“Best Damn Class I Ever Took”

How teaching is like playing the piano
Elbert Lenrow
Elbert Lenrow

“I had known enough to know I had had a great teacher,” is how Nicholas Delbanco describes his successful job interview at Bennington College with the poet Howard Nemerov. Delbanco had secured the academic job by telling Nemerov, about a course with that “great teacher,” “Best damn class I ever took.”
Preparing the excerpt from Delbanco’s book Why Writing Matters for publication at Education Next, I was curious to find out even more about this “great teacher,” Elbert Lenrow. In looking for a photo of Lenrow to accompany the piece, I discovered a book by Lenrow, Kerouac Ascending. It had been published posthumously in 2010, 17 years after Lenrow died in 1993. Lenrow’s cousin, Katherine H. Burkmann, edited the book.

In her preface to the book, Burkmann, who is a professor emerita of English from the Ohio State University, recalls receiving, from a niece of Lenrow, Barbara Phillips, copies of an interview that Lenrow had taped “some years after his retirement from the Fieldston School in 1970.” Burkmann writes that the interview had been conducted with the aim of gathering information about the history of Fieldston, but wound up shedding light about Lenrow’s attitudes about teaching:

Perhaps what is most striking is that his teaching involved encouragement: he was not in any way judgmental. He felt, he said, that the most important thing in presenting the literature to his young students was to get their reaction. He saw teaching as an art, comparing it to a performance at a concert, during which the music moves to a climax near the end. He talked about using the Socratic method, but he insisted that he never cornered his students, never stuck to a lesson plan. When students came to him for advice, he said, he helped them make their own decisions; he didn’t believe in pushing them. Elbert compared teaching to playing the piano, which he did very well, and suggested you could only get a good tone on the piano when you were relaxed.

Take it for what it is—not evidence from a randomized controlled trial or from analysis of coded observations of teacher language or behavior by some neutral trained observer, but, merely, a self-report, as then relayed by a cousin. Even so, though, how many other teachers are there out there who were so skilled that, 50 years after they retired, people are still writing about how great they were?

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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