Storyboard: Errol Gerson

From South Africa with Love – of Learning

Picture this: I’m sitting in a grad school classroom in 1971. My professor poses a question, “Who would like to NOT complete the thesis for this class?” My hand shot into the air like a rocket. My professor then requested that I pay him a visit after class.

During my visit, the professor said, “You no longer have to complete your thesis, but there is something else I’ll ask you to do.” Ah, the law of unintended consequences! The professor asked me if I had a car. I did. He proceeded to give me an address on Third Street, and requested that I pay a visit. The address was ArtCenter’s old campus, long before they moved to the “Jedi Temple” in Pasadena.

What did the professor want from me? It was simple. He wanted me to teach his class. I had TA’d a few classes as a graduate student, but I wasn’t ready for this.

The class I was being asked to teach was Small Business Management. In the words of the professor: “When I lecture, they either sleep or doodle.” Mortified, I showed up at ArtCenter at around three o’clock. Not long after my arrival, I found three students who were enrolled in the class I was supposed to teach. I asked them what they thought of the professor. They mentioned that he read to them aloud from a book on management theory. I asked them if they thought that was useful. They said no. So I asked them what they really wanted to learn.

I have an undergraduate degree in Accounting and a Master’s in Finance. In other words, I’m an accountant by nature. I’ve taught upwards of 5,300 students in my lifetime, but when I started teaching, I was very much a work in progress. I had emigrated from South Africa in 1966 to get away from apartheid, and after getting into some trouble with my political views, I knew it was time to set sail for America.

My step-father was an accountant who passed his skill and knowledge down to me. I took it to America and proceeded to enroll in a tiny junior college, mostly because I couldn’t afford tuition at USC. Still, I was engaged in the student body life there. Not only was I taking lots of classes, I was on the tennis team, and eventually became student body president.

I came to ArtCenter knowing nothing about photography, illustration, or graphic design. I proceeded to enroll in night courses that offered insight into those topics. I had to learn what ArtCenter was so famous for.

My method of teaching business is philosophical. It’s personal. I talk to my students the way I would talk to my colleagues. If you teach business the way I was taught business, it can feel laborious, and you may end up tearing your own hair out. I am not in possession of an ego large enough to justify the belief that I can teach anything to anybody. What I can do is instill the love of learning in students. Once you can do that, a student’s career can take off.

About a year ago, at a charity dinner I was attending, I was faced with the inevitable question one is always asked at such gatherings: “What do you do?” The individual who posed the question assumed I was a high school teacher. When I politely informed this person that I taught as an Adjunct Professor at ArtCenter College of Design, their response was, “Oh, my nephew goes to the Art Institute.”

It’s those types of remarks that sadden me. The impact of ArtCenter students has changed the world in so many ways and yet, still, for whatever reason, the College remains a well-kept secret. ArtCenter has made contributions not just to the United States, but to the world at large. I feel a responsibility to let people know about the work it is doing and the students we teach.

At the present time, my greatest hope is to be physically present in front of students for my 50th year at the College in the Fall of this year. There is no question that whatever I may have given to the school through my educational endeavors, the students have given me that same amount back, and then some.

People often ask me, “What is the purpose of design?” I tell them, it’s simple: to improve our lives. By teaching at ArtCenter, I’ve improved my own life considerably – and hopefully, I’ve helped some others out along the way.

Errol Gerson
Adjunct Professor, ArtCenter College Of Design, Entrepreneurship, Leadership, Business Management
Management Strategist, The Gerson Group

ArtCenter has made contributions not just to the United States, but to the world at large. I feel a responsibility to let people know about the work it is doing.

Errol Gerson
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