Good Teachers Matter


(Adapted from a talk given to LDS seminary teachers in 1970)

There may be teachers who believe that the mention of current events has no place in the simple presentation of familiar gospel principles. I believe that there is a relationship between the two. As teachers, we have an insistent obligation to keep growing, to stay alert, to remain sensitive to what is going on in the world about us.

Continual growth in knowledge is vital to the gospel teacher. There are illustrations and lessons currently in newspapers and in good books that we need to know. If a book is a good book, its principles will open up new vistas of life that will reinforce, reemphasize, and strengthen the fundamentals we are teaching.

Teachers matter, as they have always mattered. About a hundred years ago Emerson made this famous statement: “In former days we had wooden chalices and golden priests. Now we have golden chalices and wooden priests.” However Emerson may have meant it, this allegory has many applications. Certainly it can be applied to teaching. We can be golden teachers if we want to be, if we are anxious enough to learn and willing enough to pay the price.

There is a difference in teachers. Centuries ago someone said: “When Cicero speaks, the people say, ‘How eloquent!’ When Demosthenes speaks, the people say, ‘Come, let us march.’” Teachers matter.

We have an obligation to reach and befriend and love those whom we teach. Ruskin said: “Education does not mean teaching people what they do not know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave. It is not teaching youths the shapes of letters and the tricks of numbers and then leaving them to turn their arithmetic to roguery and their literature to lust. It means, on the contrary, training them into the perfect exercise and kindly continence of their bodies and souls. It is a painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, by warning, by precept, by praise, and above all, by example.”

President David O. McKay wrote:

“What, then, is true education? It is awakening a love for truth, a just sense of duty, opening the eyes of the soul to the great purpose and end of life. It is not teaching the individual to love the good for personal sake, it is to teach him to love the good for the sake of the good itself; to be virtuous in action because he is so in heart; to love and serve God supremely, not from fear, but from delight in His perfect character.” (Instructor, August 1961, p. 253.)

In the face of a great, changing world, it is our duty to teach the truth, to transmit the fine, sweet, uplifting things of our culture, and to inspire action. In order to do this, we must keep learning.

Keep learning. Where to discover your interest and how to amass relevant information are illustrated in the story of an obscure spinster woman who insisted that she never had a chance. She muttered these words to Dr. Louis Agassiz, distinguished naturalist, after one of his lectures in London. In response to her complaint, he replied: “Do you say, madam, you never had a chance? What do you do?”

“I am single and help my sister run a boardinghouse.”

“What do you do?” he asked.

“I skin potatoes and chop onions.”

He said, “Madam, where do you sit during these interesting but homely duties?”

“On the bottom step of the kitchen stairs.”

“Where do your feet rest?”

“On the glazed brick.”

“What is glazed brick?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

He said, “How long have you been sitting there?”

She said, “Fifteen years.”

“Madam, here is my personal card,” said Dr. Agassiz. “Would you kindly write me a letter concerning the nature of a glazed brick?”

She took him seriously. She went home and explored the dictionary and discovered that a brick was a piece of baked clay. That definition seemed too simple to send to Dr. Agassiz, so after the dishes were washed, she went to the library and in an encyclopedia read that a glazed brick is vitrified kaolin and hydrous aluminum silicate. She didn’t know what that meant, but she was curious and found out. She took the word vitrified and read all she could find about it. Then she visited museums. She moved out of the basement of her life and into a new world on the wings of vitrified. And having started, she took the word hydrous, studied geology, and went back in her studies to the time when God started the world and laid the clay beds. One afternoon she went to a brickyard, where she found the history of more than 120 kinds of bricks and tiles, and why there have to be so many. Then she sat down and wrote thirty-six pages on the subject of glazed brick and tile.

Back came the letter from Dr. Agassiz: “Dear Madam, this is the best article I have ever seen on the subject. If you will kindly change the three words marked with asterisks, I will have it published and pay you for it.”

A short time later there came a letter that brought $250, and penciled on the bottom of this letter was this query: “What was under those bricks?” She had learned the value of time and answered with a single word: “Ants.” He wrote back and said, “Tell me about the ants.”

