Professor Emeritus of English
March 10-13, 1978
Reflections on Amherst and "English 1"
Rights and citation information
[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions.]
Professor Theodore Baird
Professor of English 1927-1970, Emeritus 1970-
Taped at his home on Shays Street, South Amherst
March 10, March 13, 1978
Baird: Yesterday I spent about an hour talking to this machine and when I tried to play it back to see how it sounded there was nothing there. I don’t regret this at all because it seemed to me, on reflection, a very stupid performance. Certainly nothing that should be preserved for posterity.
I thought I’d begin by trying to describe the situation as I saw it in my early years at Amherst and how I came to Amherst in the first place, and what led up to, in my mind, what was known as English 1.
If you look at that course and say that this was at any moment my will, or my wish, or even my thinking, that was all wrong. Whatever it was it came from something in the past. It came from me; it came from Amherst; it came from the teaching that had gone here before I was even born. It was partly an expression of my temperament, but it was also an expression of a kind of opposition to something. Unless you know what was being opposed, you don’t have any idea why any such absurd goings-on should have occurred.
Well, I came to Amherst because I knew somebody and somebody knew me. I had taught at Western Reserve, Adelbert College, for a year; salary $1,600. And then I went to Union for two years, which I enjoyed. Salary $2,000, perhaps raised to $2,100 the second year. Then I went back to Harvard and worked on a degree. I had known Roy Elliott and I had also known Francis Fobes. When Roy Elliott, who had been a great man at Bowdoin, came to Amherst, I think in ‘24, and when he had a leave of absence for sabbatical in ‘27, I was employed at a salary of $2,700, I think, to come here for a single year with no promise of anything-- and no prospect of anything really-- to teach the Shakespeare course, which he had done, and a couple of sections of Freshman English.
The English department when I came was composed of three full professors: George Whicher, Roy Elliott, and David Morton. And there were three instructors: Harold Sproul, Bill Clark, who was an Amherst man, and I. I survived.
Harold Sproul quit teaching and went into music and did very well; I think he ran a music school in Cummington. Bill Clark went on to the University of Cincinnati where he became head of the department and, I think, Distinguished Professor of some sort. He edited the plays of the Earl of Orrery.
George Whicher was an Amherst man, a very devoted Amherst man; he’d been editor of the Alumni magazine and had put a great deal of his time and spirit into this place which he dearly loved.
Roy Elliott had taught for many years at Bowdoin where he was their most distinguished and influential teacher, at least in the humanities. He had written one of the very first academic essays on Robert Frost and Frost and Roy became great friends and remained so all their lives. Frost’s last letter was to Roy and Alma Elliott. Roy came to Amherst, succeeding [George Bosworth] Churchill, on terms that he made and they were that he should do very little teaching and be free to write. And this he was able to do for most of his time at Amherst.
The third member was David Morton and he had come, I think about ‘25, and he had worked on a newspaper and was a member of the Poetry Society of America, and in that role he had made friends, particularly with Mrs. [Dwight W.] Morrow. And it was through her, everyone supposed, that he was appointed at Amherst. Frost used to talk about how this happened and how Georgie Olds came to him and said: “Can we keep this man? Do you know anything about him,” and said he was under pressure to appoint him.
Well, those were the three full professors and they were all, in their way, interesting people. George was the most conventional, academic professor. He was the son of a professor of Classics and he had a son who became a professor of English. He was well trained and he was very widely read. He was the kind of man who would suggest a title to you and you would always feel grateful to him for the rest of your life. It was George who put me on to John W. DeForest and enabled me to discover this really very fine writer-- not much known about. He also, I think, turned my attention to George W. Cable, who is buried over there in Northampton. And he was a man that you could talk “books” with. He was a very orderly teacher, I think. He taught a section of freshmen and then a course in Chaucer and then a senior course in American Literature. He was highly organized. His lectures were, I judge, very clear so that a student could get a good outline of literary history as George taught it. He was a very cultivated man, self-cultivated, I would say, in that he had trained himself to speak with great articulateness and very deliberately. I think that temperamentally he was not given to speech; I think he was a silent man and I always felt that if it weren’t for his cultivated role as a teacher, he wouldn’t want to say anything to anybody. This may be unfair, but it’s not meant unkindly. I know that in all my relations with him, I used to feel that the conversation would start well and then would die. I would be left going on in a more or less fatuous manner.
Now I would like to go back to Roy Elliott a moment, because what I am trying to do is describe these three professors. Roy was a very handsome man, a Canadian, with a beautiful wife. He was a very high Episcopalian and took the church very seriously, and he used to urge me to attend more regularly. He was also very interested, as in the old days of the College, in the spiritual life of his students. He had very few students. He had handed the Shakespeare course over to me, which was a great mistake on his part and a great opportunity for me. He taught only two courses to upperclassmen. There was a kind of hierarchy. There were freshman courses, and there were sophomore courses, and there were upperclass courses. So that each course appealed to a relatively small audience. And Roy taught only two upperclass courses and then cut it down to one when he was offered a job at the University of Cincinnati at an even larger salary-- I think all of $9,000-- so that he reached a very small section of the population. No one knew him as a freshman teacher, couldn’t know him as a sophomore, and by the time you became an upperclassman you wouldn’t know much about Roy. This meant that as the time went on, his friends had to suggest to students that they study with him, for he had very limited appeal, though many of his students were devoted to him the rest of their lives. He liked to talk personally with students. He valued the conversations in his study very highly and thought that this was the way you influenced people. And I think that he was, frankly, interested in their personal and their spiritual lives. But as I say, his influence in the College as a whole was not very great and he became, as I said, less and less known and this became a problem in the ‘thirties, just to find him a class to teach.
Now to return to David Morton. He was a Southerner, a Kentuckian, who had gone to Vanderbilt and had played football. I think that when he first came to Amherst he coached the freshman football team. He was also a boxer and he would box with his students. In this way he was demonstrating that he was very much a manly man. I can remember once he came into the locker room after having boxed with some student or other and he wasn’t able to speak because he had been hit so hard on the jaw it was numbed. He taught a Freshman section and he taught a course in writing, creative writing, and then he taught a senior course in Modern Poetry, only he didn’t call it Modern Poetry; he called it in the catalog, “Moods of the World Today.” This title created a good deal of hilarity among the faculty who didn’t particularly go for that sort of talk. It was certainly an invitation to do anything about anything that was in the least modern. But his idea of what was modern was rather strange. He dismissed The Wasteland in conversation as no more interesting than the daily newspaper. And his taste for poetry was decidedly lyrical. He was, himself, a poet. He wrote and published a number of volumes; most of them he published himself, containing sonnets especially, sonnet sequences, and he wrote really lovely poems, technically exquisitely done, the most delicate sentiment, the feeling largely of nostalgia. Some of them became anthology pieces for a while.
I’ve always thought that the perfect expression of Dave was in the story he told me about how once he met a woman, a lady; he was introduced to her in the dark and they had a conversation and her voice had always stayed with Dave as something very lovely. He never saw her again, but he still remembered that meeting in the dark and her lovely voice. And this always seemed to me the perfect expression of this man who cultivated nostalgia and who liked the idea of meeting ladies in the dark and talking with them and then never seeing them again. He appealed to his class in “Moods of the World Today” as a strong and manly man; the kind that could hit you hard enough to numb his jaw. And he read with them the most delicate and exquisite kind of lyrical poetry, Sara Teasdale, for example, or Edna Millay.
He was able, also, to bring poets-- real poets-- right into the classroom in Walker Hall because he had access to some money that he raised himself from a few alumni who thought that it was a good idea to bring a genuine poet right before an Amherst student. I’m sure I remember his bringing Edwin Markham here, “The Man with the Hoe.” He paid them perhaps $75, and they would come and talk to the class and then Dave would have some kind of party for them. But the kind of poetry he read there, was really very very limited and it was not modern at all; it was perhaps contemporary.
He also taught a writing course. And in that he did a great deal to encourage his students to write poetry, and here again he would raise money from a few of the Alumni and publish books called “Amherst Undergraduate Verse.” Copies can still be found. I don’t think he did this more than three years. But to look at these books, as I have done, and think of how so and so, an alumnus that you know something about, was then writing poems about dusk, and about ships sailing on the horizon off somewhere-- very curious, very curious.
