Am I Too Old to Teach?
OF course I am not old, or not convinced of oldness, or I should not be writing down a question about it. I am not gray — quite — or bald or very wrinkled. My step is forthright and my shoulder blades are flat. I do not have rheumatism or dyspepsia or high blood-pressure, if my rarely consulted physician tells the truth. I play tennis rather well — better than my young son — and golf like a novice. If the younger members of my department are taking the measure of my shoes I am not aware of it. I have no reason to think that the Board of Governors is forecasting my retirement or thinking of offering me a pension. When I utter my views in faculty meeting I am listened to not with patronizing and inconsequent deference but with open-eyed — though sometimes skeptical or combative — respect. There I still have battle with my peers. Yet I wonder if I am too old to teach.
The idea has been in solution in my mind for some time, but I have ascribed it to weariness or to the preoccupation of extrapedagogical duties which make it difficult to fix the mind on teaching alone. But the mood in which I picked up my subject and met my classes this fall has made me disturbedly question its source and its permanence. I can recall the rush with which in other days I flung myself upon work, the readiness, the mental hospitality with which I welcomed each student-mind, the pleasure of feeling overworked with a rich and generous busyness. Compared with that, to-day’s performance — and it is only November — seems as solid and steady and prosaic as the telephone directory. Yet to speak fairly — I need not cumber myself with modesty when writing anonymously — many things afford me pleasure now which earlier days did not hold: some authority as a scholar, some reputation for writing in my own subject, some association with the great men in my field. There is pleasure in all of that. Yet romance has gone from the day’s work. I march up to it in the morning; I do not run to it.
That is not the worst. I used to read over my class lists when they came to me from the dean’s office, with curiosity of which I was a little deprecatory. For I was tremendously interested in students. Now I don’t look at the lists until I come before the class, and I mispronounce names or stumble over them with a manner that throws all blame on their owners. I used to look over my first assembly with unconcealed interest. The class was not just a body; it presented as variegated a landscape as a Swiss canton. There were heights in it to be looked at approvingly and valleys to be eyed alertly but a little tenderly, and plains to be brought up to some degree of differentiation. With them all I expected to establish a relation; and I expected to see them depart from me at the end of the term with a sense of separation and to wonder a little over the unfortunate ones, as to whether I had really done my best for them. But last June, I recall, I made out my grades with the coolness and click of an adding machine, and dismissed the matter from my mind. My chief hope, as I departed for the summer, was that I should not meet anyone under twenty-five until I returned.
I rather upbraided myself for that wish when I found myself uttering it openly. I even saw signs of disapproval on the faces of my more serious listeners. It has always been an accepted and caressed theory that the mature should love the young and that association with youth will keep us youthful. I have been congratulated on the advantages of my profession in having such association. Frankly, I don’t care to be kept young any more than I should care to be kept childish. I am contented with maturity. Perhaps in ten or fifteen years more that contentment will begin to wane. But there is nothing in the world more ungraceful than the gestures with which maturity strains backward after a receding youth.
I believe that I should not have given so much thought to the matter last summer had I not come across so many stories and articles, in the lighter reading of the dog days, the thesis of which seemed to be that there is a logical and authorized combat on between age and youth, in which youth is always ardently right, and pathetic fifty is prejudiced, limited, and dully wrong. Having discovered this thesis I pursued research for further exploitation for it. Everywhere I found this contest recognized — especially, I thought, in English tales. It seemed to have become, while my eyes were off fiction for a season, an essential theme of creative literature. Twentytwo-years-old, male and female, perhaps especially female, suddenly knows more than all the world. The thirty or forty intelligent years which may follow are valueless. Opinion is as solid, as sensible, as potent, in the third decade as it ever will be again — as it never will be again! Thought and imagination and especially feeling stop at thirty, perhaps at twenty-five. The bodies under a lava flow are not more completely solidified than are living persons of forty. This is especially true, I gather, of parents and professors.
