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Nobody Has A Duty To Teach

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At the last conference I attended, Scott Hanselman hosted a session called – Why So Mean? (entire Kyte video here). Like many discussions before it, this session was focused on the question most alpha geeks crave to answer, “It is our duty to teach and pull the rest of the community forward! How do we get other developers to listen, learn, and most important care?”


First and foremost, let’s address the question, “How do we get others to learn?” I find this question so egotistical and self serving it pains me. A guru that sits atop of the mountain does not climb off of it to go door-to-door knocking looking for students. Why would he? Climbing the mountain is the first sign that the student is willing to put forth the effort to learn.

Additionally, what about allowing survival of the fittest to run its’ course? If some developers walk around with their eyes and ears closed it will not be long before people, companies, and universities will have to “ratchet-up” in order to survive against better and faster competitors.

As for “it’s our duty” portion I say – bullocks! If you sincerely feel a sense of duty, then super cool. Be a blogger, be a author, be a mentor; however, it is not your duty. In order to say “yes” to something you have to say “no” to something else. If you choose to teach your mantra just know that you are taking away your time and attention to something else whether it be your family, work, or even the practices that allowed you to be good enough to teach your wisdom. You can be a hermit guru if you wish and the world will keep spinning.

I recently bumped into this story and found it quite appropriate:

In ancient Greece there once lived a wise philosopher, he was greatly admired by his peers and extremely smart for his time, indeed he was considered a genius. There was a young man who looked up to this philosopher with great admiration, he wanted to know everything he knew, and become great like he was.

The young man approached the philosopher one day seeking to become an understudy. The philosopher informed the young man that he would not teach him – he was not a teacher but a philosopher. The young man persisted, he asked the philosopher every morning for a lesson, anything would do. This went on for several months. Finally, one day the philosopher agreed and informed the young man that his first lesson would be taught at the beach the following morning, he was to meet him there at dawn sharp.

The young man didn’t sleep much that night, he was anticipating the great lesson he would learn about the ocean, or maybe the sand, or maybe some deep insight to the mating ritual of crabs; it didn’t matter, he was finely going to learn something. He showed up at the beach at dawn sharp as agreed, but the philosopher was no where to be seen. He scanned the beach up and down several times, he gazed as far as he could down the road to town hoping his teacher was simply late, nothing.

A little discouraged he sat down and gazed out into the ocean, and then he saw him, or his head rather, about seven paces out into the water, submerged all the way up to his chin. The young man was surprised but excited, he leaped up and ran out to his new teacher as fast as he could. When he got within arms length of the philosopher, the philosopher grabbed him by the arm and twisted him under the water, the young man struggled, but the philosopher was fast and agile, he had a firm grip. The young man was unprepared to be forced under water so quickly, he only had half a lung full of air. 10 seconds passed, then 20 then 30, but he could not free himself from the old man.

Panic started to set in, he realized that he was about to die, his vision started to tunnel, he desperately needed some air. Just before he was about to give up and take in a lung full of sea water the philosopher let him free. The young man, quite frightened, swam as fast as he could to shore. He yelled out to the philosopher and asked, “What was that for, are you crazy?” to which the old man replied “That was your lesson. When you want knowledge as much as you just wanted air, you’ll find it” – Found on SerenityCheck

Bloggers, authors, forum contributors, speakers, and team leaders – I salute you. You continually open the door of wisdom to many, but it is the student’s choice alone whether or not to walk through.

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11 Responses to “Nobody Has A Duty To Teach”

  1. t mace on July 27th, 2009 5:51 am

    Great lesson… really, for any adult desiring to learn… how badly do you really want to learn?

  2. developingchris on July 27th, 2009 8:08 am

    Great anecdote to really display the problem with forcing learning on people.

    I think this is why we have a lot of people who would rather teach college than high school, one student chooses (kind of) to go, the other is required by law.

  3. David Robbins on July 27th, 2009 7:08 pm

    Desire to learn has to be catalyst for motivating people to improve. Constant “outreach missions” are merely a means of either stroking egos or pushing product. Many members of my team have been selected because they are self starters AND because they have sought different avenues to teach themselves. In general they highly skeptical of the evangelists from high.

    That said, as leader of smart people, you need create a culture that produces and rewards innovation, success, and respect. I have post on this if anyone is interested.

  4. Scott Bellware on August 1st, 2009 1:36 am

    There’s a great difference between forcing learning on people and making a difference by becoming a teacher when there is a great need for teachers.

    Since this whole thing is being framed as an analogy (an approach to exploration of ideas that I wholeheartedly try to avoid for all its inherent flaws), here’s another one:

    Bringing balance to perspectives by becoming a teacher in a poor nation where radical fundamentalist schools crank out terrorists can prevent human suffering.

