Archive for September, 2017

Back to School with Ludwig Wittgenstein

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

It’s September, which means those of us in school or teaching are back at school. In honor of those living the academic life, this month we’re writing about teachers and those influenced by them.

Today we’re writing about a philosopher who went back to school in an unexpected way.

After completing his masterpiece the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein decided to give it all up at age 30 and become an elementary school teacher in rural Austria.

Exactly why Wittgenstein chose this drastic life change has mystified Wittgenstein scholars and biographers. He didn’t just leave his life behind and move out to a mountain village, he also divested himself of his massive family fortune so that he needed to rely on his meager teacher’s salary to live.

Wittgenstein appears to have entered into this new profession with a dose of idealism. He tried to help these children think. And he expected the same rigor and independent thinking from the boys and girls in the class. He had very high expectations of these children. But Wittgenstein was teaching in a small mountain village, where the parents didn’t share his ambitions for their children. The villagers never trusted him, nor did he care for them. As he wrote his friend Bertrand Russell: “I know that human beings on the average are not worth much anywhere, but here they are much more good-for-nothing and irresponsible than elsewhere.”

Wittgenstein was also a tough disciplinarian, if that term can be applied to a teacher who would routinely strike children for failing to grasp the complex ideas he was trying to teach them. There was hair and ear pulling. And he hit one child so severely on the head that he collapsed unconscious, leading to a police investigation and a trial. Wittgenstein was acquitted, and while this type of corporal punishment wasn’t considered out of the norm in those days, the so-called “Haidbauer Incident” ended Wittgenstein’s career as an elementary school teacher.

The experience of teaching was ultimately distasteful, and Wittgenstein was more bitter for it. Six years after he left for rural Austria, he returned to the world of philosophy.

But although Wittgenstein resigned in disgrace and with a real loathing for the townspeople whose children he taught (and struck on the head), the experience did ultimately bring him back to his work in philosophy. And in the second half of his career, Wittgenstein was very much concerned with issues of pedagogy.

So those of you considering teaching – sure, the parents and students might drive you away in the end (especially if you beat them), but you’ll learn lessons from the experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Back to School with Arthur Conan Doyle

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

It’s September, which means those of us who are students or teachers are back at school. So we’re writing this month about teachers and those influenced by them.

You may know that Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student before he became a writer. But did you know that he credited two of his professors as the inspiration for his greatest creation?

Young Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh under Doctor Joseph Bell, a surgeon famed for his remarkable diagnosis skills. These skills made Bell an early practitioner of forensic science. He was brought in as an expert by the police for several investigations, including the Jack the Ripper murders.

In addition to his professional work, Bell was an outstanding lecturer, and made a lasting impression on Doyle. “The student must be taught to observe,” Bell implored his not-so-observant students. The young Doyle assisted Bell for a while, playing Watson to the great medical detective.

Here’s what Doyle said about his professor:

[Bell] was extraordinarily quick at deductive work. He would look at the patient, he would hardly allow the patient to open his mouth, but he would make his diagnosis of the disease, and also very often of the patient’s nationality and occupation and other points, entirely by his power of observation. So naturally, I thought to myself, “well, if a scientific man like Bell was to come into the detective business, he wouldn’t do these things by chance, he’d get the thing by building it up scientifically.”

Holmes even looked like Bell, with his twinkling eyes, aquiline nose and forceful, expressive energy.

Doyle also acknowledged Henry Littlejohn as an inspiration for Holmes. As Edinburgh’s Surgeon of Police, Littlejohn was a pioneer in forensic science, and as Edinburgh’s first Medical Officer of Health, he made significant contributions to the field of public health. Like Bell, Littlejohn was involved in police investigations, appeared as an expert witness in murder trials and oversaw postmortems. He also he happened to be Doyle’s forensic medicine teacher in medical school.

So those of you who teach, watch out – you may end up inspiring a classic literary character!

Happy Birthday, Amy Beach!

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Today, as you likely know, is the 150th birthday of Amy Beach.

Amy Beach. You know, the best-known, most-performed and most-respected American composer of the earliest 20th century.

You don’t know? Well don’t blame yourself. Blame history, changing tastes, and good old fashioned sexism.

We posted about Amy Beach here on the PhLog last summer and since then we’ve become more surprised and dismayed about how quickly her fame has evaporated. Beach’s work is decidedly Victorian, and as a musical conservative, she doesn’t stand out as an innovator. But her work still ranks among the best of her era. A prodigy and exceptional pianist as well as composer, Beach rose to the top of the Second New England School of composers, accepted as “one of the boys” due to her remarkable talent. In a time when a woman having a career outside of the home was frowned upon, Beach toured Europe, performing to adoring crowds. Her “Gaelic” symphony (1894) was the first symphony written and published by an American woman, composed before she was 30. As an American composer, Beach made a point to integrate Native American and African American songs into her work. Besides her symphonic work, Beach was known for her songs, chamber music, and work for piano.

But time hasn’t been kind to Amy Beach. It was always going to be an uphill battle to get major orchestras to program music by a woman, and after Beach’s death, performances dropped off.

But Beach is slowly becoming more recognized. The New York Times covered her birthday and perhaps there may be some more performances sometime soon? Are any music programmers out there listening?

So take a moment today and listen to some Amy Beach. You can find several selections at