Playing the Teacher in Front of a Classroom - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Playing the Teacher in Front of a Classroom

The best part about it is that it’s not acting.

In my life, aside from my very private moments with my wife and my dogs, the happiest moments of my existence have been in front of a classroom.

When I contemplate my roughly 71 years on this planet, I had many great times watching cartoons with my son and my wife and getting awards and walking in the redwoods of Santa Cruz, looking out my window in Sandpoint at the stupefying blue, red, yellow, and grey daybreak. Zooming along the lake in my Cobalt, with the Stars and Stripes fluttering on the rear of the boat and my wifey’s perfect profile to my left. I can recall happy times with my Pop at the White House Mess, sharing our secrets while John Dean plotted his next move nearby. I can have a great time any moment I step into my pool and start swimming the world’s laziest backstroke while the sun beats through the palms and jets ply the air overhead with their silvery magic. I remember my mother offering me grapes as I slept.

When I awaken and look at my wife and the dogs, I cannot believe how blessed I am. Just to look at the American flag over my bed and the map of the USA in my living room is to feel the red, white, and blue glory of living in the most spectacular edifice of all eternity.

But it has been in front of a classroom that I have had my greatest joy.

In 1970, in Anti-Trust Law at Yale, I commandeered the class and made our bully of a teacher (but a super smart guy) leave the room and quit teaching: all because I threatened to take my clothes off and recite the names of the Vietnam War dead if he didn’t stop his game playing.

In 1973, I was an adjunct teacher of film at American University at Ward Circle in my home town of DC. It was my third semester teaching there in the evenings after harrowing days practicing trial law. I had the most popular class ever in the history of AU up until then: 360 students for the superficially easiest elective in the world. It was called “Film and Revolution!”

The first day of class, when I entered the room and strode up to the podium, at about 150 pounds, long hair, mustache, menacing potent ’62 Red Corvette in the parking lot, Buick repair jacket on, the whole room erupted in sustained, standing cheering.

They knew I was their pal and that we would have a great time. And the class was not at all easy at in fact. The kids had to use Socratic method techniques to dissect what the secret motives of the writers were in terms of wishes for social change.

(This led to my book: The View From Sunset Boulevard — about the political attitudes of the TV writing aristocracy and how those views gave us the distinctly red-tinged messages of prime time. But that was later. In ’72 and ’73 I was talking about movies.)

Your humble servant had a rush of excitement every day I taught that class. The kids loved me and I loved them.

Soon, I went on to teach at UC, Santa Cruz. It was fabulous, too, although not like AU. But the views from my classroom were incredible. Then to teach at Pepperdine, also great stuff, an even better view, but nothing like my magical mystery tour at the Ward Circle Building at AU.

Then, on about November 16, 1985, came the day that altered my life forever: Playing a teacher in a movie called Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I did a long speech about the economy off the cuff and the young extras playing high school students applauded and whistled when I was done.

Matthew Broderick asked me if I did theater on Broadway. Michael Chinich and John Hughes told me I would be a star.

Now, I travel about the nation speaking about the economy, the demise of certain ethnic and demographic groups, politics, and investing. It’s not AU in 1973, but it’s still paradise.

I love to speak and by now, with 71 years over my belt (not under my belt… I am too fat for that), I have a bit to say, and if I were asked to speak at a college (as I actually often am), this is what I would say to graduates:

WE ALL WANT TO BE ABLE TO LOOK BACK at our lives when we are my age and say we have been successful. But what is successful? It certainly has something to do with money. Shortages of money are simply horrifying. Fear of financial insecurity is awful. So before anything else, success requires at least a modicum of financial security, obtained in a respectable way.

But once we are past that, success requires that we spend our lives doing what we like to do: in a free society, one of the best possibilities is to do not what your parents expect you to do, not what the school guidance counselor tells you to do, but what you enjoy doing.

My old pal and inspiration, Warren E. Buffett, says (if I may boil it down) that he has become the richest man in the world or one of the richest not because he chose a highly paid field that he hated, but because he happened to love a field that paid astoundingly well: allocating capital.

When I worked on Wall Street, I hated every moment of it (although I love finance people once they are away from New York). Buffett “tap dances to work,” as he likes to say. That’s the way to make a life.

My dear young friend, L., just graduated from a prestige university. She is going to work at improving the lives of poor people in our nation’s capital. Some people in her life told her she was wasting her education working in that vineyard. I disagree. I think she’ll do great things there and she’ll be doing what she loves. That’s what makes you succeed — making your work your play or maybe making your play your work.

That last comes from one of the smartest men I have ever met, the mega producer, Norman Lear. (I know I have not quoted it exactly right.) He made what he enjoyed doing — weaving tales of meaning and humor — into a super remunerative career.

It’s really a matter of definition. As I see it, we all have only one life to live. If we spend it doing work we hate, we have made a serious mistake. If we spend it doing work we barely tolerate, we have made a mistake.

What good does it do to have money, even a meaningful amount of money, if you have spent your one and only life doing work that does not thrill you?

So, make a living — but also make a life.

I also respectfully advise that young people have a spiritual basis for their lives — and that such spiritual basis involve doing good for others. As I have grown older I see that a selfish life spent without having a high priority for helping others is a waste of life. The knowledge that you are sharing your humanity and your limited span on this planet with those in need gives you self-esteem in even the darkest hours.

This goes hand in hand with my own certain conviction that there is a Higher Power which controls the universe. It’s not evolution and it’s not chance. It’s God and when He does some things and lets other horrible events happen, when there are death camps and child rapes and gulags and trench warfare and killing fields, we have to wonder what kind of God He is. But I am certain that the laws of physics and motion and gravity did not happen by themselves, that Someone designed them. I don’t think that someone was Marx or a pit boss in some cosmic gambling house.

Life is a heavy burden. Ask and then allow God to share it.

Have gratitude on your plate night and day and sup heartily. We in America, especially the young, have lives that even the wealthiest people two centuries ago could not imagine. We have air conditioning and modern medicine and automobiles and jet travel. We have free worldwide instantaneous communication.

But mostly, we have freedom under law. We have equality before the law. We have the liberty to do what we want with our lives day by day and have that liberty protected — not repressed — by the government.

We have a free capitalist system that allows everyone who saves to become a part owner in the mighty American capitalist engine, even the super mighty worldwide industrial machine. “Every man a King,” said Huey Long of Louisiana. That was a joke, but “Every man a capitalist” is real and true and has saved many a life.

Investing early and often, in a diversified basket of corporate ownership, making yourselves partners with the likes of Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg and harnessing the genius of the system of capitalism — that’s a miraculous freedom all too often derided by the young. But those who pay attention to what is real instead of to fantasies of paranoia will reap immense rewards as the years go by. The freedom to invest is a boon to mankind.

But gratitude in general is a gift for the man or woman who is grateful as well as to the person to whom he is grateful. Make use of that truly free and indispensable gift.

There is much more to say: Be thrifty. Don’t get high as a matter of course. Don’t be afraid to take on powerful opponents.

Respect innocent life, no matter how politically unpopular it is. The power elites and the media will hate you for it, but respect for the most innocent life among us is to be worn as a badge of honor.

Life in America for most of us is great. Let’s spend time enjoying ourselves making it even better for others whose lives are not great. Let’s do it in freedom and gratitude, and let’s do it now. Class dismissed.

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Ben Stein
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Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes “Ben Stein’s Diary” for every issue of The American Spectator.
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