Why I Teach (2007)*
Larry Stern, Professor of Sociology


My oldest daughter, now living at home, interrupted me mid-stream as I read a draft of this essay to her. I thought the essay was pretty good: detailed yet succinct, folksy yet still erudite, whimsical but accorded all the seriousness that it deserves. Moreover, I believed that it conveyed my true passion for teaching, my genuine interests in students and my humble belief that they are the future and hope of America, that they could make the world a better place, and that I could help them see the light. Lindsay thought otherwise. “Yeah, dad,” she said, eyes rolling, “you’re passionate, you care, you want to make the world a better place” – and then, with a dismissive wave of her hand, “yada, yada, yada.”

She continued (as I knew she would), “Look, all good teachers are like that. Cut to the chase: you teach because this is who and what you are – end of story.” I could see that she was in a hurry to go up stairs – her favorite program was coming on – but I also knew that, being my daughter, the end of the story was nowhere in sight. “I’ve been living with and watching you for twenty-plus years,” she went on. “For you, ideas are like toys: you play with them, bounce them around, peel back the layers, peek inside, rip them apart, patch them back up, stretch them into misshapen blobs, throw them into a file, and then revisit them as old familiar friends. Then you start all over again. What makes you good at what you do, as far as I can tell, is that you’re incurably curious and, since your enthusiasm is infectious and you make thinking seem like fun, your students go along for the ride. And they can’t help but learn. But make no mistake about it: you teach because you couldn’t be any other way. It’s simply who you are.”

I called her a “wise-ass” as she left the room. Her retort, as she bounded up the stairs, was “Hey, I was listening when you edited my papers all through high school and college. You always said to be simple and direct. You’re going to make the world a better place? Yeah, right! Your essay sounded like you were running for Miss America. Stop phutzing around and get back to work – and show it to me when you get it done!” Out of the mouths of babes . . . and the gauntlet had been dropped. Back to the drawing board.

After a few minutes, though not fully recovered from the onslaught of her “yadaing,” I began to ponder her words. Sure, I’ll admit that even if I wasn’t a “teacher” and worked in some other capacity I would probably still make it my business to keep informed about what was going on around me and try to understand what makes the world the way it is, how it could be otherwise, and why people, including myself, think and act they way they do. And I am certain that I would “share” my opinion with – perhaps even try to impose it upon – those around me. So, too, would I be interested in the entrancing – and often bewildering – wonders of the natural world.

How did this come to be so? As a sociologist, I couldn’t help but think . . . “What was it about my social experiences – personal, cultural, and academic – that shaped me into a person that revels in the land of ideas, plays with them, and feels compelled to share them?”

"Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, American Author & Physician, 1809 – 1894

It was a dark and stormy night. Somewhere off in the distance a dog was barking… Actually, this is true. I remember it in vivid detail. I think I was about seven, it was after midnight and I was awakened by the sound of thunder. As I lay there, watching flashes of lightening through the bedroom window, my father, a small business owner by day and intrepid explorer by night, came into my room. I swear that I saw a twinkle in his eyes, and he said, excitedly, “Are you up? Come on, you gotta see this!”

No one else was awake.

I followed him out to the dining room. I heard an old scratchy record playing in the background. Although I didn’t know it at the time, he was playing his favorites: Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. (Years later, when I became a jazz aficionado, they, too, became my favorites. But I digress . . .) An old microscope, one that his father gave him as a teenager, was sitting close to the edge of the table. He pointed to it, smiling, and I peered through the eyepiece. At first, I didn’t see a thing, and my father looked puzzled when I said so. But then he showed me how to realign the mirror to catch the light just right and then how to adjust the focus, and a whole world opened before my eyes.

He had taken a drop of water from our fish tank and there, now in full view, were creatures I could not even have imagined. AmoebaSpirogyraDaphnia. I was both dazzled and astounded by the intricacy of these simple creatures, and I wanted to see and know more. He took a book, The World You Never See: Underwater Life off the bookshelf, showed me some incredible pictures, and I gobbled it all up, hook, line and sinker.  Seeing my face light up he said, “Ah, the joys of serendipity.” I had no clue what that meant, but I liked the sound of the word and it stuck in my mind. And then he said – and I wrote this down – "Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions." I still use this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, the noted 19th century American author and physician (not to be confused with his son, the famous jurist).

This was my first taste of “astonishment” – and I savored every last drop. I mentioned my late-night awakening – in both the literal and figurative sense – to my mother the next day. I told her that I had never seen dad so lit-up. Smiling, she said that she knew that look well. “It meant,” she said, “that he was ‘jazzed’ about something.” I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by this – and wouldn’t really understand for another twenty years – but I knew right then and there that that was what I wanted to be: “jazzed” about something.

