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The Learning Channels

By Michael Dirda '70

February always felt bleakest in Oberlin--cold rain alternated with wet snow, the gray sky never changed for weeks, and we would shiver in our swampcoats and parkas while wading across the muddy quad toward the breakfast line at Dascomb. After wolfing down some cereal and coffee, most of us would then race--nearly always late--to an 8 o'clock art class in Hall auditorium, a practice room at the Conservatory, a lecture in Peters or King.

For a long time I thought about my friends when I remembered my days at Oberlin, some 30 years ago. But more recently I've started recalling my teachers. Most are retired now, some are dead, and I feel--perhaps a sign of my own middle agedness--a bittersweet solicitude when I picture them: gripping lecterns, scribbling formulas on blackboards, desperately questioning an honors seminar about the motivations for Emma Bovary's adultery. They tried so hard! I want to tell them, now that it is for the most part too late, how much I loved their courses; above all, I want to thank them for opening my mind to history, literature, art, philosophy, music and so much else.

But would they, I sometimes wonder, even remember me? An average college professor must teach two or three courses a semester, from 100 to 1,000 students a year. A few cutups and whiz kids doubtless stand out, but ultimately one 19-year-old must be much like another. More than most people, professors lead inherently tragic lives: They grow old while all around them swarm the eternally young. Though they plant and scatter seeds aplenty, nearly all their harvests remain unseen.

I was lucky enough to attend a college where captivating teachers were the norm. Sometimes you didn't even have to take a class to be inspired by them. The retired and distinguished Prof. Frederick B. Artz, author of standard works on medieval history and revolutionary Europe, lived in an ordinary-looking house behind the old Carnegie Library. I met him, very briefly, only once. But I have never forgotten his study. Dark bookshelves along the walls. Worn volumes -- hardcovers, sets -- standing in serried rows. The kind of antique globe Prince Henry the Navigator might have daydreamed over. Oriental rugs, of course, and Renaissance prints, even a green-globed library lamp in the center of a massive desk. Throughout, the holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

Many years afterward, I acquired a copy of Sandys's Short History of Classical Scholarship, with Artz's bookplate in it: Even now I occasionally pick up the book just to stare at the scribbled date -- "Cambridge, October, 1921" -- while trying to imagine the meeting of the young scholar with the eminent Sir John Edwin Sandys, whose calling card is pasted on the flyleaf. Alas, the several thousand other books and works of art live only in my memory, and I have long known that "Freddy" Artz's study will haunt me all my life: a vision of Pisgah.

As an undergraduate I took several courses in European history, and all of them were superb. Barry McGill, sandy-haired, tall and thin, would stride into the lecture hall and immediately begin talking. He invariably wore dark, crisply pressed, three-piece suits; favored dashing rep ties with quietly assertive stripes of burgundy; and always kept his dressy black wingtips polished and spotless. There was no nonsense about him. He lectured, we took notes. But such a mind! Such clarity in his exposition of anything from nominalism to the course of the Thirty Years War! As he spoke, in crisp, Gibbonian sentences, one felt awe at the precision of his intelligence. Imagine Sherlock Holmes as a history prof and you will have an inkling of McGill's charisma.

Alas, I now cringe to recollect the subject of my term paper for his class in early modern European thought: a psychoanalytic interpretation of the l9th-century anarchist Michael Bakunin ("The passion for destruction is a creative passion"). What can I say? It was 1968. In one self-destructive moment I managed to send a solid A average plummeting to a C-plus for the semester. I am grateful only that my research led me to several books by E.H. Carr, including his wonderful account of Alexander Herzen, Bakunin and friends, The Romantic Revolutionaries.

McGill died a year or so ago, and I never saw him again after I graduated. But there was obviously far more to the man than an Ohio college instructor with the dry manner of an Oxford grandee. I was told that, following the death of his wife, the long-retired McGill, restless and lonely, took a part-time job without pay shelving books in the college library. A former colleague asked him why, and he reportedly answered, "I began my academic life as a student working in the library, and I can think of no better way to end it." I hope this story isn't apocryphal.

In those days Oberlin -- living up to the old ideal of a liberal arts college--swarmed with professors who poured their energies into the classroom and never quite got around to writing that major work of scholarship. We students benefited, of course. Immensely.

There was my revered English teacher Andrew Bongiorno, still living today in his 98th year, who taught Dante and Metaphysical poetry. When he gently elucidated a line of Donne or Herbert, you felt the irresistible authority that always accompanies deep learning tempered by spiritual humility. There was Robert Neil, who specialized in German history and who sometimes wore suspenders and lederhosen to class. Funny, worldly, and very smart, Neil had studied with Crane Brinton at Harvard and, according to rumor, had there dispensed fabulous sums on wine for his college dining club. And then there was Mathis Szykowski, an expert on the l9th-century French novel. A Polish Jew in World War II France, he lost most of his family to the Holocaust, emigrated to America, married a black woman, spent five years on a socialist farm, and earned a B.A. in night school while working by day as a typesetter in New York City. He came to Oberlin on a short-term appointment with only an M.A., and, seven years later, well into middle age, was granted tenure. Without a Ph.D. The college didn't really have a choice: Anyone with a smidgen of French took his courses to see, as one student evaluation had it, "a genius in action." When Szykowski spoke about war or politics or art or ideology, you could look into his eyes -- unnervingly large and probing behind his thick glasses --and know that he wasn't just getting this stuff from books.

