Skip to main content

Peter W. Klein is a professor at the University of British Columbia, and founding director of the Global Reporting Centre.

The first time I heard the famous line about teaching, I was in high school, watching the movie Annie Hall. In it, Woody Allen's character reminisces about his awful childhood in public school, saying, "We had a saying that those who can't do, teach," and then goes on to deliver the punch line: "... and those who can't teach, teach gym." Like a lot of teenagers, I was both in awe and disdainful of my teachers, but this was the first time I had heard someone publicly question the value of teaching, and it made me question who these people were in whom I had entrusted my future.

Mr. Allen was riffing off a famous line from Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman, which includes the maxim, "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." For years I believed it. After university, I reluctantly worked as a teacher for a year, but thought of it as a compromise and a transition to something better, and I quickly abandoned it for a career in journalism.

Something about being in a classroom always drew me back, however, and I eventually took part-time night work teaching journalism at New York University and Columbia University. It was in one of those classrooms that my view about teaching changed.

I had produced a major story for a prominent television news-magazine show, and I spent the day after the broadcast getting congratulations from my colleagues. That night I went to class, waiting for accolades from my students, too. Silence. I nudged them, asking what they thought of the story. A few reluctantly said it was good, and then one mustered up the courage to point out what several had clearly noticed – that every single person in my piece was a middle-aged white man.

This was a story that had gone through many screenings, vetting by the executive producer and the vice-president of news, and not a single person seemed to notice this obvious lapse in diversity. The student's comment led to a good conversation in class, and I hope it helped some of them make better reporting decisions as they embarked on their careers. For me, it was transformative.

I never approached interviewing the same way. I started to question the way we were doing things in the newsroom and once I started pulling on that thread, a whole host of questions untangled. A twentysomething student changed me as a journalist, in ways no editor or mentor ever had.

Some of history's greatest minds were teachers. Aristotle. Galileo. Mozart. Marie Curie, best known for her discoveries about radioactivity, was the first woman to be a professor at the Sorbonne. Until a few years ago, Stephen Hawking taught at Cambridge University, holding the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics chair, once held by Sir Isaac Newton. Those who can do, certainly teach.

Albert Einstein spent most of his career at universities, and is often credited with a quote that underscores the importance of teaching on the teacher: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, learned from teaching. By the age of 30, he had written his seminal book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which concluded that philosophy was largely a pointless pursuit, since much of it did not describe physical objects in the real world. As a recent Paris Review article explained, "having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Mr. Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing – he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell." He moved to a farming village in Austria, and took a job at a grammar school.

"We all struggle to form a self. Great teaching, Wittgenstein reminds us, involves taking this struggle and engaging in it with others," the Paris Review concluded. His goal was partly selfish – to transform himself through the experience in the classroom – and it worked. After a six-year stint as a teacher, Mr. Wittgenstein returned to thinking about the world, and abandoned his dogmatic approach, emerging as a more mature philosopher, often called "Wittgenstein II." His later works reference teaching regularly, and his transformative work on the essence of language was clearly inspired by observations of how children learn language.

Frank McCourt, who won the Pulitzer prize for his book Angela's Ashes, spent close to three decades as an English teacher. For years, he struggled with writing a novel about life in Ireland, but it was exposure to children that helped him come up with the idea of writing from the perspective of a child. "Children are almost deadly in their detachment from the world," Mr. McCourt was quoted as saying. "They are absolutely pragmatic, and they tell the truth, and somehow that lodged in my subconscious when I started writing the book." When asked by a Sunday Times of London reporter to comment on the Shaw line about teaching, Mr. McCourt stretched across his sofa and said, "Just goes to show that Shaw didn't know his arse from his elbow about teaching."

The truth is, Shaw has been mischaracterized. The list of maxims in his play that contain the line about teaching also includes this aphorism: "A fool's brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education." Shaw took this beyond just words. He was instrumental in creating the London School of Economics, one of the world's top universities. "The key is to distinguish between what Shaw said and what he did," Sue Donnelly, LSE's chief archivist told me. She notes that he helped finance the university, lived on the original campus and gave public lectures at the school.

This week, I am stepping down as director of the University of British Columbia School of Journalism to create the new Global Reporting Centre, a not-for-profit institute housed at the university, dedicated to the lessons I have learned from students: Question the way we do what we do, and improve it.

We get comfortable in how things are done, and have always been done and those who do not have the chance to be challenged by curious, bold young minds are often relegated to doing things the same old way. Those who can't teach, just do – and that's a shame.