Between the Lines: Professors left lasting impression
Ten days from now, several hundred Middlebury College students will take those fateful steps across the commencement stage to receive their degrees and then bound off into the world.
For many of us Middlebury College alums who have taken that same walk, this is a nostalgic time of year. We can’t help but recall our own college experience, and the poignant days as they came to a close.
At an institution where the list price of a degree exceeds $200,000, personal relationships with professors are one of the college’s strongest selling points. That was true when the cost of a Middlebury education was $24,000 (the figure when I graduated in 1974), and it’s even more true now.
As English Prof. Jay Parini wrote, the end of the school year brings “the many losses that inevitably attend that event, marked so vividly by the graduation ceremony, when half a dozen kids I had really come to like, even love, wave to me from the platform as they proceed into their adult life, diplomas in hand.” He knows he will never see some of those students again.
But, he added, “Each year a number of them will return on alumni weekends and look me up … I’m aware that one or two from each class will remain friends forever.
Professors make indelible marks. And this time of year has me thinking of the marks that three professors made on my contemporaries and me.
One of my professor “friends forever” is David Rosenberg. As a young Middlebury teacher he introduced us to a new way of learning, setting aside the lectern and having us do role-playing. Playing out our roles as the representatives of different nations, I got a feel for the diversity of international relations that no lecture could convey.
When I stayed in Middlebury after graduation and helped launch a newspaper, David and his wife, Jean, took an encouragingly proprietary interest in the shaky beginnings of my journalism career. After I moved away and often returned on vacation, having dinner at their lovely old brick house was always a highlight of the trip. Over 35 years of conversation, David’s perspective on international relations has reminded me that it’s a big world out there, and it doesn’t necessarily revolve around America.
The classes taught by David, Russ Leng and others brought a badly needed relevance to the college’s political science curriculum in the early 1970s. By contrast, professors Murray Dry and Paul Nelson, both products of the University of Chicago, staked out more philosophical territory.
“Poli sci with Murray P. Dry” — PS 101 and 102 — was in those days a rite of passage for a huge percentage of my class.
Given the tumult of that time, these apparently archaic introductory classes were a form of exquisite torture. The nation was engaged in a massive, immoral land war in Asia; every male in our class was looking at the prospect of being drafted after college; and the Nixon Administration was increasingly understood to be conducting its nefarious business in secret and illegal fashion.
So in the face of these events, how did the college have us embark upon our study of politics? With a compulsory semester of material devoted to the 2,300-year-old works of Aristotle and Plato.
We chafed against this seeming irrelevance. But Murray Dry and discussion-section leaders like Paul Nelson were committed to showing us the bigger and deeper picture. And damned if they didn’t succeed.
We came away from the semester knowing little more about what was going on in the contemporary world. But we had been given an analytical and philosophical framework with which to understand it, which lasts to this day.
It must be said that it wasn’t always an easy process to endure. The reading load was intimidating. Murray called on anyone at any time in class, so you had to be sure you had done the reading, and I mean all of the reading.
My brother, who was two years behind me at the college and is today the most successful lawyer I know, was one of many who took one course from Murray — and spent the rest of his college career avoiding him in fear.
Murray’s second-semester course was also largely consumed by the centuries-old writing of political philosophers, among them Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. We finally arrived in the 20th century during the last two weeks of the semester, concluding with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful justification for civil disobedience, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”
At the end of my final-exam essay on King’s letter, I uncharacteristically added a personal note to Mr. Dry.
Two weeks before the exam, I told him, I had journeyed to Washington, D.C., to take part in a massive peace demonstration and participate in an act of civil disobedience challenging the Vietnam War. (I’d been arrested in front of the White House with a couple hundred others, in an arrest that was later challenged in court and found to be illegal.)
Machiavelli and Hobbes and all the other we’d been studying didn’t really speak to the passion and action of our own times, I assured Mr. Dry in my arrogantly freshman fashion. Nor did they speak to the moral questions that the war raised, I said. Even Dr. King hadn’t touched on the full depth of it.
I’m sure I would cringe with embarrassment if I read that note today. Yet Murray took what I had to say quite seriously. I don’t recall the details of his thoughtful reply. But I do remember that he took the time to write one.
In the rest of my student years I was most drawn to Paul Nelson’s classes. I couldn’t get enough of them. He even made Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy seem compelling.
His passionate love for the material was contagious. I’ve never encountered someone so warmly devoted to his studies and so good at conveying a sense that some seemingly random section — this paragraph, this little parenthetical remark from John Locke, J.S. Mill or Leo Strauss — was worth our attention.
Though Paul will continue in his longtime role as director of the college’s prestigious Performing Arts Series, the coming fall semester will mark the end of his teaching career. He’ll go out in a blaze of glory, teaching one course titled “Politics and the Study of Politics” and a seminar on — what else? — the works of Aristotle, Plato and his beloved 20th century political philosophers, Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott.
Forty years later, I’ve pretty
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