Although my father was clearly the catalyst of my developing curiosity and yen for learning, I must note that my ethnic and cultural background along with the historical context that accompanied my formative years provided more than ample nourishment. Growing up in a Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York during the turbulent decade of the 1960s has surely left its mark.

It wasn’t just that learning was highly valued by those of my ethnic persuasion.So, too, was a particular style of learning. It was a social event. It was expected and you were encouraged to participate in discussions. You questioned nearly everything. You challenged parents, teachers, friends and foes alike to substantiate their arguments with evidence. You were forced to provide sound arguments to back up your own position. You argued incessantly, joyfully, always respecting the differences in opinions that invariably surfaced.

Add to this a New York cultural mode of communication – need I explain? – and the social issues and “teach-ins” on campus that set an agenda for an entire generation of students and you have a social incubator for deep thought, a social milieu that envelops and swallows you whole. Teaching and learning melds together as one.

I knew by my senior year in college that I would pursue graduate training in sociology and spend the rest of my life being paid to be me. I thought that my undergraduate studies had prepared me well, but after only one week at Columbia University I found that I was noticeably rough around the edges. My thinking was too undisciplined, my learning too helter-skelter and unfocused. It was here that I truly learned how to learn, and thus how to teach.

Robert K. Merton, my mentor at Columbia, was what we sociologists like to call a “role-model.” He was not only a giant in the field - he "fathered" both functional analysis and an entire new specialty the sociology of science - he was also a consummate teacher. He took his students seriously and as a result we, in true Meadian fashion, began to take ourselves seriously. This is a practice I adhere to today.

Most important, Merton went to great lengths to teach us how to think – not what to think, but how to think – and how scholars actually go about their business of exploring ideas. The process bears little resemblance to textbook accounts and, since we are in the business of imparting critical thinking skills to our students, some knowledge of how it operates in real life seems rather important.

Students know that the best hitters in baseball – players destined to enter the Hall of Fame – fail at bat nearly seven out of ten times. So it is, too, with the greatest scientists of all time. The best and the brightest thinkers are wrong more often than not. They blunder; they get it wrong. And sometimes these errors are real doozies. But most of the time, these errors are fruitful, leading to important insights that might never have been recognized if not for the fateful and productive error. Knowing this, scientists continue to make bold conjectures, undeterred by the specter of being wrong.

If you think about this for a moment, you should recognize that this insight is quite liberating. To err is human, we’re often told. But we don’t seem to like the idea very much and most try to avoid it all costs. Balderdash! “Remember,” I tell my students, “we learn through trial and error. There is a reason it is phrased this way rather than ‘trial and truth’ because that is the way learning typically occurs. Be bold. Dare to be wrong. It’s an important path to enlightenment.”

Last, Merton stressed – as I now stress – that the quest for knowledge is an endless process and, if done properly, it is hard work. Questions and answers, Merton liked to say, are a dime a dozen. It’s the important questions that matter – the ones that strike at the heart of significant problems. And the only answers of importance to scholars are those that generate a dozen or so more important questions. The cycle never ends.

Once you carefully examine how scholars do their thinking you often find that they are much like jazz musicians. This gives me great comfort. Good, hard thinking follows ideas as they wander about, twisting here, turning there, straying from the thread of a dominant theme, and then coming back with some variation. It is improvisation at its best. And it leads to the same unanticipated “aha” moments that jazz musicians experience when they find a new melody in their improvisational wanderings.

So, why do I teach? I think Lindsay was probably correct. It is simply who and what I am. I’m a lifelong learner in an unending quest for knowledge. I can honestly say that I’m “jazzed” by it. And, as mentioned above, learning and teaching meld into one. I want students to experience the pure joy of the “aha” moment, the flash of serendipity, and then want to continue the journey.   And, despite the hard work involved, I want them to know that they are allowed to, and ought to, be smiling all the while.

It would be unscholarly of me, however, if I ended this essay without mentioning at least one competing hypothesis: I teach because I’m a frustrated jazz musician who can’t hold a tune or play a chord, and improvising with ideas is all that is left.


I took my revised draft, which included the prolegomenon, upstairs to Lindsay. Rather than read it to her – my earlier wounds were still fresh – I simply left it on her desk. I found it this morning on my desk in my study. She scrawled on the top, “Better draft; not too crazy about the ‘dark and stormy night’ bit; liked the jazz metaphor but you could have nailed it down better; still too wordy; sounds like you ran out of gas down the stretch; still needs polish.”

(Sigh). She’s right, again, Perhaps I taught her too well . . . Hoist by my own petard!


*Essay written as part of evaluation packet for the Piper Award Committee, 2007.