A Fun Look at the Schoolmaster of old…

The Hoosier Schoolmaster
Edward EgglestonGrosset & Dunlap, 1871, 281 pages
Reviewed by Steve Elliott, June 6, 2005

Here is a treasure of fiction that encompasses some great human themes. The footnotes and careful use of colloquial dialect seem to intimate that the author was seeking to preserve the Hoosier cultural experience. But I enjoyed it for the use of the old schoolmaster setting, its characters, and a nice tight plot.

The pages contain the experiences of a new schoolmaster to “Flat Creek” district of Indiana in about the 1850’s. The author gives you some great pictures and stories to draw you in, but then slowly weaves his plot around several colorful characters. It seems from the intro to my third edition that it was rather well known and a good seller in its day.First let me deal with some things that I did not like. I found the illustrations to be of no use or help in the understanding or meaning of the text. The copy I obtained was old, 1899, so I had to treat it with a lot of care. The footnotes, almost entirely given to explaining the origin of strange dialectical words like, “peart” for pert, or why the word “pail” did not seem to exist in 1850 Indiana, did nothing for me except break up my reading. I would have done more with the central bad guy, Dr. Small, to give him some blackness or at least emotional repulsion. Even at the end of the story, I still did not know him enough to hate him, but rather was baffled by some of his evil actions as the motive seemed lacking.

But all that aside, this was a great story. The schoolmaster, Hartsook, was believable and easily empathized with. The bulldog illustration will stay with me for some time. At moments there was something just shy of a Dickensian flavor to some of the scenes, especially the debtor’s prison. Little Shockey was simply a delight and in my opinion used by the author to give the whole a certain spiritual slant without too much preaching. That of course leads into the interesting plot use of preaching in the story. I would guess Eggleston was enamored with Whitman, Thoureau, et. al. and probably was not the biggest fan of organized religion, but I think this works to make this a stronger story. In the end, it sets up a beautiful messianic vision at the court of law, with truth and justice winning out of hypocrisy, and that all through the establishment of law rather than its acquiescence.

Lovers of American fiction, especially the Twain sort of mystery/comedy will enjoy this text. It has to hit my list of books about teaching simply for the bulldog illustration and the wonderful turning of the tables on the boy trying to dunk his teacher.


Hicks Highlights

I have recently completed my first full reading of David Hick’s work, Norms and Nobility. I have read at it prior to this reading, I just never actually read it fully. I still don’t pretend to get it, but I did get through it, and that is no mean accomplishment. I will more fully blog out my thoughts, but for now, let me simply sing it’s praise.

Hicks has set forth a vision for a school that in the theoretical level I love, I just don’t know if it can actually work. I am not a pragmatist, I just am not as much of an idealist as DH. That students would flourish in such a school is a safe bet. An assured one at that. That he has had trouble even getting it realized at his actual school of influence, The Darlington School in Georgia, is indicative that if he can’t make it happen, then who am I to try? But then, is that not the tyrannizing image that he was shooting for.

Perhaps the best way to describe the book then is so “high” as to bring anyone who reads up a notch regardless of their current strata. He certainly is not writing so much a diatribe, though there are the inevitable comparisions to the current modes of schooling, but rather he seems to simply be imagining in the very best sense the best that could be if school were able to be perfect.

I think he comes very close in balancing rigor with joy. I don’t know how that looks, because I have never seen it. But I now, having read DH’s work, want more than ever to see it even for a moment before I die. What does it mean to build a learner who loves learning enough to rejoice in the difficult task of actually learning?

David, I raise a glass to you, and hope that sometime in the future I can do more than merely babble incoherent praise.

Great book for anyone in the field of learning

Leisure: The Basis of Culture
Josef Pieper
Liberty Fund, 1952, 137 pages
Reviewed by Steve Elliott, June 6, 2005

Big bombs come in small packages sometimes. Here is one. Written by a well-respected Catholic philosopher, originally in German, right after WWII, this is a very rare jewel of modern philosophical writing. After a great introduction by none other than T.S. Eliot, the book takes on two basic ideas or parts. In the first, Pieper sets forth four arguments to set forth that leisure constitutes the basis of western culture. In the second part, he generates four more discussions to show what is involved or constitutes the “philosophical act.”

I am hard pressed after only one reading to be highly critical of a work that was so awakening to me. Perhaps I can be more critical in later days, but for now I can really only sing its praises.
“The original conception of leisure, as it arose in the civilized world of Greece, has, however, become unrecognizable in the world of planned diligence and ‘total labor’; and in order to gain a clear notion of leisure we must begin by setting aside the prejudice – our prejudice – that comes from overvaluing the sphere of work.” With this and like thoughts Josef Pieper sets out to defend the notion that the world needs more leisure. He clearly distinguishes between the “new” concept of leisure as a rest to get us back to work refreshed and the old manner of seeing work as a means to get us back to the state of leisure where life, the good, the beautiful can be sought and contemplated. Only when such is back in the driver’s seat of our culture will be actually win back some semblance of knowing what to do with a culture.

Really taking the Kantian view of thought as work to task, he seeks to demonstrate that while thinking requires effort, it is not labor. The essence of the liberating or liberal arts is to make us those able to be people of leisure. The manual arts ready folks for labor, the liberal ones free us from having to work. This just is not the way the enlightened industrial mind thinks. I probably sound like someone seeking a way out of work just by writing this review. In reality, I believe Pieper takes us to the heart of what my life’s work is all about: preparing students to be free people.

I found so much throughout this book that I can only enjoin the reader to get a copy (a hard bound one) and feast on it for the rest of your life. It is a great book, and perhaps one of the most momentous reads of my life.

We are too busy as a culture to preserve our culture. That fact cannot be denied after reading the vision of philosophical action set forth in these pages. With forthright and almost sermonic speech, the author refutes the notions in our culture of efficiency, ends only, instantaneous gratification and almost no reflective thought. I should reread this text in near proximity to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and see what the combined effect would be on my life. I highly recommend this book to anyone who cares about anything “like” life.