He was a very romantic Southern, manly, very polite man. His manners were elaborate and if you ate with him at the old Perry Hotel, as I did for a couple of months, passing the bread was really a ceremony. Dave stood for something in his own mind, just as I suppose Roy Elliott stood for something in his own mind. But they were very different things.
Now I hope I haven’t been saying anything particularly nasty about these people. They were all a great trial to me, as older professors always are to the young instructor or assistant professor who has to bear with them in their boring ways and their predictable conversation and their absolutely unendurable English Department. When I say that, I mean that they never talked one with another about anything of any consequence. I suppose there were department meetings, and there was always some talk, I suppose, about reorganizing the curriculum, but their relations, I know, were always formal, always distant, they never expressed anything that could be argued about-- I mean argued objectively-- they never faced one another and said anything rude. I think they probably said NASTY things to one another in subtle ways because there was a certain amount of competition set up for them when the College had established half a dozen professorships, paying a larger salary-- a salary of $8,000-- and Roy Elliott got that and that made very bad blood with George Whicher and Dave Morton. But I don’t think they ever faced it. They both told me what they thought about that; they thought it was a grave injustice that it was given to Roy, but I don’t think they ever said to Roy, “Roy, you’ve done me a grave injustice,” or anything like that.
So here I am trying to describe three men, all different, all, at least two of them, with very definite ideas of what they were doing. Dave was showing the rather philistine Amherst student that there was beauty in the world and that that beauty was of a kind that he could say: “Yes, I, too, love the dusk, beautiful women or at least their voices in the darkness.” And this wasn’t hard for some primitive Deke or whatnot and he could always say, “Yes, I, too, have known beauty. Dave introduced me to it.” It’s easy to laugh at this and I do.
Roy’s appeal was, as I said, to the spiritual sense-- whatever that meant. He loved to teach Spenser because Spenser dealt, in his elaborate way, with Virtue and Conscience. George, I think, was less ambitious as a teacher in that he was concerned with their learning something about literary history which is easier to learn than virtue. But he, too, had varied interests. He was something of an academic poet; he published a book of poems with his father, translations from Horace. He was an essay writer with an occasional essay in the Atlantic Monthly, and he was a prolific book reviewer. He reviewed week after week, year after year, for the Herald Tribune Books when it was edited by Irita Van Doren. George, in a sense, was the best known name on the faculty because you saw his name every Sunday or almost every Sunday in the Sunday Herald Tribune which people read in those days-- in the ‘thirties. And he was an accomplished book reviewer. He could review anything, and he wrote very nicely. He also wrote and published a biography of Emily Dickinson. So George was a literary man, but it was a rather different kind of literariness from Roy or Dave. And as I say, these three, so far as I know, never sat down and talked to one another and said, “Now what do you think you’re doing teaching Sara Teasdale in that Class? Do you think she’s really...,” and Dave would say, ‘Yes of course she is, she has a broken heart and she expresses it in quatrains and makes it rhyme and it has rhythm and meter and this is poetry, and it’s being written and published today. And Amherst students, especially those primitive Dekes, should be introduced to it.” They never had that kind of conversation. They never faced one another. They were polite.
They were not like their predecessors, say in the ‘nineties, in the Amherst English Department when in letters I’ve seen they addressed one another formally by title, and although they must have seen one another on the campus every day for some years, they still addressed one another on paper, formally, as Professor. In this day if you, or even in the days that I’m speaking of, if you call your colleague Professor, that is an insult to him! You knew that he would know that you were very angry with him. That was the worst thing you could say to him. Because this was now a very first-naming world.
I was always surprised how first-naming it was-- and is. I think that must go back to the past also. I’ve seen a letter addressed to President Meiklejohn from a Professor which began ‘Dear Micky,” and I think that’s going rather far. I never called an Amherst president by his first name, very happily. You were supposed to do it. I certainly never called Stanley King, Stanley. I called Charlie Cole, Charlie, and Calvin-- Cal, we called him. But I never liked that. It never seemed to me the right relationship with a President. But they were on first-name basis-- Dave and George and Roy-- but they never went any farther than that.
Now I didn’t like this, and this is what I’ve been leading up to. I’ve been talking about these people as I saw them and I’ve been trying to describe how I felt and why I felt as I did. It seemed to me that they ought to speak one to another and say, “What do you think you’re doing as a teacher?”
I became a teacher of English, really out of chance, and luck, and also from a very strong sense of dissatisfaction with my own education. I viewed my career as a teacher, and I still do, in the words of Lovelace. I would say, “Let this expiate,” and if I was badly taught, as I think I was, by people who were content with saying really very simple things or very stupid things, very conventional things and so on and so on, why I would say I was trying to do something else. And I was very dissatisfied with the way, when I came to Amherst, I felt that no one was asking why we were doing anything. And it was just taken for granted that if you did something, that was all there was to it. You did it. You could be a fool; you could be a priest; or you could be a very sentimental man and stand up before your class, and nobody would say anything to you. I felt that you ought to do better than that somehow. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just because I’ve always been very censorious of my betters. But I thought that this was a very fine place. I felt privileged to be here and I always have. There was nothing in me that made it necessary for the universe to be arranged so that I should come here. I thought I was very lucky.
And once I got here what did I find? Well, I thought I found professors who were teaching English in various ways and nobody was particularly curious about their purposes or methods. There was certainly MUCH criticism. I don’t mean from me, I mean from everybody. The first thing I heard when I got to Amherst was not, “What a wonderful English Department,” but what strange courses they gave and how easily they were conducted and how some of these teachers didn’t even give exams. And indeed this was true. Dave Morton believed that you should only teach as long as you had something to say. Now, no one would say to him, “Well, why haven’t you something to say for fifty minutes”, because that would have been rude. And he would say: “I speak only as the spirit moves me,” and that might be say ten minutes or twenty minutes. He had immense classes. He was very popular, naturally. He asked nothing of his students-- even to attend. And he would have 80 or 90 or 100 students in a classroom on the third floor of Walker, and then after the spirit had moved him for ten minutes, he would let them go and 80 or 90 or 100 students would troop down by your own classroom where you were just winding into 50 minutes. But nobody ever dared say-- I never dared say-- “Dave, why don’t you keep your classes, or why don’t you meet them out-of-doors or something? You’re disturbing everybody.” Nobody ever criticized openly, but there was a great deal of feeling, a lot of ill feeling, it would seem to me.
This was the heritage of President Meiklejohn, the great liberal, and he left behind him a lot of ill-feeling. I heard on all sides when I came here what was WRONG was the teaching of English. But this was never faced nor faced up to. I think there was constant criticism of Morton. A student could take a freshman English course with him and never put pen to paper. And he was really being marked on something that Dave felt about him. The classes were small enough so you got some sense of them, and if a student was sitting there sneering at you, you’d know, and you wouldn’t think he was worth a very good grade. But if he sat there RAPT, why, you’d say well, there was an A student and of course, some people are born rapt and others born sneering. Very often a student who needed a grade to graduate could go to Dave (because you had to have a certain grade right down to the hundredths in the decimal system), and say: “I really need an 87 to get through here.” And Dave would be glad to give it because what were grades anyway? So there was a great deal of criticism.
So when I came here, I heard this, I was assailed on all sides, or I felt that I was assailed. People were trying to tell me what was wrong with my colleagues, and I felt there was something wrong with them, to tell you the truth.
I felt that what was wrong was that there was a lack of, as we say today, communication. They just didn’t talk. They talked at a social level. And this was wrong for serious men-- I’ve always felt the English Department shouldn’t be having cocktail parties to start the year. In fact, I don’t think I ever went to one. I just stayed home. I didn’t want to see these people, drinking cocktails! I never felt particularly friendly toward any of these people that I had to live with. I could respect them. I respected George Whicher; I respected Roy; I didn’t respect Dave very much; and I was fond of Roy. I don’t think anybody could have been fond of George; he was a very lonely and, as I say, by nature a silent man. I may be all wrong about that but that’s the way it struck me.
The College in the early ‘thirties ran, I think, about 575. And until they dropped the Latin requirement there were about 160-175 freshmen that made up about eight sections of Freshman English. And no one knew how many freshmen there would be until they arrived here. English 1 was required of all Freshmen. It was a two-hour course, the third hour was given over to something called “Religion,” I think, or “The Bible,” and it was taught by a minister from Springfield named [James Gordon] Gilkey. I never knew really what was going on in that third hour. It shows how little curiosity I had.
