MASTERS: Stories of Great Teachers by Joseph--Ed. Epstein

MASTERS: Stories of Great Teachers

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Eighteen eminent professors as remembered by their (more or less) eminent students: a reprint of the stimulating series that first appeared in The American Scholar. The Ivy League hogs the spotlight, but otherwise there's an agreeable variety of character and master-disciple relationship. Some of the subjects were spellbinders (I. A. Richards) or mystagogues (A. N. Whitehead); some were, by conventional standards, unimpressive (Christian Gauss, Ruth Benedict). Some were Socratic midwives (John Crowe Ransom, Leo Strauss), some were hectoring heavyweights (Morris R. Cohen, C. S. Lewis). Some were stunning polymaths (Philipp Frank), some were Olympian figures (Frederick Teggart), some were extraordinary human beings (Hannah Arendt). The quality of the sketches varies from superb (Edmund Wilson on Gauss, Kenneth Lynn on F. O. Matthiessen) to mediocre (Suzanne Hoover on Nadia Boulanger), but the average is very good. The only common flaws are the neglect of physical detail and, curiously, a failure to show us the teachers teaching--as opposed to summarizing their ideas. One could wish for more bons mots (like E. U. Condon's ""I have just been casting false pearls before genuine swine""), more vivid moments--like I. A. Richards' entering a crowded lecture hall in Harvard Yard, as sirens wailed from a nearby firehouse, and intoning dramatically a line from Matthew Arnold, ""Not here, O Apollo, are haunts fit for thee!"" Still, this is a rich and memorable assortment of lively minds in action. There's some hero worship (George Brockway quite believably recalling John William Miller as ""the wisest, and justest, and best""), but no cosmetic surgery on prickly or dogmatic personalities. The academics in Epstein's gallery were no ""angelic doctors,"" but most of them had the unusual virtue not simply of pointing to the truth, but of getting out of the way and letting it hit their students head-on. Secular hagiography of a high order.

Pub Date: March 13th, 1981
Publisher: Basic Books