I was born in Toronto in 1963 and grew up on military bases in different parts of Canada, including the Maritimes, Ontario, and the Prairies. Changing schools and classmates every two or three years gave me an appreciation for how schools work, how they don’t, and the different styles and cultures teachers bring to their work. A reading and performance by author W. O. Mitchell at my middle school impressed me as the first time I had seen a public display of learning that made people weep with laughter.
I attended a Jesuit high school in Winnipeg where intellectual tradition and teaching skill were part of a larger commitment to justice and public service. Everyone was also made to play football in the summer and fall and to snowshoe in the winter, which didn’t teach me much except that physical hardship doesn’t really build character.
I came to the University of Toronto in 1980, aged seventeen, and found the world I had been seeking in sporadic raids on my father’s library, carrying off my prizes of Gibbon and Sartre, Thomas Merton and C. S. Lewis. At U of T I specialized in English and philosophy, with a minor in political science—the book-nerd’s trifecta. My friends all wanted to be writers or teachers, and most of them managed it. The rest went to law school and one or two later somehow became cabinet ministers.
It was not hard to find great teachers at U of T in the early 1980s. I especially recall the lectures of Gad Horowitz, Kenneth Schmitz, and Alkis Kontos. Horowitz was responsible for perhaps the single most memorable incident—at least inside a classroom—during my time as an undergraduate (BA SMC 1985). A student got up and made to leave his class before the hour was finished. Horowitz stopped talking and, when the room had fallen silent, said loudly, “I am not a television!” Things being as they are now, for students and teachers both, I think of it often.
I went to graduate school, first in Britain (M. Litt. Edinburgh 1987) and then in the United States (Ph.D. Yale 1991), with no thoughts of an academic career. I just felt, as so many students do, that my undergraduate career was finished far too soon. I wanted to keep going: the reading, the arguments, the writing. And the lectures—from Ronald Hepburn at Edinburgh, Bruce Ackerman and Maurice Natanson at Yale. The best teachers of philosophy know that philosophy gets under your skin, and while there is no solution to that, the best course of action, if you can manage it, is to maintain the addiction in some more or less orderly fashion. I feel extraordinarily lucky that I have been able to service this peculiar addiction for a living.
If I came to an academic career, and so to professional teaching, in a somewhat roundabout way, the same cannot be said of communicating ideas more generally. From the time I was editor in-chief of The Varsity in the 1980s to my grown-up stints as a columnist for the National Post, Adbusters, and the Globe and Mail, or my contributions to Harper’s and the New York Times, I have unabashedly loved writing about ideas for the so-called general audience. While I have any sane person’s doubts about doing anything on television, I adore radio—the most intimate of intellectual mediums—and am proud of the work I’ve done for the CBC, BBC, and NPR.
My books, meanwhile, are about evenly divided among peer-reviewed scholarly work, intellectual work for non-specialists, and straightforward attempts at the popular. I like to think this distribution keeps me balanced in mind. I know for a fact that it makes me a better teacher than I would otherwise be. One of my best friends predicted years ago that I would not make a good teacher because I assumed people already understood what I was talking about. I vowed then not to make that mistake again. Every good teacher knows to start with a question: Say, what do you think about this?