What I learn by teaching

I just finished another semester of teaching, culminating in watching my students walk across the stage to get their diplomas last week. That never fails to make me a bit weepy, and this year prompted me to reflect on why I love teaching so much.

Though I’ve always done it as an add-on to the organizational leadership roles I’ve had in human rights and philanthropic organizations, I’ve taught at half a dozen universities over the last forty years, and gotten a great deal out of it. I’ve taught classes on constitutional rights to cops and firefighters at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, social movements to maximum security prisoners in the Bard College Prison Initiative, non-profit management to graduate students at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, and human rights and leadership to City College students, many of whom are immigrants who are the first generation in their family to attend college. I also teach an intensive three-week course on philanthropy each January to students from twelve different countries at NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi.

I hope my students learn something from me. To judge by my evaluations, and the relationships I’ve maintained with many of them over the years, it seems many of them have. But what I’ve come to recognize, which I believe is the experience of many professors — certainly those who like me teach as a sideline to other careers — is that I don’t only teach for my students’ benefit. I do it for my own. When you teach a subject, if you take it seriously, you have to prepare a great deal and acquaint or reacquaint yourself with a lot of material so you can stay at least one step ahead of your students. That keeps you fresh, particularly if like me you are well along in your career arc. But I’ve also learned a lot from my students themselves.

On the face of it, two of the groups I’ve taught — public safety officers and incarcerated people — would not seem to have much in common. But what I found teaching in both settings, thirty years apart, is that they are often linked by the way they approach higher education: they don’t take it for granted. With few exceptions, they come from poor or working class backgrounds and a college degree was not pre-ordained for them. They do the work, and approach their studies with a kind of reverence. In my experience, the cops, perhaps habituated to authority, were quieter and had more of a “will this be on the test?” mentality — possibly because in the days I was teaching my John Jay classes, I was a senior official of the local ACLU, and maybe they held their tongues for fear of pissing me off — and the prisoners were more intellectually lively. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a class where almost every student spoke up, and regularly, more than the class I taught at Eastern Prison in upstate New York. (Though the fact that they were the only all-male group I’ve taught may explain that a bit, too.)

My Bard Prison Initiative students

A striking moment I had with the prison class came when I invited Evan Wolfson, who directed Freedom to Marry, the leading campaign for marriage equality, to come and speak with the students one evening. At that point New York State had legislated approval of same-sex marriage but we were a few years away from the landmark Supreme Court ruling expanding it to the whole country. Driving back with me, Evan said he was not only bowled over by the sharpness and intense participation of the students, but that he had not detected an ounce of homophobia, even in body language, in the room of 22 men, mostly in their thirties, mostly Black and Latino. I agreed.

My practice was to give the students a weekly short paper to write, and at the end of this class, I asked them to reflect on what they would advise Evan Wolfson on the next strategy to advance marriage equality. When I read the papers a week later, I was struck by how many of them focused on media and education campaigns to help the larger public understand and appreciate the basic humanity of their gay friends, families and neighbors. Many talked about their own personal journeys in coming to see gay rights, and same-sex marriage, as a human rights issue.

In the very candid exchange we had in our final class, each student spoke about his pain about the dehumanization of prisoners, seen as “animals,” written off as dangerous, useless, a set-apart “other.” It was then I realized that in writing about the need for gay people to be seen and understood as fully human — as just like everyone else — my students were also, or maybe even mainly, talking about themselves. They felt a personal sense of solidarity with a group they felt that many in society were eager to marginalize, make “other.”

In contrast to the make-up of my Eastern Prison class, the students I taught over a number of years at NYU’s Wagner School, all focused on non-profit issues, were mainly female. I never had more than three or four male students in groups of 25 or 30, maybe because women make up almost three-quarters of the non-profit workplace where pay levels are often significantly lower than in the private sector. In the later years of the century’s first decade, when I first taught my philanthropy course there, it filled up quickly with students eager to make their mark in what some were calling “philanthropocapitalism,” of the kind represented by Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and a wave of new foundations spawned by tech and finance fortunes. My students seemed to think that traditional models — and particularly government — were failing to meet the huge challenges of the time, from poverty to climate change, and that only a risk-taking third sector was up to the task. While I have typically warned my students against aspiring to enter the ranks of philanthropy too early in their careers — the power dynamic can be heady, and I believe they would be better grantmakers coming to foundation jobs after some years in the field understanding what it is like to have to move issues, make budgets, and raise money — all of a sudden philanthropy was the hottest career my students could imagine, and they wanted to get there fast.

That told me something about the way young emerging leaders saw the world, but a decade or so later the shift in my NYU (and later, Hunter College) students’ world views also told me a great deal about how the climate had changed. Instead of valorizing capitalist disrupters, many of my students, around the time of Occupy Wall Street, now saw them as villains, and philanthropy as a kind of money-laundering operation in which the rich enjoyed tax breaks that gave them undue license to determine public priorities. Swashbuckling philanthropists had gone from being heroes to threats to democracy.

