Why I Teach

When I first started teaching at the University of Toronto, some of my students asked me why I was doing it. This was my answer:

When I was your age, I thought universities existed to teach people how to learn. Later, in grad school, I thought universities were about doing research and creating new knowledge. Now that I’m in my forties, though, I’ve realized that what we’re really teaching you is how to take over the world, because you’re going to have to whether you want to or not.

My parents are in their seventies. They don’t run the world any more; it’s people my age who pass laws, set interest rates, and make life-and-death decisions in hospitals. As scary as it is, we are the grownups.

Twenty years from now, though, we’ll be heading for retirement and you will be in charge. That may sound like a long time when you’re nineteen, but take three breaths and it’s gone. That’s why we give you problems whose answers can’t be cribbed from last year’s notes. That’s why we put you in situations where you have to figure out what needs to be done right now, what can be left for later, and what you can simply ignore. It’s because if you don’t learn how to do these things now, you won’t be ready to do them when you have to.

It was all true, but it wasn’t the whole story. I don’t want people to make the world a better place so that I can retire in comfort. I want them to do it because it’s the greatest adventure of our time. A hundred and fifty years ago, most societies practiced slavery. A hundred years ago, my grandmother wasn’t legally a person in Canada. Fifty years ago, most of the world’s people suffered under totalitarian rule; in the year I was born, judges were still ordering electroshock therapy to “cure” homosexuals. There’s still a lot wrong with the world, but look at how many more choices we have than our grandparents did. Look at how many more things we can know, and be, and enjoy.

This didn’t happen by chance. It happened because millions of people made millions of little decisions, the sum of which was a better world. We don’t think of these day-to-day decisions as political, but every time we buy one brand of running shoe instead of another or shout an anatomical insult instead of a racial one at a cab driver, we’re choosing one vision of the world instead of another.

In his 1947 essay “Why I Write”, George Orwell wrote:

In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer… Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism… It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes…

Replace “writing” with “teaching” and you’ll have the reason I do what I do. The world doesn’t get better on its own. It gets better because people make it better: penny by penny, vote by vote, and one lesson at a time. So:

Start where you are.
Use what you have.
Help who you can.

Thank you for reading. I hope we can learn something together some day.