Split Cherry Tree

by Jesse Stuart

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated October 13, 2023.

The Transformative Power of Education

The theme of education as a means of transformation and personal growth is present throughout "Split Cherry Tree." This theme is most notably portrayed through the character of the school principal, Professor Herbert. As a dedicated educator, Professor Herbert values education as a transformative force capable of broadening horizons and liberating young people of diverse backgrounds from the constraints of poverty and rural life. Professor Herbert's approach to teaching is a testament to this perspective and one that the author of this story clearly shares.

Moreover, even Dave's backcountry father understands the liberating power of education. He has a different idea of what education should involve. Still, he expresses his desire to "make a scholar out'n Dave," acknowledging that education can provide his son with greater opportunities than he had when growing up.

This theme underscores the story's message that education provides a pathway to a better life. It challenges the prevailing belief that rural life is the sole option for individuals like Dave and his family. Just as it is in real life, education in this story is a tool for personal and societal advancement, especially in rural areas where access to quality education and diverse career opportunities can be limited.

Traditional Values Versus Modernity

This story involves the clash between traditional rural values and the encroachment of modernity. Dave's father, a hardworking farmer, represents the traditional way of life deeply connected to the land and its values. On the other hand, Professor Herbert represents modernity and urban values, with his emphasis on education and the wider world. Both men want what is best for Dave and the other children at the school. However, at least initially, they have different mindsets about what that means.

This clash of values is exemplified when Professor Herbert insists on payment for the damaged cherry tree, challenging Dave's father's values of self-sufficiency and traditional book learning. This theme highlights the tension between preserving traditional ways of life and embracing change. This struggle resonates not only with the story's historical context but also with contemporary debates over rural development and cultural preservation in the face of modernization.

The clash and reconciliation between these two characters mirrors the broader societal tension of the time. The early twentieth century saw significant changes in rural America. Traditional rural values were challenged by the idea that education and exposure to the wider world were essential for personal and societal advancement.

Coming from two different backgrounds, Dave initially worries that the divide between modernity and tradition is too wide for his principal and father to bridge.

I could tell Pa that school had changed in the hills from the way it was when he was a boy, but he wouldn't understand. . . . [Professor Herbert] had never lived in the hills. He didn't know the way the hill boys had to work so that they could go to school.

Ultimately, these two men can understand each other when they approach the other's point of view with open minds.

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