To become a teacher, one ought to know something. Ideally, you’d know several things. In the best of all worlds, though, you would know many things — most of them, perhaps, relating to a single, broader, specific thing: physics, language, history. And even in that ideal scenario, you may still be so stupid as to get yourself fired for rank ignorance.
This was the case for an adjunct instructor for Southern New Hampshire University who got into a now-viral email argument with a student as to whether Australia is a country, the professor’s stubborn position being that it is, instead, a continent. (It is both.) The incident, which cost the woman her job, reminds us that a PhD in philosophy implies no real-world knowledge whatsoever, but it also makes you wonder if the professor had been parroting misinformation long ago imparted to her by an equally useless educator.
Anyone who came up through a school system has encountered the teacher who seems to have not the slightest clue what they’re doing, yet the internet only offers content mocking the pupils: Teachers and professors delight in sharing anecdotes of the dumbest questions they’ve been asked, the weirdest excuses proffered, and the saddest attempts at cheating or plagiarism. Well, I’ve had enough. The kids are all right — it’s the idiot grown-ups we need to worry about. When I reached out to friends and acquaintances for stories of run-ins with the rotten apples of academia, several recalled absurd standoffs akin to the SNHU situation: being thrown out of class for correcting a teacher’s spelling or math, fighting with a Columbia University grad professor who refused to admit he’d misdeclined the Latin noun “domus,” and so on. One recounted how a “seventh-grade social studies teacher insisted my poem about Hippocrates was not a poem if it did not have a rhyme scheme. I threw an incredulous fit and was sent to the principal’s office.” (They continue to write very good non-rhyming poetry today.) Another had trouble when they contradicted some flawed astronomy:
This sort of dogged denialism, which merely inverts a basic fact, pales in comparison to bizarre views that teachers acquire as if from the ether. My former co-worker Jaya had a rough introduction to paleontology: “My kindergarten teacher asked me where dinosaurs lived, and I posited ‘Everywhere?’ and she yelled at me and said “No, dummy, THE PLAINS.” A college classmate, Alex, assures me that a professor at our alma mater told him “that helium was a drug because when you inhale it, it goes ‘into your brain’ and changes your voice.” There was the World Religions adjunct who believed “that Hollywood was trying to convert people to physics and atheism through Star Wars because it emphasized ‘the Force,’” and the bio professor who made interesting use of a whiteboard to illustrate his point. Extra credit to whoever can explain this drawing:
Misapprehensions are especially alarming when they relate to the teacher’s field. We live in a world where botany professors demand that students “freeze” their seeds at 25 degrees Celsius, AP literature instructors claim that Shakespeare wrote in “Old English” (hey, they’re only about 500 years off), and developmental psych experts think that the “average IQ has gone from 85 to 120 since the 1950s.” Once, my buddy Steve says, “I had to prove to my AP US History teacher that ‘Congress’ included both the Senate and House of Representatives, and wasn’t just a synonym for the House, to get 2 points on a test that he erroneously deducted.” Also, you can lead an astronomy lab without ever taking an astronomy class yourself. In fairness, that lab sounds pretty great.
Even basic literacy seems to be an obstacle in learning: I heard about an honors-level teacher who had to sound out the name “Venice” after writing it out, an English instructor who struggled with the concept of splitting a word (“the word ‘candidate’ appeared at the end of a line so it looked like ‘candi-/-date’ and she spent 5 FULL MINS going, ‘Candy? Date? idgi?’ before the class informed her it was the word candidate”), another who was thwarted by a pretty simple character name in Anne of Green Gables, and a social studies teacher who kept pronouncing the word “Judaism” as “jood-ism.”
Speaking of Judaism, quite a few teachers trip hardest on the fault lines of faith, race, or sexuality. “My eighth-grade English teacher at a public middle school with a large Korean population asked a Korean student: ‘So is Korea, like, an island?’” a colleague reports. In a class on the “Psychology of Women,” a professor opined that “men can’t be feminists because they know where all the brothels are.” And that’s not the worst brothel reference, either; just be glad you didn’t study with “the rabbi who told his students, at a co-ed school, that sending his son to a co-ed school would be like ‘dropping him off at a brothel with gold in his pockets.’” My college chum Peter was placed in an ESL class despite being born in the U.S. and, uh, speaking English as a first language, while my friend Sarah remembers a sixth-grade teacher “insisting [that] slavery predates humans,” and there are apparently quite distinguished academics pulling this bullshit:
Finally, we come to the teachers so strange that it’s hard to tell exactly what their problem is. A few are surely lazy, like the Justice and Public Policy professor who would “screen episodes of Law and Order” and “had us watch the Sharon Stone leg-crossing scene in Basic Instinct in order to ‘learn how a police interrogation worked,’” or the med school histology prof who couldn’t “write proper questions or give us microscope slides so for a midterm, so he just gave us an essay question: ‘Blood, the wheel of life — discuss.’” The latter has a potential mentee in the middle school bio teacher who, to explain animal muscle structure, “had us look through a microscope at a slice of bologna.” I’m genuinely worried about the college prof who’s “afraid of electricity,” and the National Book Award winner who turned a scene about a pair of wolves from a Cormac McCarthy novel “into a thinly veiled speech of support for traditional marriage,” and the playwriting lecturer who can only reply “But who’s the ANTAGONIST??” to every idea. Of course, nothing can top the journalism professor who somberly told a group of 50 students, to awed gasps, that her father died on 9/11, adding only after a hushed pause that this was in Florida, where he was killed by…an alligator.
We may never understand why teachers say this stuff. You might speculate that a particular derangement comes along with a podium, or the attention of an entire lecture hall. Some get tenure, or close to their pension, and simply coast into the twilight of their career, unconcerned with pedagogy. The takeaway, in any event, is that nobody knows everything — and a large contingent of professors don’t care to know. If they want to ridicule their students’ gaffes, they should take stock, too. And here endeth the lesson.