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Books and Stories

TASIS Foundation Board member and distinguished educator, literary critic, and scholar Dr. Michael D. Aeschliman recently drove all the way from Tuscany to Sintra, Portugal, along with his wife—TASIS Switzerland Chairman of the Board Lynn Fleming Aeschliman—to visit the latest member of the TASIS family of schools, TASIS Portugal, and attend a Foundation Board meeting. Though the Aeschlimans could have attended the meeting virtually, they opted to make the 5000-km round trip to show their support for the thriving new school and learn more about its implementation of the outstanding Core Knowledge Curriculum Series™, a hallmark of TASIS elementary schools that recently received a powerful endorsement from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. 

Dr. Aeschliman also took the occasion to transport and donate five boxes of books—more than 50 volumes from his personal library, many of which were beautifully rebound in Florence before the trip—to the TASIS Portugal Library. These books will form a core for the high school section of the library as the school continues to grow. (TASIS Portugal currently serves grades Pre-Kindergarten through 8 but will be adding 9th grade next year and an additional high school grade each year after that.)

Dr. Aeschliman with TASIS Portugal Headmaster Keith Chicquen 

Dr. Aeschliman's Bookplate

Dr. Aeschliman has been giving books to the various TASIS libraries for many decades, including a donation of his substantial G.K. Chesterton collection—about 80 books by and about Chesterton, whom Dr. Aeschliman used to teach, has written about extensively, and is currently writing a book on—to TASIS England’s Rigg Library in 2014. Over the past 10 years or so he has made a habit of also gifting volumes—often accompanied by a bookplate in honor of his father, a writer, scholar, and clergyman—to other libraries he’s been associated with in the USA, the UK, Switzerland, and Italy.

After being born into a scholarly family and spending his entire adult life in academia, Dr. Aeschliman, who as a matter of principle refuses to throw away a good book, has amassed such a collection that it can sometimes be challenging to make sure no volumes go to waste. Upon the 2009 passing of his mother-in-law, TASIS Founder Mary Crist Fleming, he was confronted with the difficult task of moving her remaining possessions out of Casa Fleming, the iconic 16th-century building that once served as her family’s home and now houses the School’s Admissions and Communications departments.

“Many of these were books from her grandparents, parents, their school libraries, and her own,” he explained. “Some of these went to the TASIS library, but the large majority of them were Protestant Christian religious books that are unlikely to be read any longer, especially at the high school level. (Her grandparents and parents were very devout.) I gave as many as possible away (e.g., to St. Edward’s Church) and saved a few. Of the remaining books, very few were suitable for Portugal, but I thought one was.” 

In the thoughtful and historically rich essay below, Dr. Aeschliman explains his choice.

Books and Stories

An interesting case for the Library of TASIS Portugal, November 2021: An 1896 edition of Washington Irving’s book The Alhambra (1832).

By M.D. Aeschliman, Ph.D.

Human beings make human sense of life through various mental and emotional means, but perhaps the most important one is through narrative: conceiving, telling, and reading stories, actual and historical or imaginative and fictional. Each of us has an autobiography that develops throughout life, and each of us has to our loved ones and friends a biography: the story of who we are, our identity and personality, as seen by those who know us well. An individual, a family, a generation, a town, a region, an ethnic group, a nation, a school—each one has a history.

Books tell different kinds of stories, and of course some do not tell stories at all but give expository accounts of physical or empirical facts or processes; but even scientific or economic accounts have histories and shapes of literary form and articulation and must in any case employ language as well as statistics and equations to make themselves intelligible and significant to human readers and thinkers.

A good book requires a reflective and thoughtful reader. The German aphorist G.C. Lichtenberg (1765-1799) wrote that “A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out of it.”

Some books have unusually relevant stories not only within them but about them for a given group of people bound by a common interest. For the TASIS Portugal Library, faculty, and students one such book may be a copy of a once-famous book of American literature that is not very well known anymore, Washington Irving’s The Alhambra, a book of stories and legends about Spain first published in 1832. The edition being given to the TASIS Portugal Library was published in New York and London by the Macmillan Company in 1896 and has many illustrations by the distinguished American artist Joseph Pennell (1857-1926), who had been a student of the great American painter Thomas Eakins, and an introduction by his wife, the writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936), an important American feminist and author of an 1884 biography of the English feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein (1813).1 Most of the Pennells’ personal writings and papers, and Joseph’s art-works, are now in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Like Washington Irving, the Pennells were “Europhiles” who spent most of their lives in Europe, loved its historic cultures, and wrote about them and drew them.