When I got to City College a few years ago I started teaching a leadership course to students seeking a Masters of Public Administration degree, and then introductory human rights to undergraduates. These students, like most I have taught in recent years — the prisoners in the Bard College program and the globally diverse students at NYU in Abu Dhabi, for instance — are mostly Black and Brown, and as an older white man I’m highly conscious both of the racial reckoning taking place in our culture and of the way students of color may perceive me, even stereotype me based, not without reason, on some of their own lived experience. I started working with the MPA students in 2020, just before the pandemic struck. After a few in-person classes, we shifted to Zoom. In the days surrounding George Floyd’s murder, when every day seemed to bring forth a new outrage involving the senseless loss of Black life, I asked my students one evening if they wanted to use the space of the classroom to talk more about it. I was aware that in many workplaces, the failure of leaders to acknowledge the anger and pain, particularly of staff of color, was frustrating and demoralizing.

Some of my students made a stab at responding to my invitation, but few seemed to want to engage the racial reckoning taking place. It’s certainly possible that they just didn’t want to engage it with me — a white authority figure few of them yet knew well — but many were candid about why. They had a certain fatigue about it. The relentless cycle of violence was hard enough to deal with without having to engage in what some saw as performative sharing largely for the benefit of white people. I heard them, and moved on.

The next year I learned something about the way my students saw and experienced mentorship. The main texts I use in my leadership course are personal histories written in the last few years by prominent women of color in social justice movements and politics — former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Representative Pramila Jayapal, and Alicia Garza, a founder of the Movement for Black Lives. When we discussed Abrams’ book, which encourages young people to find mentors wherever they can get them, including from strange bedfellows, I asked my students how they thought about it. Almost every one of them expressed a preference for a mentor of color, who they felt would understand better what they have to deal with moving about in the world and the workplace. Though I’ve mentored many people of color myself, I could certainly understand this instinct, and did not challenge it. But I noticed that when I asked the students to share any positive actual mentoring experiences they’d had, the mentors they cited often included white teachers or supervisors. There was a gap between aspiration and reality, something we’ve all experienced in life.

More recently, as leaders in many non-profit, mission-driven workplaces (and beyond) have experienced pushbacks from younger staff — sometimes in the form of unionization drives — over transparency, equity and voice in decisionmaking, listening to my students, almost all of whom are trying to balance full-time jobs while attending school, has helped me appreciate the sources of this discontent. Even more acutely in an organization with a lofty social mission, when more junior staff observe a gap, as they often do, between principle and practice, they’re demoralized and angry. I find myself angry on their behalf when I think of all the time and energy that they have spend in adapting to clueless, self-protecting or autocratic bosses that could be directed to the urgent social mission most of their agencies were created to address.

Teaching my undergraduate human rights students last fall, and indeed in the last few years, has been a slightly sobering experience. The course surveys the philosophy and history of human rights from ancient times and multiple faith traditions through the present day. In broad terms, the theme of the course is that all cultures can be cited both in support of human rights and as an obstacle to them, and that the story of human rights is one of great lofty principles that were initially applied to a small minority of elites but that have been made more inclusive over the centuries by the struggles waged by racial and ethnic minorities, women, the poor, LGBTQ people and others. I still believe that to be true. But it has been a harder point to make in a time when authoritarianism has been on the march in the U.S. and elsewhere, and when during the semester the U.S. Supreme Court took away one fundamental right — to abortion — and so endangered others that Congress was moved to act to codify same-sex marriage lest that one be removed too.

We do a lot of case studies in my human rights class, and one of them centers on hate speech — how, for instance, to treat the neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois in the 1970s or the radio stations spewing ethnic hatred during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, to take two cases I dealt with professionally in my days at the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, respectively. At the end of the term I gave the students several options for essays on knotty rights issues, and many of them chose hate speech. What do you suppose was one of the examples that a number of them cited, without any prompting, as an example of contemporary hate speech that society has to reckon with? Even I was surprised by how many cited the social media presence of Donald Trump. It was a bracing reminder of how far we’ve slipped as a society that college students think one of the greatest threats to social peace is a former — and possibly future — President of their own country.

The teaching I did this winter in Abu Dhabi was in many ways the most challenging and rewarding, since my students came from all over the world and I constantly had to check my U.S. lens in my lectures and conversations with them. Philanthropy in the U.S. is a huge sector, fueled by tax incentives for charitable giving as well as a deep civic tradition that Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago. While the mysterious and opaque field of philanthropy is almost always new to my American students, to my international ones it is even more puzzling, since in almost all cases they come from countries where the state takes a much stronger role in health, education and social welfare, and the way philanthropy fills in for the stinting role of the state in these matters in America seems very peculiar to them.

The most memorable — and poignant — moment for me in my Abu Dhabi teaching came not in the classroom but during one of the one-on-one coffee dates I had with each student during the first week to get to know them better. One of them, from a country that has seen its share of violence, told me that when her parents were considering sending her abroad for high school she was given a choice between the U.K. and the U.S. She chose the U.K., and the reason why was disturbing to me: she feared that if she went to school in the U.S. she might be shot. When each week seems to bring a fresh mass murder in a country whose Congress is too paralyzed to act, and where so many state houses are so lopsidedly in the grip of absolutist gun ideology that they are hellbent on removing any impediment to gun brandishing and use, I find it harder to be reassuring to her.