You are on page 1of 11

Ethics and Education

ISSN: 1744-9642 (Print) 1744-9650 (Online) Journal homepage:

Love and work: a reading of John Williams’ Stoner

Jeff Frank

To cite this article: Jeff Frank (2017) Love and work: a reading of John Williams’ Stoner, Ethics
and Education, 12:2, 233-242, DOI: 10.1080/17449642.2017.1316900

To link to this article:

Published online: 24 Apr 2017.

Submit your article to this journal

Article views: 58

View related articles

View Crossmark data

Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at

Download by: [The UC San Diego Library] Date: 26 June 2017, At: 00:20

2. teacher education to live – and talk about – teaching in a dignified and artful way. 2017 VOL.1316900 Love and work: a reading of John Williams’ Stoner Jeff Frank Education Department Canton. we must remember that philosophical readings of literature have much to offer our thinking. Though a more superficially uplifting book may initially feel like the right book to keep teachers excited to teach. and not the countless reports and jeremiads John Williams. at the age of nineteen. he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University. where he taught until his death in 1956. USA ABSTRACT KEYWORDS This article offers a close reading of the novel Stoner by John Philosophy of literature. a human who lives teaching in a way that is somehow representatively interesting to all who care CONTACT  Jeff Frank  jfrank@stlawu. during the height of World War I. 3. A teacher affecting eternity Stoner is not. I find that Stoner is the work that I keep returning to as a check against demoralization and a reminder of what living teaching means. 233–242 https://doi. Eight years later. William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year of 1910. He did not rise above the ranks of assistant professor. to the older ones.Ethics and Education. (Williams 2003. St Lawrence University. 12. helps us find what we are searching for: a way Jackson. But. Stoner. We need to seek out voices that remind. not only one of the best novels ever written. NO.1080/17449642. but also a book that communicates and expresses the life of teaching in a way that very few have. We need more voices like the one Williams provides in Stoner as we work at teaching. recall and reveal teaching for the beautifully lovingly difficult work that it is. speak of him rarely © 2017 Informa UK Limited. 4) So begins John Williams’ Stoner. Philip on his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all. trading as Taylor & Francis Group . NY. When we think about educational policy related to teaching. who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive. and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses … Stoner’s colleagues. Williams. My hope is that this essay turns our attention back to Stoner while encouraging us to see the potential that literature holds for how we think about teaching.2017. teacher education and educational reform. Stoner. and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

fellow writers and readers have expressed deep appreciatory praise for the very existence of the novel. He changes majors and never leaves the University. has a short-lived affair. romanticism or anything like melodrama.’ He then asked. I aim to bring this work to philos- ophers of education because Stoner has a great deal to teach us about what living teaching looks like. Mel Livatino writes: The most famous appraisal of the novel came from C. Williams notes: . ‘Very few novels in English. FRANK about the practice of living as a teacher. Most academic novels are farces and satires. comedies of academic manners. directly. As the opening of the novel quoted above shows. (Livatino 2010. have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art. and – eventually – dies of cancer. but who is irrev- ocable damaged given the toxic environment she knows. Stoner attends University diligently fulfilling his agricultural promise until he takes his first English class. teachers and what we value about the work that we do. In particular. there is nothing particularly notable about Stoner’s life. ‘Why isn’t this novel famous?’ His answer was that ‘we live in a peculiarly silly age’ and that John Williams ‘doesn’t fit the triviality of the day. Snow upon the novel’s debut in Great Britain in 1973. and yet – still – it remains a book that has not gen- erated the attention it deserves. 422) Like Snow. 419) Another way to get at the style of the book and the man Stoner is to attend to some- thing Williams writes in an introduction to his excellent anthology of Renaissance poetry. The class somehow forces Stoner – in the most subtle deeply evocative way – to come to the realization that he can’t help but study English. the novel can remind us what it means to speak of teaching.1 A main goal of this essay is to – however modestly – bring this novel to a wider audience. P. all he knows is labor. Stoner stays neglected. publishes a minor book. In a recent appre- ciation of the novel. Then. or literary productions of any kind. Livatino notes. and the novel stridently resists sentimentality. grows into a teacher he can assent to being. this is what Williams – humbly. Although Williams eventually wins (or more accurately co-shares) the National Book Award in 1973 for his epistolary novel Augustus. The novel can be summed up briefly. or the good life that doesn’t appear to be anything like it when viewed superficially or with haste.234   J. He becomes a professor. but Stoner is not one of these: it is as heartfelt a probe into academic life and the vocation of scholar and teacher as one is ever likely to read.’ (Livatino 2010. Perhaps of most importance. William Stoner grows up on a farm. He wrote in the May 24 issue of the Financial Times. acknowledges and lives through from birth2 – decides to become a good teacher. powerfully – offers readers. Stoner and Stoner represent something like modern Stoicism. a representative from a newly formed agricultural school at the University approaches Stoner’s father and the family agrees that Stoner should receive an education that may make life farming more manageable. feuds with a fellow professor over academic standards. Stoner was originally published in 1965 to little notice. Some context. he marries – the marriage is unbearable to everyone – has a child – whom he loves deeply.

