Publication Date

February 25, 2019

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


Teaching Methods

In a recentNew York Times op-ed, provocatively titled “Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach,” Adam Grant, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, attempted to explain “why the best experts sometimes make the worst educators.”[1] As a classic example, Grant chose Albert Einstein, whose disorganized style in the classroom made finding teaching positions difficult in the early years of his already promising career as a theoretical physicist. Administrators at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology were reluctant to hire Einstein and relented only when a friend intervened on his behalf. Grant also recalled his own undergraduate experience at Harvard University, where the “world-class experts” he longed to study under disappointed him in the classroom. For all their mastery of their subjects, they couldn’t explain why what they did should interest anyone else.

A bicycle against a brick wall.

You might think you’re teaching at students’ level…
Judy van der Velden/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A cartoon accompanying Grant’s essay makes the point especially well. A student sits at a desk taking notes. Sweat springs from his brow, and in a bubble over his head is a tricycle. At the front of the room stands a professor, declaiming with one finger raised; in the bubble over his head is a state-of-the-art motorcycle—a huge, complex piece of precision machinery.

In short, the more you know, the less effective you may be at communicating it to those who know much less.

How to explain this paradox? Grant refers to “the curse of knowledge” (the variation applied especially to educational instruction is “the curse of expertise”). Appropriated from social science, in its original iteration the curse of knowledge sought to explain the difficulties a better-informed individual might have trying to understand the thinking of someone less informed. Behavioral economists used the concept to explain why better-informed people often had difficulty profiting from their knowledge while bargaining with a less-informed party who nonetheless had to be taken seriously in negotiations. “The curse of expertise” closes in more precisely on teaching: learners seeking to acquire skills sometimes find instruction at the hands of experts less effective than they find instruction from graduate assistants or assistant professors. In short, the more you know, the less effective you may be at communicating it to those who know much less. You not only risk getting lost in the details and nuances of your subject, but you also may fail to explain why your subject has a claim to anyone’s attention—not so much as an intellectual proposition, but as an avenue into understanding or benefiting oneself.

Grant’s contentions were a revelation to me. I’d picked up the Sunday paper to read the news and instead found a blunt and convincing explanation for something that bothered me and a few senior colleagues with whom I regularly discussed teaching. My evidence here is clearly anecdotal, but these anecdotes have piled up with the passage of time. As we matured as thinkers and became established, productive scholars with authority in our chosen fields, we found it harder to convey to undergraduates the riches that we had discovered there.

Why was it so difficult to convey these human dramas in the classroom? I hadn’t stopped preparing or begun taking the assignment less seriously.

With the knowledge I had acquired about population movements and the resettlement of migratory peoples, for instance, why was my teaching of US, immigration, and ethnic history so labored? For a book on immigrant personal correspondence, I read thousands of intimate letters sent home to families and friends in Europe. I wrote about difficult, very human situations captured in the writing of ordinary people, such as the immigrant men and women who lied to their parents about their successes in America in order to spare them worry and to save face. Why was it so difficult to convey these compelling human dramas in the classroom? I hadn’t stopped preparing or begun taking the assignment less seriously, as senior professors are routinely (and, I believe, mostly mistakenly) thought to do. In fact, I was preparing for class longer and more strenuously than I had early in my career. A colleague of mine, a very distinguished historian, regularly told me how much more time it took him to feel prepared for class. The experience of recurrent frustration impressed us both with the likelihood that it might not be possible to recapture the excitement (mixed, to be sure, with a good deal of anxiety) that characterized our earlier efforts in the classroom. Maybe it was time to retire.

A motorcycle against a brick wall.

…but you might be trying to explain a motorcycle to new learners.
pyntofmyld/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Retirement isn’t the route that Adam Grant wants to urge on senior professors, whom he believes need to stay active with research and writing as well as with mentoring pre-professional students. To that end, Grant advocates that colleges and universities move further in a direction many of them have already begun to take: formalizing the separation of teaching and research duties in the structuring of faculty, leaving those accomplished in the latter with instructional duties outside the undergraduate classroom, principally (in research institutions) with the training of advanced graduate students. The logic of that option seems plausible from a pragmatic standpoint: why not utilize, to the maximum degree, the skills possessed by our most accomplished publishing scholars in their sphere and our most accomplished teachers in theirs?

One reason not to segregate research from teaching is that it risks further degrading academic employment, which has already succumbed to a type of class system driven less by concern for the quality of undergraduate teaching than by fiscal exigencies. Few students emerge from history departments as mature analysts and interpreters. Those with an inclination to research and publication need years to develop their minds and deepen their knowledge. Increasingly, a burden is placed on younger historians, whose scholarly ambitions are frustrated as they enter an expanding group of nomadic instructors with no job stability and little institutional opportunity to develop themselves as publishing scholars.

There is another option, a way out for those who find themselves caught in the paradox of expertise but who want to continue teaching.

There is another option, a way out for those who find themselves caught in the paradox of expertise but who want to continue teaching. To stay relevant as an instructor, leave your comfort zone and teach something new—a fresh subject to which you can apply the analytical abilities developed from years spent toiling in your chosen field. This was precisely the route I took as I developed an undergraduate seminar on the First Amendment, which cycled from one semester to the next between Supreme Court decisions on the freedom of speech and expression, followed by readings on the religion clauses. Because the syllabus proceeded simultaneously from history, political science, and constitutional law, it forced me to direct my mind beyond the well-worn paths it had grown accustomed to traveling. In confronting my own lack of knowledge about how the courts work and the evolution of American jurisprudence, I was learning alongside my students.

This proved a particularly energizing experience in teaching of the sort that Ken Bain urges on professors as an effective practice for productively narrowing the gap between themselves and the undergraduates in their classrooms.[2] Nothing can completely narrow the age gap (nor the consequent cultural differences) between professors and students. The former will get older while their undergraduates stay the same age: somewhere between adolescence and young adulthood, participants in a youth culture from which their individual professors will grow ever more distant. No change in our dress, personal grooming, or colloquial speech can change that, and the mere attempt can make us look like fools. But students are hardly immune to the excitement of ideas, if only we can find the right formulas to engage them. Blaming students for our frustrations in the classroom is unproductive. Wherever they are developmentally and culturally, our job remains the same: to instruct the minds they present to us. The search for a formula to do so, however unsettling, sometimes begins with recognizing the need to change ourselves. Knowing how to deploy the full range of skills that constitute the expertise we have developed as interpreters of the past includes taking risks and prodding ourselves to grow at the very point when it might seem easiest to rest on our accomplishments.


[1] Adam Grant, “Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach,” New York Times Sunday Review, August 26, 2018, 10.

[2] Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2004), esp. 141–142.

David A. Gerber is distinguished professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo.

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