Episode 102 – “The Changing of the Guard”

If philosophy is the love (philo) of wisdom (sophia), it is also  about the acquisition of wisdom through education.  If the goal of education is the acquisition of wisdom, or knowledge, how can we best achieve that goal, and what is value of achieving it?  These are questions in epistemology and moral theory, respectively, and they are raised from the perspective of  Professor Ellis Fowler, an educator,  in “The Changing of the Guard.”

Professor Ellis finds himself at the end of a long career of teaching literature to impressionable young men at the Rock Spring School for Boys, a private preparatory school nestled in rural Vermont. His classes have been small, and intimate.  We catch a glimpse of his teaching style and manner. He is both stern and kind, demanding, and understanding. He reads a poem by A.E. Houseman, the subject of which is the attempt to impart wisdom to someone “of one and twenty,” which mirrors what Professor Ellis is attempting to do, to impart wisdom to his nine pupils.   Those same nine pupils struggle to concentrate on the lesson, and bolt for the door as soon as Professor Ellis dismisses them.

This is not just the end of a class, or a term, but, as Ellis soon learns, the end of his teaching career. The headmaster informs him that his contract will not be renewed, that after fifty years, it’s time for him to retire, that “youth must be served” and that its appropriate that there be a “changing of the guard.” This sudden and unexpected change in his life,  his removal from the classroom, causes Ellis to undertake serious reflection on his career. What is the purpose and value of his life without teaching, and what, if anything was the purpose and value of his career? He concludes: “I gave them nothing… I left no imprint on anybody.”

Professor Ellis isn’t thinking clearly. He is surrounded by the haze of disappointment, loss, and lack of purpose. What is the value of introducing students to poetry, fiction, and the humanities more generally? What impact has his teaching had? What difference did it make?  He reads the inscription below the statue of Horace Mann, who wrote: ” Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Ellis is ashamed, because he believes that he hasn’t made a difference.

Professor Ellis has made a difference, as he learns when searching his memory; he imagines encounters with many of his former students, students who have won victories for humanity, and who credit Professor Ellis for helping them acquire the wisdom required for achieving those victories. It may be difficult to know when education has imparted wisdom, and when that wisdom has been deployed to win some victory for humanity. The value of education is in cultivating individuals who can make a difference in the lives of others.

Making a difference doesn’t necessarily make things better. Hitler made a difference. So there’s much more to be said about the content of education, about what is taught and how it is taught. In “The Changing of the Guard” that content is represented in Professor Ellis himself, by the texts he chooses for his students, by his love of learning and his compassion for his students, for his love of music and art, and by his devotion to the well-being of the members of the intellectual community of Rock Spring School.


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