|A life in the classroom
Prof. G. Armour Craig
Armour Craig '37, the college's Samuel Williston Professor
of English, Emeritus, who served as acting president in 1983-84 following the
death of President Julian H. Gibbs '46, died January 29, after a long illness,
in Hanover, N.H. He was 87. He had moved to Hanover several years after retiring,
in 1985, from 45 years of teaching English at the college.
Generations of Amherst students took composition and literature courses taught
by Craig, and many in later years remembered him as their most influential college
professor. At a ceremony where Craig was one of six teachers honored at President
Jimmy Carter's White House in 1980, the poet Richard Wilbur '42 said
Craig had taught him "not only to be fiercely attentive to texts, but also
to watch what we said and wrote . . . . Armour Craig was forever asking the embarrassing
question, 'What do you mean?'"
For many years Craig was more closely associated with his faculty colleague, Robert
Frost, than any other member of the English Department, and he liked to recall
Frost's saying "that the faculty tries to 'frisk the students of
their principles.' What I learned from Frost and Amherst, and what I try
to perpetuate in my teaching," he said, "is to help students escape
from the chains of fantasy in which they are entangled when they arrive."
Craig's areas of specialty were 17th- and 19th-century English literature,
but his professional life was centered in the classroom. Remembering Craig's
way of asking unexpected questions, his colleague and former student, William
H. Pritchard '53, Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, also recalls his
"engaging way of saying, 'I never thought I'd get paid for reading
books and talking about them!'"
Craig was particularly influential in developing freshman English with the late
Theodore Baird and a sophomore introductory literature course with the late Reuben
A. Brower. Baird once said he could not have kept his famous English I going for
30 years without Craig's "powerful support." Craig was second only
to Baird in the number of assignments he drafted for the course. It was he who
had the idea that one way to get students to write was to ask them to explain
what they were doing in other classes, such as physics and calculus. Craig said
he told his students, "I am not going to ask you to talk about your sexual
or religious experiences; all I am asking you to talk about is your experience
as a student, as somebody who is trying to know."
In a retirement tribute to his former teacher, Alan Powers '66 recalled a
day when Craig looked out the classroom window and asked his students, "When
you look out there, can any of you see drumlins?"
Powers recalled that the students looked.
"Drumlins? Gremlins? Nobody saw them."
"Well," Craig said, "They are all over the valley, but you can't
see them if you don't know the word."
Drumlins are rounded hills caused by glacial drift. Powers remembered that the
lesson stuck: "Ignorance blinds us. We see only what we know. The world we
see depends entirely on the language we have for it."
Craig's former student Richard Poirier '49, a literary critic, has identified
Craig as the professor "from whose teaching I profited most as an undergraduate."
In his book Poetry and Pragmatism (1992), Poirier wrote that "deconstructive"
reading of literature "was the kind of thing Craig showed us how to do long
before the term 'deconstruction' was used to describe it."
Craig discussed his view of teaching in an essay, "Teaching Confidence,"
which appeared in this magazine 46 years ago. "The teacher pushes and hauls,"
he wrote, "he cajoles and demands, and once he thinks the student is looking
at what he wants him to see, he withdraws. And upon the teacher's withdrawal
comes the student's own move. It is his move because it can be that of no
one else. And when the student has made his move, when he has seen what he can
see, he may have done much or he may have done little. But what he has done, it
is not within the teacher's province or indeed within his capacity to tell
him. The student has had his experience, and whatever it is no one can decide
but the student himself."
Craig was born in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended the Hawken School. After
graduating from Amherst, where he belonged to Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and was
elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he received an M.A. from Harvard University in 1938
and a Ph.D. in 1947. When the college's Trustees named him in 1983 to serve
as acting president of the college following President Gibbs's sudden death
from a heart attack, it was seen as the capstone of Craig's long and distinguished
Amherst career. During his 15 months in office he oversaw the abolition of campus
fraternities, which he and others thought had become obsolescent, obstructionist
Craig is survived by a son, James Ball Craig of Albuquerque, N.M.; a daughter,
Sara Craig Ballantine of Hanover, N.H.; and four grandchildren. His wife of 57
years, Margaret (Ball) Craig, died in 1996.
The college scheduled a memorial service to be held just before Reunion Weekend
at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 31, in Johnson Chapel.
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