Freshman English was required of all freshmen, and it was taught in about eight sections and there was no organization at all. The first thing that I remember when I came here, the first evening I arrived, I called on the Whichers. And George drove me back to Pratt Dormitory where I was living, and in the course of that short drive I said something like, “Well now what am I to do in Freshman English?” I had taught freshman English at Western Reserve and Union and there at both places, they answered the question, “What am I to do?,” with “You’re to teach this book,” and a book would be put into my hands. And that is all there was to that until we ran through that book and then another book would be put into my hands. And this was a great way to begin because you knew what you were going to do. But George, when I said what am I to do?, said: “Why anything you want to, anything you want to do.” And I pondered this for some time-- for about a week, I guess-- and I made up my mind what I was going to do. Actually it was to read a book, spending a whole semester reading The Education of Henry Adams. This was in 1927, long before this book became so popular in colleges; in fact the salesman from Houghton Mifflin, when he came to town, always expressed amazement that I was reading this difficult book, but I made a course out of it for the first semester. I did it for a number of years and I’ve always thought it an influential book. A book that changed your mind. Changed mine.
And the second semester, I took an anthology of poetry that was prepared for just this purpose-- for Freshman English. I spent some time with the class reading poetry and then we read a couple of plays, we probably read something of Shaw, and probably a novel. I don’t remember what the novel was, now. I probably could recall it if I put my mind to it. And I had no idea what the other teachers were doing except by accident; you’d pick up the information that so and so is now reading drama or something. But we never had a meeting in which we confessed and said: “I’m going to do this, this year.”
As for Dave Morton, I do know what he read, at least at one time, because he was called away for a week or two and George Whicher asked me if I would be good enough to take Dave’s classes for a couple of weeks. And I did, and I remember that Dave with his old world courtesy never thanked me nor alluded to it. But I found out what he was reading then, and I think it was the Forsyte Saga, which has been very successful on television, I’m told. And he also read something called Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun, some kind of Scandinavian book-- all about the soil, I judge. I must have read that but I can’t remember anything about it. And I don’t know what went on in his class. I know that I was a little embarrassed about this because I didn’t know what I was to do when I just went in and took on a couple of his classes. The Forsyte Saga: What do you do about it? Talk about how “real” the unreal Irene was, or Irené?
And for some years I lived this way. I just made my own Freshman course and never talked to anyone else about it, or if I did it was casually. There was no sense that anybody had any business to know what was going on, you didn’t have to consult anybody, you didn’t have to advise anybody. You were free.
One year George got us to agree on a reading list. The pressure was so strong from what used to be the Instruction Committee and the President, at that time Stanley King, that George, who was trying to smooth things over, got us to agree on a reading list. This was a considerable achievement. It meant it was possible to organize a course in which you’d say: We’re all going to read the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and, The Pardoner’s Tale; and then we’ll read Lycidas, and then we’ll read Byron’s Don Juan; I don’t know what else. And so we began. And we all had the same book and we were all experts in literature so that we all would be treating this in a literary fashion.
And then the trouble began, because you had to get the students to write. Well it was all right as long as we didn’t say we were going to have a common hour exam or common mid-year exam. You could have them write. It didn’t make much difference what they wrote for you or for somebody else. They were still writing about Lycidas. And then we came to the problem of mid-year.
[END OF SIDE I. Beginning of SIDE II (Tape 1)]
(I don’t know what caused the noise in the tape on the other side, nor why my voice faded out, nor why my voice sounded like that of an Irish bartender. I am assured by someone who knows, that it is not my voice.)
I left off saying that George Whicher arranged an organized Freshman English course in which we agreed to read the same books, but when it came time to make an examination it was impossible to agree on a set of questions that all the teachers would accept. For example, you would suppose, wouldn’t you, that a question could be set up on Lycidas that would be acceptable to any teacher who was teaching this poem? But that was not the case and so George, who loved compromise, said we could have, said we should have, a common examination in which each instructor’s questions were listed separately, so that you had “Professor Baird’s students will answer the following questions,” and so on. That was called a common examination. I found this very disheartening. It seemed to me that this was not a common examination at all. It was a common piece of paper that was handed out to all the freshmen.
I have been trying to suggest how the teaching of English was viewed by people outside the department with some criticism-- in fact a great deal of criticism. The interesting thing, when you look back upon it, is that the things that we were criticized for then became virtues in a few decades. In a sense we were ahead of our time. For example, one professor taught as little as he possibly could; another would not hold students to any given task or give any grades that amounted to anything-- the grades were perfunctory, he might even ask a student what grade he liked. During the ‘fifties, for example, President Cole used to love to tell how Frost gave the highest grade in the class to a student who handed in a blank exam book, and this was supposedly very smart on the part of the student and wonderfully understanding on the part of Frost. The only significant difference that I can see between the ideas that are now floating around in the English Department and their methods is that in the past most of the English Department stayed in town most of the year. But generally speaking I think you could say that the English Department was ahead of its time and I would describe its spirit as anti- intellectual.
Literature was beyond analysis; a love of literature was beyond anyone’s expressing. One had this love, or one did not-- just as in the early days of the College, one was by the Grace of God saved or not. It’s a curious survival of some mystical, inexpressible area of experience. Instead of being plainly a matter of the soul in relation to some supernatural world, it was now the relation of an Amherst student to Lycidas or The Pardoner’s Tale.
Contrary to this spirit was the teaching of history as illustrated most notably by a very successful and powerful teacher-- certainly the most powerful and effective teacher on the faculty in the ‘thirties, Laurence Packard. He gave a highly organized course, writing an outline on the board, he gave weekly quizzes, he even had what were called map tests so that a student would know where Belgrade was and be marked on it. And this course was required of all freshmen just as Freshman English was; and it was a very influential and effective course. It gave students for the rest of their lives, presumably, some kind of chronological outline that they could hang other events on, and it was also a course that required a great deal of outside reading.
There was a clash between these two ideals, and once, I remember, George Whicher was supposed to have said in his class, or to someone, that Laurence Packard’s teaching was spoon-feeding. And Laurence heard of this and I remember his walking into the office and beginning to ask George whether he had said this and I promptly left, so I never heard how that came out, but I’m sure it was a very embarrassing moment. And this was a real distinction: whether George faced up to this and said, “Yes, I think this kind of memorizing, and this kind of clear lecturing, and this kind of organized reading-list is treating these children as if they were children, and you’re informing them, you’re even going so far, one could say, as spoon-feeding.” But I doubt very much if he faced up to that.
And there was a real distinction here between an intellectual and an anti-intellectual view of life and of learning. I felt rather hostile to this anti-intellectual attitude. I believed that there was a considerable area of experience that could be talked about, and I also had a means of addressing myself to this, because I had been in my first year at Harvard a student of Irving Babbitt, who gave you a vocabulary with which you could deal the rest of your life with such matters as this. The feeling generally in the faculty, so far as I felt it-- was that the English Department should be teaching something else-- it should be teaching spelling, it should be teaching good English.
I remember once being in the Faculty Club, a very discouraging place to go, and hearing Professor [Sterling] Lamprecht, who was a philosopher, ask me or someone in the English Department why we couldn’t discourage the split infinitive. And it was in the ‘fifties, I remember President Cole asked me why we couldn’t teach Amherst men to spell. And I once had a letter from a trustee, Eustace Seligman, asking me why the English Department didn’t do something about the kind of language used in the student paper, the Amherst Student. This was a very strong feeling and it went back to the founding of the College, when it was only really a high school and the teachers had to begin at the beginning. There was only Webster’s Blue-Backed Spelling Book. You had to begin at the beginning and say: “Now let’s review spelling.”
When I taught at Western Reserve I was given a book to use called the Century Handbook and it began with a section on spelling and there were common words-- like “occurred” which takes two “r”’s and when it’s spelled with one “r” it’s o-cured and not occurred; and embarrassed takes two “r”’s-- and this was something that the English Department OUGHT to be stressing and informing students about: how to spell common words. And they ought to use correct grammar, they ought not to let a student go through Amherst and not know that the conjunctive “like” is very bad, and split infinitives offend the professor of philosophy, and such things as this. This was an expectation and I never shared that. I never thought that this view was one which should have been encouraged at all.
