Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

November 30, 2001

The textbook that changed my life is older than I am. In one way or another, it has always been with me. It follows me around. More to the point, I suppose, I follow it. In fact I inherited it - it is, precisely, my inheritance - from my father, as one of the very few books he bought and kept all his life.

It was something like his professional Bible. It has come down to me in an overcoat-pocketsize hardback, once blue, cured to nicotine-yellow with splashes of Nescafe-brown, its pages darkened and friable, its binding threadbare and its spine frayed. In the trade it would be described, encouragingly, as "slightly foxed". In truth it is a good deal more grizzled than that; but it is whole. It is the 1934 third edition of Psychology and Education by C. R. McRae, published by the now-defunct company of Whitcombe and Tombs, a work long out of print but still in circulation at modest prices on the internet.

Psychology and Education is a textbook of psychology for educationists, or just plain educators. Its author was a lecturer in education at the Teachers' College in Sydney, and this edition gives every sign of being an Australian one. I think my father acquired it and first read it in the early 1950s, when he was in his early 30s and I was still only a gleam in the eye, while working at the University of New South Wales - an experiment in transplantation that did not take, at least for my mother. Some years later, when the gleam had become a rather grubby reality, he re-read it, his annotative eye caught by a passage on the delinquent child. "The boy was declared to be excessively disobedient and troublesome, amazingly dirty and destructive, incorrigibly shy of the truth. There was ushered in a doleful little specimen, eight years of age," and plainly marked with my name in the margin. "Appearances are notoriously deceptive, but he certainly did not appear to be a hardened criminal."

Fortunately for all, McRae's is a sprightly and sympathetic discourse. The psychology he purveys is much indebted to Alfred Adler in its emphasis on the possibilities of each person, "to become what we are able to become", and on the opportunities for cooperation with others ("contribution is the true meaning of life"). Such profound humanity is what gives the text its timelessness - as it seems to this conscript follower - in pedagogy and, in the fullest sense, in person. "We must regard as all-important," McRae says, "not the subjects in which we give instruction, but the subjects to whom we give instruction; not the stimulus, but the individual."

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

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