Joseph Epstein fell fast and far on my ladder of esteem when he published a scathing remembrance of Mortimer Adler in the Weekly Standard just days after Adler died. (No longer available online, it seems.)
But boy, can Epstein write! And when a writer this good writes something about how to write, it needs to be read widely. The piece is mostly a scathing—that word again!—review of Stanley Fish’s recent book about good writing, but in the setup Epstein says some very important things, ending with one of the finest descriptions I’ve read of the possibility and ultimate futility of one person teaching another to write:
First day of class I used to tell students that I could not teach them to be observant, to love language, to acquire a sense of drama, to be critical of their own work, or almost anything else of significance that comprises the dear little demanding art of putting proper words in their proper places. I didn’t bring it up, lest I discourage them completely, but I certainly could not help them to gain either character or an interesting point of view. All I could do, really, was point out their mistakes, and, as someone who had read much more than they, show them several possibilities about deploying words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, of which they might have been not have been aware. Hence the Zenish koan with which I began: writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned. [Emphasis added]
I’m impressed that a writer so good can be humble enough to recognize that the help he can give as a teacher is so limited. Perhaps it’s because writing, being so fundamental and having been studied for so long, is a subject where delusions about its teachability are easily debunked. Would that teachers of other subjects might be equally humble and honest in their promises.