Rene Arcilla

The education of the soul.
By Rene Arcilla. Associate Professor of Educational Philosophy. New York University.

For many high schoolers, turning seventeen means the onset of worrying about college, career, and self-reliant adulthood. A central part of the college application process is the securing of letters of recommendation from teachers. But suppose a student were to despair of the whole point of going to college? Could a teacher help her through this crisis by writing her a different sort of letters of recommendation?

Emilia and Doc are respectively such a student and such a teacher. In addition to a brief foreword and afterword, their correspondence constitutes the substance of Letters of Recommendation. Emilia is repelled by the spiritless career-chasing she sees around her and stymied by her knowledge of what she does not want. Doc encourages and guides her to discover what positively matters to her. In the process, they exchange letters that are not about claiming special skills but about understanding and affirming a mature soul’s longings. They enact for us, in a powerfully direct fashion, the difference between training a cog in the system and educating a mortal human being.

For young people who are reflecting on their educations, for teachers who are trying to make a difference to the humanity of their students, for scholars and researchers who are concerned about the dehumanizing effects of schools and colleges, I can recommend no more illuminating book. In an age obsessed with statistical measures of the bottom line and political platitudes, Maxine McClintock writes in a startlingly refreshing, fiercely unapologetic, humanist voice. She recalls for us the true educational drama of soul encountering soul. Her book belongs in the company of J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet for its moving portrait of the adolescent quest for wisdom and adult sympathy for that never-ending quest. That so little in the field of education has such literary sensitivity testifies to the importance of McClintock’s work and its unique accomplishment. It is essential reading.

To Purchase

Online booksellers carry LettersAmazon, Barnes & Noble, Tower Books — and your favorite bookstore can order it for you — Letters of Recommendation by Maxine McClintock is published in The Reflective Commons (New York: Collaboratory for Liberal Learning, 2013). ISBN 978-1-937828-004, $24.95.

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