There was in the English Department a young man named Gilbert Hoag. I was really responsible for bringing him here from Harvard; I had known him there. He was to be appointed as Dean of Rockford College out in Illinois, and he later became Dean of his own College, Haverford. In about, I think, 1938, the year when he was about to leave for his new career, he made a deal-- it was really a kind of political deal-- and he brought this proposition down to me and asked me if I would accept it because the other professors, who were Professor Morton and Professor Whicher, had agreed to it. And that was that we require all the freshmen when they come to Amherst to take some kind of objective test and then give the best students on that evidence, at least as they were measured by that test, give the best students to Professors Morton and Whicher, and then require the rest of them, the bottom two-thirds, to take a course in composition, which would be set up by the rest of the teachers. I was then the senior among them. This was the proposition and we discussed this and it was agreed to.
So the following year, I had selected from the possible objective tests that were available one that we administered. Professors Whicher and Morton took no part in this. We administered it to the freshmen. It consisted of correcting bad grammar, of identifying misspellings, and that sort of thing. It isn’t at all vivid in my mind now. It took the freshmen perhaps an hour to do. And then we gathered together and read these papers, which was a very stupid operation, indeed. And from our marking of these papers we made a list, according to grades, according to the marks of all the freshmen. I took this then to the Dean and drew a line and said: all the people below this have to take a Composition course and the people above it can take George Whicher’s course, which was a kind of survey course, or Professor Morton’s course, which was a little hard to define, for it probably varied from year to year a little in the reading.
And there we were. And this was the beginning of English 1. We were given the privilege, we were to be allowed to teach composition to the freshmen if we sacrificed all the best students as measured by this test. As a matter of fact it wasn’t a bad way of dealing with this problem and the best students probably turned out to be about the best anyway. But these students, the best, were not for us. It is true that within a year or two, perhaps, a student could elect the composition course. He didn’t have to take Professor Whicher or Professor Morton, who were giving obviously what would be called literary courses. So there was the situation. I think this was in ‘38 that this occurred. Anyway, by the fall of ‘39 we had this system operating.
Now, the question was, WHAT on earth were we going to do? No longer could we say, “Well, I guess I’ll read a play of Shaw,” you know, and another teacher could say, “I don’t think I’ll read Shaw, I think I’ll read some poetry, I’ll read T.S. Eliot or something.” This was a wonderful freedom that we were sacrificing and what were we sacrificing it for? What could we possibly agree on? I think at this point I ought to say something about the staff and who they were.
Newton McKeon who was then, I think, an Assistant Librarian or an Associate Librarian under Harry Smith, also was teaching English. He came to Amherst to teach English, in a crisis. In the early ‘thirties a young instructor named [John] Snyder, whose memory must by now have pretty well faded from the earth, went abroad in the summer, and there, unfortunately, he died. This happened in August, late August. I was the only person in town and, strange as it may seem, though I was an Assistant Professor then, I was Chairman of the English Department. This job was something which was passed around, it didn’t mean anything, but occasionally you had a little business to do. President Pease was up in New Hampshire where he had a summer place. I had met Newton NcKeon at a Visiting Committee meeting. I had dinner with him at the [Frederick] Allises, and I was much struck by him. He had taught at Lawrenceville after he graduated, class of ‘26, I think, and then he’d gone into banking and wasn’t very happy about that. I wrote him. I said: “How would you like to come up here and teach this freshman English course?” It was the old unreformed course. And he accepted and that’s how he came to Amherst and stayed and became a fine librarian finally.
There was Armour Craig, who was an Amherst graduate, Class of ‘37, and who had been at Harvard, and he came back to teach Freshman English and he had had some experience in English A at Harvard. The others in the department, there were three others, I think, yes-- I don’t think I’ll talk about them, as none of them strikes me now as someone I want to recall.
There was always a problem, which grew more and more puzzling, of how to find somebody to teach English, and I came to have a very low opinion of what was expected of English teachers and of the candidates that we interviewed. And often it seemed to me a person landed in English for temperamental reasons, or lack of imagination, or whatnot, with no very defined interest in what he was doing, living quite contentedly in an unexamined world, a state which always offended me, so that we had teachers we had to live with who had little to contribute. One, I remember, was a vegetarian-- not that this is against him, particularly-- but I remember being in the living room of their house once and seeing on the mantelpiece a few walnuts, and I said, “Well, there’s his Sunday dinner.” Another of these people was a very unstable personality indeed. And so I guess I won’t talk about them any more.
Well what were we going to do? We had a meeting and I proposed that we begin at the beginning and do the most stupid thing we could think of doing and that was to take a textbook, as I had done when I began teaching years before, and see if we could do anything with these questions of good English, and split infinitives, and spelling, and things like that. And this was agreed to and this we did and it was a discipline for us all. And actually, we used a book that was by respectable professors of English in which we diagrammed sentences-- it was the very latest thing in the way of textbooks I’m sure, and there we were diagramming sentences on the black board. Then we had to find something else to do in the second semester and so we did some reading, and here we used the reading as material to write about. We assumed, therefore, that the student didn’t know anything, he didn’t have anything to write about himself. He hadn’t had any experience, so we had to give him a book to read and then ask him some questions about the book. So that wasn’t a very original beginning, I must say. But I think I was deliberate enough about this to say, “Well we’ll just have to begin as stupidly as we can and see what results we feel we get from being really stupid teachers.” At least that is the way I began to explain it.
With the appearance on the faculty of Reuben Brower, much was added to our possibilities. He contributed a great deal. So with both Craig and Brower we had a possibility of many new ideas and approaches. Ben Brower was, I suppose, one of the handful of people who graduated from Amherst with an almost perfect record, along with such people as Stuart Hughes and so on. He was a Classicist, he knew modern languages as well. He went to Cambridge, England, where he studied under Leavis; he knew I. A. Richards; he was a very well-educated man. He returned to Harvard and got a Ph.D. in Classics and also in English. He wanted this dual appointment. He was the successor to Harry Smith.
I take credit for this, at least indirectly, and I will say that this is one of the few things about which I really can face the world and say, “I did this and I’m proud of it.” When Harry Smith retired, Stanley King-- I was on the Instruction Committee or something-- raised the question of whether we needed two men in Greek. There was no money problem. There was plenty of endowment for the teaching of Classics, but did we need two men in Greek? There was Fobes, still going, and he was not a teacher who attracted many students to his subject so that there weren’t many students taking Greek. It was a perfectly reasonable question. Stanley King said: “I will leave this decision to Frank Boyden.”
And so he arranged that the Instruction Committee (George Taylor, Otto Glaser, and I) meet with Mr. Boyden. And indeed we were invited to dinner at the Deerfield. School-- a very good dinner as I remember. And after dinner Mr. Boyden took us across to what was his office in the main hall of the school building, and we discussed this matter. Neither of my fellow-committeemen saw any reason for two men in Greek, and you can imagine what an economist and a biologist would say about the luxury of two men in Greek. And I, with great shrewdness I now think, said: “Well this is a very simple matter-- it’s just a matter of feeling that when you are privileged you have obligations, and Amherst is a privileged College and not poor-- there’s no question about money here-- and no question either of a need for two teachers of Greek. It’s just a matter,” I said, “of pride.” And I said, “Why, we’re a proud place and we can afford two teachers of Greek.” And this was the kind of argument, I said it probably even more briefly, that Mr. Boyden, I was glad to feel, responded to. I told this years later to Calvin Plimpton and he said, “Just like Mr. Boyden,” with a very different meaning. Anyway Mr. Boyden, who was always very nice to me, one of the two trustees who ever spoke to me, Mr. Boyden wrote to Stanley and said, “Yes, we should have two men.” And that meant that Ben Brower came back to Amherst. So in this indirect way I feel I was responsible for his appointment.
Now very soon after we began this course where we were really fumbling around trying to find some way to teach Composition, when nobody has ever known how to do it, we made another adjustment. Instead of having in the second semester reading as the material for our composition course, we said we ought to have a separate reading course. And this was how English 21, a sophomore course, came into being. And that was the creation of Ben Brower. I taught in it for a number of years, as Ben Brower taught in English 1. That meant that we were having weekly meetings in two courses, which was quite a thing. Two-thirds of our schedule was in this cooperative teaching, and this was a real sacrifice, in a way, in that we had only one third of our time to control as we pleased in our own judgment.