She began to study ants. She found there were between eighteen hundred and twenty-five hundred different kinds. There are ants so tiny you could put three head-to-head on a pin and have standing room left over for other ants; ants an inch long that march in solid armies half a mile wide, driving everything ahead of them; ants that are blind; ants that get wings on the afternoon of the day they die; ants that build anthills so tiny that you can cover one with a lady’s silver thimble; peasant ants that keep cows to milk, and then deliver the fresh milk to the apartment house of the aristocrat ants of the neighborhood.

After wide reading, much microscopic work, and deep study, the spinster sat down and wrote Dr. Agassiz 360 pages on the subject. He published the book and sent her the money, and she went to visit all the lands of her dreams on the proceeds of her work.

Now, as you hear this story, do you feel acutely that all of us are sitting with our feet on pieces of vitrified kaolin and hydrous aluminum silicate—with ants under them? Lord Chesterton answers: “There are no uninteresting things; there are only uninterested people.”

Keep learning.

Why keep learning? The answer is: Because our philosophy of education demands it, and our philosophy of life and eternity demands it.

I’ve outlined from the scriptures what our philosophy of education is, as I understand it. It starts with the words “commanded of God” and ends with the words “truth demonstrates itself in right thinking and well doing.”

Why learn? Because the world is moving, and we need to keep up with it. I mean the world of useful, productive knowledge. In three centuries, 1600 to 1900, the application of science and technology produced more changes in how men lived and worked than were produced in the previous six thousand years. More changes in how men live and work will occur during the next thirty or thirty-five years than were produced in all previous history. There is about a hundred times as much to know today as was available in 1900. By the year 2000 there will be over a thousand times as much knowledge of all kinds to record, sift, store, search out, teach, and, hopefully, use with discrimination and effectiveness. There are currently published throughout the world about seventy-five thousand scientific and technical periodicals alone, in some sixty-five languages. These contain about two million articles each year, indexed in some three thousand scientific and technical abstracting services. That will just give you an idea.

President Joseph F. Smith said: “Among the Latter-day Saints, the preaching of false doctrines disguised as truths of the gospel, may be expected from people of two classes, and practically from these only; they are:

“First—The hopelessly ignorant, whose lack of intelligence is due to their indolence and sloth, who make but feeble effort, if indeed any at all, to better themselves by reading and study; those who are afflicted with a dread disease that may develop into an incurable malady—laziness.

“Second—The proud and self-vaunting ones, who read by the lamp of their own conceit; who interpret by rules of their own contriving; who have become a law unto themselves, and so pose as the sole judges of their own doings. [These are] more dangerously ignorant than the first.

“Beware of the lazy and the proud; their infection in each case is contagious; better for them and for all when they are compelled to display the yellow flag of warning, that the clean and uninfected may be protected.” (Gospel Doctrine [Deseret Book Co., 1968], p. 373.)

Jefferson said, “He who thinks a people may be ignorant and free, thinks that which is not and never will be.” Why learn? There are obviously some very good reasons.

How learn? In answer I offer you five words that have evolved from a lifetime of teaching. To my great joy, on the frontispiece of an old English book on prayer I found printed what I had already learned from experience. The five words were called steps to learning: (1) Read. (2) Listen. (3) Mark. (To me mark means also copy, clip, assemble. Do it now; tomorrow you will forget where you read it, and it will be gone. The kids will tear the paper up or put poster paint on it. The book you think you will remember to put the marker in will disappear, or you will forget it. Mark means get it in an accessible form while you are thinking about it, at the cost of some things that are less important.) (4) Organize. (Think and put things together. Get them cohesive, coherent. You will change them later, but organize them now.) (5) Digest. (As I understand it, that means getting the strength in your bloodstream, casting out the dross, and moving with energy.)

What learn? I have listed four fields of knowledge in which we should keep growing. First, temporal knowledge—so-called temporal knowledge. I speak of what the scriptures themselves say in the Doctrine and Covenants, sections 88, 90, and 93, about history, other nations, languages, and so forth. Why not this instead of some of the other useless, unconstructive things we do?

Second, human relationships. We should be concerned not only with our own welfare, but also with that of others and with society as a whole. In his biography Albert Schweitzer gives this interesting example:

“To the primitive, solidarity with other humans has narrow limits. It is confined first to his blood relatives and then to the members of his tribe who represent to him the family enlarged. I speak from experience. I have such primitives in my hospital. If I ask an ambulatory patient to undertake some small service for a patient who must stay in bed, he will do it only if the bedridden patient belongs to his tribe. If that is not the case, he will answer me with wide-eyed innocence—‘This man is not brother of me.’ Neither rewards nor threats will induce him to perform a service for such a stranger. But as soon as man begins to reflect upon himself and his relationships to others, he becomes aware that such men are his equals and his neighbors. In the course of gradual evolution, he sees the circle of his responsibility widening until he includes in it all human beings with whom he has dealings.”

