Portrait of a Good Teacher

Mark Van Doren’s students remember him, and their comments taken together are the job description of a teacher:
…the reason Van Doren exerted such a strong force on students, especially those with big literary and intellectual ambitions, was that he had no agenda, no outsized ego, and he treated them as grown-ups. He wanted to talk to them, not compete with them. He sought not disciples, but dialogue; not imitators but independent minds in the Emersonian tradition.


His teaching was grounded in the proposition that an intelligent person of good faith needed no special qualifications to read Othello, The Iliad or the Divine Comedy. You just needed to be attentive and to use your intelligence.


Merton writes that in Van Doren’s classes “literature was treated, not as history, not as sociology, not as economics, not as a series of case-histories in psychoanalysis but, mirabile dictu, simply as literature.” (The problem Merton is describing exists today in even more pernicious forms.) “I thought to myself, who is this excellent man Van Doren who being employed to teach literature, teaches just that,” Merton goes on. “Who is this who really loves what he has to teach, and does not secretly detest all literature, and abhor poetry, while pretending to be a professor of it?”


For Ginsberg, the great thing was that Van Doren took him seriously when he talked excitedly about his “epiphany experiences” and Blake-inspired visions: “Van Doren was one of the few men of his time not to be made anxious by my near-incoherent account of my own initiatory vision; on the contrary, he used the old word ‘light.’ That gave me permission to believe my own senses.”


Donald Keene [’42], the eminent scholar and translator of Japanese literature, recalls that Van Doren “spoke without notes, pausing at times to ask our opinions or to listen to our questions. When asked a question he would listen carefully, then think a moment, often with his thumbs hooked into his lapels, before answering. This impressed me especially. He was not only courteously attentive to each question but managed to make it seem reasonable and even of importance, by salvaging the one grain of sense from some foolish utterance.”


Robert Giroux [’36], whose friendship with Berryman began in Van Doren’s Shakespeare class, shrewdly observes that Van Doren had a “technique of pretending that you were his intellectual equal.”


It may have been said best by Charles W. Everett, who chaired the English department in 1954, Columbia’s bicentennial year, and began a capsule biography of Van Doren with these sentences: “Dr. Johnson said of Burke that a stranger meeting him in a shed where both were taking refuge from the rain would go away feeling that he had met an extraordinary man. That is the first and major effect produced by Van Doren, all the more for his own insistence that he has in him nothing of the extraordinary, that anybody can understand anything he wishes to, that anybody can teach great literature and philosophy.”


one last claim for Van Doren’s Shakespeare, and that is that it illustrates the way literature can be and should be taught. By being itself so comprehensible and clear, Shakespeare deepens the conviction that Hamlet and The Tempest, Henry IV and A Midsummer Night’s Dream belong to all of us. Written by an adult for adults, without a specialized vocabulary, devoid of condescension, the book demonstrates how to talk about great works of literature. There is no wizardry, no mystification, just a superb marriage of passion and intelligence in prose that is never less than vigorous.


Read the whole article:

Mark Van Doren and Shakespeare

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