From Homer to Brave New World


Expression Class, Lenoir-Rhyne University Yearbook Photo, 1913. Image via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

From The American Scholar:

The 50-year-old Visionaide class record book is spread open among baskets of corn chips and beer bottles. Its ruled pages, bound with a mottled cover, document the grades of 46 high school students in 1959, the year I found my way in school. I am leaning over it alongside Jack McFarland, the man who taught me senior English. He and his wife, Joan, are here for his college reunion, and we are settled in for a meal at a Mexican restaurant on the west side of town. Mr. McFarland (it still feels a little odd to call him Jack) never throws anything away. His den is floor-to-ceiling with teetering stacks of papers and books—his wife has shown me pictures. Before coming to Los Angeles for the reunion, he unearthed the grade book from my senior year. He runs his finger down the left column: Ramirez, Ray, Rose. M. Rose.

Half a century ago, Mr. McFarland, frustrated with his studies, interrupted his graduate work at Columbia to teach in our small Catholic high school. He was in his mid-20s and had a presence unlike anything I or my classmates had experienced before. Jiggling a piece of chalk, he paced back and forth in his rumpled and coffee-stained clothes, turning to the board, again and again, to write key words and significant phrases about the span of Western intellectual history, from Homer to Brave New World. He brought an elite mid-century education to our unassuming high school.

Now, reading the column of names, Mr. McFarland says, “Oh, I remember him; hmmm, don’t remember him,” and I prod his memory about the students I can recall. Joan moves to our side of the table, next to me. He turns the pages, which show our grades on quizzes covering The Iliad, The Aeneid, and Dante, and essays on Homer, on Virgil—a paper every two or three weeks, returned to us covered with his detailed comments. Except for a few superachievers, we were in the deep end of the pool. Most of the guys who attended our school—Catholic schools were then segregated by gender—came from blue-collar families. Some of us, myself included, were poor, but the parents of others had worked their way into a comfortable version of 1950s middle-class life; a few came from families headed by professionals. Regardless, the grades in Mr. McFarland’s book suggest that the demands on even the brainiest students had never been so great. The first term of the first semester produced Cs and Ds galore.

“When the Light Goes On”, Mike Rose, The American Scholar