Too often the prac- tice of teaching is sentimentalized or satirized in fiction and film. something that speaks to us. xxvii) This quotation is interesting in that Williams doesn’t say the expected: reading poetry that is centuries old may surprise us in that it remains something live. 388) Though this comes to us from almost thirty years ago. instead. Calls to make the educa- tion of future teachers into the clinical preparation of doctors or the professional initiation of lawyers remain with us and seem to be gaining renewed attention. We learn of them as we study the writings of those who have sought to penetrate the mysteries of the educative process. The pedagogical imagination needs to be expanded. the human cadence of the human voice. speaking to us as if we were alive. But the bare essential voice of humanity – even as it gives the appearance of being lifeless – can reach us. sometimes with a jolt. talking at teaching instead . can wake us. We uncover them as we consider the actions of model teachers. they signify nothing and distract us from attending to teaching. bare. The teacher – at the college or high school level – is savior or out of touch and aloof. (Williams 2016. though seemingly charged with deep emotion. often at the same time. ETHICS AND EDUCATION   235 if we read as if we were not mortals listening to another mortal – the style may seem flat. This is one of the reasons why Stoner is an important novel. and questions whether or not we are alive. can make us see what it would mean to live or be alive. These pic- tures hold the imagination captive. sentimentalized or simplistic pictures of the practice so many of us are deeply committed to and troubled by. Politicians. we are told that a handful of pedagogical moves can make almost anyone teach like a champion (Lemov 2010). inverts this notion. worse. Generating much sound and fury. during those moments when our own performance as teachers or as teachers-to-be engenders a kind of self-awareness that was not there before. On and on we go. Williams.3 As well. Nor need we turn to other human endeavors. warm and interested or self-absorbed and absentminded. (Jackson 1987. saintly or lecherous. policymakers and so-called educational entrepreneurs are ready to remake teaching into whatever faddish limiting vision bounded imaginations are beholden to. Philip Jackson realized this – presciently – years ago. like the practice of law or the ministry. We encounter them at firsthand. and lead us away from living teaching. we shall hear beneath the emphatic stresses. Sentimentality and a vague romanti- cism. We can’t assume our humanity. It is important that we think about what teaching might actually be. they can tie us to mythologies and distorting lenses. he assumes the vitality of the poem. almost lifeless. They lie within teaching itself. But if we listen to the poem. Exploring living teaching remains important at the present moment especially because there are so many forces outside of teaching clamoring to tell us what our work is or should be. we have to see that Jackson is speaking to us as if we were alive in the present age. Writing in response to the Holmes Report – a prominent much-discussed report that sought to improve the preparation of teachers – Jackson notes: What alternatives [to the limited visions of teaching expressed by the Holmes Report] are available? They are legion. we cannot limit ourselves to idealized. beneath the bare and essential speech. to find them. keep us lifeless. humanity is an achievement. living and dead.

