Bill Cosby made headlines in October when he urged teachers to do a better job of explaining to students the importance of the subjects they teach.
The comedian, best known as the beloved Dr. Huxtable from TV’s long-running hit The Cosby Show, has been outspoken in recent years about what the black community needs to do to close the racial achievement gap.
The Cos isn’t a classroom veteran, but neither is he a stranger to education—he holds master’s and doctorate degrees in the field.
We followed up with Cosby and asked him to explain his remarks.
Recent newspaper accounts said you had attacked teachers for not doing enough to help kids.
They heard me, but they didn’t print what I did. What came out was, ‘Well, he’s at it again, and now he’s after the teachers.’
Listen to a clip of Bill Cosby explaining the
intention of his remarks to teachers. (3:09):
Let me describe for you the whole scene. I was talking to 2,500 people. … I said, ‘How many of you are school teachers?’ There’s applause. I said, ‘How many of you teach math?’ And one of the fellows on the panel applauded.
So I turned to him and I said, ‘What math?’ So he said ‘Algebra.’ I said, ‘Perfect. I’ll be the kid.’ He looks at me. I said, ‘You’re the teacher.’
I looked at him and I said, ‘Why I gotta know this?’ And he stared back at me. I said, ‘You teach algebra?’ He said yes. I said, ‘Why I gotta know this?’
I turned to [the audience] and I said, ‘If you can’t out-argue a kid about your passion, the discipline you’re in, then you might as well take the job, put it down, and go on over to the post office. You’ve got to be able to tell these children the beauty of your passion.’
So you didn’t mean to criticize teachers?
You’ve got to be able to defend your passion. If that’s a critique, then let it be that. I’m not afraid to have it called a criticism.
How should teachers answer students who ask why they need a certain subject?
The answer that is in your heart and soul is the best answer, because somewhere in your heart and soul, you fell in love with something. You liked it. And if you can describe the feeling of liking something, which makes you feel good, then—once again, you don’t have to be Sammy Davis Jr.—just be able to explain to the kids, or that kid.
There’s a challenge that I always mention in my talks. And that is, I challenge you to the fact that there’s no better high for your body and for you emotionally, mentally, than when you study something, to know it all. … There’s no better feeling on the face of this earth than looking at [test] questions and knowing, yes, I know the answer to this. In fact, sometimes you can feel downright arrogant at the stupidity of the question because you know so much. And I challenge them to know that.
That’s how you challenge students?
Of course. Try that feeling. Try that emotion. And there’s applause. There’s applause from people who study, who know it to be true.
Did you at one point plan to become a teacher?
Well, a kid turned to me and said ‘Why I gotta know this?’ On geometry. And I didn’t have the answer for him. … I knew that my anger, from my sadness or who I am, for who I was at the time, was not going to be beneficial. But I know that the reason I wanted to be a teacher was to catch those boys like me.
What kind of high school student were you?
What turned you around?
The Navy. … It’s interesting that the military can do things to get a young person to turn around their lives. In boot camp, somebody is always on you. Somebody expects something when you wake up in the morning. They expect cleanliness, they expect discipline, they expect things to be done when they say. … I wanted to get out of there after I learned that because I was ready to go to college.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Tough Love