Wider horizons


Where Pellegrini parted from his parents was in the matter of education. With the aid of good teachers, he went through high school, although his parents would have been just as pleased to see him quit after the elementary grades. And then he had the idea that he wanted to study law at a university. They did not understand. As Pelle has written, “the decision to go to America [was a] search for bread, and not of such fancy realities as freedom, opportunity, education. We found these, to be sure, as well as bread; but we first had to learn their meaning. For when we came to America we were creatures of a peasant world in which such attributes of human dignity were not values which the peasant could clearly conceive, or which he might some day aspire to possess. They existed only vaguely as the wonderful privileges in that other world, the world of the citizens, to which the peasant had never been admitted. Since his mind could not conceive of freedom, opportunity, education as realities in his world, he therefore had no real desire to possess them.”

Despite his parents’ skepticism, Pelle entered the University of Washington in 1922. The qualities that his peasant upbringing in Italy had given him, the characteristics that his remarkable parents had passed on to him, the example of courage they had set by coming to America and thriving through industriousness in the small town of McCleary, these were joined in Pelle by an education at an American land-grant university. At the university he became the man who has earned a measure of worldly distinction and the admiration of so many people like me.

His intention was to be a lawyer, and he invested two and a half years of post-graduate work toward that goal. But then he was offered a job as an instructor in English and debate coach at Whitman College. That experience convinced him that his career lay in teaching so he returned to the UW, and taught here from 1930 until his retirement in 1973 at the age of 70.

Pelle’s reputation was that of a teacher, not a scholar. “I had a passion for teaching,” he told me when we discussed this. “Some of my best friends are my former students.” He disdained scholarly writing. “I haven’t written a word on Shakespeare,” he said, though Shakespeare was his principal teaching subject. “In fact, I’ve only published a half a dozen articles in learned journals that nobody ever reads.”

Some of the younger teachers who arrived at the UW’s English Department long after Pelle and other teachers like him had been well established were appalled, I have been told, at the older men’s lack of scholarly interest and intention. Only recently have the younger professors become aware, now that teachers such as Pelle are gone, of how valuable the older men were.

Pelle’s attitude toward this is, characteristically, well thought out and firm. “The superior teacher should receive the distinction he deserves.” he wrote in an essay on education that was part of Immigrant’s Return. “Between a fine scholar and a fine teacher there should be no disparity in rewards. In terms of service to the university. to the student, to the state, to posterity, there is no valid reason for supposing that one is superior to the other. Until the university recognizes this as a fact and takes it into account in recruiting personnel and in formulating its promotion policy, it will fail not only to encourage great teaching but also to fulfill its obligation to the mass of students it invites to participate in the higher learning.”

Read on . . .