the novel reminds us what happens when we are transformed by education and try to live – as a teacher – in gratitude and appreciation for the reality that education can fundamentally change a human being. because transformative educational experiences are easy to misunderstand and misleadingly describe. he is nothing like the character Robin Williams plays in the film Dead Poets Society. it resides and thinks with teaching. professor Sloane] for one semester and realize that he can’t decide but to dedicate his life to study and teaching. Again. We don’t need to wander far afield or seek other fields for guidance when it comes to teaching.236   J. teaching is about finding a way to embody for students that transformation happens when a student experiences a love without wanting to please a teacher or become someone who the admired teacher is or appears to be. not equals in certain ways (the teacher is often on the way in a manner the student is not. an idea or an author that will forever connect teacher and student in a way that teaches how learning is not about personality. attempting to plum depths and mark twains. If anything. our imaginations need to be expanded so that we can find evocative and illuminative pictures. As Jackson notes. Educational reformers often miss the mark just as those who would sentimentalize and romanticize an experience that deserves a fitting – non-cliché – expression. Williams wants us to think about how it can happen that a young person like William Stoner – a young person who knows nothing but the work of farm life and the desire to be a decent son – can read poetry with a college professor [in this case. teaching needs to be explored and expressed as it is and may become if we could trade illusions and misperceptions for ‘study [of ] the writings of those who have sought to penetrate the mysteries of the educative process’ (Jackson 1987. this type of thinking with teaching is tremendously important. there may not be anything romantic or overtly inspirational about this picture. FRANK of attending to it. he sees it in the ways in which a teacher can let students experience what makes learning the unpredictably life-changing thing it can become. for example). . Stoner doesn’t idealize teaching. This is what Williams does in Stoner. This co-working is profound and deeply tied to what it means to teach. Teaching – and this is jumping ahead – is not about the personality of the teacher in the way it is commonly understood. Instead. 388). For example in the shared desire to commit to the promise of learning something of value and importance. as I aim to demonstrate below. he can be described curmudgeonly. but it has much to suggest itself to us. the transformation happens because of a shared experience with a text. Sloane doesn’t see teaching in terms of the personality of the teacher. The teacher and student are co-workers. But he loves what literature can do and what literature can be. This is important. but equals in ways that matter. This is something Stoner – deliberately and through exactingly measured prose – does not do. Importantly – for our understanding of Stoner – the Professor who leads to what can be described as Stoner’s transformative moment is not a teacher who would fit the mold of the ‘inspirational’ teacher. but about what it means to aspire to become – to use WEB Du Bois’ (2009) evocatively apt way of putting it – co-workers in the kingdom of culture.

