that they know their topic well, they have worked within that field in "the real world" and they are now passing on that experience to others.

Teaching is so often degraded, especially in American society, where teaching is one of the lowest paid professions. There's an anti-education strain in society that comes out virulently in debates about expert witnesses and expert knowledge. Let's face it: We've all met teachers who are fantastic doers, but terrible at passing on the wisdom that they have. But I have yet to meet a teacher who couldn't actually DO what they were teaching me - whether it be writing, pastoral ministry, shop class, journalism, historical study, debate...whatever.

Teachers don't teach if they can't do. On behalf of teachers everywhere, let's drop that stereotype once and for all, shall we? Those who can say that teachers can't do were never teachers (and probably shouldn't be).


  1. I think we should be blog friends. I thought that from your recent comments on Jesus Needs New PR, and then this post. I didn't read all of this post, but I did want to speak to hardly commenting on things: commenters are often crazy, regardless of the site....but commenting ups your hits on your page!

    And I was going to give you a link to a paper I wrote, but the host site is down.

  2. Joseph - Thank you for the visit! Apparently a lot of people are liking my opinions over at JNNPR - enough that MPT wants me to do a guest post! So you'll definitely be seeing more of me in the future.

    I looked over at your blog, and I love the title! Does this mean that you are in seminary now? Where at?

    And what is this paper about? I would like to see it if you think it would be interesting. :)


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