No, it is not that bad. This really is not a blog post about some awful monographs deemed to be educational treatises. If it were, I would not read it, much less write it. As is typical, it is about books. In this case, books about teachers, students, and school. The books found below are not academic studies, pedagogical theories, classroom management techniques, or handbooks for school administration. I have never read any of those. If you saw me in the classroom, you would realize it.
I confess to having a master’s degree in education, but I don’t know what that degree was all about. Thankfully, I was teaching school at the same time I earned that degree, and having a master’s netted me about an extra thousand bucks a year way back when I was in the system.
My educational philosophy was largely shaped by a teacher I had in 8th grade. I do pity her for having me as a student at that time. But on one occasion she informed the class: You are not here to have fun. To tell the truth, I was not overwhelmingly surprised when I learned that. I had experienced next to nothing in those years that I would have equated with having fun.
But over the years, I have pondered the depth of that statement: You are not here to have fun. Somewhere along the way, I decided to adopt that philosophy with one exception: I would omit the word not. I really came to believe that school should be fun. It is not easy for it to be fun, but it really helps that school is a place where at least occasionally we can learn things. Learning, discovery, pursuit of knowledge, uncovering of truth, and maybe even picking up bits and pieces of wisdom along the way: All that is fun.
And if school is not fun enough in and of itself, it builds up to the summer break where you can really get serious about learning.
I should also add that I committed early in life to avoid working for a living. What if, I thought, I could get paid for just doing what I think is fun? So, I became a school teacher. I love the experience, with some days being exceptions, and I love reading about the experience.
Of late, I have been reading To Teach, To Love by Kentucky author, novelist, poet, and teacher Jesse Stuart. Stuart was a master teacher. His own struggle to get an education is a fascinating story, and he told it often. He wrote at least four books that were autobiographies. The first was Beyond Dark Hills, which he shyly turned in to Professor Ed Mims at Vanderbilt University. It was supposed to be an autobiography of about 18 typed pages. Stuart wrote a couple of hundred pages, bound them together tightly, and handed them to the teacher. Mims scolded him for his actions, and then he went and started reading the story. He loved it. The second autobiography, The Thread That Runs So True, will be discussed below. The third is this book. (The fourth is The Year of My Rebirth, which I own, but have not read.)
Getting through school in rural Kentucky was a tremendous task. Going to college was more daunting. Heading off to Nashville to do graduate work during the heydays of the Agrarians/Fugitive Poets was unbelievable. Stuart did all that. He was equally at home behind a plow in a field or in a classroom. He is inspiring, funny, boastful, confident, and accomplished. Reading Stuart makes you want to punch out some troublemaker, plow a field, teach in a small school (the one thing I have accomplished), and then go and write a dozen sonnets or a short story.
I first discovered The Thread That Runs So True by Jesse Stuart when I read about it in the back of a literature book we were using when I was in 9th grade. Sure enough, our high school library had the book. I read and thoroughly loved it. For some reason, books about life in the rural south were overwhelmingly fascinating to me. So, I began reading all the books I could find by Stuart. (William A. Owens’ This Stubborn Soil was also a gem.)
When I was in college, and in an education course, I read The Thread That Runs So True again. Later, as a school administrator, I assigned it to our teachers. I have read the book in its entirety several times and parts of it even more times. It is, perhaps, the best book I have ever read on school teaching. It is fun, funny, inspiring, and instructive. Stuart recounts his ordeals such as getting over the roads and hills to the rural schools, fighting big farm boys who threatened him, inspiring a love of classics, surviving having to teach math (which he didn’t know well), and loving his students. I never read a Stuart book I didn’t like. Back in high school I read a novel of his titled Mr. Gallion’s School. It, too, was largely autobiographical.
Stuart was a master at relating the lives and loves and struggles of hill people in Kentucky. We will soon be reading Hie to the Hunters in my junior high class, and I can’t wait to introduce him to a new batch of readers.