IN those now ancient days, courses focused on major texts and were serious about study. For one French class--with wry, quick-witted New Yorker Vinio Rossi--we read A la recherche du temps perdu in a semester; in another, all of Montaigne's essays. For a required religion course, I took "Old Testament Literature," and we started with Genesis and ended with Zechariah and Malachi. Since our teacher, Herbert Gordon May, was the Old Testament editor of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, it was a little like learning from God himself. In "Shakespeare" students gradually went through the complete works in a year. Tests were rigorous: Warren Taylor, who taught the later plays, would ask exam questions such as: "What happens when Hamlet visits his mother in her bedroom? Quote as much of the dialogue as you can in your answers." The fiery, Lear-like Taylor, who was then a year from retirement, maintained that interpretations of Shakespeare changed like fashions, but there was no substitute for simply knowing the plays inside out. (As indeed there isn't.) For a class on Yeats and Stevens -- under the direction of poet and professor David Young--we read not only all the verse of these two demanding poets but whole volumes of their prose: Yeats's A Vision, Stevens's The Necessary Angel, raftloads of miscellaneous essays, criticism and letters.

Despite an emphasis on good teaching, Oberlin also boasted some older scholars of international reputation besides Artz and May. Several be-longed to the art department. The courtly Wolfgang Stechow -- the great authority on Northern baroque art -- spent half the year at the Allen Art Museum and half the year at the National Gallery here in D.C. To the rigorous Stechow the only scholarship that really counted was archival research and work with primary materials. Modern art professor Ellen Johnson -- a powerful advocate of new painting -- donated much of her own collection, often work given to her by now-famous artists, to establish a program through which students could "rent" a real painting or etching for a semester; I can vividly remember a Sol Lewitt print and an Andy Warhol "Marilyn" in my future wife's dorm room. Back then a young scholar, Richard Spear, allowed me to audit his classes in baroque art: They were the most cultivated and informed art lectures this side of Kenneth Clark. Last month he brought out a massive study of the Renaissance painter Guido Reni.

BUT doubtless there are great and eccentric teachers at every college, no matter how small or grand. Like Virgil with Dante, such masters lead us slowly up out of the intellectual darkness--and then we leave them behind with scarcely a backward glance, let alone a proper thank you. I can't let that happen with Marcia Colish.

Prof. Colish taught the richest, most mind-expanding course of my entire academic career: "The Intellectual History of the Middle Ages." Many people know a little about the thought and literature of the modern world, but Colish introduced her students to Augustine's apologetics and philosophy, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, the educational achievements of Alcuin, the soaring theological intellects of Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux, the romances of Chretien de Troyes, Abelard's razor-sharp mind, the ecstatic visions of the Victorines, St. Thomas Aquinas's rigorous scholasticism, and that summa of medieval culture, Dante's Divine Comedy.

I realize now that she could scarcely have been more than 30, but there was no doubting her vast learning even then. She spoke machine gun fast in a brassy voice, and you had to focus to keep up with her plum-packed lectures. Gnosticism. Avicenna. The Other World. Universals. Andreas Capellanus's Art of Courtly Love. Hroswitha's plays. And her assignments! Read E.K Rand's Founders of the Middle Ages. Read M.L.W Laistner's Thought and Letters in Western Europe, A.D. 590-900. Read Charles Homer Haskins's Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Read the entire Divine Comedy -- by next week.

Exhilarating hardly describes Colish's class, but a course, no matter how good, is almost as evanescent as a ballet. Once it's over, it's over. Or so I thought until last month, when Yale brought out the first volume in its new series "The Yale Intellectual History of the West." Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400-1400, by Marcia L. Colish ($40) is clearly based on the class I took so many years ago, and it should instantly become the standard introduction to its subject. Colish's prose is hardly sparkling, and she can be acutely demanding at times (she loves medieval philosophy more than most of us ever will), but between the covers of this hefty, densely written volume is a whole lost world of culture and wisdom. I've read two-thirds of the book and my copy is already stippled with stars, checks, underlinings and all the other ornamentation of intensive study. What's more, every so often a phrase or fact suddenly delivers a minor epiphany, and I can hear Colish's voice and feel myself -- for a brief, cozy moment --scribbling away in my college notebook. It's a good feeling, especially on a cold, gray winter morning in February.

Michael Dirda '70 is editor of the Washington Post Book World, where this essay was published in the February 15 edition. Michael and his wife, Marian Peck Dirda '72, live in Silver Spring, Maryland.

This essay appears with permission of TWP Bookworld and the Washington Post Writers Group.