this is getting a bit ahead of my discussion of the novel. Williams writes Stoner’s character as a tes- tament to the veiled heroism of work. that can be misleading and misguided – he is not a bad teacher. Expecting rewards or recognition outside of this work. This is exactly what William Stoner does: he sets out to do the work of teaching. is life. It is important not to confound this love with love that is foolish. Williams makes this point when asked about how he came to write Stoner. even if it leads to – or appears to lead to – nothing of value. And if you love something. or failing to see that one needn’t wait for or chase inspiration. as Williams notes in another interview. not hoping for reward and not expecting to inspire. 30) This is an interesting point for Williams to make. valuable. The lack of love defines a bad teacher. but I started to realize that although that man may not have been one of the great teachers of all time he had dedicated him- self to something that I thought was extremely important and it didn’t matter whether he was a ‘success’ or whatever. and I found some kind of heroism involved there.5 The working. What might be easy to lose sight of in all of this talk of work and jobs is the sense of love and dedication that stands behind it. quixotic. keeps us from doing the work appointed to us. the idea never materializes into manuscript – but the fact of work remains. good. It all grows out of the love of the thing.7 it is the outcome that is in question and that may never materialize into success. he does the work of teaching because that is all that he can do given the love of literature awakened in him through the work of Sloane’s classroom. And if you understand it. 21). Starting with farm- ing. he notes: By that time I was fairly involved in the teaching profession and began to think about ‘what does it mean to be a teacher. (Woolley 1986. William Stoner cannot help but feel and live (or as Stanley Cavell would write. Sometimes the work appears fruitless – the crops are ruined.’ It [Stoner] began like that. you’re going to understand it.4 Everything of value comes about because of work.6 It is not only the sense of committing to something and working at it that is important. 20) I think the point here is relatively clear. But though he fails to live many of these ideals – often ones. (Wakefield 1981. it is the sense of being in love and dedicating oneself to it regardless of whether it leads to anything like what might be called a success. . Here is Williams again: it’s the love of the thing that’s essential. acknowledge) the realization that work and life are intertwined. especially because he is so upfront about the ways in which Stoner fails to live up to many of the ideals we have when it comes to teaching. you are going to learn a lot. as I maintain above. The love is real and directed at something meaningful. finding teaching to be nothing more though nothing less than ‘a job in the good and honorable sense of the word’ (Woolley 1986. sentimentalized or superficial. so it has nothing to do really with that teacher [a teacher Williams had]. And there are a lot of bad teachers. or. In one interview. ETHICS AND EDUCATION   237 Again. and that’s where it began. so I want to return to William Stoner as a child of farmers and introduce some of the things Williams says about teaching in his few published interviews.

113) puts it this way: the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous. but Sloane recognizes that Stoner also cannot help but live the life of teaching. Mr.’ One way of trying to respond to this line of inquiry is to think again about the role of love in life and teaching. says something deeply important: ‘“But don’t you understand. 20). but knowing nothing else he is at a loss. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher …. For Williams – and Stoner – one teaches out of love. a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day. and through that understanding learns. if one were lucky. so that no one could mistake its presence. and then proudly … He suspected that he was begin- ning. ten years late. he began to display. It’s love. and an embarrassed nostalgia. We first see this idea expressed in Stoner when Sloane approaches Stoner to inquire into his future plans. Stoner. worth considering. a gently familiar contempt. but one which changed him. and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be. but he is also not a bad one because he is moved by love. Mr.238   J. in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion. and grows and becomes who he is as a teacher. one might find access. Stoner is a slow learner. difficulties interacting with colleagues and students. toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief. Williams (2003. (Williams 2003. but in this passage – as in many others – I value how Williams subverts expectation. engagement with many texts but not much by way of publication. He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher … to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. Stoner – only knowing the life of his family farm. Still. What is the presence that Stoner aims to express? A presence beyond good and bad but that provides a teacher with ‘a dignity of art. He understands more. ten- tatively at first.” Sloane said cheerfully. he saw it as a human act of becoming. It’s as simple as that”’ (Williams 2003. Sloane – again. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion. And so the presence that no one can mistake and that Williams writes about is potentially curious. And. not a teacher who is inspirational in the regular sense of the word. lost. the love persists. 195) Again. Awkward lectures. by the will and the intelligence of the heart. Remember that Stoner is not a good teacher. “You are in love. to discover who he was. It is . Stoner?” Sloane asked. and one that he doesn’t know how to undergo and enact. I think Williams has a direct style that doesn’t need much comment. and then boldly. To this. but one that I take to be as educative as it is beautiful: In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which. I find this a fascinating start to Stoner’s career. Another long quotation. FRANK because his dedicated love leads to an understanding that forms the root of a life of learning that is central to what it means to teach. once he had it. a life Stoner hasn’t thought about as possible. though awakened to something difficult for him to comprehend as a way of life – tells Sloane that he is not sure what to do: he cannot and doesn’t want to go back to the farm. He doesn’t want to be like Sloane or his other teachers.

