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College Quarterly
Winter 1993 - Volume 1 Number 2
Concerning Teachers and Teaching: A Fragment of a Letter to a Friend
by Nick McCarthy

You ask me how things are. Well, life goes on and being in Galway is like being where I belong. The weather is becoming chilly and by November it will be cold. Real cold. By January there will be ice. The girls take off for school about 7:30, at which time I take off with saw and axe and wedge for the nearby woods, where I work until noon or so, sawing up and then splitting up and eventually carting home (a few pieces at a time) what appears to be an almost endless wealth of fallen trees and broken limbs. Mainly oak, which is as hard as iron but which burns slow and hot.

By noon that part of my day is over. I come home, shower, change my clothes (which are almost dripping wet with sweat), get something to eat, pick up the mail at the village a mile away, and then work at my typewriter until 5:30 or 6:00. At the moment I am constructing a critique of Camus' critique of Marxism. It seems something that needs to be done. The transition from sawing to typing is not always easy.

In the evenings I have been helping Caity with her reading. Three or four weeks ago, and after five years of academic instruction, her reading vocabulary was meagre and she didn't even know how to attack words she didn't know. We started with The Fisherman and his Wife. Last night I sat by the fire and listened to her read out of Heidi. Occasionally she hit a word she fumbled at. But the context was so clear and her approximation so close that I could give her the word out of thin air without even looking at the book. When Aunt Dete suddenly turned up (I had forgotten that she did at that juncture) to reclaim Heidi, whom she had previously dumped so unceremoniously on the grandfather, my reaction was almost physically one of surprise and indignation. “What a bitch!” I exclaimed. Caity smiled and continued to read.

She is learning, but I feel sure that I have taught her nothing at all. Indeed, I know nothing about teaching. When I listen to teachers talk about teaching, its techniques and goals, and inevitably in pseudo-technical language that is never the same from year to year, I don't know what they are talking about. When I hear students talking about criteria of excellence in teaching, seeking to formulate standards in terms of which professors can be judged, rated and graded as teachers, I cringe.

I don't know whether I, in my years as a student, came into contact with any excellent teachers, where excellence is defined by reference to some verbally formulated Platonic archetype, however complex or variabled. There were, as I look back, three professors (whether 'excellent' or not) with whom, though not necessarily from whom, I learned in such a way that I must have undergone with each a distinctive, qualitative transformation of tremendous importance to me if to no one else.

The first was Professor Edward Toller, from whom took a variety of courses in animal and theoretical psychology. Completely erratic, sometimes he came to class and sometimes he didn't. When he did, he was never prepared (or so it seemed) but simply rambled on in a kind of free association. Always friendly in a shy and awkwardly embarrassed sort of way, he welcomed interruptions and was only too glad to have students 'participate' and thus relieve him of the task of talking.

Toller's classes were never large and he seemed happier with rats than with human beings. His language could be uncouth and even obscene. His political and religious opinions, freely and at times exuberantly expressed, were certainly avante-garde and usually almost deliberately calculated to shock and to offend. And yet his modesty and candid recognition of his own finitude were an integral part of his undoubtedly neurotic personality. “How should I know,” he once replied with a mocking laugh to a student who had asked a question and was seeking a definitive answer: “I'm not God.”

For those who could follow his unorthodox meanderings (they could lead at any moment in any direction and never get back again)# he combined insight, unbounded imagination and ruthless scepticism. The texts he assigned inevitably disgusted him before the semester was over. As a scientist, his goal was (or so he used to tell us) the construction of conceptual instruments of behavioural description and prediction. I am sure that he felt that nothing could be known from the point of view of God except by God (who certainly didn't exist in the first place), and his own conceptual instruments" were always undergoing revision and moving, one feared, in the direction of his own scrap heap. His impact upon me as an undergraduate was tremendous. He may have beenl by objective and rational standards, the world's worst teacher; but he haunts me still. My approach to psychology is inevitably Tolleresque.

The second man with whom I must have learned was Professor of philosophy, David Isenberg. Distant, remote, aloof, almost frightening at timesl his lectures were masterpieces of precisionl organization and clarity. His classes were inevitably large, though somewhat avoided by graduate students. Isenberg was traditional and continental in his orientation, whereas logic and epistemology (British through and through) were then the rage. Once he had embarked on a lecturel he seemed to tolerate no interruptions. If a question was asked (and questions were rarely asked), he would ignore it with a glare, or would backtrack two or three sentences and start again as if this repetition (almost word for word) were answering the questionl or he would indicate peremptorily that “Dis vas vat I vas kooming to eff you vould only be payshuntl” and then would continue in his pre-established direction as if no question had been asked at all.

