"What all the great teachers appear to have in common is love of their subject, an obvious satisfaction in arousing this love in their students, and an ability to convince them that what they are being taught is deadly serious," writes Joseph Epstein in his introduction.
And that they do. Not only are the "masters" themselves acknowledged greats in their respective fields -- science, philosophy, music, poetry, and literary criticism -- but so are the students from whom these essays spring. Yes, spring.
If these essays have anything in common it is the readiness and energy -- at last given an outlet -- to talk about a memorable teacher or teaching experience that provided a turning point in the education of yet another fine intellect. And so Edmund Wilson, Anthony Hecht, Jeremy Bernstein, Gerald Gaff, Helen Vendler, and many more look back to the classrooms whose magic derived from, respectively, Christian Gauss, John Crowe Ransom, Phillip Frank, Yvor Winters, I. A. Richards. . . . None of the writers here is a stranger to eloquent discourse, but these essays reveal the breathless, excited student in the now older (often by decades) writers.
There are several reasons to be glad for such essays. To begin: Some of these teachers did not distinguish themselves as great writers. Edmund Wilson point out Christian Gauss's brilliance was confined to the classroom: "He has left no solid body of writing; he did not remake Princeton. . . ; he was not really a public man. He was a spiritual and intellectual force. . . . His great work in his generation was unorganized and unobtrusive. . . ; but his influence was vital for those who felt it."
Nor did John Miller -- who taught philosophy at Williams College from 1924 to 1960 -- leave behind the written work that could attest to his profound influence over his many students.
The essays about the well-known teachers offer a second reason for gratitude: They provide a valuable "other" or "inside" view, taking us to the personality behind the already famous writer. The view is not always pleasant, and in this vein Sidney Hook's essay on Morris Cohen is probably the most provocative and complex. Hook's comparatively long essay is itself a poignant illustration of a struggle within the writer to do justice to Cohen's brilliance and to measure it against his often inhumane treatment of students. "Looking back on those days and years, I am shocked at the insensitivity and actual cruelty of Cohen's teaching method, and even more shocked at my indifference to its true character when I was his student. . . . Only when I myself became a teacher did I realize that the virtues of his method could be achieved without the browbeating sarcasm , and absence of simple courtesy that marked his dialectical interrogations."
There were warmer "masters," such as Alfred North Whitehead with his weekly open house and hot chocolate, or Hannah Arendt with her overwhelming accessibility to students. And Suzanne Hoover's portrait of Nadia Boulanger (teacher of the likes of Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, virgil Thomson) also speaks of the presence of great warmth and moral exhortation. Boulanger preached "discipline and devotion."
Each of the essays is indeed a pleasure, but together they provide something more. They present us with a variety of interpretations of "good teaching," and doing so they ask us to believe in the complexity and difficulty of such an endeavor. They are indeed eloquent and important.