    The vast majority of masters who choose a monastic life don’t shut themselves off in a mountain top cliche. These isolated few are a rarity, not a norm. Most simple monks are teachers.

  5. Torbjørn Marø on August 1st, 2009 1:58 am

    That anecdote is mostly crap in my opinion. So people should not seek to learn from people with great knowledge, is that it?

    The student was really willing to learn – he thought about it all day – he just didn’t know how to go about learning himself. But he knew to ask for help, which is generally a good thing.

    What happened to the young man after the drowning incident you think? What is more likely: He suddenly knew how to acquire knowledge for himself by the fear the philosopher put in him? Or did he never dear ask another question again?

    I agree we don’t have an inherent duty to teach, but this post still made no sense to me.

  6. Max Pool on August 1st, 2009 7:59 am

    @Scott –

    I agree with your point of view, and like I said, I salute all teachers as they do what they do out of a sense of duty to improve the greater good.

    In your good analogy, which had no flaws from my POV ;), if the group of terrorists stayed terrorists was it a failure of the student or teacher? Probably both, maybe more environmental, who knows but an interesting question to ask…

    @Torbjørn –

    I think you partially missed the main points:
    1. The student was only willing to learn because he wanted the notoriety of the master, not the wisdom.
    2. The master did not want to teach (perhaps just that student).
    3. Unless the student was dense, he realized the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is primarily a self-improvement activity that is only for self-reward.

    So let’s twist this into another example, what if I wanted to become rich and followed Warren Buffet around all day? Would he see my interest in money as wanting to learn the stock market or just a want of money?

    Sometimes people are not willing to spoon feed knowledge to others, especially when their intentions and effort are more inline with an end destination and not the journey that teaches us wisdom.

  7. Torbjørn Marø on August 1st, 2009 9:21 am

    I just can’t see how the points you say I missed is conveyed in that story. If you already have a bias towards your point number 1 you will perhaps read it into “..great admiration, he wanted to know everything he knew, and become great like he was.”, but I see it as nothing more that wanting wisdom (which is probably my bias).

    In contrast, isn’t eastern philosophy full of similar stories, but with different endings, where the persistence of the apprentice-to-be is rewarded in the end?

    And to your Warren Buffet example: Should we disregard all developers coming to us for knowledge if they are not interested in the great feeling of playing around with architectures and algorithms, and are just interested in creating great software – the final result? I think not!

  8. Max Pool on August 1st, 2009 10:04 am

    @Torbjørn –

    Perhaps you are correct in saying that my perception of the story is bias towards a lazy and unwilling student, rather than a jerk of a teacher 🙂

    In short, the point I am trying to make with this post is from the teacher perspective and that everyone does not need to be a teacher all the time, even when presented with the opportunity to teach a valid student who has the correct level of integrity.

    Great conversation, as I appreciate other ways of looking at this…

  9. Mike on August 4th, 2009 7:11 am

    “It is our duty to teach and pull the rest of the community forward! How do we get other developers to listen, learn, and most important care?”

    Who said that???? Were they joking? You know, its no wonder our profession is taken so UNprofessionally by the world. Ever ask a plumber to work weekends or overtime WITHOUT pay? Ever call an electrician in the middle of the night to discuss why your light switch burnt out? Sure, you could do those things but you will pay through the nose.

    Us programmers? Its expected that we’ll work until 8pm every night and weekends without pay and be subject to the most absurd project schedules ever conceived by man.

    And now this person wants us to teach everyone else so that we, wait – what? “get other developers to care?” How do you weed out the poor developers? How do you excel if everyone is at the same level? I’d love to see a managing partner in an attorney’s office tell his staff attorneys that they all must help each other and make each other care. Usually the weak ones get FIRED.

    I man, KU-BY-YA already. This crap has to stop. We need to start charging for our time. Not even painters and musicians give away their time like we do. At least they traded their work for food and room and board.

    Please. This is starting to sound like the email lists and boards with umpteen million topics titles “URGENT! HELP!!” from someone in India who was outsourced work from someone else in the USA and he doesnt know his butt from his elbow when it comes to .NET development. But he got the contract because he charges $11/hr instead of his “peer” in America who was charging $55/hr.

    We’re supposed to teach these people, too, how to develop solid software? I think not. They can find another profession. The world needs ditch diggers too you know.

  10. The Most Important Agile Practice Of All on August 29th, 2009 6:12 am

    […] for someone to learn, someone else will have to teach – that’s just common sense. But, nobody really has a duty teach anyone anything. They will either do it because they are extremely altruistic and enjoy teaching others or […]

  11. Dan Gilleland on July 16th, 2010 5:44 pm

    I’ve taught for a number of years now, and I’ve long since adapted a well-known saying to the challenge of helping students learn:

    “You can lead a horse to water, but they’re awfully hard to drown.”

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