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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

A salute to great teachers

Westminster Abbey.
Westminster Abbey.(Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticized for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of School for next half). I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Thus Martin Hammond, the master of Boris Johnson’s house at Eton, in a letter addressed to Johnson père in 1982. Boris took much the same approach to life at Oxford, where I met him a few years later. It was the same story in Fleet Street, in Parliament, as a junior minister, as mayor of London, as foreign secretary — and I have no doubt that it will be same story if, as now seems all but inevitable, he is elected Conservative leader and fulfills his life’s ambition to be Britain’s prime minister.

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It is true that Winston Churchill was also something of a maverick at Harrow, where (according to a contemporary) he “consistently broke almost every rule made by masters or boys, was quite incorrigible, and had an unlimited vocabulary of backchat.” A few years ago, Johnson dashed off a very bad book about Churchill, the main purpose of which was to draw attention to resemblances between himself and Britain’s greatest prime minister. For me, the book served only to confirm the chasm between them.

In any case, as Andrew Roberts notes in “Walking with Destiny,” Churchill did better at Harrow than he later claimed, winning a prize for reciting 1,200 lines of Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome” without error — whereas Johnson was notorious for fluffing his lines at Eton. Cruelly neglected by his parents, Churchill flourished under the influence of Robert Somervell, who taught him English grammar.

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Now there is a man who deserves our admiration: the man who taught English to the young Churchill, who in turn became one of the language’s greatest masters — second only to Shakespeare, in my view. Robert Somervell, like Hammond, dedicated his life to teaching. He did not aspire to be prime minister, for teachers are generally modest types. But should we admire only the ambitious?

To be a teacher is to forgo fame. You might aspire to become a headmaster; you do not dream of 10 Downing Street. This is the time of year when, regardless of the political goings-on in Westminster, the school year draws to a close and the more grateful seniors shake their teachers’ hands as they set off into the world. Let us therefore turn away from the attention-seeking antics of the power-hungry — there will be more than enough articles about Boris this weekend — and give thanks instead for the unsung heroes who are great teachers.

The best teachers have a real insight into the dark place that is teenage psychology. I was the rebellious type in my early teens. Not long after “Anarchy in the UK” had been released by the Sex Pistols — it was 1976 — I bought the cheapest available electric guitar and ineptly cut my hair in the punk fashion with my mother’s nail-scissors. History — then as now — had the reputation of being a boring subject at school. Yet my history teacher, the late Ronnie Woods, had the gift that makes a great teacher. He understood that a bunch of recalcitrant Glaswegian boys would respond only to a mixture of theater and terror.

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Woods would begin each lesson with an explosive flourish, spinning the blackboard around to reveal a multi-colored lesson plan. He was in tune with our adolescent addiction to humor, well aware that we were imitating him behind his back — as we imitated all our teachers — and furnishing us with ample raw material. But there were also the occasional flashes of ferocity that are needed to keep boys in line.

Then came the vital nuts and bolts. Woods showed us how to take notes, how to plan an essay, how to defend it in discussion. It was from him that I learned that the obvious answer to a historical question is rarely the right one, and never the interesting one. Above all, Woods had the vital quality that he genuinely wanted his star pupils to triumph.

We lost another great teacher last week, the Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, who died at the age of 79, having taught a striking proportion of the biggest names in economics today. Future president of Harvard and Treasury Secretary Larry Summers recalled how, in 1973, Feldstein “decided to take a chance on hiring a disheveled college sophomore as his research assistant. Marty was infinitely patient with my many questions about his research and remarkably tolerant of my inability to keep straight his data on international social security comparisons.”

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Either man would have been a better Federal Reserve chairman than the incumbent, and both came close, for Harvard is one of the few educational institutions in the world where the teachers do dream of the corridors of power.

But let Feldstein be remembered — along with Robert Somervell, Ronnie Woods, and thousands of others — as a great teacher, always patient and tolerant. Cultivating teenage talent is a noble vocation. And if some of the talent remains incorrigible . . . well, don’t blame the teachers. If, as prime minister, Boris Johnson continues to act as if “free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else,” it will not be Martin Hammond’s fault.


Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.