Oswalt on teaching

Phil Ford

I spent the end of last semester in a frenzy of activity punctuated by moments of pure unmotivated idleness. While procrastinating one day I discovered the comedian Patton Oswalt, who is smart and funny and whose standup is viewable on bunch of Youtube clips that Mr. Oswalt will never make a dime from and which I am duly propagating.

That’s one of the clean ones. Usually there are more swear words, which I like because I think swear words are funny. Of course, they’re only funny when they’re funny, so you have to be careful.

What else? Christmas book swag:

  • Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and mathematical logic.
  • R. Crumb’s illustrated Book of Genesis
  • The Wind in the Willows in a wonderful critical edition by my friend and Stanford sensei Seth Lerer.
  • R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country

If I’ve got comix to read, it must be Christmas break. Whee!

Anyway, back to Patton Oswalt. He put up a blog post in which he welcomes the new year by listing four things people say that, in an ideal version of 2010, they won’t. Read the whole thing, but in particular read his takedown of the phrase “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”


Yes, there are shitty teachers. There are unimaginative, by-rote educators who take no joy in their profession. Maybe they went in full of idealism and energy and got beaten down. Maybe they never had it. Yes, they exist.

But the bulk of teachers — at least, the ones I’ve encountered in my life — teach because they are truly passionate about a subject, concept or discipline. They don’t take any pleasure in the amassing of property or finance. I know that must sound like low-grade insanity, especially these days. They want to keep kicking open new rooms and dusting off windows in their minds and souls. They get a truly endorph-ic lift from delving deeper and deeper into something — an author, an epoch, a science — within which they perceive a teasing glimmer of the infinite.

And since there’s only so much someone can read about a subject or person or book or piece of music, they create new strategies for revelation. One of the surest is to see the thing they love through untrained, un-biased eyes. In other words, students. Semester after semester, year after year, sometimes generation after generation, they watch how the changing world warps, diminishes, or builds up this thing they’ve become obsessed with.

People who toss this phrase off were probably shitty students, and were too dull to spot the passion in the eyes of their quality teachers. These were the assholes I encountered at college, who “studied for the test”, and bragged about how, “I’m never gonna read another fucking book or listen to this faggy-ass music ever again…” and became lawyers who can’t spell and who nod their heads to the same five Bon Jovi songs over their buffalo wings at Bennigan’s.

Seems like a good thing to think about at the beginning of a new semester. Teachers, take heart.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Oswalt on teaching

  1. jonathan says:

    Why has it never occurred to me to say this the way he did? Apparently we have known some of the same people going through school . . .

  2. Max says:

    It should be “Those who can’t TRY to teach.”
    As a teacher myself, I can separate the good intentions from the practical application. I was trained to do so.

  3. Andrew DA says:

    Phil, you rock. Sure, Oswalt rocks too. But once again you found just the right tidbit to get us going forward. Happiest of new years and new semesters to you, my friend.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for this! Perfect motivation as I turn toward prepping five syllabi. 🙂 Happy New Year to you!

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