Occupational Hazards

by Kieran Healy on April 11, 2005

‘But pray, sir, why must I not teach the young gentlemen?’

‘Because, sir, teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect upon the soul. It exemplifies the badness of established, artificial authority. The pedagogue has almost absolute authority over his pupils: he often beats them and insensibly loses the sense of respect due to them as fellow human beings. He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater. He may easily become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous; in any event he perpetually associates with his inferiors, the king of his company; and in a surprisingly short time alas this brands him with the mark of Cain. Have you ever known a schoolmaster fit to associate with grown men? The Dear knows I never have. They are most horribly warped indeed.

— Patrick O’Brian, “The Ionian Mission”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0393308219/kieranhealysw-20/ref=nosim/, p84.

On the other hand, I wish I had the absolute authority to make my students do the reading. At least some of it.



Graeme 04.11.05 at 8:14 pm

But they did not have the absolute authority to make his students do the reading. They had the absolute authority to beat their students if they didn’t do the reading.

Not that that wouldn’t be pretty useful…


david 04.11.05 at 9:42 pm

Face it, you just want to do the beating part. Or maybe that’s Volokh.


Harry Hutton 04.11.05 at 10:31 pm

“Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school; and whereas, before, our fore-fathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used; and, contrary to the king, his crown, and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear…”

Henry VI part II.


Harry Hutton 04.11.05 at 10:33 pm

“The truth is that the average schoolmaster, on all the lower levels, is and always must be essentially and next door to an idiot, for how can one imagine an intelligent man engaging in so puerile an avocation?”



herostratus 04.11.05 at 10:50 pm

Do the….??? Didn’t you get the memo? We are a “visually literate society” now. That is, when we see something, we know what it is (usually). What more do you want???


Joshua W. Burton 04.11.05 at 11:15 pm

“If the colleges were better, if they really had it, you would need to get the police at the gates to keep order in the inrushing multitude. See in college how we thwart the natural love of learning by leaving the natural method of teaching what each wishes to learn, and insisting that you shall learn what you have no taste or capacity for. The college, which should be a place of delightful labor, is made odious and unhealthy, and the young men are tempted to frivolous amusements to rally their jaded spirits. I would have the studies elective. Scholarship is to be created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge. The wise instructor accomplishes this by opening to his pupils precisely the attractions the study has for himself. The marking is a system for schools, not for the college; for boys, not for men; and it is an ungracious work to put on a professor.”



rea 04.12.05 at 7:02 am

Well, teachers don’t usually get to beat students now, and colleges generally have elective courses, so at least some of the problems seen by Dr. Maturin and his younger contemporary R. W. Emerson have been reduced, if not altogether expunged.


tad brennan 04.12.05 at 7:09 am

I’m with Emerson about “marking” (i.e. assigning grades) being an “ungracious work”. It is certainly the part of my job I like the least.

But when I read the first half of that para, I see part of why Kieran and I have so much trouble getting students to do their reading.

It’s the myth that all learning, and all aspects of learning, should be joyous, spontaneous, and voluntary. It’s the naivete of thinking that anyone’s “natural love of learning” extends much farther than picking the low-hanging fruit.

To climb Everest, you have to spend a lot of time training at lower altitudes. The views aren’t great, the hours are long, the work is arduous, and there’s no particular pleasure in it, much less any ecstatic rapture.

To get real achievement, you need more than the “natural love of learning”. You need that natural love, trained and shaped by years of unnatural exertion. One of the few parts in Pinker’s “Blank Slate” that I found myself nodding along with was the part where he suggested that our brains just aren’t naturally set up to do complex math–and that’s why we have to do a lot of problems sets, and *should* do them, with no expectation that they will be jolly and inspiring all the time.

But Emerson apparently thinks that learning should be a succession of peak experiences, without any preliminary drudgery.

And then the suggestion that students are “tempted to frivolous amusements” because of anything I do in the classroom….Yes, it must be their couple of hours of contact with me each week, asking them to think and reflect, rather than the dozens of hours they spend in front of the TV, movies, video-games, spring breaks, college-sponsored recreations, etc. etc. That must be it–it’s asking them to read Plato that tempts them to drink beer, not the beer-indutry’s billion-dollar a year ad budget.

If only I could get Budweiser to read Emerson, maybe they would drop those ineffective ad campaigns, and send the money to their really effective sales-force, the university professors who ask students to think.


bi 04.13.05 at 8:04 am

tad brennan: still, I wonder if college classes are a lot more boring than they need to be.

Take computer science classes, for example. Paul Hsieh points out — rightly — that “Programming is not about following rules, structure or design … Programming is about giving instructions to your computer and making it follow them.” Yet at where I am, university professors can’t wait to expound to their students the virtues of following all sorts of programming rules. And the first programming language that a student gets to learn is often a bondage-and-discipline language — first it was Pascal, now it’s Java. (Since Paul Hsieh’s talking about this stuff, it means the problem also exists elsewhere.)

Thank goodness university wasn’t my first encounter with programming. :)

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