Thursday, October 16, 2014

Great teachers and reading

A recurring characteristic of the portraits of "great teachers" in the collection edited by Joseph Epstein is their depth and breadth of knowledge. Consider the following examples:
  • Edmond Wilson on Christian Gauss: "He was wonderful at comparative literature, for his reading had covered the whole of the West--ancient, medieval and modern--and his memory was truly Macaulayan (an adjective sometimes assigned too cheaply). He seemed to be able to summon almost everything he wanted in prose or verse, as if he were taking down the books from the shelf." (6)
  • Sidney Hook on Morris R. Cohen: "If he had read less he surely would have written more, but his reading gave him a stock of information, examples, and anecdotes that made it risky to generalize about anything in a discussion with him." (42)
  • Joseph Gerard Brennan on Harry Austryn Wolfson: "As a student in Wolfson's Aristotle seminar, I sometimes had to look him up in his Widener Library cell, stacked high with books, scrolls, and manuscripts in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic. In Wolfson's own apartment, every available space was packed with books, and sometimes he forgot whether he had stowed a needed volume in the oven or the refrigerator." (57)
  • Lewis S. Feuer on Arthur O. Lovejoy: "[T]here was a mark of the impossible about Lovejoy's historical method. He could preface some observation with the statement "after a lifetime of reading,' but the graduate student, having no such accumulation of memories and notes, felt as helpless as a destroyer ordered to maneuver against a battleship." (127). 
  • George P. Brockway on John William Miller: "In spite of his immersion in the history of philosophy, and although he was awesomely well read in all the humanities and the sciences as well, he was not a scholar in the ordinary sense ..." (159)
  • Jeremy Bernstein on Philipp Frank: "Philipp had almost total recall of everything he had ever learned--to say nothing of entire conversations, some of which had taken place fifty years earlier.... I later discovered that he had a fluent command of French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Czech. He also read Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, and could write in these languages as well." (220-221)
  • John Wain on C.S. Lewis: "During the years when he was growing up, Lewis accepted the study of the Greek and Latin authors as the essential business of his life, and the reading of English authors, of every epoch since the English language made its appearance, as his chief recreation. Nothing that happened to him in his life disturbed this view." (243)
Reading a lot is not the only characteristic of a great teacher, to be sure. You can be learned and a bore. But, in general, great teachers know their stuff.

These descriptions remind me of the comment about painting in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It's easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That's the way all the experts do it." (293)

Works cited:
Epstein, Joseph, ed. Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Bantam, 1974.

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