Oliver Sacks Knows What It Means to Teach

If you want to see the qualities that make Dr. Oliver Sacks my favorite writer, simply watch what he does when asked to provide grades for the medical students working with him:

I submitted the requisite form, giving all of them A’s. My chairman was indignant. “How can they all be A’s?” he asked. “Is this some kind of joke?”

I said, no, it wasn’t a joke, but that the more I got to know each student, the more he seemed to me distinctive. My A was not some attempt to affirm a spurious equality but rather an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of each student. I felt that a student could not be reduced to a number or a test, any more than a patient could. How could I judge students without seeing them in a variety of situations, how they stood on the ungradable qualities of empathy, concern, responsibility, judgment?

Eventually, I was no longer asked to grade my students.

Dr. Sacks is a neurologist. His expertise ranges so far and wide (he has written on autism, Tourette’s, migraines, colorblindness, sign language, musical hallucinations) that the word “specialization” no longer fits.

Now, I’m a teacher, not a doctor. But reading Sacks’ autobiography, I’m struck by how teachers and doctors both feel a crucial tension, confronting the same fundamental choice in how to define our professional selves. Am I a narrow specialist, applying my expertise to address a specific need of the pupil or patient?

Or am I generalist, embracing the full complexity and interconnectedness of the human before me?

Sacks embeds his answer in practically every paragraph. His purpose, always, is the health and flourishing of the human being. This doesn’t mean jettisoning professionalism. Insofar as this is a debate, Sacks refuses to take a “side.” Instead, through his work and writing, he marries the clinical and the human, the scientific and the spiritual, the pragmatic and the poetic. His prose bubbles and eddies with insight and compassion, rich currents of thought cascading in long sentences that layer adjectives like river sediments, each deposit deepening and shifting the fluid organic whole.

Sacks does not choose between being scientist and humanist. Instead, he weds the roles together, merging them into one.

How does this process begin? For Sacks, it starts with listening to his patients. He lends not only an analytic eye but a sympathetic ear. Sacks grew up with three brothers; two became doctors, but the third, Michael, was troubled by schizophrenia. Over time, Michael found he could confide only in his younger brother Oliver:

[Michael] had begun to think of… the entire medical profession as determined to devalue or “medicalize” everything he thought and did, especially if it had any hint of mysticism, for they would see it as an intimation of psychosis. But I was still his little brother, just twelve years old, not yet a medicalizer, and able to listen sensitively and sympathetically to anything he said, even if I could not fully understand it.

Much of neuroscience aims to reduce our minds to mechanisms. We seek the brain region responsible for X, the neurotransmitter that underlies Y, the biological mechanism for Z. (Never mind if X, Y, and Z happen to be our most precious expressions of self.) Shining in this way, the light of neurology is bright and deadly. It explains and sterilizes us, turns us into labeled anatomical diagrams.

But Sacks resists this “medicalization.” People are people: gloriously unique, irreducibly complex. They are not bundles of symptoms. He gazes into the deepest, most mystical parts of the human psyche, and—far from extinguishing the living mystery of experience, of selfhood—Sacks’ science embraces and nourishes it.

So it must be with teachers. Recent decades have given us a wealth (you might say a clutter) of tools and checklists. Our shelves overflow with tables of state standards, banks of test items, standardized assessments. Like doctors, we’ve got a plethora of diagnostics at our fingertips.

But we must not “medicalize” our students. These tools begin a conversation; they do not end it. To learn any subject—math, history, Spanish, even neurology—is to undertake a fabulous and singular journey, to exercise your humanity at its highest level.

That’s not on the checklists; rather, it’s what the checklists are there for.


To be sure, specialization has its benefits. As a math teacher, my job is quite specifically to help my students learn mathematics, not to cook their breakfast or to counsel them on romance. (Neither my cooking nor my counsel would do them any favors.) For Sacks, this goes double: a neurologist is nothing if not an exquisitely trained specialist.

