January 20, 1995

A Debt to Society

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918)

Professor Curt Stern was introducing a talk by one of his doctoral students. That talk was the final step in the process leading to a Ph.D. in Zoology at The University of California at Berkeley. Stern said that the student had completed his doctorate and would now go out in the world to pay back what society had given him.

This is in contrast to what I have heard from a number of people, who said, "I have done all of this hard work and now I am going to go out in the world and cash in on it. I did the work, and now I am going to profit from it." In other words, "Society owes me!"

Which of these attitudes is justifiable? I contend that Stern was correct, because no one -without exception- makes it on his own. It is always with the help of others. It starts with your parents and you are usually assisted by teachers along the way. Afterwards, there are others. People who become wealthy, successful, or famous always had lots of help. Everyone owes someone. Some acknowledge that help and others don't.

A colleague once asked me to criticize one of his scientific paper and I pointed out that there were no acknowledgements of the copious assistance that he had received. He said "They got paid for it."

I replied, "You got paid too."

The acknowledgements appeared in the published paper, as they did in his subsequent papers.

There is a great contrast in the way that teachers behave. The great opera singer Enrico Caruso was a poor boy with great potential and no training. A friend of his introduced him to the singing teacher Vergine, who didn't think much of Caruso. He reluctantly agreed to teach him in exchange for 25% of his earnings for the first 5 years of his singing career in exchange for 4 years of instruction. That turned out to be a very considerable sum, since Caruso was the highest paid singer of his time.

In contrast, a teacher named Dmitri Usatov recognized the potential in the basso Feodor Chaliapin. He not only taught him for free, but he arranged for a job with a pharmacist who paid him to take singing lessons. This was as close as one could come to a scholarship in those days. He also took him into his home and, as Chaliapin put it, "civilized" him. Chaliapin, probably the greatest singer-actor who ever lived, was grateful to his teacher for all of his life, and, after Usatov's death, sent regular checks to his widow. In contrast, Caruso ended up suing Vergine in order to break the contract. He had no real reason to feel grateful.

Both of those teachers' names are known because of their students, not the other way around. One of the teachers deserved the recognition; the other really didn't. With those great talents and drives, any reasonably competent singing teacher could have done the job. As another great singer Giuseppi Di Stefano said, "It is the student who makes the reputation of the teacher."

There are teachers who pay their debt to the past by helping their students to achieve their potential. Others exploit their students ruthlessly. I don't have to tell you who my own personal heroes are.

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