AT RANDOM: Some thoughts on greatness in teachers

In the 1940s and 1950s, if you clicked on the radio, opened a book, magazine or newspaper — or, as the new medium of television emerged, looked at the small screen — you had a pretty good chance of bumping into Clifton Fadiman.

Long before our current age of the multi-media star, Fadiman, who died in 1999 at age 95, developed the clever ability to reach people through several venues at once.

He wrote masterful book reviews, penned wise and funny essays about everything from cheese to mail order catalogs, and served on the board of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Fadiman also hosted a popular radio show, “Information Please,” in which contestants tried to stump a panel of experts. The job helped advance Fadiman’s reputation as a man who knew everything.

But in “Enter Conversing,” a 1962 book published as Fadiman’s celebrity was beginning to fade, he reminded readers that he hadn’t been born with all that knowledge in his head. Great teachers had helped him succeed.

I read Fadiman’s thoughts about teaching last winter, during the evenings of a weeklong campout in a stretch of south Louisiana pine woods. Holding Fadiman’s book under an electric lantern, I stretched on a cot and tried to stay warm beneath a thick hill of blankets while a brisk wind rippled the tent. Fadiman’s fine mind generated some heat of its own, giving off a mild and pleasant glow as I read myself to sleep.

In these warm and humid days of September, I’ve long since thawed my bones and returned Fadiman’s book to the shelf.

But as my son and daughter start a new school year, I’ve been thinking again about Fadiman’s deep appreciation of the teachers who shaped his life.

A truly great teacher, Fadiamn believed, teaches students to teach themselves. He quotes the American thinker Elbert Hubbard: “The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher.”

Great teachers, Fadiman added, help a student find gifts that previously seemed invisible.

He fondly recalls a college professor who had the curious power “of making you say things you would swear were far beyond your mental capacity.”

To unleash that kind of power, great teachers have to believe that all students — even the apparently dull ones — have the promise of greatness, too.

While some teachers are merely babysitters, and others are only instructors who share material, true teachers move minds.

“That movement,” wrote Fadiman, “multiplied over time and space, adds up to a sum. The sum is civilization.”

Upholding civilization? If that’s what great teachers do, then why don’t we honor them more?

Clifton Fadiman, if he were still around, might be asking the same question.