Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Stonewall Jackson -- VMI's Worst Professor?

An interesting excerpt from a new book on Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

The Daily Beast
"He was the most peculiar of teachers. According to the many accounts left by his former students, he did not really teach at all. Instead, he would assign what were considered to be extremely difficult lessons, and then listen to “recitations” of those lessons by cadets at the blackboard, correcting them as they went along. “At the appointed time [Jackson] ‘heard’ them, and this was about all of it,” recalled one former cadet. “Discussions in the class-room were unknown, and even explanations were infrequent . . . The text was the one great thing which he came to ‘hear,’ and we came to ‘say,’ if we could, and most of us commonly couldn’t, when the said text was Bartlett’s Course of Natural Philosophy, in three of the toughest volumes this scribe ever attacked—‘Mechanics,’ ’Optics and Acoustics,’ and ‘Spherical Astronomy.’”
Jackson’s behavior in the classroom seemed as peculiar as it did everywhere else. “When questioning the cadets,” wrote future Confederate general James H. Lane, one of his students, “he had a peculiar way of grasping his lead pencil, with his thumb on the end towards the cadets, and when a mistake was made, he would say ‘rather the reverse’ and flip his thumb back on the pencil.” When befuddled cadets asked him to explain some point, Jackson’s answer—devoid of imagination or technique—was simply to recite back to them the exact words of the text, which he had committed to memory and then rehearsed for several hours in darkness. Though this did nothing to help impart knowledge to his charges, some were impressed anyway by his command of the subject.
“In the section room he would sit perfectly erect and motionless,” recalled cadet James McCabe, “listening with grave attention and exhibiting the great powers of his wonderful memory, which was, I think, the most remarkable that ever came under my observation.” But Jackson’s power of recall offered little help to students who had trouble understanding his course. When one cadet insisted, after hearing Jackson explain a problem twice in exactly the same way, that he still did not understand it, Jackson ordered him to leave the section room. The result was that, while the brightest students managed to master the course, those in the middle and at the bottom were often left on their own to flounder, and sometimes to fail.
To make matters worse, Jackson placed great value on regurgitating every last detail of the assigned texts. When, in response to Jackson’s question “What are the three simple machines?” a cadet answered, “The inclined plane, the lever, and the wheel,” Jackson replied, ”No, sir. The lever, the wheel, and the inclined plane.” That was exactly as they were listed in the textbook, and that was how Jackson wanted it. No amount of student outrage or protest could dislodge him from this position. His course managed to be both dreadfully dull and appallingly difficult, with few light moments. 
It is noteworthy, considering how difficult it must have been for him to engage year after year in a difficult job for which he had no aptitude, that he even stuck it out. (His one attempt to leave was a failure, too: he applied for a job teaching math at the University of Virginia in 1854, but did not get the job.) One explanation comes from his second wife, Anna, who said that Jackson had once been asked by a friend if it wasn’t presumptuous of him to take the teaching job at VMI when his eye illness made him incapable of doing it properly. “Not in the least,” Jackson said. “The appointment came unsought, and was therefore providential; and I knew that if Providence set me a task, he would give me the power to perform it. So I resolved to get well.” He persisted because he believed God wanted him to."


1 comment:

  1. Heh. Imagine a ginger student showing up late like that one in Prof Sacher's summer class at GW.

    Then trying to ingratiate himself by asking a question...European diplomatic history...

    "Professor Sacher? What was the point of item four in the Treaty of Campio Florio, were they trying to maneouvre against the Venetians, or was it..."

    "I just covered that. If you are not going to pay attention, there is no point in you being here. Get Out."

    I dig it. Find that whole original Prof Jackson reading list and post it here, tout de suite.

    In fact, you should go with: "committed to memory and then rehearsed for several hours in darkness." (The list, that is, not the whole thing....but you do read a lot of Melville.)


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