Sunday, January 7, 2024

Mr. Chips

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a book I read long ago, long before I decided to be a teacher. I do enjoy the 1939 film with Robert Donat in the title role better than later remakes, much better than the 1969 musical starring Peter O'Toole. The book was reviewed Friday:
...James Hilton hammered out Goodbye, Mr. Chips, his celebrated tale of a beloved teacher in a British boarding school, over four days in November 1933....

Although his ostensible subjects are the venerated languages of antiquity, Mr. Chips offers a much broader lesson to his young charges—namely, the value of what he calls “a sense of proportion.”

Chips underlines his point most vividly in a chapter set in World War I, when the area around Brookfield is being bombed by the Germans. Amid “the reverberating crashes of the guns and the shrill whine of anti-aircraft shells,” the crotchety instructor continues leading his pupils in the conjugation of ancient verbs. As Chips reminds his anxious listeners, they “cannot...judge the importance of the noise they make.”

Chips is obviously dismissing the violence outside his classroom window. But in a larger sense, he’s calling out extremists of all sorts who seek to win arguments by shouting the loudest. ....

Recounting his title character’s long career at Brookfield, the author avoids hagiography, giving us a Mr. Chips who’s all too human. In fact, Chips spends the first part of his career doling out rote instruction, touched by “the creeping dry rot of pedagogy which is the worst and ultimate pitfall of the profession.”

Chips seems destined for dreary mediocrity, but a late-life marriage to the vivacious Katherine Bridges nudges him to learn new things. In spite of Kathie’s early death—or perhaps because of it—Chips appears resolved to continue embracing fresh ideas. In doing so, he becomes a better instructor, affirming the book’s other great truth: The best teachers are also lifelong learners, showing their students by example that curiosity is a calling we’re meant to answer the rest of our days. ....

The book version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips turns 90 this year—older now than the doddering title character when he breathed his last while an imaginary roll call of his former students rang in his ears.

Hilton closes his novel by dismissing as “absurd” a headmaster’s assertion that the departed Chips will never be forgotten. Such immortality is unlikely, the narrator counters, “because all things are forgotten in the end.” ....

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