What it Means To Be a Great Teacher

The purpose of ruthless objectivity and extreme expertise

“Those who are looking ahead to a new movement in education, should think in terms of Education itself. Any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism’ becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms’ that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.” – John Dewey, Experience and Education

Despite the ideological and political conflict on our nation’s campuses, colleges and universities may still hope for an enduring legitimacy for reasons described by British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. He recognized that there is an essence of a great university, located in a personal dimension at the intersection of a relationship between yourself and an instructor. The instructor becomes a thought partner, perhaps something of a role model, or a mentor who facilitates your intellectual growth (and, as it turns out, the professor’s as well). Whitehead described it this way:

The universities are schools of education, and schools of research. But the primary reason for their existence is not to be found either in the mere knowledge conveyed to the students or in the mere opportunities for research afforded to the members of the faculty. Both these functions could be performed at a cheaper rate, apart from these very expensive institutions. Books are cheap, and the system of apprenticeship is well understood. So far as the mere imparting of information is concerned, no university has had any justification for existence since the popularization of printing in the fifteenth century. Yet the chief impetus to the foundation of universities came after that date, and in more recent times has even increased. The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.1

As with many things, collegiate teaching follows a fairly normal distribution: most professors are average, a few underperform, and some really stand out. This performance can be measured, and good institutions will take the time not only to demand high standards of teaching performance but also, first, to define what teaching even is (and the art of teaching, which is often left to chance, is getting more attention in our nation’s Ph.D. programs).

[Related: “Donald Leslie Shaw, Happy Academic Warrior”]

One of the reasons why great, or even capable, teaching is unusual is because the stakes are not high enough. As a young flight cadet at Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, teaching was not only formally regulated and explicitly tested and retested, but the risks of failure, neglect, or incompetence had hard implications: safety of life and limb. Poor instructors were “washed out,” and more than a few were forced into remedial training or exited the profession voluntarily.2 The good flight instructors, however, had three things in common: technical competence, mental organization, and communication skills. These three factors all coalesced around a fourth essential factor: maintaining very high standards. Often their demands were seen as domineering, intimidating, or even obsessive.

Obsession is a good thing. Good teachers are obsessive about quality, clarity of thought, and deliberation, along with demonstrated, progressive improvement among their students. But there is also something else I would like to point to, and describing it is a bit of a creative indulgence. A professor at the University of Chicago had this “something else,” and of all the subjects that you might not expect it to be associated with, it was in accounting.3

Booth School of Business professor Roman Weil, who recently passed away, always struck me as a magnificent pedagogue. He knew his subject cold and he knew where he was leading us. He thought through and across the concepts and aimed toward the logic of the accounting operation, and, eventually, what it all means. He provided constant context that permeated the most basic drill, to its final inclusion in a financial statement.

I don’t say this out of sentimentality, but because I had this impression on the first day of class in our MBA program. Roman had an articulate, outward command of his subject—he co-authored his own text, which is among the standards of the profession (in its 14th edition, I believe). Along with this expert competence, however, he had developed an explicit philosophy of teaching and a “science” of learning. Much of his skill was rooted in years of experience teaching adult students in business and law programs about the ancient art of accounting,4 which is not always immediately apparent in its logic. It is challenging.5 It is not only conceptually sophisticated, but it also has enormous breadth in its methods and applications. And in a graduate school of business, it moves at a brisk pace: many of the “ringers” in our cohort (CPAs) biased that pace, while the rest of us worked to keep our heads above water until we finally caught on to the discipline’s logic.

