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In his humorous autobiographical work My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber describes several peculiar encounters with a military figure ironically named General Littlefield. Littlefield’s name is even more comic since he is the “commandant of the cadet corps” at Ohio State University and since one of his main responsibilities involves teaching the student cadets how to march properly. Thurber’s description of his encounters with General Littlefield implies a number of things about education, including the following:
- Because Thurber cannot perform his military duties well, General Littlefield considers him – or people like him – “the main trouble with this university.” Thurber seems to imply that the general’s priorities are misplaced: a university should not, ideally, be a place obsessed with military training (especially mere marching) but a place in which real intellectual learning takes place. Failure in genuine learning might be considered a genuine source of trouble at a university; failure in performing military drills seems minor in comparison.
- When Thurber eventually becomes the best performer at military drill (simply because he continually fails it, year after year, and thus has eventually much more experience at it than younger students), the general suddenly admires him, thus completely reversing his earlier opinion. Thurber is even promoted to corporal. He is therefore rewarded for an achievement which, in the context of a university supposedly dedicated to higher education, is not much of an achievement at all.
- When Thurber is summoned to the general’s office, presumably to be congratulated for his achievement, the general can’t seem to remember who Thurber is or why he was summoned. Thurber thus seems to imply that the general is not especially bright (or at least that his memory is not good). Perhaps Thurber is suggesting that the general is not especially well qualified to have an important position at an American university, although Thurber also seems to suggest that the general’s position is not really very important to begin with.
- When the general instructs Thurber to button up his coat, Thurber may be suggesting that the general is concerned only with superficial and trivial matters. Presumably, a university is not a place in which superficial or trivial matters should be of much concern to anyone.
- The general’s obsessive focus on swatting flies during Thurber’s visit may also imply that his concerns are essentially trivial.
- At the conclusion of this encounter, Thurber seems as confused as his readers about the reason the general summoned him:
He either didn’t know which cadet I was or else he forgot what he wanted to see me about. It may have been that he wished to apologize for having called me the main trouble of the university; or maybe he had decided to compliment me on my brilliant drilling of the day before and then at the last minute decided not to. I don’t know. I don’t think about it much anymore.
Thurber’s last sentence here implies, as his description of his whole encounter implies, that the whole idea of being drilled in marching at an institution of higher learning is a bit ridiculous and not really worth remembering.
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