The Best Advice I Got From Teachers
Now that I’m a newly minted college graduate out in the big wide world, I’ve noticed the voices of my teachers knocking at the ear of my mind more often than before.
It makes sense that this would happen. While I was in school, my teachers’ advice felt important for the successful completion of individual assignments, but not so much for the development of a personal ethic, a scaffold to build a life by. Now that I’ve left, life looks wider and less structured, and decisions about the kind of life I want to lead need to be made. So, I want to share the best advice I got from teachers with you.
Developing a worldview
In my junior year of college, in the midst of global confusion and a national inability to bridge ideological distances, I paid a visit to my sociology professor. He was going on 80 but energetic as a horse. I’d always admired his intellectual confidence, a kind of certainty about how the world works. I asked him: “How do you develop a consistent world view?” He smiled and said: “Spend your youth in uncertainty. Relish it. Test out all kinds of ideas against experience and be ready to change your mind. Then, when you’re older, you’ll be fit to make decisions with the assurance that you’ve learned the world well enough to navigate it, and maybe even to change it.”
Limiting blind spots
One of the great obstacles our age faces is ideological entrenchment. Politically biased educators, writers, and positive feedback loops on social media create the well-known bubbles of discourse that keep us reliant on the same ideas. So much so, that we’ll avoid reading or listening to those we profoundly disagree with, often on grounds of moral righteousness. An English teacher of mine, fed up with this pattern, would shout from time to time his best advice: “Read Everything!” High and low, left and right, sane and mad. Read it all. If an idea scares you so much that you refuse to listen to it, you’re admitting that it’s powerful enough to spread. If that’s the case, the best thing you can do to defeat a dangerous idea is to hear it, learn it, and measure your own ideas against it. Then, you learn to defeat it with a better one.
When I asked her what she feared most about education these days, my theatre professor replied: people are losing their critical distance. In other words, pure emotion is taking good thinking hostage. Emotion is an essential partner in analysis, but it needs to be tempered with distance, a kind of detachment that isn’t alienating, but that does allow for reason to enter in. The way we feel about a thing doesn’t necessarily make it true. The way we think about a thing gets us closer.
School is hard. Life is harder. But the joys possible in each are immeasurable. An acting professor of mine, during especially difficult training exercises, would repeat his mantra: “Work towards the difficulty”. It works for all pursuits, I think. When you push through the limits of your present ability, you forge, by definition, new limits and improved ability. So, we shouldn’t only accept the difficulty we meet in our work. We should seek it out, make friends with it, and steel ourselves against its pressure.
Being on time
Maybe my favorite and best advice came from a high school football coach. Whenever a player arrived late, he’d repeat without fail: “Punctuality is the courtesy of Kings and Queens”. Being on time is the easiest way to remind the people around you that you respect them. Even and especially for a king or queen, for a boss or mentor, for someone who doesn’t need to be on time, being punctual is an acknowledgment that time is equally precious to all of us.