We don’t know all about human relations just by being born and living, any more than we know all about our country just by being born and living in it, or the gospel just by being born and living. Just the fact that we are teachers does not make us experts in relationships.

A fine man I know took his two boys to an outing. They had a great time, ate all kinds of food, and seemed to enjoy everything. On the way home the younger boy went to sleep. His daddy laid him on the back seat of the car and put his coat over him. As they rode along, Dad, a wonderful teacher who was trying to make this experience memorable, asked his older boy, “What did you like best? Did you like—” and the father enumerated a number of things they had experienced. The little boy dutifully answered, “Yes, Daddy,” to everything that was asked him. Finally, when he had a chance to say what he was really thinking, he said, “Daddy, if I fell asleep, would you put your coat on me?” All this talking and all this lesson-teaching. Take a little time and know about people. Listen—talk sometimes—but listen.

The third kind of knowledge is knowing the law of the gospel and its history—the saving, central truths of life. When we have learned the message of the “prophets of poetry and music,” when we have learned what the great scientists have acquired, there is another great field of knowledge that reigns supreme because it is the center of all the rest—knowledge of God and his major creation, mankind. That is what the gospel is all about. We need to teach it, and to teach it we need to learn it.

Elder John A. Widtsoe wrote: “I had studied the gospel as carefully as any science. The literature of the Church I had acquired and read during my spare time day by day. I had increased my gospel learning. I put it to work in daily life and never found it wanting.” Then he tells how detailed was his search. He wasn’t demeaning science—but he thought the gospel was more important.

The fourth field we need to keep learning and growing in is the capacity to help our young people apply the great principles of truth in a strong, inspiring, motivating way.

In the British Mission I sooner or later gave every district of missionaries a unique assignment. They would come to the mission home to get motivated or inspired or instructed or counseled or interviewed. We would have a meeting, and during the meeting, when I thought we had reached the point of diminishing returns, I would sometimes say, “All right, brethren, it is ten minutes after ten. Go out on the streets in pairs. Go with a different companion from the one you came with and are working with. You can go down to the museum on the corner or stand out in front or walk through the house; but thirty minutes from now be back with a lesson of life you can illustrate from the scriptures.” That was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I can’t begin to tell you what I learned from these bright-eyed, alert, wonderful young people.

At the mission home I had watched the construction of a building across the street from my office, and I had heard that jackhammer going incessantly. It was supposed to be a new university building, and I looked out that window and marveled. The noise went on for years, and I said to various people, “No wonder British buildings last a hundred years. It takes them that long to put them up.” This went on and on and on. Then one day I noticed the very famous old red-brick building down on the corner, once used by one of the most famous scientists of all time to make some of the greatest discoveries of all time, going down, brick by brick.

One day a young missionary who had heard me complain came in from a learning-application experience wide-eyed and said, “President Hanks, have you stood in the upper stories of Hyde Park Chapel and looked across the street lately?” I said no. He said, “You should.” Then he used the lesson about the whited sepulcher—you know, whitewashed on the outside, dirty underneath. He said, “I suppose the Lord meant to tell us we misjudge when we look at facades, and when you go down there, you’ll understand what I mean. Behind this one little building you thought they were taking so long to build is a whole block of buildings. They were hidden by the facade of that building.”

Let me tell you one of the most wonderful things I have learned recently. “Years ago,” writes a man named Frehoff, “I preferred clever people. There was joy in beholding a mind bearing thoughts quickly translated into words, or ideas expressed in a new way. I find now that my taste has changed. Verbal fireworks often bore me. They seem motivated by self-assertion and self-display. I now prefer another type of person, one who is considerate and understanding of others, careful not to break down another person’s self-respect. My preferred person today is one who is always aware of the needs of others, of their pain and fear and unhappiness and their search for self-respect. I once liked clever people; now I like good people.”

Teach the gospel, be patient, keep learning. This business of teaching the gospel, whether at home or in a classroom, is the most important business on this earth. This is God’s work, and he will help us if we make the effort.