Another relevant biographical and historical aspect of this book is that it was owned by the Rev. Dr. Horace H. Leavitt (1884-1966), whose signature is found in the front of the book—or by his clergyman-missionary father of the same name. Horace Leavitt, Jr., was the uncle of Mrs. Mary Crist Fleming, “MCF” (1910-2009), founder of the TASIS Schools and continuing inspiration for its educational Foundation and projects. A few facts about Rev. Dr. Leavitt will indicate the long, intense tradition of educational idealism, curiosity, travel, and energetic activity that characterized Mrs. Fleming’s family, her own children (especially Gai Fleming Case, a sometime Protestant-Christian missionary in the Far East, and Lynn Fleming Aeschliman, MCF’s successor in the TASIS organization), and long-time associates of hers such as Fernando L. Gonzalez of TASIS England, TASIS Dorado (Puerto Rico), and TASIS Portugal, and her son-in-law, Prof. Michael D. Aeschliman.2

Rev. Dr. Leavitt descended from the early Puritan-Protestant settlers of the Massachusetts colony (Hingham), and Leavitt family descendants across almost 400 years have been intensely involved in religious, educational, and philanthropic activity. A graduate of Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary (New York City), Horace Leavitt, Jr., Mrs. Fleming’s uncle, was probably born in Japan (where his sister, Mrs. Fleming’s mother, was born in Osaka in 1879) and served as a Presbyterian-Christian minister in Honolulu, Hawaii, and also in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, NY, from 1915 to 1931, at a time—like today—when Protestant and Catholic churches and schools, parochial and public, were trying to help assimilate millions of new immigrants to the USA (and help African-American newcomers fleeing the segregated American south).

Among other Leavitts contemporary with Horace Leavitt, Jr., was the extraordinary, once-unknown but now-recognized Harvard astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921), daughter of a Congregationalist-Christian minister. Although deaf, she made important astronomical discoveries that led to breakthroughs regarding stars and the age of the universe later developed by the astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953).3 Another was Horace Leavitt’s sister, Mrs. Fleming’s mother, Caroline Frances Leavitt Crist. She was born 1879 in Osaka, Japan, and graduated from Mt. Holyoke College (Massachusetts), founded by inspirational Protestant-Christian idealist Mary Lyon. Caroline Frances Leavitt Crist founded with her husband Haldy M. Crist in 1913 the Mary Lyon School near Philadelphia, whose remaining buildings are now part of Swarthmore College. Mary Leavitt Crist, later Mrs. M.C. Fleming, was born in 1910, their only child, and grew up in her parents’ school, studied in Europe and at Radcliffe College, Harvard University, majoring in French, and herself eventually not only helped run her parents’ school but ran summer programs of her own in Europe in the 1930s. She ultimately founded not only summer programs in the USA and Europe, and a school in the USA, but also The American School in Switzerland (TASIS) in 1956 and TASIS,The American School in England, in 1976.

“Despite plagues, pains, and problems, the commitment to extending and developing a truly ethical and global civilization is the keynote of the noble TASIS tradition of schooling and moral formation.”

The copy of Washington Irving’s classic book of stories about Spain in the possession of Rev. Dr. Horace Leavitt thus incidentally illuminates related stories of noble and energetic striving by people whose idealistic horizons were helping to open the world up to a universal ethic, decisively inspired and shaped by Christianity but also charitably open to people of any background, thousands of whom have been beneficiaries of this legacy as students, teachers, and parishioners. This particular book is thus a symbolic and illuminating link between TASIS Portugal, its founders’ past and inheritance, and the other TASIS schools in Switzerland, England, and Puerto Rico. Despite plagues, pains, and problems, the commitment to extending and developing a truly ethical and global civilization is the keynote of the noble TASIS tradition of schooling and moral formation.

And the very existence of one particular book can help us to understand these linkages and this vivid reality, and form a tangible, memorable connection to the newest TASIS school.

November 2021

See M.D. Aeschliman, “Mary Shelley among the Radicals,” National Review Online (NY), 16 April 2016.

For further information on Mrs. Fleming, Mr. Gonzalez, and the TASIS Schools, see two volumes: MCF: What a Life!, ed. Lynn Fleming Aeschliman (2nd edition, Lugano, Switzerland, 2000), and In Pursuit of Excellence: An Historical Perspective, ed. Reni Sheifele (Lugano, Switzerland, 2009).

See the Wikipedia entries on Ms. Leavitt and Professor Hubble.

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