THE BLOG
12/11/2012 10:47 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

The Key to Educational Success: One Teacher Is Sufficient

How many great teachers does it take for students to succeed?

The answer is one.

Here's a story that convinces me of this fact yet again:

My department, the political science department at Amherst College, is hiring an assistant professor for a new position teaching Chinese politics.

One of the candidates is a mainland Chinese woman from Sichuan province, now finishing her Ph.D. at a major American university after doing her undergraduate degree at Peking University.

How did she decide to come to the United States for graduate work, I asked her. The answer was disarmingly simple.

At Peking University, she had taken a graduate seminar in comparative political economy, taught by a Chinese professor who had done his Ph.D. at Cornell and returned to teach in China. She was only a senior undergraduate but got special permission.

Was comparative political economy so compelling? It was something else.

At that time, just a few years ago, for undergraduate students at Peking University there were no seminar courses and no teaching assistant-taught sections of big lecture courses. There were only a few seminar courses even for graduate students.

The great innovation of this course was the "American" seminar format. For the first time in her schooling, the mode was lively discussion and debate based on close reading of texts and critical thinking. She could make valuable contributions to the class.

The teacher was no longer an emperor; the students were suddenly free to think on their own. The fires were lit, or at least hers was.

She had vaguely envisioned working for a multinational corporation after graduation. Now she wanted to be a professor and scholar.

Of course, comparative political economy is, or can be, a very dull subject and seminars can be terminally boring.

What happened to make this moment a "critical juncture" in her life, as she says?

The key element was not merely a seminar but a seminar well done. That is, the crucial factor was no doubt the teacher, in this case a courageous Chinese who had learned in the U.S. that the academic emperor was a model headed, and rightly so, for the dustbin of history.

The Chinese experience is repeating a pattern found in all sorts of other countries, even in the elite European universities of France, Germany and Britain, where the large lecture course taught by a venerable senior professor to an amphitheater filled with several hundred students had been the model for centuries until 20 or 30 years ago.

Kudos to the Chinese teacher. But also to the Chinese student. The ambition of the one met the ambition of the other. Two ambitions fed off each other and successful careers are in the process.

But there's a larger point about education itself whether the subject is political economy or chemistry or the history of opera.

More than anything else, great teachers teach by example. I've experienced in my own teachers and seen it throughout my own career at Amherst in the large followings developed by more than a few of my colleagues.

In my own case, the first teacher of long-lasting effect on my life was, humbly enough, my neighborhood accordion teacher on Chicago's South Side in the 1950s. I began when I was 7 years-old. Mr. Ray Johnson was a local who played in a polka band on TV once in a while. But he was musical into his bones, led a dance band and he played along with us enthusiastically so we got the feeling.

This led to rock 'n' roll tenor saxophone in high school and then jazz saxophone and piano. The high point of this almost-career was, with our group "Larry and the Gents," opening for the Beach Boys at McCormick Place in 1962.

Twenty years later, another teacher changed my life, the extraordinary French intellectual, Raymond Aron, who invited me into his famed faculty seminar as a foreign graduate student. Sitting across the table, I "saw" what an intellectual is, as opposed to an academic. "The purpose of a seminar," he said, is to discuss ideas, "not to get to yes or no." A successful seminar "ends up with more questions than it began with." My fire was lit. I wanted, in American vernacular, "to be like Aron."

I believe that any student can succeed if they're fortunate enough to meet the right teacher in the right place at the right time. Once that happens, a young person can make the best out of any course, even one poorly taught.

Not every kid will become a scientist, a CEO or a United States senator. But any student can succeed because there are so many kinds of success. In terms of financial stability alone, a skilled, committed dentist, tax preparer or auto mechanic is hard to find. Clients flock to them because beyond their skills they are optimistic and really interested in other people.

Success means getting your fire lit, deriving satisfaction out of knowledge for its own sake and expertise for its usefulness. It is understanding that knowledge is not only power but life satisfaction. By the way, this goes for teachers as well as students.