No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

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Stalky and Company

When I got home from work this evening, I had a long to-do list.  This semester doesn’t include a lot of free time, and even though most days begin early and are very full of work, I’ve been needing to get more work done in the evening.  That was the plan for today as well, but I made the mistake of picking up a book.  Not just any book, but an old favorite: Stalky and Company by Kipling.  I expect I’m not the only person who finds it difficult to put a story down once I’ve started.  So I spent the entire evening reading this great Kipling story, getting no work done at all, but finishing the book.  It was lovely.

Why would this story about boys at school training to be soldiers be one of my favorite books?  When I first read it, which must have been 9th or 10th grade, I just thought it was hilarious.  The chapter about the dead cat was one of the funniest things I’d ever read.  I still think it’s funny, but it’s also touching in a way that I didn’t understand when I was young.  Perhaps I felt it, though I couldn’t talk about it.

The last time I read Stalky was after I had just re-read the Harry Potter books and found that they kept reminding me of this earlier school story.  Both Stalky and Harry are training for war, and both learn their most powerful lessons by rebelling against their teachers, rather than by submitting to them.  One way that the two stories differ is that Stalky is heavily autobiographical, without disguise.  There are three heroes – Beetle (who is based on Kipling himself as a young man) and his friends Stalky and M’Turk, both of whom are based on real people who wrote books in their turn, reflecting on their schooldays.  All three characters are very bright, though in different ways.  Stalky is good at math and at tactics; he generally takes the lead in the trio’s adventures, and at the end of the book we hear about his military career as continuing to follow this pattern.  M’Turk is the aesthetician who reads Ruskin for fun, who is responsible for decorating the boys’ study, and who is capable of talking to local landowners as a peer.  Beetle reads Browning and writes humorous poetry, edits the school newspaper and aspires to a career as a writer.  These are not students who rebel because they’re stupid.  They’re students who rebel because they’re smart.

So is that truthful?  Is rebellion a mark of intelligence?  Does rebellion lead to maturation and learning?  As a teacher, I don’t want to believe that my students learn their best lessons by rebelling against me, though when they do rebel I tend not to worry too much.  I know that rebellion is often not about me at all and that it can sometimes lead to knowledge.  But if that’s the only path to knowledge, then my job is sort of a joke.  My own experience of learning gives me examples of learning via submission as well as learning via rebellion.

There are only two teachers in Stalky who really teach: the Chaplain and the Head.  Those two teachers display wisdom, restraint, and trust in their students, and they’re rewarded by receiving trust in return.  The other teachers find their students mysterious and are focused on enforcing rules, on catching misbehavior; they are wonderful examples of what not to do and what not to be.  Yet Kipling prefaces the book with his poem in praise of teachers: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”  In the context of the book, it is a remarkably gentle poem, recognizing the worth of these men who have given their lives to teaching, even if that teaching didn’t always lead to the intended outcomes, recognizing that we learn more than we know from our teachers and can only evaluate how much we’ve been taught from the distance of years.

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