education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or
even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate
between what you do know and what you don't.”
- Anatole France
Teacher I Ever Had
by David Owen
(Source: Reader's Digest - Asian
Edition - , April
1991, pp. 47-48)
Whitson taught sixth-grade science. On the first day of class,
he gave us a lecture about a creature called the cattywampus,
an ill-adapted nocturnal animal that was wiped out during the
Ice Age. He passed around a skull as he talked. We all took
notes and later had a quiz.
he returned my paper, I was shocked. There was a big red X
through each of my answers. I had failed. There had to be some
mistake! I had written down exactly what Mr. Whitson said.
Then I realized that everyone in the class had failed. What
had happened? Very simple, Mr. Whitson explained. He had made
up all the stuff about the cattywampus. There had never been
any such animal. The information in our notes was, therefore,
incorrect. Did we expect credit for incorrect answers?
to say, we were outraged. What kind of test was this? And what
kind of teacher?
should have figured it out, Mr. Whitson said. After all, at
the every moment he was passing around the cattywampus skull
(in truth, a cat's), hadn't he been telling us that no trace
of the animal remained? He had described its amazing night
vision, the color of its fur and any number of other facts
he couldn't have known. He had given the animal a ridiculous
name, and we still hadn't been suspicious. The zeroes on our
papers would be recorded in his grade book, he said. And they
Whitson said he hoped we would learn something from this experience.
Teachers and textbooks are not infallable. In fact, no one
is. He told us not to let our minds go to sleep, and to speak
up if we ever thought he or the textbook was wrong.
class was an adventure with Mr. Whitson. I can still remember
some science periods almost from beginning to end. On day he
told us that his Volkswagon was a living organism. It took
us two full days to put together a refutation he would accept.
He didn't let us off the hook until we had proved not only
that we knew what an organism was but also that we had the
fortitude to stand up for the truth.
carried our brand-new skepticism into all our classes. This
caused problems for the other teachers, who weren't used to
being challenged. Our history teacher would be lecturing about
something, and then there would be clearings of the throat
and someone would say "cattywampus".
I'm ever asked to propose a solution to the problems in our
schools, it will be Mr. Whitson. I haven't made any great scientific
discoveries, but Mr. Whitson's class game me and my classmates
something just as important: the courage to look people
in the eye and tell them they are wrong. He
also showed us that you can fun doing it.
everyone sees the value in this. I once told an elementary
school teacher about Mr. Whitson. The teacher was appalled. "He
shouldn't have tricked you like that," he said. I looked
that teacher right in the eye and told him that he was wrong.
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