June 30th, 2009

Those Who Can …


During my drive down to Pennsylvania this week, I was listening to an interview with a sculptor. The interviewer asked if he was still teaching. “No, I’m not. Teaching sculpture is easier than doing it. I need to devote my efforts to doing it.” His comment reminded me of that old adage. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Since the interview I’ve been wondering (yet again) if teaching really is easier than doing—teaching writing is easier than writing, teaching problem solving is easier than solving problems, teaching physical therapy is easier than being a physical therapist.

I can certainly see how they are different, how they require different skills sets, but I’m just not seeing that teaching is inherently, obviously easier. When you teach writing, public speaking or how to work effectively in groups (these I know best), you must understand the skill very explicitly. You have to be able to explain elusive ideas like voice and style, charisma and leadership. And you have to be able to explain them in more than one way and with multiple examples. Then you need keen observation skills so that you can see what the novice is doing wrong and offer feedback that corrects constructively. Teaching is such an other-directed activity. I know, you write for an audience just as you build bridges for the public to safely traverse, but that’s what happens once whatever you’ve created is complete. The process of creating it is self-directed.

I don’t think the reverse is true: writing is not easier than teaching writing. I know that for sure. It’s lots of time alone, on a chair, in front of a computer. It’s the ongoing quest for clarity, for capturing a thought with words, for succinctness. It’s hard work and doing it well takes dedication and lots of hard work, just like teaching.

It seems to me that the two are different and should not be compared in hierarchical ways that position them above or below each other. Is an apple somehow better than an orange? True, many of the great artists (past and present) don’t teach and many great teachers don’t create masterpieces—although a few do both.

Can’t we just respect the commitment and craft called for by each? Can’t we abandon assumptions that one is “easier” and the other “harder” therefore more valuable work? Would there be any sculptors without teachers?