English 21 was the beginning of what became Ben Brower’s course at Harvard, Humanities 61, which so many people have recognized as a most remarkable, successful, literary course. And he went there from Amherst with all the background that we had accumulated over at least a dozen years when we were both engaged in English 1 and English 21. There was then, this division so that we handed over the literature as the province of English 21. And then we said English 1 is going to be a required course, but it’s going to be entirely composition. And here’s where Craig came in.
Craig had had some experience at Harvard teaching composition, and for the second semester he suggested that we ask the students to write about their other courses. And he accumulated in one way or another-- by going to see Ralph Beebe, Sam Williams, Otto Glaser-- subjects for writing about biology, about chemistry, that could be dealt with in English. You couldn’t use the technical vocabulary so that this was translating their experiences as students in the science courses into English which would be intelligible to anybody. And we even had some subjects proposed in mathematics, and this was very interesting, to me, and still is, of where you draw the line between languages. Can you say that it is like music where you know it is not a verbal experience? Music is not verbal, even though people go on talking about it all the time, and using metaphorical language: you hear someone commenting on a new recording by saying well, it lacks guts, and you’d say, well that isn’t a very subtle way of talking about what that music lacked, but this is the best that man could do at the time. And so we had assignments on music, we had assignments on mathematics, and you’d say, well can mathematics EVER be translated into English?, and this was a question. This interested me. And you’d say, what are the limits of English?, and you’d say what are the limits of these other subjects:, and this generally was Craig’s contribution at this stage. His contribution was great all the way through this I add, as was Brower’s.
It depended partly on our own ingenuity in trying to find how to ask them to write about their other courses. We had subjects on history, as well, and I remember one assignment that I was responsible for-- how do you do history? This was a ludicrous idea in the opinion of some people, that you DID history. And Jim Merrill, who was a freshman, and excused from English 1 because he was so much more advanced, and indeed he was, wrote a piece for the Alumni magazine about his impressions of Freshman year, and he mentioned this as an example of what was going on in English 1-- how do you do history? and the word he put to it was “crazy.” This was a crazy thing to do. And I must say this offended me and I have lived to see a book published in England with the title How To Do History. No one said the author was crazy.
I am now going to insert here a couple of pages we gave to the freshmen at the first class meeting. This statement describes the daily procedure. I am here leaving the ostensible subject blank. In this instance it happened to be lying and telling the truth.
In the Announcement of Courses English 1-2 is described by one single word “Composition.” It is a course in composing, selecting and arranging, putting together, and it could as well be called Puzzle and Problem Solving. Our medium of communication is largely the English language, largely though not entirely, for students have also used pencils and crayons to make sketches, have expressed relationships in mathematical notation and chalk diagrams, have read road maps and photographs, have solved crossword and put together jigsaw puzzles. Most of the time you will be expressing experience in terms of words, sentences, paragraphs, and we shall try to see how the composer, the problem solver, the writer in English goes about it. What does it mean to form a sentence in English?
Do not expect the usual college Freshman English course where the student writes book reports, essays on international affairs, research papers, reads everything from The Reader’s Digest to Paradise Lost to Henry Miller, and in general goes on doing what he has already done in school. Nor should you think of English 1-2 as the introduction to other courses given by the English Department, for this function is served by English 21-22, “Introduction to Literature,” open to sophomores. For your Freshman Year your literary education appears in Humanities 1-2 and in your study of ancient and modern languages. English 1-2 is a part of the Amherst Curriculum which is concerned with your general education, a training in method and certain basic skills. No matter what department of knowledge you later concentrate in, this course will have, it is hoped, relevance.
At certain levels of education the substance of knowledge, that which we are to think about, is supplied by the teacher, and the term paper, the quiz and examination, serve to measure how much has been retained by the student of what has been transmitted to him. At Amherst you will find that the burden of knowledge usually falls on the student. Thus in English 1-2 you supply for your writing your own information, material, whatever you want to call it. After all you have received an expensive education, you have probably been well taught, you have held various jobs and have played games, and you have had your own thoughts and feelings for eighteen years, more or less. This is your “experience,” and from this seemingly shapeless, yet entirely individual source, you will derive whatever it is you have to say. If on first looking at an assignment in English 1-2 you do not immediately recognize how you should proceed, you need not be unduly alarmed, for this is normal, expected, intended. Upon reflection, however, you ought to be able to find something in your own past experience to talk about. If you wait for your teacher to tell you, you will be disappointed.
You supply the material for your own discourse, while the assignments are contrived both to define a way of thinking and writing about something and to direct our general movement from day to day throughout the term. There is nothing perfunctory about them, and you are deceived if they look easy. Every year this teaching staff makes a new sequence of assignments, dealing with a new and different problem, so that for all concerned, teacher and student, this is a new course, a fresh progression in thought and expression, a gradual building up of a common vocabulary, a more precise definition of terms. The assignment usually puts in a position to isolate a bit of your experience, and then asks you something about what you have just done in this act of separating one thing from another, of arranging what you know in some sort of pattern. As the year advances you will make increasingly complicated statements about your own activities as a composer, problem solver, writer. Whatever continuity you construct from one paper to another, from one class discussion to the next, will be your continuity, and yours alone. It can only be as good as you make it, no better, no worse. In the actual day by day conduct of the course, English 1-2 can become, at its best, a dramatic dialogue, where you and your teacher exchange remarks, you and your fellow students converse, with a certain amount of common understanding. This is enough to expect, and it is really a good deal. There will be no verbal formula to memorize, and although there is, as in all courses, a vocabulary to pick up and repeat, you will within a relatively short time, a few months, a year or two, be able to say only what you can say for yourself. Whatever you learn, you learn. This goes for all formal education, when looked at from any distance.
As for your teacher, he does not exist to give you the answers. His function is to ask questions, and if by inadvertance he should ever chance to tell you something, you should immediately turn the questioning on him. Whatever answers you reach in this course, they will be your own. You will do your own learning.
Of course your teacher will attempt to control the direction the discussion takes in the class room. He will also read your papers. (You will write one, two, three page papers for each class meeting, an essay at the end of the term, and an examination. Specimen papers will be mimeographed and brought to class to be scrutinized.) Your teacher will correct your papers, commenting on them in general, and at the same time pointing out those mechanical errors and careless faults which you alone can remove. Much of our conversation in class will be about ideas, techniques, meanings, but it should be said emphatically that your teacher is intent upon cleaning up your writing wherever it needs it. If you want to learn to write decently you will be able to do so.
Our regular policy is to invite the student to rewrite-- as many times as he wants-- any paper he is disappointed in. This is a standing invitation, and your teacher will read as many versions as you have energy to produce. When you hand in a rewritten paper include with it the original.
Your teacher will keep a record of your work, but grades are not placed on individual papers.
The subject matter for your writing and discussion in the first semester of ______ is _______. We shall see what we can say about it.
Finally some practical matters. Provide yourself with a snap-back binder. Put in it the mimeographed specimen papers, the assignments, your own papers, and bring it to class regularly. Use ink or typewriter (and then double space), write on one side of the paper, and leave a margin on the left hand side of your paper for possible comments.
In the first semester we would say to them, “What do you know about anything? What can you tell us about? Have you ever been anywhere?” We fumbled around trying to find ways of making ourselves self-sustaining. We would say to the students the first year, “There’s nothing here except you and your readers (the teacher and the class were the readers), and the readers are going to see what you have to say and they are also going to say, “Have you got anything interesting to say about this?” It was as simple as that.
Then the War. Then the War. Then the War. Immediately after the war began, the College had to take on, to survive, one Army or Air Force program after another. The regular student body all but vanished. These were very distressing years. If you think of them purely aside from the effect on the nation, they were very distressing years for a teacher. What was a teacher going to do about this situation? How was he going to have any self-respect when such terrible things were happening? The Amherst undergraduates turned out to be a handful. Every year there’d be a few boys under sixteen or so who had come to College; or they were physically deformed or lame or what not. I remember Stanley King addressing a graduating class, and there may have been fifteen, unprepossessing characters, but human-- human. He began by saying, “Your classmates are fighting on the battlefields of the world.” And then he began to recite to them, you know, those battlefields. And I respected the handful of students who were graduating. They didn’t die. You’d think that the only decent thing they then could have done, then, right then and there, was to die. But they were human and we always had all through the war a handful of Amherst students that we were teaching.
But most of our teaching was the Army and the Air Force and this meant that the Dean would call me up at 7:30 in the evening and say, “We’re going to have about 300 students here on Friday. They were in such and such a program that they’re sending us.” And I’d say, “All right, how many sections, how often does English meet?” And he would give me information and then we’d have a meeting with the handful of teachers that were engaged in this. It would be impossible to reconstruct this experience without much pain.
