- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

By Dennis F. Brestensky
University of Delaware Press, $48.50, 255 pages

O[sborne] B[ennett] Hardison, Jr. was a man uncommonly gifted in a rich variety of ways: as a sound scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literatures, with the requisite languages of Latin, Italian, German, and French, from which he translated with ease; as a warm, open-minded enthusiastic teacher who, in 1966, made the cover of Time magazine as one of the 10 most admired and effective teachers in the country; as the brilliantly innovative director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, who founded the Folger Theatre Group, and increased the library's earned income from $20,000 to $1.4 million a year; as a devoted husband and father of six; and as an admirable academic colleague, forthright, courageous, honest and cheerful.
He published scholarly books of highly specialized learning that would have no great appeal to the general reader: studies of prosody and of medieval ritual. But he was also deeply interested in the culture of his own, and our, time in all its scientific and technological novelty; and he had an impressive if largely untutored familiarity with physics, computer science and higher math.
As a university teacher, both at North Carolina's Chapel Hill and at Georgetown, he gave serious critical thought to basic considerations of what education means, what it's for, how it can be achieved, where it can go wrong and why. And he went about publishing his views on these matters in scattered publications which this book's editor, Dennis Brestensky, has assembled in a single volume, "The Teaching Legacy of O.B. Hardison, Jr., With Selected Writings on Education."
O.B.'s own sprightly part of this book is contained in a mere 102 pages. His invincible charm, warmth and wit are fully in evidence, as when, e.g., at the inauguration of a new president of King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he begins his address with "There is something about public occasions and installations of Presidents that tempts speakers irresistibly to prophecies of doom. The happier the occasion, it would seem, the more gloomy the sentiment … Being an ardent follower of contemporary doomsday literature, I yield to none in my enthusiasm for the Apocalypse."
Not every incoming college president could have heard such an opening with equanimity. It turns out that this one, Rev. C.D. Sherrer, was an old friend, possibly even a former student of O.B.'s, but the editor has not troubled to inform us. It is one of many such lapses.
In a number of essays Hardison traces the course of American educational theory, beginning with a 15th-century concept of "liberal education," based on "great books" and canonical texts, through various alternatives to a more modern theory based on views of Kant, the Rousseau of "Emile" and Schiller's "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man," remarking that "almost all attempts to put Romantic theory into practice have grown out of theories of child psychology," and mentioning Pestalozzi, Montessori and Dewey, among others.
In fact, the first Hardison essay on curricula (in which these varying theories are sketched) is a tribute to the Englishman, A.S. Neill and his experimental school for boys, Summerhill. The editor does not trouble to draw our attention to Homer Lane, whose "Little Commonwealth" formed, as Neill acknowledged, the model for his school; nor is any editorial mention made, as one would expect, of Jonathan Kozol, Robert Coles, or Bruno Bettelheim.
Nor is Hardison's pronounced repetitiousness either evaded or explained, though an explanation seems called for. Anyone who knew O.B. could testify that he was not a man to labor a point, however well taken. Nor is the repetition due to the fixity of a man who never changes his mind. The essays, however, (some of which were speeches), address very different audiences, and Hardison, who probably never envisioned the assembly of such random pieces, should not be blamed for such unannotated recycling of ideas.
Brief as the book is, it is nevertheless laden with editorial lapses, of which two stand out as lamentable exemplars. Hardison's brief part in his own book is, as noted, marred by repetitions. The editor's part of the book, called "Hardison's Teaching Legacy," is roughly the same length, though it is in fact no more than an introduction.
But the editor takes upon himself in a worshipful, earnest, and mercilessly pedestrian prose full of platitudes, to present us with the gists, piths and potted versions of the essays that are to follow, thereby pulling the rug from under Hardison's own presentations, and making him seem still more repetitious than he would have without such aid. Doubtless this supererogatory introduction was composed at the behest of the publisher, since Hardison's part alone would not have made up a book, let alone one priced at $48.50.
Early in the course of his introductory remarks the editor forcefully scuttles our confidence in his scholarship. He tries, quite without success, to convey the liveliness of O.B.'s classroom presentation of "Hamlet", declaring, "… as he narrates Hamlet's plan to visit the battlements to see the ghost of his father firsthand, O.B. remarks that the prince is disturbed by thoughts of his mother's sexual relations with Claudius. At this point he pauses to introduce an oral footnote explaining the basis for the Freudian interpretation of the play. He then announces, 'the footnote is over,' and resumes recounting the next important scene of the plot, the meeting of Polonius and Fortinbras."
Inasmuch as Polonius is killed in Act III, and Fortinbras makes his first appearance in the closing moments of Act V, the putative meeting could never have taken place, except in the dressing room. Clearly Mr. Brestensky never studied Shakespeare with O.B. Hardison.

Anthony Hecht has a forthcoming book of literary essays, "Melodies Unheard" (Johns Hopkins University Press), due out this May.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide