On real teaching

by reestheskin on 18/03/2021

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Via John Naughton’s newsletter, I learned that Jonathan Sternberg died. I did not know him, having only come across his name in Tara Westover’s book Educated and in the LRB. There are also some words about him on the Cambridge Faculty of History page. Both sets of quotes say a lot about education when it is practiced by a master with a pupil keen to learn.

Tara Westover:

‘I am Professor Steinberg,’ he said. ‘What would you like to read?’

‘For two months I had weekly meetings with Professor Steinberg. I was never assigned readings. We read only what I asked to read, whether it was a book or a page. None of my professors at BYU had examined my writing the way Professor Steinberg did. No comma, no period, no adjective or adverb was beneath his interest. He made no distinction between grammar and content, between form and substance. A poorly written sentence, a poorly conceived idea, and in his view the grammatical logic was as much in need of correction.’

‘After I’ve been meeting with Professor Steinberg for a month, he suggested I write an essay comparing Edmund Burke with Publius, the persona under which James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay had written the Federalist papers.’

‘I finished the essay and sent it to Professor Steinberg. Two days later, when I arrived for our meeting, he was subdued. He peered at me from across the room. I waited for him to say the essay was a disaster, the product of an ignorant mind, that it had overreached, drawn to many conclusions from too little material.’

“I have been teaching in Cambridge for 30 years,” he said. “And this is one of the best essays I’ve read.” I was prepared for insults but not for this.

At my next supervision, Professor Steinberg said that when I apply for graduate school, he would make sure I was accepted to whatever institution I chose. “Have you visited Harvard?” he said. “Or perhaps you prefer Cambridge?”…

“I can’t go,” I said. “I can’t pay the fees.” “Let me worry about the fees,” Professor Steinbeck said.

And from Regius Professor Christopher Clark:

Jonathan said that there are three phases in learning how to teach history:

‘Phase 1: you learn the history.

Phase 2: you learn to teach the history.

Phase 3: you learn to teach the people.’

To be supervised by Jonathan was an illuminating and, for some, life-changing experience.

As a teacher, Jonathan was something of a cult figure, both as a lecturer and as a supervisor. There was a sense of occasion around a Jonathan Steinberg lecture. One felt grateful to be in the room.

Teaching is much degraded in many modern UK universities. It remains the greatest multiplier — to use a concept from economics— of human flourishing.