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Jackson the Failed Teacher

Discussion in 'Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson' started by vmicraig, Jun 26, 2018.

  1. vmicraig

    vmicraig Corporal

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    Upon his return to civilian life after the Mexican-American War, Jackson taught at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) from 1851 to the start of the American Civil War. He served as Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy (similar to modern day physics - it included astronomy, mechanics, acoustics, optics, and other sciences), which was a most difficult part of the mid-nineteenth century curriculum; many cadets found it almost impossible to master under the best of circumstances.

    He was generally acknowledged as an effective Instructor of Artillery Tactics, but anything more academic was not up Jackson's alley. Even with his record of tactical brilliance displayed later in the war, he was a failure as a teacher. Although highly intelligent, he could not convey the concepts to students. This inability, along with his humorless demeanor, soon branded Jackson as an unpopular faculty member, one who was the target of many student pranks. His reaction to students asking for assistance with classroom material or raising their hand in class to ask a question was met with the same result every time. Jackson simply stopped his current lesson, returned to the beginning of the lesson and repeated verbatim what he had just gone over with his students...with no additional explanation - simply rote memorization. Thus, classroom discussion became uncommon. With this, his students grew to dislike him very much, calling him "old Tom fool" and "old Jack." Another cadet nickname for Jackson was "old square box," mocking the exceptionally large size of Jackson's shoes.

    Jackson was such a bad teacher, that even Francis H. Smith, VMI Superintendent, later wrote of his teaching abilities: "As Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Major Jackson was not a success. He had not the qualifications needed for so important a chair. He was no teacher, and he lacked the tact required in getting along with his classes....His genius was in the Science and Art of War. He found a field for the display of this genius when the war opened in 1861."

    James Hyden, VMI class of 1857 wrote "Jackson's life, as a teacher, was singularly monotonous. He seldom opened his mouth except from absolute necessity. As Dick Taylor said "If silence is golden, Jackson was a bonanza." Hyden continued, "He had no turn for explanation, no talent for putting things in various points of view, so as to adapt them to the various mental conditions of his pupils. During the war he was often and highly commended for keeping his plans to himself; but I doubt if he could have explained those plans if he had done his best. If Davidson Penn, a portent of mischief, put on an uncommonly serious face and asked, apparently in good faith, "Major, can a cannon be so bent as to make it shoot around a corner?" the Professor of Artillery would show not the slightest sign of merriment or impatience, but would, after a moment of sober reflection, reply: "Mr. Penn, I reckon hardly." We could never decide whether his gravity on such an occasion was real or assumed, but, if it was assumed, it was certainly well acted."



     
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  3. amweiner

    amweiner 2nd Lieutenant Trivia Game Winner

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    Thanks for posting this, @vmicraig! I love anecdotes like this because legendary figures often get lost in the legends, while stories like this humanize them. Too easy to forget that historical figures are still very human beings.
     
  4. Viper21

    Viper21 First Sergeant

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    Jackson had several notable confrontations with cadets who were unhappy with him or who felt he had been unjust. The most famous of these took place in April 1852. It involved a cadet named James A. Walker. Walker, a highly ranked student, had challenged Jackson in trigonometry class over an answer to a problem that Walker had written on the blackboard, insisting that he was right and telling Jackson that he had not made himself clear. Jackson told the cadet that he was out of line, whereupon Walker protested angrily. When Jackson told him to be quiet, he refused, and Jackson put him under arrest. After a court-martial, in which 62 pages of testimony were recorded, Walker was found guilty on all charges and dismissed from the institute. His response was to challenge Jackson to a duel, and to write him a note saying that if he did not receive satisfaction he would kill Jackson on sight.

    What happened next is not quite clear, though many versions exist. The most commonly cited is that told by D. H. Hill, who later said that Jackson had asked him for advice on whether to seek a restraining order. Hill advised him not to, saying that if he did so, the cadets would regard him as a coward. But Jackson disregarded him and went straight to the magistrate. Hill saw this as the quintessential demonstration of Jackson’s personality: he would do his Christian duty to avoid a fight, and he would accept the social consequences.

