Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow tells the remarkable tale of how a young boy destined for the clergy became a soldier in WWII. After killing numerous German soldiers, he is overcome by these multiple mortal sins, and feels so unworthy of God’s love, that he loses faith. And yet, slowly but surely, he rebuilt his faith using what some consider the greatest barrier to faith itself – the intellect.
Although Edwin Barlow had lost his way, he had not lost the desire to have faith. And from that desire, he transcended circumstance to become a legendary force in education.
Edwin Barlow knew his search would have to begin with something tangible. He needed a new foundation upon which his faith could be built. He turned to his intellect. He turned to reason. His pastor had taught him that one cannot conceive of God unless one actually understands that God exists.
He enrolled in the College of the Holy Cross. There, along with many other veterans, he absorbed four rigorous years of Scholastic Philosophy. He found refuge in the works of Aristotle, and discovered Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. This text was the tangible blueprint that he sought, and became a well-regarded expert in the text.
Edwin realized that for one to become close to God, he needed to find a way to convert potential into deed on a regular basis — to continually improve and transcend himself. The way to do that was through education. The philosophers and theologians taught that as our circles of experience widen, we try to fill the universe, to approach the infinite.
It was here he found his redemption. It came in a rush of exhiliration. Of course God forgave him. Of course God had a plan for him. It just wasn’t the priesthood. Instead, it was teaching himself and others to find the Divine in other ways, by realizing the full potential of ourselves.
And so Edwin Barlow became a teacher. And he decided he would not become just any teacher, but one unheard of — not experienced by any modern student. He would encourage — even demand — students to achieve the highest possible goals, to use 110% of their minds, and to achieve perfection. The obvious subject of expertise, where there was no moral ambiguity, where there would be only one single correct answer to any problem, was mathematics!
This would not be enough for Edwin, though. He wanted to live a life according to Aquinas’ cardinal virtues which would bring him that much closer to God. He lived a life of faith, naturally, but also of hope and charity — even giving away so much money that he was frequently audited (in vain) by the IRS.
Beyond faith, there were Prudence (judging between virtuous and vicious actions), Temperence (the practice of moderation), Justice (the proper allocation of things), and Fortitude (courage). Certainly these virtues played a daily role for Edwin Barlow. He was under enormous temptation to give in to alcohol, a habit he’d picked up during the war, yet was able to to keep it at bay so as not to affect his teaching.
As for Fortitude, he instilled that every day in his students. His love for them was endless. It was tough love, to be sure. His classes became legendary not merely for the rigorousness of instruction, but for his insistence on perfection. Should a student show intellectual laziness; disrespect the subject, intellect, or their instructor; let their attention wander; leave behind a piece of paper; drop something on the floor; or just exhibit plain old bad manners, they would find themselves on the receiving end of a world-class tongue-lashing. It might occasionally be lightened with some wry humor, but for the most part, everyone feared his verbal disembowelment.
Edwin Barlow was not being cruel in these moments. He was delivering the lesson of Fortitude. None of the behavior he despised would be acceptable in the real world. What if a student’s own purpose in life were put in jeopardy by their behavior? It would rob them of the ability to realize themselves. In addition, the fear the students had of their imperious instructor would be nothing compared to what they would face in the real world, or worse, should they ever become soldiers on the battlefield.
Based on the hardships of his early life growing up in the Depression, he knew the kids would be facing a dangerous world and they needed to be prepared. Unlike kids who grew up in the inner-city, his students were growing up in the soft underbelly of upper-class, white America. They needed toughening up, because they would likely be the ones to lead the nation into the next millennium.
And so Edwin Barlow transcended his wartime struggle and became a man of unending generosity, with a desire to help kids use their minds so that they might also see God’s essence.
As 60 Minutes legend Steve Kroft has said, “the biggest problem with American education is we don’t have nearly enough Mister Barlows”.
There never was any instructor like him, and there may never be again. Yet he continues to teach today, from beyond the grave, as his mysterious life provides lessons to us all.
Autographed copies of Teacher of the Year are available at http://www.misterbarlow.com.