September 21st, 2017


Great teachers I have known

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published August 29, 2017

The Hon. Paul LePage, governor and ignoramus-in-chief of the Great State of Maine

It's not easy to choose the most ignorant comment of the month during these dog days of August, but surely a remark by the Hon. Paul LePage, governor and ignoramus-in-chief of the Great State of Maine, must rank up or rather down there. He dismissed teachers as "a dime a dozen" employees as he opened a new vocational school in his state. If only that were so, but it isn't -- especially in his state, which is facing a shortage of teachers, not a surplus. Quality never comes cheap, especially in education, and good teachers are as scarce as ever in this country.

Gentle Readers can surely consult their cherished memories and come up with teachers who made their education a pleasure, challenge, source of light and more.

The best teacher I ever encountered, or rather the one who encountered an unpromising me, had to be Dr. Mary Warters at Centenary College of Louisiana in my hometown of Shreveport -- a nice walk from our old house on Forrest Avenue across the street from Byrd High School, aka the City of Byrd.

Dr. Warters was largely responsible for filling the seats of every entering class of Louisiana State University's medical school because of her diligence and devotion. As for me, I opted to head across the (state) border to Missouri, as in University of, where the history faculty seemed to consist entirely of professors who were either on their way to teach at places like Stanford or the Sorbonne or on their way back from Oxford and Cambridge -- and by happy chance I'd caught them just when they were all on campus at the same time.

The remarkable thing about those teachers was not their scholarship, though theirs was indeed remarkable, but the immense care and patience -- the tenderness, almost -- that they took with us students. To cite just one example of many back in those good old days: There was the professor who taught a freshman survey course in American history, James L. Bugg, who hailed from Virginia, which you realized as soon as he pronounced his first vowel. I was fortunate enough to have had a reading course with him.

Being a Virginian, Dr. Bugg was a devotee of Jefferson, but he told me to read, among other works, Henry Adams' "History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson." That would be Henry Adams, the great-grandson of John Adams, grandson of John Quincy, son of Charles Francis Adams, and naturally enough a thoroughgoing critic of everything that Mr. Jefferson, his great-grandfather's nemesis, ever thought, said or did.

Henry Adams' beautifully crafted words -- his book remains not only history but literature -- reached across time and turned me into an Adams/Hamilton Federalist, which in due turn led to my becoming successively a Henry Clay Whig and then a Lincoln Republican, right through the successive conservative chain of ideas in American history to the present day.

At the time -- the 1950s -- conservatives were widely assumed to have no ideas at all. But only "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas," as literary critic Lionel Trilling put it. All too accurately. For back then the right was as devoid of ideas as the left is now.

My staunchly Jeffersonian teacher James L. Bugg questioned me closely about the Federalist positions I defended. He didn't just tolerate but encouraged opinions different from his own. He even took me on as a graduate assistant. I wonder if such a thing would be possible now, in our ideologically driven day.

Now I realize how blessed I was to have encountered such teachers. At the time I took it as a matter of course. Talk about spoiled; I thought all graduate schools were like that. I found out they weren't when I went on to an Ivy League school. Columbia University in the early 1960s was quite a step from the University of Missouri in the late 1950s. Quite a step down. At Columbia, ideology was already all. For even then, education was rapidly giving way to indoctrination. Fail to toe the party line and you'd pay the price. As I did, soon enough failing my oral exams not once but twice and thereupon being asked to leave the hallowed halls of that exalted institution. Which may have been the best thing that ever happened to me, but I was devastated at the time. Little did I know.

However devoted my teachers at Missouri were to their own carefully considered and deeply held ideas, their devotion to their students was greater. I still see their faces plainly, and hear their voices clearly. And recall their exquisite tact even though half a century has gone by. I pictured my old teachers again when I came across an article not long ago by a professor named Alan Kors. Its title: "On the Sadness of Higher Education."

Why sad? Because the professor was remembering the breadth, the openness and the tolerance in general shown by his own professors many years ago and contrasting it with the social agendas, political correctness and dumbing-down of the academy today. The kind of professor Alan Kors so fondly remembers from his days at Princeton, and I remember so gratefully from mine at Mizzou. That kind of college professor is now an endangered if not extinct species on American campuses.

An invitation to my college reunion arrived the other day. Which reunion? No need to go into detail. Let's just say I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri in the High Middle Ages. The form that the university's alumni association sent out had a space for Best Campus Memories, to which it had allotted a generous six lines. I couldn't have summed up my best campus memories if I'd had six pages or even six volumes.

Besides the educational times I spent at the Green Door, where the beer was cheap and the jukebox featured Fats Domino, my fondest memories center around the remarkable history faculty that somehow coalesced at Columbia, Mo., during my student years. I'd gone there to attend journalism school but stayed to study under one of those rare constellations of great teachers that their students always remember. As you, Gentle Reader, would recall bright meteors racing across the night sky.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.