We employed teachers on a short-term basis for special programs, and it was very helter skelter. But the interesting thing to me was that those of us, I mean Brower and Craig, who were engaged in it took it very seriously. We had nothing except our own moral force behind us. We took it very seriously. This was our contribution. These fellows in uniform were being sent here for 48 weeks, as in pre-meteorology program, or for 8 weeks as in pre-engineering program, or they were sent here for 3 months as was a pre-West Point program-- and these last were all people who had been in combat or in active service of some kind. If these people were sent to us, we were going to do the best we could for them. We were not going to short change them, and we didn’t.
I felt that I could face anybody at the end of the war morally and say, well I didn’t say this going to classes is just a time-filler for these fellows, giving them 8 weeks before they’re shipped over to the Battle of the Bulge, as happened for one program. One of these fellows was back in a few weeks, limping. Lame for life-- it didn’t take him long, it didn’t take anybody very long. He was here, over there, back-- a freshman out of uniform. They had used him up. And I felt that we gave every one of these classes the best we had, as good as we ever gave an Amherst class.
So the war years made demands on us but we were ready for them, in a sense, because we had reached by that time a point where we said, all we need is the student and paper and a mimeograph machine and we can teach them. And that’s what we did. And we were in this very strong position. And we did this for program after program-- we had nothing but a mimeograph machine and our wits.
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE 2. Beginning of Tape 2. (This tape continues the account of army teaching.)]
Now I want to finish that off simply by saying that in those years we taught something like 1,200 soldiers and members of the Air Force.
I want to change the subject now and talk about how we staffed this course. This was always a problem and it was never properly solved. I had always hoped and especially as time went on, and with the New Curriculum after the War, that English 1 would stand on its own feet as a College course and not a course that happened to be given by the English Department. Just as I hoped American Studies would be a College course and would not be something that was staffed by the historians and the economists; it would have its own right to exist. The same thing with the Science 1 course; it would not be a part of the Physics Department. But this never came about. I think this is one of the reasons that these courses were not so effective as they might have been.
Now who did we get to teach these courses? In the ‘thirties we could get young men who were in the process of getting a doctor’s degree and in those days you might go to graduate school for a year or two, then teach a couple of years and get some money and then go back. This was before the vast amounts of money were poured into graduate work after the War. That changed everything. Then a man could go to graduate school, and if he did well, he’d receive enough money so he didn’t have to stop; he’d get right straight through to his degree. The old system meant that some people spent years and years and years getting a Ph.D. This was very bad; we saw this happen all the time, here. The number of Ph.D. theses that I lived through and agonized over is considerable. What we would do then, is try to find some young man who had a year or two at Harvard, or even Yale or Princeton, and offer him a job for a couple of years, three years, say, and there was no expectation that he’d teach an advanced course or that he would have any future here. This meant that we had to find people whose minds were open to something besides getting their Ph.D.s, and this was very difficult.
It was also very difficult to get somebody that I considered to be very well educated. They might be well educated for the graduate school, with the graduate school’s demands, but they were not for us. I also hoped, and we succeeded in this somewhat, to ask other people in other departments to take a hand in this, that English was the teaching of composition-- it was a college responsibility and not something that the English Department, alone, was involved in.
During the war we were able to have Francis Fobes, who was a very learned Greek scholar, join us and he was a great addition in many ways. He had a lot to tell us and this was very useful. He also was very difficult in that he might call you up at 10 o’clock at night and ask you some question about something that was extremely simple, but which, when you tried to answer it, became very involved.
We also had a young man named Ed Ames who was an economist and he was a very able fellow with varied interests, and he had a lot to offer. He made a fine set of assignments about how you DO history by giving the students a lot of statistical information about the hill towns around here in the early 19th Century and what happened to their population, where they moved. There’s a town out in Minnesota, Faribault I think it’s called, which was settled by these people, I think from Ware. And this is something that he worked out for us and we enjoyed very much.
Then we had, one year, Wendell Clausen, who was also a classicist and he was a great delight to me and we had so many very funny times together-- much laughter. And he went on to Harvard and a distinguished career there.
Then, one year we were trying to find somebody, we had had a succession of these young graduate students up here and they didn’t like what they saw, they didn’t want to teach composition and so on. Armour Craig knew somebody at M.I.T. who was a historian of science, de Santillana, and he called him up and he said yes, there was a young fellow there who was a pure mathematician and my God, we HIRED him! We hired a pure mathematician to teach composition! And he did it pretty well and he saw the point of what we were doing; he had not read an awful lot, and he wasn’t at all, really, a literary man. He became a professor of the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin, where he now is, and I think has been very successful. He was a very bright fellow.
And there were salary limitations; there was no tenure; and there was always the fact that these young fellows wanted to teach a course in Joyce or something and we didn’t want them to; we wanted them to teach composition. We wanted to use them for our purposes and they wanted to get ahead for their purposes. So there was always a conflict and we had a succession of these people, some of whom were mentally unbalanced, some were emotionally disturbed and were a great trial, and some that were very bright and I know they have thought kindly of these years that they spent here.
After the War, for example, we were informed about the middle of July that there were going to be 100 more freshmen than anyone in the College had expected-- this was a little oversight that occurred in the Admission Office-- and this was President Cole’s first year, first summer. So we had to pick up people all over the lot. For example, there was a young man, Frank Poland, who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines who came back to finish off a semester in Amherst and get his degree, and he was here for the summer school (we had summer school then) and I said to him, “Why don’t you try it? You’ve had a lot of experience in life, you’ve been in Guadalcanal, Okinawa.” He may not have known an awful lot about Wyatt and Surrey, but he did know an awful lot about some things. He was here for a year, then he went on to Harvard to get a degree in English, which he never succeeded in doing. A very sad case. The war had used him up. But he did well that year I think. And then there were a couple of others, there was a Navy flyer and an air-borne lieutenant and so on. They didn’t have much experience with literature, they hadn’t had a chance to for a number of years for obvious reasons. But that’s the way we met that crisis that summer, where we suddenly had to produce a number of new teachers and we did it all right. We managed-- put it that way.
Now I can’t tell you how much the staff that we had enjoyed what it was doing. There were some that detested it, and, as I said, we had people who were not emotionally very stable, and I’m sure that in at least one instance we had a teacher who would go into class and hand out an assignment and then promptly ridicule it. And I doubt if he read his papers; I doubt it very much. This wasn’t his idea of teaching at all. His idea of teaching would be to take in the New Yorker, say, and read aloud something-- “Topics of the Town,” something witty, and say: “Now this is the way you ought to be writing. Isn’t this charming?,” and so on. And his idea of teaching was just not ours and unfortunately we had him on our hands for several years.
Now I want to talk about how this thing was done. First of all it was based upon the proposition-- and this was very important in my mind-- that we should try to establish a conversation. This was all I really had in mind and all I ever had and it came from what I tried to express in an earlier tape about my relations with my seniors who never talked-- and so I said, can you get a group of English teachers, teachers, together and say, “Now what do you think you’re doing?” And so we had what were called “meetings.” And we had a meeting once a week, and it would last for an hour and a half, an hour sometimes. And at the beginning of each term, a teacher was given a complete set of assignments, so that he could sit down and work them out for himself in his own mind-- what was the direction this writing would take? And he had this opportunity for reflection. Then, each week he came in to a meeting with this complete set of assignments and we would discuss the phrasing, the appropriateness, the intention, and the likelihood of any success in the next three assignments for the next week because a paper was expected every class hour; and an assignment handed out every class hour. And it was hoped that, I hoped, I hoped, that there would be an exchange in these meetings, where one could learn from another, where I could learn from these teachers. And this happened. This did happen. I don’t think everybody felt he learned. I felt I learned a great deal.
