It is a truth universally acknowledged that everybody has had a favourite teacher at school, one they shall remember fondly to the end of their life. I certainly had a favourite teacher. He taught me English in Year 12. His name was Gibson. With initial G in front according to the school records. I can’t be sure, but I think the G stood for George. So that is what I shall call him. George Gibson.
I have only a hazy recollection of his physical features. His face was round, with spectacles defining its equator, and neatly cropped hair its pole. The closest match with a celebrity face I can conjure up is the face of Peter Sellers in his role of President of the USA in the classic 1960s film, Dr Strangelove. Except that George had a full head of hair.
Back then, the English curriculum in year 12 included a module called Clear Thinking. It possibly still does. It ought to. This module was George’s forte, and he tackled it with passion, going way beyond what the curriculum required. The curriculum per se was not his primary concern. His priority was the integrity of the minds of his young charges, mine included. To his task, he applied steely determination, a gentle manner, uncommon empathy, and an enviable degree of cool. I revered him.
George stood out from the notorious pantheon of teaching staff that haunted the school in charge of my secondary education. The headmaster, a Seventh Day Adventist by faith, had for years been instrumental in slotting his mates into vacant staff positions.
So the biology teacher refused to teach us evolution. The physics teacher believed a prominent gap in the milky way – which he was only too happy to point out – was the gateway through which Christ and his heavenly entourage would come storming at the end of days. I suspect the PE instructor was wrestling with a sinful predilection to pederasty. I know the Master in charge of junior boarders was not wasting any time wrestling.
Back to George.
George’s accomplishment, and no mean one, was to teach me and my fellow year 12 students how to be rational human beings. How to start believing we had brains. How to start using said brains. How to subject the public opinion pieces of others to close scrutiny. How to think for ourselves.
George confronted us with a variety of faulty arguments plucked principally from the mainstream print media, expecting us to scrutinize what we saw there in black and white with an ever critical eye or three. There was no shortage of source material for him to put before us: articles about fluoridation of water, flat earth, eugenics, IQ testing, racial profiling, &etc. Even the existence of God. These days, George would be buried to the neck in suitable material from the social media, given all the fake news and conspiracy theories to be found there.
Several of my classmates reacted to George in the same favourable way I did. Back then, I can tell you, there were some spirited discussions in Gibbo’s classes. As for those who didn’t appreciate George’s merits, would it be considered conceit on my part to write them off as lost causes?
Let me be clear. When George presented us with material to analyze, it was not the content he expected us to question so much as the arguments being put forward to justify the content. This was Applied Logic 101. He energized us, empowered us, and equipped us to go out into a world full of propagandists and proselytizers.
After a class with George, insecure adolescent that I was, I found myself becoming aware, with some degree of surprise, that I was a valid human being after all, with the right if not the duty to think my way through life’s problems. This stood me in good stead as I later pursued a scientific career. Equally, it immunized me against all the scammers and trolls infecting our everyday life.
Isn’t this Dead Poets Society, some might ask? Far from it.
Unlike the scenario in Dead Poets, George’s approach was not to impose his world view on us, as John Keating – the character played by Robin Williams – did on his charges. O Captain! My Captain! Rather, George set out to guide us through the process of establishing bespoke world views for ourselves. John Keating’s class was a cult. George Gibson’s was not.
White knight he may have been for us, but there was a chink in George’s armour. Yes, indeed. He too was a devout Seventh Day Adventist. Of course we questioned him about this. He would never have encouraged us to withhold questions.
He justified his religious stance on the grounds the documents making up the Christian Bible had been authenticated by science, as had his choice of the day (Saturday) on which to worship God. We stopped short of asking him the obvious question: the documents may well have been authenticated, but does it then follow the events described in the documents have been authenticated? Was it timidity or ineptitude preventing us from asking him this question?
George never tried to ‘convert’ us. Probably, he was deferring to an edict from the school admin to the effect they would consider it an abuse of power should he take advantage of us in such a way. His adherence to this presumed edict was scrupulous and then some. So much so that many of us, ironically and inadvertently, became lifelong atheists as a consequence of his interactions with us.
George only taught at our school for two consecutive years, and I consider myself most fortunate to have encountered him in just one of those years. Apparently, he was using the school as a stepping stone to what he saw as his real calling. The year after he taught me, he left to become a missionary in Papua New Guinea. To this day my mind boggles. I just can’t see him at all instructing those highland tribes in the application of logical principles and critical thinking to their everyday lives. To us he was a teacher. To them he would necessarily have been a preacher.
What a strange contradiction George Gibson turned out to be! But aren’t we all strange cattle?
Years later, we heard a rumour he had died in Papua New Guinea. Let this post be his epitaph should one be needed. We don’t know if he died violently, accidentally, or of natural causes. But I, for one, owe him volumes of thanks.