Influence Peddling

Whenever the economy tanks (like now for instance) a lot of people in the private sector suddenly rediscover their life-long dream of becoming a teacher. How satisfying it would be, they think, to give something back by passing on their hard-won wisdom to the next generation. You almost never hear anyone who's taught for a living speaking like this. Indeed, one of the most difficult misconceptions to disabuse people of is that teaching is an influential profession, especially when it comes to shaping the leaders of tomorrow.

Even the greatest teachers have a lousy track record on this score. Plato failed to convince the Syracusan ruler Dionysus II to adopt his ideas about a perfect society ruled by philosopher kings. In fact, the great philosopher had to run for his life from the Syracusan court. Moreover, the utterly down-to-earth Aristotle with his notions of moderation appears to have had little effect on Alexander the Great, who by the end of his young, boozy existence had worn out the patience of his conquering army and begun to refer to himself as a god. All this is to say nothing of Seneca's negligible influence on the homicidal Roman emperor Nero.

I am not saying that good teachers can't influence their students. They do, but seldom in the way most people think. As the critic and sometime professor Stanley Fish has noted, anyone who teaches for a while will have the experience of running into a student years after graduation. The student will say, "Remember that time in class when you said X? Well, that got me thinking and it led me to devote my entire life to Y." The only problem is that you have no recollection of ever saying X. Moreover, you doubt that you did say it because you have been opposed to X your entire life (and you think Y is a dreadful profession that ought to be abolished from the face of the earth).

The truth is that you can never be certain how you will influence students. Socrates, for example, denied he was a teacher and never claimed to have anything to teach, yet he had a profound influence upon Plato. Clearly my old professors influenced me in countless ways, but I know they would be dumbfounded by and quite likely opposed to the way their influence has manifested itself.

Keep in mind, too, that influence can be positive or negative. Nero ordered his old tutor Seneca to commit suicide (or be hacked to death by Roman soldiers). And I'll bet those Viennese art professors always regretted their rejection of young Adolph Hitler, who then gave up art and went into politics. In the end, you can't reliably turn out the leaders of tomorrow with any guarantees of success, which isn't to say you ought not try. You probably should. Just don't expect to approve of all the results.


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