Another thing we did at these meetings was to say, “Now this is a paper I have just read and I’m going to use it, it’s mimeographed, and I’m going to use it in my next class,” or “I used it in my last class. And this is how I handled it; this was the strategy I used in approaching this.” Then you would see how somebody else was dealing with this and you would, might even, learn something, and you would go away and say, “Yes, I can see how he did that and that’s worth doing.” And there were eight or ten people involved here at some times, and this meant that there was a possibility, there was a possibility, that one of them had something to say that would be useful to the others. This was all I ever — had — in — mind. I say that again and again, because this was the dream that I had, that maybe English teachers, or maybe teachers, could teach one another. Maybe they could learn from one another. And how successful this dream was, I do not know finally. I do know, that no one, when it came to the last word, when I retired, ever said to me, “I know what you have tried to do, I know what you’re trying to do. You’re not trying to revolutionize education except by suggesting that teachers can learn from teachers.” Learning from their students, of course this is an old, old proposition; you expect to learn from your students, but teachers do not expect to learn from teachers. This is marvelous. How they got into this position is historically interesting.
The assignments, then, were made for a term and then they were discussed in these meetings and they were rephrased, they were even rewritten, or they were even rejected. And this was where everybody had a chance to speak his own mind as he could and as he would, there was nothing they could not say. Now, it is true, I suppose, that many people felt afraid to speak, but what do you say to them? Do you say, “Why were you so afraid to speak?” And he would say, “Why I was afraid of making a fool of myself.” Oh no, he wouldn’t say that! He would say, “I was afraid you wouldn’t agree with me,” and they’d put it on these personal terms, and this was where all this dream of mine really broke down. You cannot expect, this is a great proposition, you cannot expect people to accept that there are conflicts of ideas in this world, because many people are incapable of seeing that there are, and so live on a level of personal relations, so that the whole of lifework for many teachers is a matter of personal relations. Henry Adams says all this.
Now the formula for making assignments, if you want to use that kind of term, was simply this. I would take, (this was how I did it), I would take a general proposition of some kind, or to put it more exactly, I would take a question. The great thing I learned from Collingwood, say, was that you had to learn how to ask a question. And the question I asked, was, simply, something like this: “What is conflict?” And then I would go on from there and say, “Have you ever felt any conflict?” and “What was it like when you felt conflict?” Or you’d say, “What were you arguing about, what was the issue, how did you address yourself, how did you feel?” and so on. This was rather interesting. We had a whole semester on conflict, the word didn’t appear day after day, you understand, but it was very interesting because there were students in my class who said, “I have never known conflict.” Now I would like to have somebody tell me what a teacher does when a student says something like that.
Another kind of question would be, “Where are you?” We had a whole semester really on this simple question, “Where are you?” What does it mean to say, “I am in Amherst, Mass, or I am on Shays Street.” What does this mean? It meant map-reading, we did various kinds of map reading, we had various maps. We even had a topographic map and said to the class, “Now how do you read this? What do you do when you go out and look at the Range and try to find out where the ski run is?,” or whatever it was. And very few of them did this; they called up the Gym and asked for [Steve] Rostas and said: “What’s the name of the hill that the ski run’s on?” They didn’t bother to look out the window or anything. And of course the idea we had, to look out the window, was very risky. Or “What is a game?” We had a whole semester on what is a game. That’s a fascinating subject, because that involves rules, and how are rules interpreted, and what is an umpire? You know the famous fifth down in the Cornell-Dartmouth game. Who won in that game?
Or, another time we had a set of assignments on “What is good English?” Everybody wants to know how to write and speak good English. And this was a nice set of assignments because it really faced these boys who believed in social equality, who believed in an integrated society, also believed that Amherst should teach them good English. And they had to consider what this meant socially, what this meant economically, what this meant in terms of jobs, and in marches-- marches, when they were going down South to march, but they were going to use good English. Well all this meant -- what was good English based on? We had a whole set on this. Very few students responded to this. They accepted good English in a way that they would never have accepted, as a part of their education, good manners. That’s very interesting.
And then there was a set of assignments on what or who was your true self. This was before people had identity crises-- maybe we invented the identity crisis. We had a whole set of assignments trying to unearth this remarkable thing that we all carry around with us called “true self,” the search for identity. And then what is a conviction?, what does it mean to learn?, how do you learn anything?, how does an apprentice learn from a master?, say, and how does a coach teach?, how do you learn from a coach when you’re playing a game? These are examples from assignments that I made.
I always hoped that others would make these assignments, and this was from my point of view, less successful. There was always the problem of getting them to do them on time. You wouldn’t believe this, but this was a fact. You might agree in May that so-and-so would do assignments beginning in February, and then you would wait and wait and then the day in February in the second semester, the day of the meeting which occurred at four o’clock-- this happened to me-- this individual handed me at 12:30 or so when I was leaving Appleton, the assignments which we were going to meet and discuss at four that afternoon. This happened. I never knew what to do about this. I just had to live with it and say, “Well, these fellows just aren’t interested in their jobs, whatever they’re doing.” They put it off as they put off other things. I never knew what to do about it.
This meant, also, that I had to compromise, and that I had to do assignments that I didn’t like any more than they liked some of the assignments I made. This could be painful. I can remember when they used to have a kind of visiting program where, I guess, the presidents met, and professors from the Little Three would meet, and they’d visit classes, and I remember a whole delegation of people from Williams and Wesleyan coming to my class and I had to do an assignment that I thought was WRETCHED! But I couldn’t do any more about it.
And there was always the personal element here. The person who made these assignments was a very difficult man; he came from Yale. I had to say to him once, “If you can’t get to your class, I’ll go to the President and tell him.” I went that far. He didn’t get to his classes. I thought this was elementary, you really ought to meet your class, you ought to GET there. And sometimes he’d get there but about a half an hour late. This was something very profound in him. Well he made a set of assignments. And I thought, well, I guess we’ll have to attack these and rearrange them or something, and then I had a delegation from the rest of the staff come to me and say, “You must not discourage this man.” So I didn’t. But it was hard; it was hard.
This happened for all of us. You’d say your mind doesn’t quite fit the other mind, but there was always a chance in these meetings of having some kind of exchange of ideas. That this exchange did not occur more often than it did, was, I suppose, our own fault. I include me in that. I was human, too. But this is the way it worked and it was very interesting to me; I enjoyed those meetings when the thing would light up-- sometimes it would light up and you’d say, “There is a teacher, really!” You know, he’d say, “I did this in class, this is the way I handled this paper.” And you’d look at him and say, “Well, this rather ordinary fellow, he did something there, he had an idea, he was able to express something to his class, the class was able to understand him,” and you’d say, “Well this is what it’s all about. This is all it’s about.” And you’d feel pleased and proud to know somebody like that, and proud and pleased that it had happened. It rubbed off on all of us. This happened. This happened. But not as often, I think, as you would hope. Or, indeed, as you would expect. And there were a lot of reasons why it didn’t and I won’t go into those any more. They’re obvious. They’re obvious.
I don’t think anybody ever took this course as seriously as I did. I took it seriously-- ALL the time, I put my best mind, such as it was, to this simple thing. I never felt anything but happy to be able to teach this course. This is all I wanted. I didn’t want anything more. I never used it for any purpose of my own and I never discouraged anyone else who wanted to use it, as a considerable number did, going about making speeches and writing about it.
This course also received a great deal of support when Arnold Arons came here and taught Science 1. And I think this must have been one of the very few colleges in the United States where the English course for freshmen was not hostile and was, you might say, in harmony with a science course. I think that’s remarkable. And while Arnold Arons and I never were particularly close friends, we always respected each other, always understood that we were teachers and we were trying to address the students with problems that they could deal with and find some satisfaction in solving. I used to give the new teachers and, at the end of the year, the entire freshman class, a reading list. I thought I’d read you some of these titles, to give you some idea where I thought we were operating in intellectually.
Adrian, Physical Background of Perception
A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic
Bartlett, A Mind at Work and Play
Russell Brain, Mind, Perception and Science
Bridgeman, three titles
Here’s Marshall McLuhan, think of that; that’s in 1956. William James, again; Polya, Waddington, Graham Wallace, Wertheimer, Productive Thinking, 1945.
I never knew whether anybody ever read any of these books. None of the teachers ever let on. But I felt that this gave some clue as to what I had read, and how my mind was forming, and you see from these titles how literary this is, how much it really is neurological, you know, or it is problem-solving-- that’s a bad word. A fellow from Wesleyan wrote a book in which he ridiculed us for being interested in problem-solving, very bad-- shouldn’t have done that. Cannon, The Way of an Investigator, how do you investigate, how do you solve, how do you invent? You know there are marvelous stories of invention. We once had a set of assignments on invention, creativity. Everybody should be creative nowadays; that’s a very good word. And then there was always the question about perpetual motion; how you solved that.
