Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: Titans of the arts taught curiosity

REBECCA KNEALE GOULD

Like so many ancient trees in a sacred grove, the titans who have shaped my own history have fallen one by one in a mere matter of weeks: bell hooks, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, E.O. Wilson, Joan Didion, Sarah Weddington, Stephen Sondheim, Betty White and, just last Friday, Sidney Poitier. Only one of these wise ones did I have the opportunity to learn from in a close-up, personal way. That was Professor Wilson. I was lucky enough to take his “Evolutionary Biology” course in the fall of my freshman year of college. Advertised as a “core course” accessible to one-and-all, Wilson’s course turned out to be quite the reach for this math-phobic first-year with limited exposure to the field. The finer points of Mendelian genetics were completely lost on me and I struggled mightily simply to pass the class. Nevertheless, I remember it as one of my favorites.

I have always loved biology. Lewis Thomas’s “The Lives of the Cell” was a favorite of mine well before I landed in E.O. Wilson’s class, and it remains so to this day. But the subject matter is not the main reason that I loved the class. It was E. O. Wilson himself. Clearly, he was in love with biology. His curiosity and passion were on display in full force every Monday and Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Science Center B. While ants were his “thing,” E. O. Wilson’s fascination with the workings of the natural world knew no bounds. He exuberantly embodied biophilia long before he popularized the term. I remember walking away from his lecture on wombats wondering (briefly) if I should chuck everything and go to Australia to study marsupials. Professor Wilson’s curiosity was infectious (if I can still use that word in the positive sense).

Loving the class that you almost failed seems beyond comprehensible to most of my current students. Still, I reach for my “E.O. Wilson story” when the right moment in a class or a student conversation arises. I want my students to feel some sense of what it is like to become entranced with questions and topics that you barely understand or don’t quite yet have the tools to explore. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to be in the realm of the unknown and the untried, but how else do we learn? I want them to forget about grades and think about the Gould equivalent of wombats. Do they? Not often enough. But when it happens, E.O. Wilson stands tall amidst the cast of professors who enticed me into adventures of not knowing and have propelled me to pass the torch.

I love watching people do what they love to do. First, there is the thrill of simply watching people who are masterful at their work. The carpenter, the knitter, the sheep shearer, the lab technician, the poet, the composer — all those who see their crafts as an art form — these are the people I love to observe. But, beyond the mastery, is the raw enthusiasm, an abiding love of the work that not all artists choose to show or to share. Those who do leave an indelible impression. In many respects, E.O. Wilson was more of a researcher than a teacher — and a controversial one at that — but in sharing his hunger to understand the workings of the evolutionary process, he made his students hungry too.

The true task of the teacher “is to make people curious.” So said another titan whom we recently lost, the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. In terms of his stylistic range and virtuosity, there is no equal to Sondheim in the history of American musical theater. Could it be that the same man wrote both Company (an edgy, but still sentimental, paean to marriage) and Sweeney Todd (a Victorian horror story of a vengeful barber offing his clients and serving them up as meat pies)? The glorious, sentimental affirmation of daring to love that concludes Company (“Being Alive”) stands in stark opposition to the darkly hilarious celebration of anthropic meat pies (“Have a Little Priest”) which is about both “being dead” and “being dinner.” Somehow, these songs and shows emerged from the head, heart and hands of the same, endlessly innovative, artist.

But in the wake of Sondheim’s death, what was honored alongside his enormous talents were his many gifts as a teacher and a mentor. Again and again, Sondheim took time away from his own creative work to attend the productions of young composers, writers, directors and actors who were just breaking into their professions. After his death, the New York Times reported on the legions of young artists who had received a typed note from Sondheim encouraging them in their craft. In the lives of each recipient, these short notes made a transformative difference.

In the documentary “Six by Sondheim,” the most moving moments of many interviews are those when Sondheim reflects on mentors and mentoring, on teachers and teaching. “Teaching is the sacred profession,” Sondheim tells one of his interviewers, then adds the warning, “I’m going to cry.”

He wasn’t the only one. My colleagues and I have now endured five long semesters of Teaching Through Covid — on Zoom, under the trees, or in a classroom straining to interpret what few facial cues can be seen from behind a mask. Students, faculty and staff are beyond tired. What keeps us going? For me, it is the inspiration of the titans: the relentlessly curious ones who never stop wanting to understand ants and wombats, reluctant bachelors and barbers-gone-mad — and those who are not only curious, but who devote themselves to lighting the fire of curiosity in others. They have been my guides through the fog of uncertainty that defines these times. How lucky am I to have learned from them all.

Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives with her spouse in Monkton, where they tend — and are tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.

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