Thus much I collected from my summer reading. I had rather suspected it before. I had not been facing roomfuls of Twenty-two-yearsold without some partially alert consciousness of the superiority before me. But in this formulated statement of it I suddenly discovered a reason for my professional ennui. I am rather tired of youth. I had said that to myself sometimes in the middle of the night. But I had thought that I was only wearied of the immature mind and its limited furnishings, of the meagre experience, the lack of curiosity, the secure but unstudied opinions. I felt sometimes as if I were reading endlessly in a badly printed book, full of mistakes and imperfect language. I had upbraided myself for the feeling, of course. And now I discovered that the distaste and the reason for it lay all in myself. Alas, the pathological state was my own, no other’s!
Well, since that is true I may speak with the frankness of a mind awry. Candidly, I do not find the satisfaction in teaching that there was twenty years ago — I can hardly claim intelligence in teaching earlier than that, if I can claim it then. Mine is a subject which can use or stimulate much enthusiasm; not merely the spirited love of learning which may belong to any department of knowledge, but the enthusiasm of idealism and imagination. In other years, as I recall, it was easy to stimulate a response to high thought or romance. It was often a temptation to depart from the actual text of fact and to illuminate or illustrate great principle or feeling or the charm of a bygone phase of life. I have seen a lecture-room half-shyly aglow with the response of idealism or imagination. I thought then that that belonged to youth and would always be so. To me there is no conception of reality, scarcely even of fact, that does not use the imagination.
But a kind of shyness in myself has of late led me to omit or scant such passages. When, after I have indulged myself in eager lucubrations, I face only stolidity or a mild cynicism in my audience, I realize that I have been speaking a language ineffective to their ears, and I withdraw abashed. When a Crusader only reminds them how clumsy and slow former methods of warfare were, and the feudal castle is merely ‘without modern conveniences,’ and the age of chivalry is ‘undemocratic’ and foolish, and all costume earlier than their own is funny and absurd, and a saint in the wilderness is not ‘the man who does things,’ what speech can you utter to them? The Renaissance, as a thing that was lived and lived deeply and eagerly, may be outside the conception of the best date-learner in the class. I sigh, and return from my foolishness to dates and names.
Of course I am overstating. But I am also resisting the temptation to make the statement even stronger. For my disappointment is often keen. I recall other days, and even at my honestest I am not convinced that the difference lies wholly in myself or the fault only in my being out of date. But when the student’s chief reading has been a speedometer or a sporting page or the captions on films or the modern novel — filthily modern sometimes— what can Dante’s passion or Cranmer’s burned hand mean to him? The movies are closing the imaginations of all the world, especially the young world. And our students are bred and fed on them. In them mere improbability and spectacle stand for creation. They have no subtlety, either of conception or of execution, no suggestion, no stimulus. The mind is not led either backward or forward, or beyond. With all their sensational effort they are prosaic, as prosaic usually as they are tasteless and inaccurate. But enough of the movies.
It is not only that youth is now hard to stir imaginatively. I am appalled sometimes at the harshness and unashamedness of their material views, their frank acceptance or approval of selfishness as the normal motive. The sensitiveness of youth to fineness is less than it was. I dwell less on noble incident than I once did, because I have sometimes suffered the rebuff of having a generous motive taken lightly or derided, or an ignoble one regarded as merely natural. I am left with enthusiasm on my hands.