as if they were but the matter of love. and though it may not feel like it. something that often defies our desire to control and direct. The loving work of teaching has a dignity hard to describe. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh. Though it may not move students directly or inspire them into the teacher’s line of inquiry or way of life. This loving work may be best described when Williams describes how Stoner (now much advanced in his life as a teacher) responds to students who are attend- ing college after serving in the second world war. rather. given it [his love] to every moment of his life. This passage in Stoner helps bring to mind what Dewey is getting at in Experience and Education. seeking nothing other than to keep working and being? I know that when I teach Dewey’s Experience and Education many students are troubled by the idea that education shouldn’t be preparation for the future. after these few years. work. The way that giving feedback shows a certain form of love. strange in their maturity. it is built by the will and intelligence of the heart. or of the disappointments and joys of either. but that is the only thing he can be. and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. Teaching reminds us of one way of being alive. The passage also calls to mind the physician example in Democracy and . ETHICS AND EDUCATION   239 not that love is built by will or intelligence. but one that Williams so movingly – and importantly – expresses in Stoner and through Stoner. were intensely serious and contemptuous of triviality. work and seek. and energy are so intertwined that one finds oneself almost wholly in the present. work is love. The heart moves Stoner in ways that are hard to understand. it matters. What can be added to this statement of what teaching can look like when love. the way that reading texts out of responsibility and desire shows love. He seldom thought of the past or the future. it is impactful. Stoner thinks of it this way: He had. they came to their studies as Stoner had dreamed that a student might – as if those studies were life itself and not specific means to specific ends. He knew that never. Work and live. it shows a passionate presence that can’t help but make some difference. almost wholly in one’s profession. would teaching be quite the same. (Williams 2003. we work at this each day. its specific substance. but that cultivating the fullest possible present experience is the best way to have a future: to develop a life and education worthy of the name. the students. it said sim- ply: Look! I am alive. 250) Stoner lives teaching. Stoner finds something. Innocent of fashion or custom. On his deathbed. something of what I take to be his ideal of what teaching can be. but which none- theless develops presence. 248. and he committed himself to a happy state of exhaustion which he hoped might not end. Working with these older stu- dents. it was a force that comprehended them both. it is a force that is hard to comprehend. even though it may never be labeled success. he concentrated all the energies of which he was capable upon the moment of his work and hoped that he was at last defined by what he did. in odd ways. but which are nonetheless deeply and fundamentally willing work guided by seeking intelligence. Stoner doesn’t plan to become a teacher. To a woman or to a poem. Williams (2003. 249) writes that Stoner: … worked harder than he had ever worked.

388) on the Holmes Report. 195). 361) Stoner does not prefer personal safety or comfort. We need to give up quick fixes and hopes for heroic inspirational teachers and trade this for appreciative understanding of the work of teaching. 2. . 3. it would mean that he preferred to be that kind of a self. We need more voices like the one Williams provides in Stoner as we work at teaching. if he finally gave up. we must remember that philosophical readings of literature have much to offer our thinking. abandoning forever our dreams of a science of education. but I will close with another quotation from Jackson (1987. and not the countless reports and jeremiads on teaching.9 Notes 1. FRANK Education. not only a language for those in our profession. could we come up with an exciting program of reform? I think we could. and I worry that we don’t have a language to express why these teachers matter as much as they do.240   J. see Green (2015). not from so-called selfish motives. it is a ‘human act of becoming. recall and reveal teaching for the beautifully lovingly difficult work that it is. teacher education and educational reform. but especially for those who have never taught. Through working at teaching. We need to seek out voices that remind.  As I was finishing this essay a found a wonderful exception to this in Fulford (2016). This needs to be appreciated. he prefers to be that kind of self. Though a more superficially uplifting book may initially feel like the right book to keep teachers engaged with the work of teaching. I find that Stoner is the work that I keep returning to as a check against demoralization and a reminder of what living teaching means. Teaching is work – loving work – but it is work. helps us find what we are searching for: a way to live – and talk about – teaching in a dignified and artful way. He reads papers with meticulousness. (Dewey 1985.8 There is much more that could be said about this novel. As Dewey writes. A man’s interest in keeping at his work in spite of danger to life means that his self is found in that work.  There is a renewed push to make teacher education ‘practice-based. Dewey describes a physician who decides to continue doing medical work even at great risk.  The language of acknowledgment is a direct response to the work of Cavell (1999). There are many loving/working teachers like this amongst us. My hope is that this essay turns our attention back to Stoner while encouraging us to see the potential that literature holds for how we think about teaching. a condition … invented and modified moment by moment and day by day’ (Williams 2003. Stoner. When we think about educational policy related to teaching.’ For an engaging journalistic overview. but because he has founded a self. and preferred his personal safety or comfort. he cares about educational standards that he can assent to. Stoner forms a self that would never give up. There is no magical inspiration. he is a teacher. If we searched within teaching itself for a conception of what the profession might become.