But the movement here intellectually was not toward, say, William Carlos Williams or even Hart Crane, it wasn’t that direction at all. It was nearer Arnold Arons in teaching Science 1 than it was in moving toward the English Department’s view of literature. And I recognized that. And in that way I think some of the instructors in English felt hostility to what was going on and for that reason.
(Tape continues after long gap.)
I want also to add about the assignments, that we never repeated them. This meant that if the student was perplexed about something, the teacher also was perplexed at the same time. So they met on the common ground of perplexity. And this seemed to me a protection, in a way, from anyone’s saying that we were in any way trying to teach them anything. All we were doing-- to teach them anything in particular in solving a problem or in writing about something-- all we were doing was setting this thing up and saying, “Well, here’s something; put your mind to it; can anybody say anything about it?” Often the subject matter of the writing was beyond anybody’s solution, these were perplexities. This was the way the world was: that there were two sides, three sides, any number of sides to a question.
[END OF SIDE 1, TAPE 2]
I hope that what I have been saying with obvious pleasure in expressing certain dissatisfactions with the teachers and teaching of English does not give the impression that I did not have during these years great support, much illumination from some of the other teachers in this course. I want to mention again, Armour Craig, who contributed a great deal, and Ben Brower, and finally add that we had among the instructors who were here for perhaps only a few years one or two natural teachers.
One was Bill Coles, who now is responsible for the teaching of composition at the University of Pittsburgh, a big operation. Another was Johnny Hitchcock, who went on to become an anthropologist and is now a professor of that subject at Wisconsin. And there are others I could think of.
I want this to be perfectly plain that I do not consider that this was MY course. It was my course only in the sense that I was stubborn and that whatever opposition there was to it, and there was considerable, I faced, and I think that if I hadn’t, the course would have been dropped and something else would have been given. The opposition was natural, much of it I could understand, particularly from the students. They found it puzzling. They thought that there was a mystery, and I just read a piece by a very smart lady on the teaching of composition in which she says about this course that there was a secret and that we withheld it, deliberately, until April, and the secret was the magic word “metaphor.”
This kind of talk was what the students indulged in; they were always saying, “What is it you want?” And if you said, “I want nothing,” then they were frustrated and they complained, and I don’t blame them. If after assignment after assignment they felt that they were not getting on to something, they felt naturally enough that they were frustrated. And they were. But we all were, in a sense. This was the essence of it, that if we hadn’t been frustrated, it would have been just a series of directions about how to write, such as; “Be clear, be coherent, and be unified”-- that’s the trinity that Barrett Wendell invented in the ‘nineties. And if you could be clear, why you were a good writer, especially if you were also coherent and emphatic. But that kind of instruction is like saying, “Keep your eye on the ball,” or as something simple like, “Relax.” If only we knew how to relax; that’s the question. And we are frustrated, we don’t know how to relax. So we take up Yoga or whatever it is, or something else, and try to find the secret that is hiding from us, but the secret is beyond us. It is the mind against the world or the mind trying to control the world. How does it do it? Some minds do and some minds don’t. But no mind, probably, no human mind ever controlled all the world.
There was also opposition from the Presidents. I had more support, strange as it may seem, from Stanley King, who didn’t give a DAMN about what was done in any classroom, because he felt that something was going on here and at that time he could reasonably say, that except for Laurence Packard, there wasn’t an awful lot going on. He gave us support in a way.
His successors were less supportive. President Cole constantly was troubled, to put the best word to it, by what was happening. He had complaints-- parents, I dare say, wrote in and said, “My son got an A in High School and now he’s getting a C in Freshman English and I can’t understand the assignment he sent me, and what’s going on?” And so he had to defend the College publicly, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t call me and Ben Brower in at least once a year and say to us, “Why can’t you be something else?” And what that other thing was that we were supposed to be I never knew except that it was not what we were.
So these conversations were often conducted with a good deal of irony on my part, and Ben Brower and I would walk down those stairs in the Chapel after such an interview and groan and say, “Why is it that we are faced with this? There can be no question about our capacities and our intelligence, but whatever it is we do, it is not liked.” There was always that side to Amherst of being liked.
Then his successor, Calvin Plimpton, who was my friend, I suppose, I believe, looked at the course as some whim of mine and indulged it so far. I don’t think he had the faintest idea or tried to have-- that’s what’s too bad about it-- or tried to have about what was going on.
Armour Craig said to me the other day that the tradition of the Presidents of Amherst is not to have any idea of what the English Department is about. And this is true. I have often thought it would be nice to have been in a situation where you felt that something was being understood by your superior. But that was not the case. We faced this in various ways, but I don’t think we ever let up, I don’t think we ever said, we are going to make this easier or more charming; we’re not going to assign a late novel and say write a book report on it-- they’d have been perfectly at ease with that, they were expert book report writers. And I don’t know what we could have done to please anybody, and that being the case, and since I was by nature stubborn, why we conducted this course as we did.
And I want also to add as a kind of postscript that the assignments were made new every year, so that no teacher could rest on what he had done, except very generally, the year before. This was, I always thought, one of my secrets as a teacher-- never let the other teachers feel that they have done their work before the work begins. The work was always open, the questions were always there, and the answers were just as obscure and fleeting as they ever had been, so that the student and the teacher were on the same footing. They were both perplexed and they were both putting what mind they could on the immediate problem: how do you tell, how do you put into words such an experience as this? There was no way that a teacher could count on something that had happened the year before; he couldn’t pick up a book and go in and teach a course.
I also want to add something that was included in that missing 20 minutes or so, that there was nothing here in this course that was really philosophical in a professional sense. I was no philosopher, I never have been able to keep my mind on a piece of philosophical writing; I have tried. Armour Craig was good at this, he knew names, and he knew what the philosophers stood for. Regularly we would hear from someone that this was logical positivism, and, indeed, I had read Ayer’s book, but this seemed to me, and it still seems to me, wide of the mark. President Cole, when he would interview young men that we brought in as candidates for a job as instructor, would always talk to them-- I would be present-- he would always talk to them about Wittgenstein. He had two periods or phases, there was the early Wittgenstein and there was the late Wittgenstein and this somehow, in his mind, was related to something we were doing in very humble terms-- about the inexpressible in the human spirit, about the inexpressible behind all language. He would use these names and talk about these two periods as if this was relevant. And I always was amazed at this and thought, well now, if he thinks that’s where we live, how could I begin to explain this since I never, I think ever, read a word of Wittgenstein, and whatever connection there was there, I don’t know.
Students believed at one period, according to Bill Pritchard, and it appears in print in a book by somebody about his time, that it all came from Senator Hayakawa, who wrote a textbook for high school about semantics. And this satisfied the student who was eager to get on to the secret: there was the secret in Senator Hayakawa. And this I never heard of, I never heard ‘til I read it in the preface of a book by this Amherst graduate who had taken the course in the early ‘fifties. Well, maybe that’s the way. It could be that maybe that’s the way the mind could find some comfort. You’d say, “Well, I’ve at last figured it out what this is. It’s Senator Hayakawa.” And fortunately I’d never heard about that at the time. I think I would have been a little indignant.
It was homemade, that’s the truth of the matter, and it was no better, no worse than we could make it at home. It was all close to home-- the examples were drawn, presumably, from our own parochial experience.
So I leave this now, and I’ve enjoyed some of this, though some of the emotions recalled have been not happy. I don’t like to remember all of it. There’s much more that I could say as any teacher who’s through with his life, like this-- any teacher has dissatisfactions. I don’t want to dwell on that.
I want to say that this was in the best tradition of Amherst and Amherst has had a long tradition of teaching. I think that you could look back and I know you could look back and find one man after another who was concerned about how you reach a class and managed to convey something to them, and they could speak back to you. This is the old Amherst and it is something I have always respected and I would rest my case on this, and say, well what we did here was in the tradition, the best tradition. I would add, of course you might not agree, the BEST tradition of Amherst College, and I would just rest my case there and say, well, that was enough for me. I didn’t want any more in life than that.
[Final transcription: April 1978]
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Oral history interview with Theodore Baird, 1978 March 10-13, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 2), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/theodore-baird>
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Theodore and Frances Titchener Baird Papers, 1901-1996 Amherst College Archives & Special Collections
Amherst College English Department Records, 1879-1977 (Bulk: 1930s-1960s) Amherst College Archives & Special Collections