Autobiography, with Letters

By William Lyon Phelps | Go to book overview

24
WILLIAM GRAHAM SUMNER

THE two most brilliant teachers on the Yale Faculty were both in the department of Political Economy, William Graham Sumner and Arthur Twining Hadley, later President of the University. Sumner was then in his prime, in the middle forties; he was a tremendous personality. His classroom was a battlefield; he encouraged intellectual resistance from the students, and loved to fight out every disputed point. As his greatest pupil and literary executor, Professor A.G. Keller, used to say, 'It was an eager and nipping air that blew on those heights. If you brought any bit of research to Sumner, he would ask three questions: Is it true? How do you know it? What of it?'

Sumner frequently gave us statements from the newspapers and printed books, asking us to point out their fallacies. He hated sentimentality, vague idealism, and would tolerate no loose or untidy thinking. If the main purpose of the teacher is not to impart instruction, but to arouse and increase the power of thinking--and I believe it is--he was the best teacher we had. I elected every course he offered in my Senior year and in the two graduate years that followed. Later, when I became a member of the Faculty, I got to know him very well. We went together one night to see the Russian actress Madame Nazimova, in Ibsen Master Builder, which some humorist has called 'the piece that passeth understanding.' As we came out, he said, 'All I can make out of this play is, that

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