    “I have thought that no incident in the life of Jackson was more truly sublime than this,” wrote Hill. “He was ambitious, covetous of distinction, desirous to rise in the world, sensitive to ridicule, tenacious of honor—yet, from a high sense of Christian duty, he sacrificed the good opinion of his associates.” In Hill’s version, Jackson at the same time let it be known that he would defend himself if attacked, and Walker never dared attack him. In any case, there was nothing in Jackson’s behavior that suggested cowardice to anyone. The cadet was expelled, and that was the end of it.

    We do know with great precision what happened to the expelled student. He entered the war with the 4th Virginia Regiment. He fought with distinction under Jackson as part of the Stonewall Brigade, rising steadily by Jackson’s promotions and making colonel in March 1862. In May 1863 he was promoted to brigadier general and became, by Jackson’s direct command on his deathbed (“I do not know a braver officer”), the Stonewall Brigade’s last commanding officer. Thirty-nine years after his expulsion from VMI, he acted as chief marshal at the unveiling of the Stonewall Jackson monument in Lexington. His nickname, given to him at the Battle of Gettysburg and which he kept for the rest of his life, was Stonewall Jim. He would later write of Jackson that “the cadets came to understand him and to appreciate his character for courage and justice, and to respect and love him for his kindly heart and noble soul.”

    Walker was not the only one who complained publicly about Jackson. Superintendent Smith, in fact, had fielded a steady stream of complaints about him that never resulted in any direct action. But in the spring of 1856 he finally faced a full-scale protest. Acting on the basis of a number of complaints, the Society of the Alumni appointed a VMI graduate to investigate and prepare a report for the school’s governing body, the Board of Visitors. In July, the alumni presented a resolution condemning the mismanagement of the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, and saying that Jackson lacked ”capacity adequate to the duties of the chair.”

    Though this might easily have been grounds for dismissal or reassignment, nothing of the sort happened. The board decided simply to table the resolution, and there the matter rested. When Jackson found out about this campaign against him a year later, he made a formal request that every charge be investigated. But the board— like General David Twiggs in Tampa, who fielded a similar request—would have nothing to do with it. The members tabled Jackson’s request as well.

    It is noteworthy, considering how difficult it must have been for him to engage year after year in a difficult job for which he had no aptitude, that he even stuck it out. (His one attempt to leave was a failure, too: he applied for a job teaching math at the University of Virginia in 1854, but did not get the job.) One explanation comes from his second wife, Anna, who said that Jackson had once been asked by a friend if it wasn’t presumptuous of him to take the teaching job at VMI when his eye illness made him incapable of doing it properly. “Not in the least,” Jackson said. “The appointment came unsought, and was therefore providential; and I knew that if Providence set me a task, he would give me the power to perform it. So I resolved to get well.” He persisted because he believed God wanted him to.


    Excerpted from Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne. Copyright © 2014 by Samuel C. Gwynne.
     
  5. Viper21

    Viper21 First Sergeant

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    Back in May, I sat through a lecture on Jackson. The professor spoke of an incident where another student believed he was right, & Jackson adamantly disagreed. It bothered Jackson so much when he figured out that the cadet was right, he couldn't take it, & went to the barracks at 2 or 3am, woke up the cadet, to inform him he was right.
     
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  6. Viper21

    Viper21 First Sergeant

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    Agreed..! Hard to believe they put their pants on one leg at a time too :wink:
     
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  7. BlueandGrayl

    BlueandGrayl Sergeant

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    As far as being a regular educator goes (well for his slaves at least) he wasn't that bad in teaching others the basics aspects of education.
     
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  8. Rebforever

    Rebforever Major

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    General Jackson’s greatness is what he taught the Yankees.
     
  9. CSA Today

    CSA Today Brev. Brig. Gen'l

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    :roflmao:
     
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  10. JOHN42768

    JOHN42768 Captain Trivia Game Winner

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    Jackson was a great warrior, but some of his actions in the end got him shot by his own side. Not so great
     
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  11. BlueandGrayl

    BlueandGrayl Sergeant

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    Jackson was more or less the Confederacy's best general besides Robert E. Lee and losing him brought bad effects on the Confederate campaign in the East.
     
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  12. diane

    diane Brev. Brig. Gen'l

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    Jackson can't be understood unless one understands his spiritual and religious convictions. He firmly believed wherever he was set down and whatever task he had to do, it was God's will and his duty to do his utmost to accomplish it.

