My Best Teacher;Interview;Professor Edward Said

8th October 1999 at 01:00
We lived in Cairo in the 1940s where I went to prep school and then later to the School for American Children and Victoria College. My memory of those years is of nothing but repression and an intellectual poverty. The main feeling they instilled was of inferiority. There was this figure telling you: "I'm here to teach you things which on your own you could never learn, and what you are and where you come from is irrelevant." So I had a very early sense of exclusion. There was never any reference to Cairo in what we learned - it was all about the Empire and Enid Blyton. It was a little private domain, and the real world was dismissed as irrelevant.

Worse, there was no chance to use one's creative powers. It was rote learning and regurgitating meaningless information. I realised that I couldn't learn anything properly unless I could connect with it. And the teachers seemed to be there to prevent this. They were not picked because they loved their subject but because they couldn't do anything else. They were all misfits or casualties. The idea wasn't to exercise your mind, to become sceptical and questioning, but to learn to follow orders.

When I went to Victoria College at 14 I became very rebellious. It was described as the Eton of the Middle East but none of us were English, the war was over and the British Empire was crumbling. They told us we were fallen creatures who had a small chance of being recovered - and we chose not to be. When they said we had to speak English we all spoke Arabic and I was expelled at one point.

Many years later when I met the writer C.L.R. James he asked me if I had any inspiring teachers during my school days. I told him I never did. But when I think about it there was one who played a key role in my development. When I was 15 I went to America to a rather puritanical school called Mount Hermon where Jack Baldwin was my English teacher. He set us a lot of writing, which I hadn't been used to at all. Baldwin turned out to be a man of great patience with a capacity to draw you out. He assigned us a topic about lighting a match. I wrote an encyclopedic account of matches and their history because I thought that was what he wanted. Then he called me into his office to talk about the essay. In my entire school career until then I had never been in a teacher's office except to get caned or punished. He said the essay was excellent, in its way, but did not show what I was capable of. He said I should have investigated the consequences of lighting a match and explored a series of associations about light and fire. That opened my mind to connecting things to each other. That was terribly important to me because I had never been trained to do that. It had always been rigid, compartmentalised rote learning.

He taught me for a year and encouraged me to read Steinbeck, Hawthorne and Poe. He said it is one thing to read a story, and another to see it as a kind of drama. Instead of writing a paper about a Poe story he suggested I wrote a radio play based on it. I found that to be an immensely intelligent approach. Instead of producing a slavish schoolboy's paper I dramatised it which gives you a much better sense of how the story is constructed.

I never knew much about him, except that he had been in the war. He retired to Florida, and in later years I would periodically get a postcard when he had read something I had written. He died last year. My relationship with him wasn't based on personality but on intellectual stimulation of a very particular and highly intelligent kind. I've now been teaching for almost 40 years and I've followed his approach and tried to take it further. I try not to dominate the classroom and make it clear that I don't want disciples. I don't want people to repeat to me what I've said. I want to nurture in the young mind the sceptical principle, and that goes all the way back to Baldwin. The ultimate moment in teaching is when someone challenges me. That's when the process of learning can begin.

Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 but spent much of his youth in Cairo and Lebanon. His books such as 'Culture and Imperialism' have made him one of the world's most influential literary critics and he is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Today he is both an American citizen and a Palestinian and has become the most eloquent spokesman for the cause in the west. 'Out Of Place', a memoir of his early life, has just been published by Granta. He was talking to Nigel Williamson

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