It’s fun to find little bits of history in a collection. Today’s find (from a book that will probably be going on the pull cart to be removed from the collection) is a lovely expression of gratitude from students to teacher.
The book in question is C.E.M. Joad’s Philosophy for Our Times (the 1944 reprint) . The inscription is actually dated (I cropped it out) March 23 of 1945. The book was donated to the then-Buena Vista College by Hirsch’s family on May 24, 1975. Ralph Stedman’s review of the book for Philosophy back in 1940 describes Joad’s work as a sort of “mild version” of a “philosophy for all time…a philosophia perennis,” and offers the following account of its content:
Having polished off science in a very unsympathetic manner on the grounds that it cannot ask why, that it omits mind and it omits value, Mr. Joad disposes of subjectivist theories of value and purports to prove their objectivity. He then re-refutes hedonism, draws from Plato and then from Aristotle a plan for the right conduct of life and concludes with a few criticisms of the totalitarian states and the maldistribution of wealth. In parting he compliments democracy and the values, adding a postscript apology for his failure to adopt Christian theism (Stedman, 1940, p. 332).
There’s something charming about the gift, a sort of gesture that one perhaps does not expect to see as much anymore; things have changed a great deal in some ways since the 1940s. This small group of young men was so affected by their experience with Dr. Hirsch that they chose this book, of all of the books they could have chosen, and gave it to him as an expression of their gratitude. It was a personal gift from them to him, and one imagines that it was well appreciated; the book remained in Dr. Hirsch’s possession until he died.
Why this book, though?
Any good answer to that question probably lies in knowing more about Dr. Hirsch himself. He was born in 1888 in Frankfurt am Main in Germany, and got his PhD in literature at the University of Munich. After leaving his position at the Woehler Realgymnasium in Frankfurt in the 1930s (Why? Because Nazis. If you haven’t guessed it yet, Dr. Hirsch was Jewish.) , he worked for a time at the Philanthropin school [link goes to German-language Wikipedia entry] for poor Jewish children until he was interned at Buchenwald around 1938-39, along with the rest of the faculty and a fair number of the school’s students. He didn’t end up staying at Buchenwald — his family got out of Germany and went to Britain in 1939, where he taught at King Edward’s School in Birmingham from 1943-1945. In 1946, Hirsch moved to the United States, where he took a post as Professor of Foreign Languages at Buena Vista College that he held until the end of his career. There is still an endowed scholarship at BVU in Dr. Hirsch’s name, “awarded annually to a deserving student(s)[sic].” (For more information, see Cumberland, W.H. 2002. Albert Hirsch: From Frankfurt to Storm Lake. Iowa Heritage Illustrated 83(4), 178-186).
One can imagine, after a quick look at the book and at Stedman’s review, something of what might have motivated the fellows of the Lower Modern Sixth German Set of 44-45 at King Edward’s School to give this book to their esteemed professor. This is a book that speaks, in some ways, to Dr. Hirsch’s experience, and probably reflects some of the content of discussions he would have had with his students. It’s easy to envision a lively sort of class, where learning German was also about learning a great many other things — the kind of class, in other words, that lives with its students long after they’ve moved on, not because of its assessable objectives or required content, but because of how it changed the way its participants learned and thought. The gift of such a book after such a class is not a farewell — it’s a move in a conversation that’s never really over.