    He was a lousy teacher, there's little doubt about that! He knew it himself but believed it was God's will that he do this job, which he must have found most vexing. Sometimes he would mark a student's answer as wrong only because it was not verbatim as the textbook said - it was the right answer, but not exactly as printed. As Walker found out, Jackson would not budge if he believed he was right. When Walker disputed with him face to face he got a rise out of Stonewall, who suddenly stood and declared, "I will fight you, sir! I will fight you!" Then, immediately, he sat down and said, "No. No, I will not fight you. It is not Christian." Walker then stormed out of the office. I would suggest Walker went through with the proper challenge verbally and in writing since he'd gotten himself into a matter of honor, but didn't go through with the 'shoot on sight' part of it. He knew very well Jackson was no coward. Walker was very young and had a little maturing to do on his part!

    Kind of have to feel sorry for Jackson, though. He just didn't get humor and because he didn't, he had some mean tricks played on him. One in particular was a keeper - the collapsing cannon. His artillerists in training would remove some pins holding up the carriage so that when it fired it would collapse. This happened three or four times in succession, much to the amusement of the students and the bemusement of their instructor. Jackson stared for a long time at the collapsed cannon and murmured, "I wonder if there is some defect in the manufacture of those pins." Never crossed his mind he might be being pranked!
     
  13. Viper21

    Viper21 First Sergeant

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    Seems Jackson functioned on "Spock Logic".

    From what I've read, he was...... socially awkward.
     
  14. diane

    diane Brev. Brig. Gen'l

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    One thing that is both interesting and a little sad was just before he was shot at Chancellorsville, he was beginning to come out of that and even to find a little sense of humor in himself. He'd laid down in his tent for a quick nap, then sat bolt upright so suddenly he scared his servant - thought the boss was having a seizure! Jackson told him to go get a bottle of wine out of his saddlebag, then go around to all the officers - wine to be had at the general's tent. They came running! Jackson told them he had a bottle of wine but wanted to know how good their noses were - could they tell him where the wine had been made? Well, gentlemen all and well-educated winos, they swished and smacked and sniffed and sipped - Rhine Valley, south of France, no it's Rome. Jackson's eyes twinkled the whole time. Finally they decided it must have come from the Loire Valley in France. Jackson started laughing - which surprised them in itself! - and said, "No, gentlemen, it did not come from France or Germany or Majorca. It is from Virginia, right here in the Shenandoah Valley!" He then just about doubled up laughing - an unsophisticated hick from the hills who didn't even drink could tell a fine wine better than they could!
     
  15. Zella

    Zella First Sergeant Trivia Game Winner

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    This has been such a great thread! I always felt sorry for both Jackson and his students. Being in his classroom had to have been awful, but I also can't help feeling bad for him too. (More so after I taught for a couple of years myself.) He apparently was very diligent in preparing for his classes and took his responsibilities seriously, but the poor guy just had no natural aptitude for teaching.

    Never heard this before, but this is now officially my favorite Jackson story. :bounce:
     
  16. Northern Light

    Northern Light Major

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    I wonder what his Sunday School classes were like? Maybe he had a better grasp on the Bible than he did on physics.
     
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  17. Zella

    Zella First Sergeant Trivia Game Winner

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    I've also been curious about this but have never seen any descriptions of how he conducted them. I'm sure he would be quite knowledgeable on the subject, but I wonder if his teaching method was any different.
     
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  18. E_just_E

    E_just_E Moderator Moderator

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    What would that be? The curveball?

    Jackson's wins and high point were when he was commanding a couple brigades at the Shenandoah Valley as a rogue commander who had horrible relationships with his soldiers and generals.

    After he joined Lee's Army he was exposed. In Antietam he was saved by Hill's bell, in Chancellorsville not that much so.

    He is part of the Lost Cause Trinity, because he died before the Confederacy fell apart. Horrible human being and a hypocrite
     
  19. Northern Light

    Northern Light Major

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    I'm guess you're not a fan, E.
     
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  20. Viper21

    Viper21 First Sergeant

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    :O o:
     
  21. E_just_E

    E_just_E Moderator Moderator

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    Winter of '62. Winchester, VA. Horrible winter. He (and his staff) spent it in town, well fed by the locals, while he ordered his soldiers not to come into town (not even for Christmas,) but stay in camps around town, wet, starving and frozen, and used local militia to enforce that.

    Fact.
     
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