Book Review: “Talks to Teachers on Psychology” by William James

An esteemed and pragmatic colleague sent me a copy of William JamesTalks to Teachers on Psychology.  As you can see by the grainy picture on the right, this First Rate Publishers edition is strangely and inexplicably titled incorrectly as Talks to Teachers on Philosophy which isn’t  at all ‘first rate.’  But it is for two entirely different reasons that I recommend those wishing to read this book purchase another edition, those being (a) it lacks page numbers and (b) the type is extremely small.

Upon receiving the book I was perplexed.  Why would my associate want me to read this 100+ year-old psychology book?  Was there some nudge-nudge-wink message here?  This and other questions assailed me.  But the gift-giver being the sort of fellow who shoots straight both literally and figuratively, I quickly saw that this was simply a sincere gift of something he deemed valuable and important.  So I rolled up my sleeves and dug in. 

The volume is thin.  Expecting not much to chew on, I figured I’d read it across one or two nights and send a quick note of thank you.  But but O, happy surprise!  I reached into the sack for a puppy and found a python.  It is a thin book — true enough — but thin, not like boarding house soup, but thin like a fang.  It bites to bone and holds fast.

This little bugger took me two weeks to dissect.  As you can see by the photo above, I put ten tabs in the book to mark key points to return to later.  There’s no magic to that number, it just worked out that way.  Here they are in brief:

  1. Focus on gaining the student’s attention.  Make a lasting impression that is lifelong.  Above all, create a “devouring curiosity” in the student.
  2. Engage student’s senses with material objects, or at least with stories of action, rather than with abstract ideas.  Be excellent and imitable.  Pull students forward by inspiring students to emulate you.  Pushing doesn’t work.
  3. When students “back” (like a horse before a hurdle) or get stuck (either outwardly with attitude or inwardly with self-frustration) move on.   Let them forget the sticky spot.  Then make a circuitous approach later using a slightly different approach so that they don’t recognize the spot.  Often they’ll leap right over without incident.
  4. Help them build good habits.  Habits are far more powerful than most people believe.
  5. Make substitutions for negative ideas, perspectives and thoughts.  Phrase things as “dos” not “don’ts.” Accentuate the positive (see #2 above).
  6. Feelings and actions are behaviorally linked.  To some extent we are afraid because we flee and sad because we cry.  To modify behavior, act how you wish to feel.  “Action seems to follow feeling,” James says, “but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”  Brilliant.
  7. Relaxation reduces wasted energy and prevents moods, nervous breakdowns, melancholy and more.  Harmony, dignity, ease and calm are the key to excellence and happiness.  This speaks directly to revelations I’ve had recently through the Going Powhatan project.
  8. In a related vein, there is a lengthy quotation from a book called The Practice of the Presence of God, the Best Ruler of a Holy Life by Brother Lawrence that also relates to the idea of grace as both a physical and mental state.
  9. Another lengthy quote attributed to one Josiah Royce from his book The Religious Aspect of Philosophy.  Brilliant.
  10. A long section at virtually the end of the book about the tendency of people to polarize that was incredibly insightful and completely relevant to the political environment in the U.S. in the world today.  It could’ve been written this week.  This bit is scintillating as a star ruby.

I’m not ashamed to admit that James was a big hole in my knowledge of philosophy, and happy to report that it is far from plugged but at least somewhat patched.  I have added The Varieties of Religious Experience to my reading queue as well.

A truly estimable book.  Highly recommended, especially to educators, parents, pastors, managers and leaders of all stripes.

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