Why teach? More than once in recent years I’ve heard from teachers, nearing or past retirement, who wondered whether they had chosen the right profession. One thought that maybe she would have done better as an architect. “That way,” she said, “at least I could point to something I made.”
I suspect that many teachers harbor these sorts of doubts—the wiser the teacher, the graver the doubt. Teaching at its best is less in the business of imparting knowledge than it is of shaping souls. But who can tell what, if anything, has been shaped, much less how well? How much can any single teacher do, in the space of a semester or two, to form the interior spaces of her students’ intellectual and emotional lives?
Amy Kass, one of the best teachers I ever had (along with her husband, Leon, also at Chicago), was not immune to these sorts of doubts. She knew that even in the best classrooms at the University of Chicago, with the brightest students in the country, there was a limit to what she could accomplish.