Egotism and romance, I have always found, do not house well together. For romance has an element of humility, an eagerness to worship, an expectation of unmerited pleasure in the remote, the external. But the egotist has few surprises, has no mellow haze over his anticipations. I think about this sometimes when I am dining at a chapter-house. I have time for thought, for I think while my hosts are singing. Periodically the chapter says, ‘Who '11 we ask to dinner Thursday? ‘ They have heard of whom, but they don’t care for the people who use it. And someone says, ‘Let’s ask old P—— and his Frau. I’ve just got to kill that course of his this time.’ On this basis we are invited. Often we go and are compassed with pleasant young attentions. We dine. At intervals during the meal our hosts burst into song — usually just between the subject and predicate of my sentence. Do they sing a passionate ballad, gallant and gay? Do they sing of old unhappy far-off things, or of love, or war, or Alma Mater? No, they know no such songs. Even what were once called college songs are unknown to them. The Spanish Cavalier has gone into his retreat permanently. They sing — it surprises you when you first hear them — their own praises. Sometimes they sing before they begin — a blurb instead of a grace. Their own glories flavor the meat. But they don’t exhaust their merits with that. The soup dishes removed, they warble again — their pin, their flower, themselves, their honor, their friendship, their supereminence. You don’t know just where or how to look. How do you look when a man is telling you earnestly that he is the greatest man that ever lived? You don’t look anywhere but at your wife, and you see that she is sweetly composing an appropriate thing to say when they have ended the blurb. You leave it to her. To be fair, though, there is one point on which they make no boastings; they never weave mention of their scholarship into their lays, with their other forms of eminence.
I know that they are looking on me with condescending eye.
Well. I am only writing myself down vinegary and shriveled of nature. But I shall let my acid sayings stand. I have not yet finished them. I am about to say something worse. I am unashamedly bored with the clamor for democracy in education. I am more bored with its results. I can ignore the clamor by avoiding the utterances of modern theorists in education; but I cannot ignore the results which come to my classroom. Outside of mere questions of human rights, democracy, in its current application, usually means mediocrity. Every addition to university curricula which has the purpose of democratizing education — and that means commonly merely preparing not too ambitious men to make a living — has tended to multiply the mediocre result and reduce the finished one. A country must have a body of men above the practical and material, whose spirit is to a degree liberated by contact with pure learning and who can see clearly, without limitation or obstruction by what are only material considerations. It would,
I dare to think, be better to educate a smaller number highly and nobly than to pseudo-educate thousands, as we are doing, on the level of their own mediocrity, and to let the practical purpose of the many determine the training of all.
I confess that as the years go by I grow more aristocratic in my notions. And when I say that, I recognize a meaning in the word which it once did not have for me. There were young uninformed days when I saw aristocracy only as antipodal to liberty or equality or fraternity. Now I know, or think I know, that a race must have all these and aristocracy. I hope as eagerly as ever for the upward growth of the race. But I believe now that this is to be attained, not by making an average for everyone and holding mean and fine to that, but by developing a body of greatness which in turn will permeate downward. It is magnificence which the colleges should create, a magnificence which even Spenser would recognize and approve. The college should be unashamedly idealistic, in my notion. It should have no shyness over a purpose of fostering love of beauty and love of thought and love of pure goodness in the youth it nourishes. In comparison with that, how dreary, how dull, the training designed only for the recognition and handling of material values.
In one more point I find myself often alien. The proud modernity of students leaves me cold — to use their own phrase. I often seem to be only a left-over from an outgrown period. I suppose my vanity is flicked. But what can you expect of students who have been taught poetry from a twentieth-century anthology instead of The Golden Treasury, or any golden treasury? Much of their early education has been apparently purposed to divorce the present from the past, and addressed to that end. They learn the times because these seem more nearly related to them than the eternities. They are given the tawdry, the unproved, the insignificant, merely because it is current. Thus they come into college with an exalted notion of the immediate, the passing. In history they realize no ancestry, no precedent, no foundation. I blame not them, in this case, but the instruction they have had, instruction from the uninstructed often, without perspective, without emphasis, without scale. They look on both the custom and the event of the past with indifference. Norman castle and Celtic illumination and bishop’s brocade are alike merely queer to them — so out of date. They read life into none of them. They regard all that preceded this glorified modern time as merely a bridging over to it, now negligible and decayed.
