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David Allen White says farewell to 38 years of teaching, and more than a quarter century at the U.S. Naval Academy

Tuesday, December 2, 2008
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HH: I am joined by David Allen White, professor extraordinaire at the United States Naval Academy where he is wrapping how many years, David Allen White, have you been teaching there?

DAW: 28 years at the Academy, 38 years overall, Hugh.

HH: And have you laid down the book? Have you put away the podium? Are you retired?

DAW: A week from today is my last class. I give a final exam, and then I officially retire on January 2nd.

HH: Now what will the last David Allen White lecture be about?

DAW: This is very interesting. It’s not Shakespeare. It is T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets. And it’s interesting, some years ago I made the comment, somebody said what are the great poems? I said well, dramatic poems, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I just did at the Academy. And after that, the next truly grand, unbelievable poem is Eliot’s Four Quartets, and that’s what I’ll wrap up with.

HH: What is Four Quartets about?

DAW: He wrote it at the beginning and during World War II. And it’s T.S. Eliot’s last thoughts about time, eternity, life. They are the greatest poems in English of our lifetime, and not many people know them, Hugh.

HH: Are you doing this because they were simply what had to be done? Or are you doing this as a conscious farewell to classroom teaching?

DAW: Yes and yes. I’m teaching the poetry course this semester, and happy to do it, and ended up with Mr. Eliot, and thought well, The Four Quartets would be a way to end. I’ll give you a couple of lines. “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

HH: Hmm.

DAW: It’s beautiful stuff. It’s beautiful stuff. We should talk about it someday.

HH: Now on behalf of all the teachers out there, I have to ask you after 38 years, what’s the emotional roller coaster like?

DAW: Oh, it’s been unbelievable. It’s been very bittersweet. I’m tired out, I’m ready to give it up, and I’m not having a huge party, retirement party. But tomorrow, I will grade my last set of plebe papers, and then I’m going to party. No more comma splices, no more sentence fragments, no more misspellings, and that’s going to…I have graded billions of freshman essays over the years.

HH: But now you are a performer.

DAW: Oh yeah.

HH: And the classroom is always a place to perform, and you’ll continue to perform when we go out, for example, sailing this summer with four…

DAW: Oh, absolutely.

HH: But what will you do? How will you find an outlet for that?

DAW: Well, what I’m going to do, I intend to keep lecturing. If people want to hear me speak, I’ll be happy to go around and do some speaking to supplement my meager retirement. And I’ll do some writing, and I’ll stay busy and active. But I won’t have to set the alarm clock anymore and get up early in the morning to go teach.

HH: Now I have to tell people about the project I’m contemplating with you, which is conversations about great works, beginning with four great novels. I’m thinking Tolstoy, Moby Dick because you’re such a Melville fan.

DAW: We’ve got to talk about it, Hugh.

HH: Don Quixote and then one great French novel. I don’t have a nominee for that yet.

DAW: Oh, well, there are a number of them, but happy to do it. Oh, I’d love to do it. No, here’s the thing. What I have discovered, and this is interesting, I’ve loved my students, it’s been an honor to teach where I’ve taught with these young naval officers. And I must tell you, Hugh, when I did the Tempest at the Academy, we closed a little over a week ago. I had dozens and dozens of former students who came back to wish me well. And I also heard from those in Baghdad, Afghanistan, around the world who couldn’t come back, who sent their regards. It was deeply moving. It was very moving. But right now, what I’d like to do, there are a lot of adults out there who want to continue education, and that’s what I’d like to focus on.

HH: Now you do have to tell us how the Tempest was received. Did the critics pan you? Or did they applaud you?

DAW: No, it was very well received. The nicest compliments came from many of the plebes, the freshmen who had to go see it. They were all studying the Tempest in their plebe lit classes. And they loved it. It’s the difference between reading it and seeing it on stage. But I have to tell you, maybe the best compliment I got came today from the British gentleman who was our designer, brilliant designer who worked in the British theatre for years, and liked the director and came in to design the show, it was a gorgeous show, who said to me today I’ve seen two great Shakespeare performances in my life. One was your Prospero in the Tempest, and the other was Alec Guinness in Macbeth.

HH: Well, that is high company.

DAW: That’s pretty high praise.

HH: Now give us a little Prospero to go out with, David Allen White.

DAW: Oh, it’s got to be the Epilogue, Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, I must be here confined by you, Or sent to Naples. Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands: Gentle breath of yours my sails Must fill, or else my project fails, Which was to please. Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, And my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.” Shakespeare ends with a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

HH: Are you the last person on the stage when the curtain comes down?

DAW: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, it’s a glorious moment. It’s his farewell to the stage, to London, to life. He retired back to Stratford, and that was it, and he knew he was going.

HH: How long did he have afterwards?

DAW: He lived another four years. He was the most prominent citizen, he bought property, he built himself a big house, and was highly honored. He collaborated for a couple of additional plays with a colleague, but he was done, and this is very clearly a farewell. And one of the great plays ever written. I was hired by the Naval Academy to teach Shakespeare and direct the Drama Club, and the last thing I did was Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage for the Drama Club. It was a great honor.

HH: And a great 38 years of teaching, and more than a quarter century of that at the Naval Academy. David Allen White, you will continue to have a classroom here. We look forward to it on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.

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