An Underrated Way of Making a Difference

For over thirty years of my academic life I was a writer of scholarly essays and a book on the 19th-century British poet and religious philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. To people who may have become acquainted with Coleridge as part of their high school or college English curriculum, he was the “Romantic” poet who wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” and who was addicted to laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol). Spending as much of my life as I did on such an apparently head-in-the-clouds character as Coleridge may well now seem a colossal waste of time. Whatever the effects of all that work on the thousands of students I taught over the years, surely it could not have made much of a difference in their lives, or so it may be thought, and could hardly have helped them get a job.

Nevertheless, aside from the handful of students who have located me after they graduated and thanked me for the considerable effect I had on them, I have recently received some unexpected evidence of the comparatively hidden influence of my Coleridge scholarship. In the immediate aftermath of the publication of my book (Coleridge’s Progress to Christianity, Bucknell University Press, 1995) there were the usual reviews, most fairly complimentary and one or two less so. There was also the opportunity my university gave me to attend Coleridge Conferences in a little out of the way town in the west country of the U.K near Bristol, where I had the good fortune to make friends with teachers and scholars as involved with Coleridge as I was.

But I have just heard from a British scholar who has referenced my book in one he himself has written, to be published later this year by Oxford University Press. He has asked me to review it and, after reading all the material he sent to help me understand his thesis and argument, I have decided to do just that. I will do it because I admire this forthcoming book and sympathize with its view of Coleridge, which emphasizes the practical value of his thinking for society: the importance, for example, of making ethical decisions, understanding history, and appreciating the achievements of culture.

So here is a vigorous young scholar, born many years after me and teaching in Japan, who was influenced by a book I wrote well over 25 years ago. I understand that most college students these days will be in so much debt when they graduate that they need good jobs. But are there not some longer lasting, even global benefits which, though not immediately obvious, come from a kind of education that tries to get beyond that?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a Young Man