Thursday, April 05, 2012


I picked up a paperback from the free-book table of the college library, a novel by John Williams called Stoner.

I had never heard of author or title. The title suggested a subject in which I had no interest. But the publisher -- the New York Review of Books -- and an introduction by John McGahern, prompted me to take an look. I tucked it in my book bag and took it home for a read.

Williams was a half-generation older than me (1922-1994), and a life-long professor of English literature at the University of Denver. "Stoner" is the surname of his protagonist. William Stoner is a teacher of English literature at the University of Missouri (where Williams went to graduate school), although a half-generation older than the author.

This is a book about teaching, as a job, as a vocation, as a passion. It is a novel full of heartbreak and sorrow, and occasional moments of transcendent joy. But at its core it is the story of a man who loved literature and felt no greater commandment than to share his love with those oh-too-few students who are in love with learning.

At one point, rather late in his career, Stoner reflects:
He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.
The first requirement of good teaching: That the book be true. That is, that the teacher believes that what he or she teaches partakes of the truth of the world -- plane geometry, the novels of Jane Austen, the disposition of troops on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the evolution of life on Earth. The subject matter. Not the private prejudices and foibles of the teacher.

Great teaching is not indoctrination, but the meeting of open minds over a text. Not for the sake of the text itself, as some contemporary academics would have it, but the text as a door to the fulfillment and happiness of the "reader."

During my forty years in the classroom, I doubt if any student could have detected my religion, or political persuasion, or the joys and sorrows of my private life -- unless, of course, I was asked in confidence outside of class. It was my job, my vocation, and my passion to elucidate a text -- the physical world -- in so far as I was able. If in so doing, the text enriched the lives of my students, I earned my keep. If I conveyed a contagious joy and passion for lifelong learning, so much the better.