Robert Frost and the American College

Article excerpt

Asked to name the dean of America's living poets, doubtless every college executive in the country would answer promptly, "Robert Frost." Doubtless, too, if pressed, these executives would continue that the poet spent several years in residence at the University of Michigan and that he is now associated with Amherst College. Yet many of these educational helmsmen would be unprepared for the suggestion that Frost could counsel them sagely in matters academic.(1) And with little wonder, because Frost has written no autobiographical or descriptive account of his background and experience as a teacher, he has never formally proclaimed his philosophy as an educator, and he has not enlarged upon his particular methods and results.

The aim of this paper, then, is concisely to state the chief facts, succinctly to set forth his fundamental principles, and briefly to indicate his procedures and their consequences both in the classroom and out of it. The emphasis will, of course, be upon points of special interest or pertinence in the field of higher education.

Of old New England stock, William Prescott Frost, Jr., the poet's father, taught for some time in Lewiston, Pennsylvania. There he met and married another teacher, Isabelle Moody, daughter of a Scotch sea captain. When he died in San Francisco in 1885 his wife returned with her two children (Robert, the elder, was ten) to her husband's former home in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and for years thereafter supported her family by teaching in neighboring towns or in her own private school. Thus Frost was born of teachers and grew up in an atmosphere which was surcharged with the problems of teaching.

In his early years in grammar school Frost was an extremely indifferent and careless student, preferring games and fun to studies. Then, abruptly, he decided to apply himself. In consequence he made up the deficiencies of a number of years in one year, entered Lawrence High School in 1889, took part in several activities, and in three years was graduated at the head of his class. There followed a few months at Dartmouth on a scholarship, and later he spent two years at Harvard; for leaving each school he had his private and sufficient reasons.

But he liked teaching: for his mother he finished out a difficult year in 1893; for all of one year and part of another he taught a little country school at Salem, New Hampshire; another year he taught English, Latin, and algebra in his mother's private school; one year, while he was in Harvard, he taught history in the evening high school at North Cambridge; and during the next he commuted regularly to Lawrence to meet an evening class and talk over the new books.

Beginning in 1905 he supplemented his income from farming near Derry, New Hampshire, by teaching parttime in Pinkerton Academy in the village; not long thereafter he assumed a full schedule (seven consecutive classes daily); and by 1911 he had so manifested his worth that he was offered the principalship. Instead, however, he accepted an offer to teach psychology in the New Hampshire State Normal School at Plymouth.

In the autumn of 1912 he went to England with his family, and there, as everyone knows, on the appearance of A Boy's Will, 1913, and, even more notably, on the publication of North of Boston, 1914, he was hailed as the distinguished artist he long had been. Shortly after his return to America in the spring of 1915 he was called to the Phi Beta Kappa exercises at Tufts, and in 1916 he read a poem at similar exercises at Harvard. Almost at once, too, institutions of higher learning began to honor themselves by conferring degrees on him.

Teaching, however, was still in his blood. In the autumn of 1916 he began the first of three years at Amherst, teaching classes in Shakespeare, American literature, modern poetry, and advanced composition. Then, after one year of freedom from all academic engagements and another of only informal teaching, he spent two years, 1921-23, as Fellow of Creative Arts at Michigan. …