Isenberg was not an original philosopher but l rather, a historian or, better, an elucidator. With no expressed metaphysicall ethical or epistemological persuasions of his own, he seemed to exhibit (and this was his special genius) an unbelievable sensitivity to the tremendous diversity of philosophical points of view. He could fit himself into the shoes (and the soul) of the mystic, the rationalistl the sceptic, the idealistl the materialist and even (though with some uneasiness) the logical positivist. When he lectured on Hegel! he outdid Hegel; when he lectured on Kant, Kant's analysis seemed absolute; when he lectured on Thomasl he appeared as of the Catholic manner born and on more than one occasion warmed the cockles of the heart of the true believer. Although he contended that all philosophical positions were open to criticisml criticism was something with which he was not concerned. He was devoted with all his being (though this was something he never actually talked about) to the freedom of the human spirit and the human constructive imagination; and he recognized that the other side of freedom is unbounded diversity. He could not abide what he called the 'monolithic mind' -the mind that supposes that it has Truth systematically by the tail and is only too willing to impose it on all and sundry as both absolute and unique. Isenberg became and has remained a part of my total outlook in and out of philosophy. Greatness was there for me then, though I think of him now as having been the last of a kind that no longer exists.

The third man I now recall as having been special for me as a student is one whose name I seem to have forgotten. It could have been Moleur or even Goleur or Froleur. I could make sure by checking the catalogue of 35 years ago but- a quoi bon? He offered a course in Egyptian art, and I took it one semester because it came at the right time for me: Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8:00 a.m. His dullness, stodginessl insensitivity, pedantry, ineptitude and intellectual woodenness in general literally drove me to a completely freewheeling study of the history of Egyptian art-painting, sculpture and architecture. This study, done on my own time and often in complete conflict with the work of the class was a signal experience of my undergraduate days. Shall we say that Goleur (Moleur? Froleur?) was a bad teacher because he was dull and, I fear, uninformed and spiritually anesthetic? Or shall we say that he was an excellent teacher in that he drove at least one student into a world of significant form he might otherwise have missed completely? The best I can say is that melons may grow on compost heaps. Professor Froleur (if that was his name) was a crucial threshold in my life.

Leaving the woods for the classroom once more will not be easy. I am glad that when I come back I shall be on my last lap. One more sabbatical and I shall be through. The world by that time will have moved on some 30 years and more since I started, years I have been unable to move along with. I am no longer of the present. True, in my introductory classes I am now introducing the students (but really myself) to the 20th century of Lenin and Camus and Sartre and Freud and Ayer and Suzuki. And yet I wonder if these men (none of whom were even touched on in my undergraduate courses in philosophy) are, for the present generation of students, any less archaic and remote than Plato and Aristotle and Thomas and Descartes and Berkeley and Kant, to whose major writings, under the rubric of “classics,” my freshman lectures were directed for almost 20 years. In my Lit class I can easily spend three weeks and more reading aloud (in both German and English) and explicating to myself Rilke's Duino Elegies. From my point of view, the Elegies are tremendous, concerned as they are, with overwhelming insight and in such limpid German, with animals and children and wandering entertainers and men in love and the fleeting character of life and the yearning for meaning and permanence when there is in our totality of reality neither meaning nor permanence nor even angels to whom we can appeal.

From the point of view of many of my students, attuned as they are (whether they know it or not) to the rhythms of a computerized, militarized, CIA bugged age, Rilke is mainly merde, his concerns not being concerns in which anyone in this day and age can significantly participate. And I suspect that from the point of view of my younger and more progressive colleagues, granted that they have read Rilke at all, Rilke was one who, basically a defeatist and social dropout, failed to recognize how constructive dialogue and rationally guided action can produce a more humane world, like the present and-above all-the day after tomorrow.

So be it. I am incurably old-fashioned, preferring unashamedly, Rilke to Ginsberg and Beckett to Tennessee Williams. Year by year I am progressively less and less with contemporary events.

And now-off to the woods with saw, axe and wedge. The man across the way (I can see a bit of his house through the trees if I look hard, and his light at night from my kitchen window) thinks that I am mad for not renting a power saw. “You could cut your winter wood in a day,” he said one morning. Yes, I could rent a power saw for five or six dollars, and in a week I could cut enough wood to last me a year. Yet I haven't and I won't. I am in, but not of, the 20th century. I like hand saws. Mine is dull and oak is hard as iron. I know nothing about the proper techniques of sawing and splitting. I am innocent-not a woodcutter, but a child. For me it is exciting to split a piece of oak from top to bottom with a single blow. More usually I get wedged in with wedges.

The sun is now completely up. The bay below, like a long gash in the landscape, is shimmeringly blue. The rolling hills beyond are brown with deep, gray-green, angular shadows. In ten minutes I shall be working in the woods. There the outside world scarcely exists and the past and future collapse into an eternal now.

Nick McCarthy, a retired professor, wrote this some years ago at Galway-on-the-Bay. All names have been changed, for obvious reasons.