[Related: “In Memoriam, Lester G. Telser”]

But Roman also knew something about the learning process, memory, and retention. Whitehead addressed this pedagogical subtlety as well:

Whatever be the detail with which you cram your students, the chance of their meeting in after-life exactly that detail is infinitesimal; and if they do meet it, they will probably have forgotten what you taught them about it. The really useful training yields a comprehension of a few general principles with a thorough grounding in the way they apply to a variety of concrete details. In subsequent practice the students will have forgotten your particular details; but they will remember by an unconscious common sense how to apply principles to immediate circumstances.6

I’m not suggesting that osmosis can replace hard work and thinking, but it does point to another natural learning process: language acquisition. We don’t learn our native language by studying it: we speak it from listening to and mimicking others. We also practice certain language drills in school and may, at some point, study advanced expository and creative writing. Even these activities, however, are guided by listening and copying (some writers, scientists, and composers call it outright stealing). Much also is retained passively and becomes activated through time. Learning a foreign language as an adult is like that: you probably know more about grammar and syntax than native speakers do, but you still don’t have native fluency, and you never will (I studied Russian in college and only developed some deeper fluency after I lived and worked in the former Soviet Union).7

There is one last vital thing about good teaching—and learning—that Roman Weil always upheld, and it came from a strong conviction about what he was doing, and why. He said it in the Preface to his accounting text:

Effective financial reporting, starting with financial statement preparation and ending with financial statement analysis and use, requires ruthless objectivity and extreme expertise.8 For the financial reporting process to have its intended effects, preparers of financial statements must make unbiased and informed measurements—in particular, fair value measurements—and users of financial statements must comprehend and analyze those measurements with skill and objectivity [emphasis mine].

I think Roman was upholding one of the most crucial elements of university culture: objectivity. In law it goes by “neutrality” or neutral principles, and it is the fundamental posture of a coherent legal system.9 Perhaps accounting provides a model for the other disciplines. It can be violated and corrupted like any principle, of course, but in his teaching, Roman kept objectivity and expertise front and center at all times. Without it, there is no rationality, reasoning, or even legitimate creative license (unlike “living” constitutionalism or various social justice activism in law schools, for example).

This all points to one of higher education’s most important utilities: it consists of structured experience, leading to the development of mature perception (in flight school we defined learning as “a change in behavior as a result of experience”), and if you organize your academic experiences thoughtfully, this process is durable. More than that, it helps refine learning behavior so that your best teacher is you. Roman Weil understood that, even through the seemingly mundane routines of accounting. May the union of young and old last a long time.

1 See his “The Aims of Education,” discussed here and here.

2 What risks from substandard performance do most college professors face in other, purely academic settings, or even in medical or law school? The answer seems to be “none.” This could be explained by a number of factors, including tenure protection, solidarity among faculty, labor laws, and, especially, an absence of management standards and accountability. This is a complicated issue because some students learn very differently and will respond differently to different teaching styles and personalities. I recall an advanced mathematics professor who consistently scored far below average by most students, yet I “ranked” him at a high level, as his presentations seemed to fit with my mode of mental processing.

3 Part of this “something else” involves, I think, a certain positivism, or rational empiricism, that is combined with a great confidence in man’s ability to solve problems. As Hegel stated in his first University of Berlin lecture, The closed essence of the universe has no intrinsic power to resist man’s cognition, but must open up and reveal its riches and depths to him.”

4 This is a body of knowledge going back at least to the Middle Ages, from the “father of modern accounting,”Luca Pacioli. In 1494 he articulated double-entry bookkeeping, in use by Venetian businessmen and merchants, and published in his Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita.

5 From the preface to his financial accounting text: “WARNING: Study of this book is known to cause thinking, occasionally deep thinking. Typical side effects include mild temporary anxiety followed by profound long-term understanding and satisfaction.” Sydney Davidson, Clyde P. Stickney, and Roman L. Weil. Financial accounting: An introduction to concepts, methods, and uses. Dryden Press, 1979.

6 Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays. This effective learning theory also applies to how and by what process so-called “truth claims,” and even hypotheses, are actively managed. See The Pragmatist Challenge: Pragmatist Metaphysics for Philosophy of Science, Oxford University Press (2023). In her paper titled “Trueing,” H.K. Andersen of Simon Fraser University states that “Even in areas of philosophy of science that dont involve formal treatments of truth, ones background view of truth still centrally shapes views on other issues. I offer an informal way to think about truth as trueing, like trueing a bicycle wheel. This holist approach to truth provides a way to discuss knowledge products like models in terms of how well-trued they are to their target. Trueing emphasizes: the process by which models are brought into true; how the idealizations in models are not false but rather like spokes in appropriate tension to achieve a better-trued fit to target; and that this process is not accomplished once and done forever, but instead requires upkeep and ongoing fine-tuning, and asking ‘but do we really know that.’” This has significant implications for the larger ideological contentions on college campuses that are not generally guided by any specific method of address, other than, for example, the so-called “Chicago Principles,” which are only a statement of position, not a framework for inquiry.

