I once had a philosophy teacher who I’m coming to think was not very good. He was very brilliant but he taught poorly and the way in which his teaching (both in person and in his written books) was poor reflected I believe a defect of character. He was a brilliant man and on any particular topic had a lot of dazzling, provocative, unexpected and beautiful things to say but he never connected them in a way that made it easy to follow. The experience of taking a class from him was you would enter a door marked — let us say “Nietzsche” — and then enter the intellectual equivalent of a carnival dark ride. Lights would flash, music would play, you would be propelled past fascinating scenes and then deposited outside. You would think “That was intense! I guess I learned something about Nietzsche…I just can’t quite say what.” When he taught he put on an amazing performance. He revealed a striking degree of vulnerabiity about his own personal, emotional travails, and left you feeling you had encountered not just a professor but a tormented fellow human being. The net effect was that his students became fascinated with him and did not learn how to be philosophers themselves. Sometimes you could catch something but it was a risky endeavor, like trying to grab a fire-cracker and start a cookout with it.
I had another teacher who as I have grown older I have come to appreciate more. This teacher was humble and always seemed ready to reconsider everything he had ever thought. He was like a good electrician who leaves the jobsite every day in good shape. If the jobsite is in good shape when the electrician dies another electrician is faced not with spaghetti but with a clear system of wires — this one turns on the ceiling fan, this one turns on the overhead lights. The good teacher leaves a tidy intellectual workspace in which all the tools are well-placed, in good working order and easy to use. The good teacher teaches his students not to need him.