There seems to have been about a hundred different editions of Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. I am glad that this book is still widely available. Every time I read it, I think that every African-American youth should read the book, and every non-African-American youth should read the book. And every teacher should read the book–several times. This is a great autobiography of an educator and school founder . Washington’s ordeal to get an education always shames me and overwhelms me. One of my favorite parts is when Washington relates that the students at Hampton Institute in Virginia found that they had 20 minutes of free time in the early evening. They decided to form a debate club so that they could make good use of that time. Wow! Too bad they didn’t have cell phones to text friends or Facebook statuses to update.
Equally challenging to Washington was the building of Tuskeegee Institute. The school began in a leaky old chicken house. Washington had to convince his students of the value of work. Many of his students, like too many even today, sought the prestige of education, rather than the substance, practicality, and work of it.
Sad to say, Washington is often despised or ridiculed today by both blacks and whites for his conciliatory view toward whites and his emphasis on economic skills rather than political power. This is tragic. Washington was kind-hearted and forgiving. He depended upon support from the white community, so he was overly diplomatic. The point is that he had vision. His vision was not political power, but decency and success. When you read a book like Coming Apart by Charles Murray, you realize that America, particularly the lower middle classes, are rotting out. To even hint at the problems of the welfare state and mentality is considered racist. But cultural degradation is not a racial matter. All races in America are cooperating in helping undermine the integrity of our nation. We need to rise up from the slaveries of today. We need to read Booker T. Washington.
Goodby Mr. Chips by James Hilton is a delightful short novel. You cannot teach in a classical school without having read this book. It is short, painfully too short. It is lyrical, heart-warming, happy and sad, and filled with wonderful stories about the life of a school master in England. Mr. Chipping began his teaching career rather poorly, and that is true of many of us. He could not control his classes and he truly blundered and stumbled all along the way. Slowly, he loosened up, and came to love and understand his students and classroom. A confirmed old bachelor, at some point along the way, he married a vivacious and rather liberal younger woman. Their marriage was short-lived, for Mrs. Chips died in childbirth. As the years passed by, the love of the students for this teacher only grew. He had his ups and downs with administration, but he persevered. Simply a wonderful story.
The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss might be viewed as a darker version of the Chips story. I just read it last year for the first time, and while I liked it, I might have to read it again to have a better assessment of it. But it was an enjoyable read.
To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield is yet another book in the tradition of the Chips story. In this account, a man who has been traumatized by war becomes a teacher. The whole English boarding school tradition has always struck me as insane (and this was confirmed by Lewis’ account in Surprised by Joy), but the boarding school certainly provides a good setting for a teacher story.
Jay Parini, an English and creative writing professor at Middlebury College, is an outstanding literary biographer and literary critic. He is also a poet and novelist. I picked up the book The Art of Teaching several years back in that wonderful town of Oxford, Mississippi. It sounded like a good book and was by a good author. It is a great book. It is largely directed to and about teaching in college, but there is lots that any teacher can glean from this book. I have read it twice and am feeling tempted to go start a third reading.
Last, but not least, What is a Teacher: Remembering the Soul of Education Through Classic Literature is outstanding. I have only read a few portions of this book, which was edited by Dr. Claudia Allums. However, the chapter by Dr. Larry Allums, titled “Faulkner’s Sam Fathers: Teaching the Skills, Revealing the Architypes” is worth the price of the book times 10. Any book with literary essays by Dr. Louise Cowan, perhaps the greatest literature teacher in America during the past several decades, and those she has mentored will be good. Dr. Cowan provided the postscript, which is based on Shakespeare’s Tempest. Her son, Bainard Cowan is an expert on Melville, so it is no surprise that he wrote about a young teacher who introduced himself to the world by saying, “Call me Ishmael.” I am currently reading this essay in conjunction with teaching Moby Dick. Other contributors include Glenn Arbery, who wrote on Dante, and Dennis Patrick Slattery, who wrote on that great teacher in Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima.
I will add some more books and thoughts to this list, but now I have homework. Ishmael calls for my assistance alongside him on the Pequod.