Wednesday, June 08, 2005

developing a sense of taste

Anne Bancroft's passing is a cause for sadness and reflection. Her screen roles brought an intelligence and sophistication that haven't been present in too many other actors of our age. I recall not understanding how she could be married to Mel Brooks, he of the "no low joke should be left unturned" approach. I was interested to learn from her obituary that she was from the Bronx. So, in spite of the difference in their on screen demeanor, they were a pair of New Yorkers, very talented ones, children of immigrants, and that combination of factors produced their excellence.

We are graced when we see a performance by a first class actor. The experience challenges us, rekindles our imagination, and ultimately raises us. The situation is similar for the student with a first class teacher. Yesterday I mentioned Mr. Conrad. I was fortunate to have him. And I've been lucky to have a handful of other really excellent teachers.

What is the lifelong benefit from having such a good teacher early on? There is nostalgia, certainly, but there is also a profound sense of having benefited in terms of world outlook and point of view. Mr. Conrad helped share a sense of interest and wonder in mathematics; issues that were interesting to consider armed with the tools of algebra, geometry, and imagination.

A.P. Mattuck, who taught a couple of courses I took as a freshman at MIT, was another of those inspirational teachers. He showed mostly just how important imagination is and that it can be cultivated by work on interesting problems. That lesson seems to me somewhat ironic, especially given all the emphasis on learning objects nowadays. Everything that Mattuck taught us and had us work on came from within our own heads.

Teachers who inspire and affect a student's perspective for life do so in ways that are not readily measured on a test or a course project. These instructors help the student to understand notions of elegance and beauty, to give the students something worthwhile to emulate by making explicit what they value and care about, to help the students focus their curiosity on a new (for the student) way of thinking about the world, to give them reasons to persist on a problem when the are stuck and not opt for the easy out.

All of these things are unlikely to emerge purely by the student's self-discovery or by working through issues with peers. Above all else, really good teachers develop a sense of taste in their students. They make a student care and make a student know what is important.

Let us cherish these teachers and hope that other teachers aspire to be like them. And let us allow these teachers to choose their method and not foist our method onto them.

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