Letter From Former Student

A former student of my nearly 30-year college teaching career found my blog and sent me email updating me about her life over the last fifteen years or so. In it she said:

I am so grateful that you and a small handful of other people I have encountered in my life had such an influence on me, in teaching me how to think for myself and how to not be a sheep, to not settle for accepting the world at face value, and the value in asking questions. I am sure you had a similar impact on other students … Thank you a million times over!

Students & Teachers

l begin with a disclaimer. I am not publishing the above so anyone thinks I was a great teacher. I’m sure for every nice letter one receives from a former student there is another student who longs to write its antithesis.  And as anyone who has ever read class evaluations of their teaching knows, the “this guy changed my life and should win the Nobel Peace Prize” evaluation is followed by one that says “this guy is the worst human being who ever lived.”

My graduate school department chair gave me the best advice I ever heard about class evaluations. In a typical sample of about 30-40, he said, take the 2 best and the 2 worst, throw them out and focus on the remainder. I think he was right. What I have found is that no matter what you do some students really like you and some really don’t. So it is the majority in the middle that provides the best feedback. Still, the entire process of teaching evaluations done by students is suspect. Although I always did pretty well on them, I’ve often thought that they were bad for education, forcing instructors to grovel for student affection.

Why I Published The Excerpt

I think the excerpt from the letter above captures the essence of teaching and learning, especially its emphasis on thinking for oneself, asking questions, and not merely being a follower. Thinking is about wondering, questioning, fantasizing, and imagining,

But to be reminded by one of those nearly 10,000 students of your influence is strangely rewarding. That you made a small difference in someone’s life makes your life seem, for a brief moment, meaningful. No, it doesn’t mean that your life or cosmic life is fully meaningful, but it does bestow some temporary value, at least in your own eyes, upon one’s efforts.

And those brief, fleeting, ephemeral moments when you are reminded that everything you have done was not completely in vain are one of the best things life has to offer. Even when the reminder comes from strangers in the past.

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10 thoughts on “Letter From Former Student

  1. Well, your former student must have benefited from your instruction—that means you were a good teacher at the very least. If you have a few minutes, read Dan Little’s post today. I left a comment there ( Understanding Society, in case you are not familiar with him)

  2. Dr. Messerly,

    Indeed, I believe that of all the people you taught, anybody would say that they learned nothing valuable from you, it would reflect badly on them, not you. Not everyone “gets it”. Some people really are too dumb to learn anything valuable. I myself observe this in people I know, and even in those I don’t.

    I myself can say that in my whole life, the only truly valuable things I learned, I learned them from people like you. People who took the task of thinking seriously. All else to me is at best insubstantial, at worst even stupid.

    Teachers of philosophy are the ones that deserve the most trust of all, for they observe and try to understand everything, including themselves. I don’t believe that a philosopher can do anything badly, knowingly. But most people often do things badly, and they don’t even know it.

    Wasn’t it Plato who said that only philosophers should be kings? Well, that should also apply to teachers, I say.

    If only I had found someone like you when I was young. Sigh….

    In my defence, I thought nothing, because I didn’t know what to think, but most of all, how. Whereas most people I remember seemed to always know what to think. Guess what, they were all stupid people who learned to think what the next imbecile next to them had thought.

    At least, I thought nothing. Better than bad 🙂

    Thank you!

  3. As always, thanks for your kind words. But upon meeting me in person I think your view of me might change. I’m just a kid who grew up and wanted answers to his questions. But I also love to just play with my grandchildren and take walks with my wife and not think much about the meaning of life.

    all the best, hopefully we might meet one day. But if not, just keep thinking.


  4. Doc,


    ”upon meeting me in person I think your view of me might change.”.

    Yet philosophers must try to get through the appearances (although I am certainly no philosopher, but a mere learner), and by the same token, what you say about yourself, would also apply to me, and to anyone else.

    And I agree about just enjoying the moment, I am learning to do that also… ”for this moment is really all we have. The past is but an empty dream, the future a mere conjecture ”, as AS said. Thank you!

    All the best,

  5. thanks again Luigi, in the end,I agree with William James and others that we just don’t know much if anything about truth.

  6. On the air traffic blog piece: I sent an affirmative, but was not sure you received it.

  7. Dear Doctor John, A sincere Thank you for the Reason and Meaning blog, I’ve been a faithful follower since I discovered it! I enjoy contemplating the ideas you present for our edification, As for yourself and what your pupil’s think of you, Well! you really can’t please everyone. I haven’t agreed with every idea or conclusion you have presented, yet I wouldn’t criticize you personally because your ideas didn’t align with mine. Why do people attend the University? Hopefully to be exposed to ideas they are unfamiliar with!
    You have humility Dr. John, true humility, Not like the Humility a PHD in English was referring too when he said, tongue in cheek, I am humble it is something I’m very proud of!

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