Time in Teaching: Merlyn and Morgan as Anachronistic Educators, Part 1

A Guest Post Series by Joseph Torres, Ph.D.

Educators use their personal histories and past experiences to develop methods to teach their students to conquer new problems. This implies that an educator for whom the past and future are mingled or confused might teach in a different way from teachers with traditional relationships to time. It is no surprise, then, that T. H. White’s Merlyn and Mark Twain’s Hank Morgan accomplish impressive feats in their respective students. However, their methods, while not strictly possible for most educators, may illuminate some aspects of education that are otherwise difficult to notice.

T. H. White wrote The Once and Future King mostly during World War II, although it was not published in its complete form until 1958. In the novel, Merlyn lives backwards in time. In other words, he was born in the future from the perspective of White’s other characters, but ages into the past. Merlyn’s anachronistic living is significant, since he remembers the twentieth century
and can use those memories to educate people in the distant past. C. M. Adderley suggests that Merlyn’s backwards living enables him “to be an idealist”, since he is not haunted by the “ancestral wrong” that plagues Arthur and his contemporaries (57). In turn, this enables Merlyn to form the
young Wart into an idealist in Merlyn’s own likeness.

Similarly, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court tells the tale of the anachronistic Hank Morgan. While Morgan does not live backwards as does Merlyn, Morgan’s memories are still of the ideals and events of the future. In Morgan’s case, these memories are from the American post-Reconstruction era of industrial capitalism, which matches the context in which Twain wrote the novel. Also like White’s Merlyn, Morgan uses his memories of the future to
educate the denizens of the past. In this guest post series, I will explore the effects of Merlyn and Morgan’s anachronism on their respective pedagogical techniques and the efficacy of those techniques.

Literature Review

In “The Best Thing for Being Sad”, Adderley claims that education is the organizing theme of White’s novel. He first explores a significant teacher-student relationship in each book of the novel and then speculates about the ideal educator and purpose of education based on the Merlyn/Wart relationship. In so doing, Adderley contributes a thematic reading of White’s magnum opus
centered on education. As he discusses Merlyn and Arthur’s relationship, Adderley directly addresses the issue of Merlyn’s reversed relationship with time. In this section of the paper, he anticipates a potential objection to his claim that Merlyn is the ideal teacher, when he acknowledges that Merlyn “knows that Arthur will fail” (57). He insightfully responds that Merlyn also knows by his future memories that Tom of Newbold Revell will transmit Arthur’s ideals to new generations so that the death of Arthur cannot be equated with the ultimate failure of Arthur. However, I will argue that Adderley
neglects a real failure on Merlyn’s part which may itself be due to Merlyn’s time-backwardness.

In “T. H. White, ‘The Once and Future King’, and the Scientific Method”, Jake La Jeunesse gives a complementary reading to Adderley’s. La Jeunesse argues that White’s novel is an anti war experiment that White himself is conducting through Merlyn who is his in-text avatar. La Jeunesse reads White’s experiment as an effort to study solutions to the problem of war. Therefore, while Adderley focuses on Merlyn’s actions themselves as actions of an educator, La Jeunesse’s research yields insights into Merlyn’s purposes in education. While Adderley’s article directly addresses the question of anachronistic pedagogy, La Jeunesse illuminates the question of the text’s pedagogical relationship with time. If Merlyn’s reversed timeline is for changing the future and promoting White’s pacifism as La Jeunesse argues, then it is an experiment from which White’s reader may learn about the nature and ethics of war and peace. The article also implies that White favors an experience-based approach to education which itself has implications for teachers. In this paper, I will use Adderley and La Jeunesse’s insights to analyze both White and Twain’s respective novels.

Finally, Jeff A. Harootunian and Robert J. Quinn identify three tutor archetypes in “Identifying and Describing Tutor Archetypes”. In this study, Harootunian and Quinn performed observations of a state university’s mathematics tutors. Based on their observations, they posit the existence of three different philosophical approaches to tutoring which they personify in the archetypes of the Pragmatist, the Architect, and the Surveyor. They explain that the Architect
“strives for his tutees to gain an understanding of the problem first” (16) and that he views himself as “a project foreman who highly values input from […] the tutees” (17). We will see that this resembles the pedagogical approach of White’s Merlyn. In contrast to the Architect, Harootunian and Quinn’s Pragmatist “favors questions that have a direct answer” and provides “critical analysis for her tutees rather than allowing them to make their own analysis and connections” (16). We will explore this description in the context of Hank Morgan’s educational pursuits and techniques.

Joe Torres works at a small classical high school in the Catholic tradition in southern Michigan where he primarily teaches mathematics. He earned his PhD in Mathematics from Texas A&M University, his Graduate Diploma in Language and Literature from Signum University, and is now working on an MA in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He has been working in mathematics education in both high schools and colleges for 12 years. His interests include curriculum design, the integration of mathematics with the humanities, and having great conversations about math, philosophy, theology, literature, and education with his friends.

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