1995.” Sewanee Review 118 (3): 417–422. 7. 1999. Lemov. Frank. Green. 8. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. . San Francisco. Collected Poems. The Claim of Reason. “Learning to Write: Plowing and Hoeing. Labor and Essaying. 2016. “Facing Our Ignorance. 2009. Acknowledgements I would like to thank Paul Smeyers for his editorial work on this paper. New York: Library of America. 9. Ralph Waldo. Finally. Stanley. Jeff. Fulford. E. Frost. Emerson. ETHICS AND EDUCATION   241 4. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. 1983. Prose and Plays. “Love and Growth: On One Aspect of James Baldwin’s Significance for Education.  I see something of a similar point made by Wolf (2012) when she discusses meaning in life.’ Here also I want to bring to mind Cavell’s (1999) distinction between knowing and acknowledging again. see Frank (2016). William Stoner’s life stands in acknowledgement of the deep connection between work and life. For a response to this work. Disclosure statement No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author. and Richard Smith for his very careful and helpful edits. References Cavell. Jackson. CA: Jossey-Bass. New York: Norton.  There is something interesting about how Emerson (1983) makes a similar point about working and living in ‘The Over-Soul. and the place of work in Frost see Poirier (1990). Jeff. see Santoro (2001). Doug. 2010. Elizabeth. W. Richard.” Teachers College Record 88 (3): 384–389.  For an excellent discussion of demoralization. Jackson and the Meaning of Dedication – at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association helped me think a great deal about how the term dedicate and the art of dedication are central to education.  For a discussion of understanding (and its relation to love). Essays and Lectures. The Souls of Black Folk. “Demoralization and Teaching: Lessons from the Blues.” Philosophy of Education Yearbook 2015 127–134. Robert. see Frank (2015). Building a Better Teacher. Dewey. I want to express deep gratitude to my undergradu- ate advisor Stanley Bates for showing me what a life of teaching and learning at a liberal arts college could look like and giving me confidence to hope that I might make that life my own. New York: Library of America. Amanda. 2010. 2015. For an excellent gloss of this poem.” Educational Theory 66 (4): 519–534. 26). New York: Library of America. B. Poirier. 1990. 1985. Teach Like a Champion. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1987. 2016. New York: Oxford University Press. 6. Du Bois. “Revaluation: A Sadness Unto the Bone: John Williams’s Stoner. 2015. 5.  Here I am reminded of the arresting line from Robert Frost’s ‘Mowing’: ‘The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows’ (Frost 1995. Livatino.” Teachers College Record 117 (9): 1–38. Mel.  David Hansen’s moving tribute to Philip Jackson’s life and work – titled Philip W. Frank. Democracy and Education. Philip W. John.

John. John. Princeton. Stoner. 1986. 2001. Bryan. ed. . Plain Writer. Williams. 1981. Wolf.” Denver Quarterly 20 (3): 11–31. 2012. Susan. Woolley. NJ: Princeton University Press. Doris A. FRANK Santoro.” American Journal of Education 118 (1): 1–23. New York: New York Review Books. Dan. “An Interview with John Williams. Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. “Good Teaching in Difficult Times: Demoralization in the Pursuit of Good Work. 2016.” Ploughshares 7 (3/4): 9–22. Williams. “John Williams. English Renaissance Poetry. Wakefield.242   J. 2003. New York: New York Review Books.