7 But there is also something very perceptive in Whitehead’s assertion and in Weil’s adoption of it as a pedagogical philosophy: by incorporating principles, methods, and applications through a learned and instinctive internalization, the nature of thought itself is transformed, or more finely focused, for higher-order problems and insight. In business, that means strategic insight which is partly related to pattern recognition and the higher-order command of symbolic systems. Whitehead put it this way: “It is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.” From An Introduction to Mathematics (1911).

8 Objectivity and expertise seem to imply formalism and positivism, but they also act on an intuitive level of intelligence, as does the “trueing” concept. This points to a total intelligence action described by former head of psychology at UChicago, Mihaly “Mike” Csikszentmihalyi, in Flow. The standard of “ruthless expertise” is not just an aspiration of performance in domain knowledge, but a demand for absolute facility in those applications that are presented to students as subjects derived from genuine authority, based in competence, and not simply in speculation or casual indulgence.

9 “Law is constrained at every point by reality, and utopian visions have no place in it. Moreover the common law of England is proof that there is a real distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power, that power can exist without oppression, and that authority is a living force in human conduct. English law, I discovered, is the answer to Foucault.” Roger Scruton, “Why I became a conservative.” The New Criterion, February 2003.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Matthew G. Andersson

    Matthew G. Andersson is a corporation founder and former CEO, management consultant and author of the upcoming book “Legally Blind,” concerning law education. He has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian, Time Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Journal of Private Equity, the National Academy of Sciences, and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize report by the Chicago Tribune. He has been a guest on CBS, ABC, CNN, Bloomberg, Public Television, and the BBC, and received the Silver Anvil award from the Public Relations Society of America. He has testified before the U.S. Senate, and Connecticut General Assembly concerning higher education. He attended Yale College where he studied Russian language under department chairman Alexander Schenker; the University of Texas at Austin, Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the LBJ School of Public Affairs where he worked with economist and White House national security advisor W.W. Rostow. He received an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in Barcelona, Spain and the U.S. He is the author of a text on law and economics used at Northwestern University, DePaul University College of Law, and McGill University Faculty of Law. He has lived and worked in Russia and Eastern Europe for a Fortune 100 technology company in strategic joint ventures.

3 thoughts on “What it Means To Be a Great Teacher

  1. Context is the glue that makes an idea stick with a student. “He provided constant context that permeated the most basic drill…” Yes, a teacher must know their subject; but a teacher must know his students also. What we bring to a reading is just as important as what we are reading; what a student brings to the classroom is just as important as what we are teaching. That doesn’t mean we should have a student-centered curriculum. I want to know what a student knows not how he feels. If I’m doing my job as a teacher, I’ll find out how he feels by how much he achieves.

  2. This is a fine article. Many pithy and provocative ideas are set forth, all of which bear dissemination and repetition. Consider just one example: “ruthless objectivity.” This is as bracing a concept as I have come upon in a long time. Let the mawkish sentimentalists beware!

  3. If you want to focus on good teaching, good luck if you’re in a STEM field. It will make your career short. Universities don’t care about good teaching or even publications. They care about one—-and only one—thing: money. I know a number of faculty who never got promoted to full professor because they didn’t have enough funded research. So, if you want to advance in STEM, focus on bring in the research dollars; good teaching has a very limited return on investment.

    I am not advocating such a policy. Indeed, I believe good teaching should be paramount when it comes to promotion and tenure. Be I also live in the real world. Good teaching is not valued nearly as much as bringing in the research dollars. Not by a long shot.

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