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My best teacher

I was very lucky in my parents. My father was a lawyer, very philosophically inclined, a very positive man, and his great passions were the law and the Greek and Latin classics. He taught me clarity of thought and a respect for classical traditions wherever they are found, and that is a very great thing because clarity of thought gives you freedom, it prevents you being a prisoner, even of your own mind and education.

Dad was a great character and a forceful man, but I was never a victim of that forcefulness. He gave me the tools with which to be responsible, and let me use them in accordance with my own life. Without my father I could never have been the person I am. Having said that, he did want me to study law and inherit his chambers. But what he gave me inclined me in other directions. Philosophy is very much part of Latin, of any classical thinking. The African classical world is very much to do with philosophy. So all of that inclined me towards literature.

My mother gave me the story-telling spirit. Form is Dad, narrative is Mum. Anything she wanted to tell me, any lessons about life she wanted to give me, she knew if she told it to me straight I would resist it, so she always told me a story with a serious point hidden in it, and I would have to work it out for myself. I would always end up thinking "What the hell's she trying to tell me?" I went to Essex University to study comparative literature, but I didn't go to classes that much. I had started writing and been infected by some of the bad habits of being an artist. When I did go to classes, I gained an enormous amount from them. My professors had a very open attitude to literature, and I did a tremendous breadth of reading, things I might not have read otherwise, such as Dante's Divine Comedy, and Tristram Shandy.

A great book awakens your soul, and for writers there are some writers who are great encouragers. Hemingway was a great encourager. He turned a lot of people on to writing because he loved writing so much, and talked so well and so clearly about it. Shakespeare is a great encourager. Malumud is a lovely encourager. T S Eliot is somehat cool. He was a discourager, he wanted to limit the entries into the field.

The best teachers are not people who put things in your head. I've met too many who are busy trying to stuff things in your head and all they are doing is damaging you. Teaching should be a bringing out, in accordance with the inclination of the student. You can't put square things in triangular ears. The ears and the heart and the mind have their own shape for each individual.

I hear it all the time, all over the world, in government policies on education: we must have more teachers, we must have better quality teachers, blah, blah, blah. But I think the culture of education is wrong. It is too much like a production line - you're doing this so at the end of the day you'll be doing that. Three out of five people are not doing the things that they would really would have loved to have done, and one of the most important things about an education system is getting people to do what they really want to do. That's where the basis of true excellence lies.

For the past 10 years I have been trying to find someone to teach me how to swim, and it has led me to thinking that the great problem of teaching is that people have forgotten how to learn. We're not learners any more, we're collectors of facts. People tell me, "do it this way, do it that way", and whenever I do, I end up nearly drowning.

Writer Ben Okri was talking to Hilary Wilce


1959 Born in Lagos, Nigeria

1966 Attends primary school in Peckham, London, while his father studies


1970 Returns to Nigeria

1978 Returns to England to study at Essex University

1980 Flowers and Shadows, his first novel, is published

1986 Incidents at the Shrine, a collection of short stories, is published

1991 Wins the Booker Prize for The Famished Road

1992 Publishes An African Elegy, a collection of poems

1993 Publishes Songs of Enchantment, sequel to The Famished Road

1995 Astonishing the Gods published

1996 Dangerous Lovepublished

2000 Chairs judges of the first Caine Prize for African Writing

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