But when Sacks began working at a headache clinic, he found that his patients’ needs forced him outside of this mindset:

[Seeing patients] gave me a feeling of what seemed wrong with American medicine, that it consisted more and more of specialists. There were fewer and fewer primary care physicians, the base of the pyramid…. I found myself feeling not like a super-specialist in migraine but like the general practitioner these patients should have seen to begin with. I felt it my business, my responsibility, to enquire about every aspect of their lives.

Later, of his patients at Beth Abraham hospital, he writes:

I lived next door to the hospital and sometimes spent twelve or fifteen hours a day with them. They were welcome to visit me; some of the more active ones would come over to my place for a cup of cocoa on Sunday mornings.

This might seem to threaten the idea of clinical distance. In patient/doctor and pupil/teacher relationships, we are rightly afraid of impropriety. So we grow to fear attachment, enmeshment—any sort of excess sympathy—as a sign that lines are being crossed, balances disturbed. Instead, we stay cool. Removed.


But to Sacks, propriety is not at odds with intimacy. In fact, the whole purpose of professionalism is to create space for a clear and purposeful connectedness. He writes of his own psychoanalyst:

I still see Dr. Shengold twice a week, as I have been doing for almost fifty years. We maintain the proprieties—he is always “Dr. Shengold” and I am always “Dr. Sacks”—but it is because the proprieties are there that there can be such freedom of communication. And this is something I also feel with my own patients. They can tell me things, and I can ask things, which would be impermissible in ordinary social intercourse.

Reading Sacks, I’m always moved by the extraordinary empathy he lends to every patient. In those crippled by illness or disorder, he finds hidden strengths, adaptive resilience. In those dismissed by others—as psychologically diminished, intellectually null, or beyond treatment—he finds untold complexity and richness. He writes:

I find every patient I see, everywhere, vividly alive, interesting and rewarding; I have never seen a patient who didn’t teach me something new, or stir in me new feelings and new trains of thought.

I wish, desperately, that I could say the same of every student I’ve taught. But the day is only so long; owing sympathy and attention to all of my students, I inevitably shortchange most of them. They each face unique puzzles and struggles, carry with them distinctive strengths and personal motives—but hell if I manage to discover half of these stories before they graduate and move on.

I’ll never understand my students as deeply as Sacks understands his patients. Still, it’s an ideal I can strive towards.

As it is, my “knowledge” of my students is often statistical. I know how they’ve performed on homework, quizzes, and tests. I can predict how they’ll fare on the high-stakes exams that will circumscribe their opportunities for the future. Our educational system is increasingly a statistical one.

In medicine, statistics are also ascendant, and in a footnote (it’s always a footnote, with Sacks—the notes for Awakenings originally ran to twice the length of the text itself) Sacks relays one memorable anecdote on the topic:

“How many patients do you have on L-dopa?” he asked me.

“Three, sir,” I replied eagerly.

“Gee, Oliver,” Labe said, “I have three hundred patients on L-dopa.”

“Yes, but I learn a hundred times as much about each patient as you do,” I replied, stung by his sarcasm.

Sacks doesn’t deny the value of statistics. (“All sorts of generalizations are made possible by dealing with populations,” he remarks.) But he insists that they are not enough. Alongside the cold and towering arsenal of data, he supplies an utterly necessary complement: a renewed humanism, a depth of caring and compassion, a creative receptiveness to the variety of human strengths and experiences. He doesn’t rebel against the statistical regime; he simply denies that it can substitute for older and more personal forms of wisdom.

That’s the balance I seek in my teaching. The word essential springs to mind, in its two distinct senses: the newer one of “very important,” and the older one of “capturing the essence.” Test scores, statistics, student data—these things are very important, but they are not the essence.

Tests are only stethoscopes. They are not the heartbeat itself.

Sacks is dying of cancer. In a February essay, he wrote, “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me.” When he passes, the world will lose an extraordinary being, a form of life every bit as distinctive and wonderful as the patients to whom he lent his sympathy, his Sunday afternoons, and—perhaps most lasting of all—his words.