Again I am probably coloring my statement with my own unsympathy. But the fact is indubitably there. The passion of the past is largely gone from the schools. Far-away and longago can hardly be made thrilling terms. What emotion they once gave! And how the past piled up, in our early instruction, — its thought, its notions of beauty, its romantic custom and accomplishment, — while the present seemed greater as we learned of its inheritance from the past! Surely it is the business of a college to help man to place himself among the years of the world. But my students, alas, — hence my weariness! — prefer to think of themselves as rootless. And rootless as puffballs I fear many of them will be.
Well, that is also a part of my separation from them. They see themselves in one eternal moment and I see them growing into other moments, based on this brief one. It is not merely the years between us that put us apart. It is our view of the years. It is, for example, — or for symbol, rather, — my misfortune more than my fault that the physical beauty of youth, or what is commonly called its beauty, suffers such diminution in my mind. It is rarely that youth does not have some beauty, some charm of color, some sweetness of curve, at least some freshness of look. Much of that, I think, is lost in the present time, when the artificial color is so seldom pleasing and when sophistication so often takes the place of freshness. And still there is, or should be, some charm remaining. But it is my unfortunate habit, as I look upon the youths before me, often to add automatically ten or twenty years to their age and to see, not what is, but what will be. The misshapings of figure or feature that are now concealed in the soft lines or surfaces of youth will be brought to view oftener than they will be corrected. The tricks of face or of gesture which are so charming or so piquant now will themselves develop unlovely lines or angularities. I see that that pleasant softened aquilinity, now lending an air of distinction, will grow sharp and clawlike, that that jolly boyish roundness will grow heavy and inundate the features, or that those neat regular features will grow pinched and meagre. I know because I have seen. Sometimes when I halt at a period in a lecture for the less nimble-fingered to overtake the speaker — brisk fingers and a fluent fountain-pen being more important than agile wits in the notetaking race — my eye has time to record details of what sits before me, and I seem to see only the material of what life is to shape, and often to shape unbeautifully. And sometimes beautifully also. Character and conduct will make their mark. But this is my degree of sophistication and the statement of it is part of my confession.
Well, there it stands. How far should I take to my conscience my lack of sympathy and of proximity? And does it put me outside of the teaching attitude entirely? Something — my own egotism — makes me think that I have a thing to impart which once I did not have. I know that I have a perspective and a mellowness which once were impossible. Once I rode with my bit of knowledge like colors on my helmet. It was my possession, to use and to wear proudly. Now what I know possesses me and I am only in the midst of it. Once I saw my own individual subject of learning as a mountain in a plain — many teachers do, I know — and myself leading others up its sides. Now I see a great
plateau ‘crowded with culture’ and room for many dwellers on it. All I ask is to move and have small place among them.
But have I, in reaching this view, lost an emphasis which was in itself effective? Have I walked too many years companioned by my own bit of learning, seeing it daily in clearer perspective? My young instructors are more emphatic than I am. Part of one’s early enthusiasm in a subject of knowledge is, I admit, not just love of the content of that subject, but pleasure in one’s own command of it. It is not merely zeal for the subject, but zeal for one’s self. But that very type of zeal has a communicableness due to its concentration which a mellower view does not have. My young instructors, caressing their Ph.D.’s, are often very successful teachers. If as I look at them and listen to them I sometimes am reminded of the mellow old scholar who in his ribald young days wrote of the ‘scholar who’s hourly expecting his learning,’ I reprove myself for the recollection and feel in nowise superior to them. I am pretty sure that they refer to me as ‘old P——,’ but I am not disturbed. Yet they do not speak at all of these faults which I find in my students. Being young and generally gifted in some degree, they speak often and vigorously of the stupidity of their students; they use the word ‘moron,’ now a popular sophomoric term. I never do that. In fact I don’t consider my classes, in general, unintelligent. But I have a dissatisfaction much deeper than that of my young assistants.
Thus I am out of tune. And it is only natural that I should ask myself whether my arm is growing too shortened to reach across the space between me and those whom I am supposed to be guiding.