One of my most formative television/film experiences was the television miniseries adaptation of Anne of Green Gables (Sullivan Entertainment, 1985), based on the book of the same name (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Set on Prince Edward Island in the first decade of the 1900s, Anne of Green Gables follows the adventures of Anne Shirley, a red-headed orphan adopted by an elderly sister and brother, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. While the broader life lessons to be learned from Anne of Green Gables are numerous and varied, an important lesson can be learned about the nature and philosophy of education from the difference between the two teachers of the one-room schoolhouse seen in Anne of Green Gables, Mr. Phillips and his successor, Miss Stacy.
Mr. Phillips is perhaps the epitome of an uninspired and unsympathetic teacher, teaching principally by rote, leaving some students to read their lessons passively while working exclusively with other students (most notoriously Prissy Andrews), using methods of punishment that are embarrassing and dehumanizing (such as making Anne stand at the blackboard and write “Anne Shirley has a very bad temper” 100 times after smashing her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head because Gilbert—Anne’s future husband—was teasing her and calling her “Carrots”). The following statements by Mr. Phillips, from the 1985 Sullivan Entertainment version of Anne of Green Gables, illustrate the lackluster approach to education typified by Mr. Phillips:
Please take your seat and read your lesson. I must work with my Queens student now. Alright class. Take out your notebooks. Memorize the dictation from yesterday.
Stand at the blackboard for the rest of the day. I will not tolerate this kind of indignant temperament in my class. “Ann Shirley has a very bad temper.” And she will learn to control it. You will write this one hundred times before leaving today.
Since you seem to be so fond of the boys’ company, we shall indulge your taste for it this afternoon. Take a seat over there, next to Gilbert Blythe. Did you hear what I said? … Obey me at once.
Miss Stacy is an interesting contrast to Mr. Phillips. On the one hand, Miss Stacy is just as strict as Mr. Phillips, particularly about punctuality and attention in class. But Miss Stacy tempers her strictness with warmth, compassion, understanding, and a high-minded view of education as serving primarily to establish strong ideals, above and beyond the particular lessons of the day. This is seen most clearly in Miss Stacy’s introduction to her students on the first day of class:
Good morning, class. Please, sit down. I am your new teacher, Miss Stacy. I want to begin by saying that I think it’s most unfair that the teacher should always have to ask all the questions, and I’m hoping that you’ll be enthusiastic enough about my classes that you’ll pepper me with questions. I shall do my very best to live up to the standards you were used to under Mr. Phillips. But, I caution you, I am unfailingly strict about punctuality and attention in class. However, I do believe that the best teacher serves as a guide, and I promise you that if you are willing to put yourself under my guidance, I shall do my utmost to help you form strong ideals; ideals which will be the foundation of your future lives. I want to look back on this class as being the brightest, the most imaginative, the most committed students on Prince Edward Island.
While the best students, such as Anne and Gilbert, were rising to the occasion under the tutelage of Mr. Phillips, they and other students in the class began to truly thrive under the gentler and more inspirational guidance and mentoring of Miss Stacy. This was due not only to the higher-mindedness and compassionateness of Miss Stacy, but also to Miss Stacy’s more active and hands-on pedagogical approach. The opening credits following the intermission of the 1985 Sullivan Entertainment version depict Miss Stacy taking her class on a science/nature walk, cataloging various flora and fauna in notebooks, observing eggs in a bird nest, and other hands-on outdoor educational activities. Rather than being constrained to the lifeless monotony of rote memorization of facts, students in Miss Stacy’s class get first-hand exposure to the real-world application of the concepts and objects of study, with the conviction that education is always about something, imbued with the meaningfulness and beauty of the world around them.
It is important to note that Miss Stacy doesn’t sacrifice academic rigor or her educational ideals as an instructor in the course of taking a more compassionate approach to teaching and discipline than Mr. Phillips. When Anne is caught reading a novel during geometry class, Miss Stacy is none too pleased with Anne:
MISS STACY: Please remain after class, Anne. I’d like to have a few words with you. [after class] I’m disappointed in you, Anne. Reading novels during geometry class is a misuse of your time. Moreover, it’s a deception.
ANNE: Can you ever forgive me, Miss Stacy? I promise I won’t even look at Ben Hur for a whole week as penance, not even to see how the chariot race turned out.
MISS STACY: I’m returning this to you because I Know I can trust you not to let it happen again. Oh, Anne, you know I want to encourage you to read literature, to develop your imagination; it’s a precious gift. But not during geometry class.
ANNE: Miss Stacy, I knew you were sympathetic to the human plight the minute we met.
MISS STACY: I understand you have a plight of your own.
ANNE: Diana Barry. We were bosom friends, but alas, her mother’s refused to even let her speak with me.
MISS STACY: Yes, I had a visit from Mrs. Barry.
ANNE: I can’t understand the social persecution of being an orphan. It is a terrible injustice to be falsely accused.
MISS STACY: Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth, Anne. You see, it frightens them, so they put up walls to protect themselves from it. What we must bear in mind is that all these trials and tribulations that pop up in our lives, well, they serve a very useful purpose: they build character, as long as we can hold on to the lessons we’ve learn from our mistakes. Remember, we can always start everything fresh tomorrow.
ANNE: That is a tremendous consolation, Miss Stacy.
MISS STACY: Hmm?
ANNE: Tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it.
MISS STACY: Well, there’s no mistakes in it yet. As far as the truth goes, don’t lose heart. Diana will always be your friend. No matter what anyone accuses you of, in the end the truth will set you free.
ANNE: The truth will set you free.
Equally important as Miss Stacy’s more compassionate approach to discipline is her emphasis on building character and ideals. I would go so far as to say that this is the true purpose of education, above and beyond this or that particular learning objective. The best teachers help their students build character, build healthy and productive habits (both in life and in education), and build strong ideals—to borrow a phrase from Miss Stacy—of which our flawed human nature necessarily results in us falling short on any given day, but toward which we must strive nonetheless if we are to live up to our human potential.
Ironically, in the sequel miniseries, Anne of Avonlea (sometimes known as Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel) Anne Shirley—herself now a teacher at Kingsport Ladies College, an affluent private girls’ school—must resort to some of the disciplinary techniques she so despises in order to gain control of her class. Anne administers the strap, for example, to a notoriously difficult student, Jen Pringle, and has her copy the entire “A” section of the dictionary. It is left to the viewer to decide whether Anne gains a newfound appreciation and understanding of the methods of her less-than-favorite former teacher Mr. Phillips after taking a play from his disciplinary playbook (which seems to affect Anne more deeply and more sorrowfully for having resorted to such techniques than it ever affected Mr. Phillips).
While an appeal to fictional characters might be considered a logical fallacy by some, the contrast between Mr. Phillips and Miss Stacy is an interesting fictional case study on our educational ideals. The repulsion we feel at the harshness and lack of sympathy from Mr. Phillips contrasts with the intellectual and emotional heights we experience when we ourselves are inspired—along with Anne—by the guidance and mentoring and compassion of Miss Stacy. These intellectual and emotional heights are not merely feel-good experiences, but instead they speak to our highest ideals of human nature and the role and purpose of education in the broadest sense.