18 thoughts on “Oliver Sacks Knows What It Means to Teach

  1. I loved this post. I always love your drawings. Thank you so much for this! And I’d love to enrich my soul, so I’ll go and seek out the book in which he mistakes he wife for a hat. 😀

  2. Ben this is fantastic. I don’t know about that early point on sedimentary adjectives (give me bedrock verbs and nouns), but as a thinker and a human being, like Sacks, you are way beyond grading. Thank you thank you thank you!

    1. Thanks so much, Beth!

      As to the adjectives: in general I think you’re quite right (Commonwealth taught me better than to build on such swampy ground). I just admire this particular habit of excess that Sacks has, where he’ll use stacks of near-synonyms to add shading and texture to an idea.

  3. In some ways, I am close to agreeing with Sacks about grades. But if your assigned grades will inform short-term decision-making (e.g., teaching graduate math-ed content to prospective teachers), then is it still okay to give everyone an A?

    I feel strongly that with formative feedback and constructive criticism (each of which plays a role in the larger discourse between ‘teacher/s’ and ‘student/s’) it is wholly possible to acknowledge uniqueness and distinctiveness, and even to consider factors such as “empathy, concern, responsibility, judgment,” but that giving out all As all-the-time and to all-the-students does a disservice to future students of theirs.

    I find the ultimate result (not reporting any grades) much more palatable than the all A approach, for the latter still has an interpretation: whether by schools looking for teachers or hospitals looking for doctors.

    (Perhaps I have read too much into the short excerpt provided; I, too, have enjoyed Sacks’ recent writing, and recall learning of him some years ago when I went through the page-turning “An Anthropologist on Mars.”)

    1. Yeah, I’m not sure I could defend Sacks’ grading practices as good general advice, or as a sustainable systemic approach. I just think it’s a gorgeous gesture, powered by exactly the right sentiment.

  4. This is another post that has inspired me and moved me. Thanks, Ben.

    It sounds as if Oliver Sacks really wants to give each student a grade of “Incomplete”, where the incomplete reflects not that the student has not completed the work, but that Sacks does not have enough information to give a grade. Given that no such grade exists, he feels that an A is as close as he can get to a true measure of the student.

    For professors such as myself who don’t come close to understanding my students as well as Sacks understands his, I work with the current system and assign students grades based on performance on problem sets, tests, and projects. It’s quite imperfect as a measure of the student, but it has its uses.

  5. Everything that you say here, about your own teaching philosophy, agrees with every MWBD post that you have ever made.
    Sacks is one of my very favorite people to read. I have not read his latest book, but his ways of thinking have influenced me for many years. I am not surprised to find that his writing has influenced you.

    1. Thank you for saying that – I don’t think I realized until putting together this post how much my thinking contains the echoes and residues of his.

  6. Lovely thoughts, and something we can take into most aspects of life when dealing with people. There is beauty in everything if we look closely… I’m trying to do something similar with the subject of maths itself and the poor rep it gets (see my blog at ebrahimlpatel.wordpress.com) – I’m thinking particularly of the school maths that I was brought up on. I hated it, but it was only at university when the door to the ‘soul’ of maths was opened to me did I find the true nature of the subject realise I wanted to be a professional mathematician.

  7. As a young doctor just starting her career, I ADORE this post. Just last week I picked up a second hand copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and I am so excited to read it. Thank you for sharing his – and your! – insights.

  8. What a touching tribute to Oliver Sacks – I’m sad to hear he is going through terminal illness.
    I read the Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Seeing Voices when I was a psychology undergrad, and while the conditions and observations he describes are hugely interesting, what struck me, as you’ve expressed so well, was his entirely human, kind, and creative approach to his patients and attempts to help them.
    I really like the way you draw parallels in his approach to patients with your approach to students – I wish more teachers were like you! I also wish more Health Ministers and NHS senior managers could see the value in this approach to healthcare as well, instead of turning everything and everyone into a meaningless statistic or target.
    Thank you for this – I’ll have to add some of his other books to my ever growing reading (wish)list 🙂

  9. Another great read by Oliver Sacks is his boyhoood autobiography Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Oh that we as teachers might kindle such a flame for learning!

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