The Gift of a Great Teacher by Robert J. Samuelson

Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post, October 14, 1999.


If you are lucky in life, you will have at least one great teacher. More than three decades ago, I had Ed Banfield, a political scientist who taught mainly at the University of Chicago and Harvard University. Ed’s recent death at 83 saddened me (which was expected) and left me with a real sense of loss (which wasn’t). Although we had stayed in touch, we were never intimate friends or intellectual soul-mates. The gap between us in intellectual candlepower was too great. But he had loomed large in my life, and I have been puzzling why his death has so affected me.

I think the answer—and the reason for writing about something so personal—goes to the heart of what it means to be a great teacher. By teacher, I am not referring primarily to classroom instructors, because learning in life occurs mainly outside of schools. I first encountered Ed in a lecture hall, but his greatness did not lie in giving good lectures (which he did). It lay instead in somehow transmitting life-changing lessons. If I had not known him, I would be a different person. He helped me become who I am and, more important, who I want to be.

Library of Congress