On Camel Hair and Teaching

by Glen

When I tweeted yesterday that Jane and I were on our way to share a class at the University of Toronto School of Public Policy with Michael Ignatieff, I was flooded with messages from folks feeling they wished they could have been a fly on the wall. Rightfully so. To witness him in a classroom in front of keen young minds is to gain an important perspective on why good teaching is important.

I wondered how he would be, having not seen him since the election in May. He was remarkably at ease with his students. There were some 30 of them, Master’s students, very intelligent and likely headed for the policy departments of governments throughout Canada. I asked one student how she was finding the class and her reply fit the mood of what I was seeing: “Look,” she said, “it’s Michael Ignatieff. I’m so lucky.” That pretty well summed it up.

He guided them adroitly through the nightmares of attempting to design policy in political states that were barely surviving. The Republic of South Sudan is one key example. As the world’s newest nation since last July, the challenges to its survival are numerous. The students themselves had researched many of the obstacles and had done their work as to what needed to be done.

Michael introduced the two of us to the class and began a practical dialogue concerning the possibilities both within and outside south Sudan of helping this young nation to succeed. He opened it up to his students and they fired away with clear, concise and educated queries. When the two hours had passed we came away with one key lesson which we all hope will endure: the success of effective policy in such places depends on the capacity of people like the southern Sudanese themselves to implement it – the stronger the people, the more effective the policy itself.

Students hung around afterward with more questions and then we were out on our way back to Michael and his wife Zsuzsanna’s condo and dinner. They took us through the winding pathways of the campus, talking about our hopes for a better world and Canada’s role in it. We stopped briefly to do a video, which you’ll see below.

Prior to dinner Jane and I talked about the privilege we had just shared. This was Michael Ignatieff – demonized by petty minds incapable of expansion; lionized by his peers and students around the world; and humanized by life’s lessons and his exposure to beleaguered people caught in some terrible ethnic conflicts around the world. Jane and I were honoured to share a class with a master teacher and to observe how effective education can stimulate students to make a difference in their world.

The dinner, also shared with a favourite journalist friend and her husband, we free flowing and full of ideas and concepts. As we left to drive back home to the kids in London, Zsuzsanna asked if we were going to be cold. She then asked if I’d like to have Michael’s camel hair overcoat you see in the video for the journey home. “I gave it no him years ago and he never like it from the beginning, so you take it.” We all laughed, and then we were off.

I will treasure that coat, much as I will my friendship with the two of them. But more than anything I’ll be thankful that I witnessed a man and his dedicated wife in the midst of keen young intelligence who moved easily among the young and who are venerated for what they have provided the teaching world. Those students loved the two of them … as do we. A remarkable day.