Barry McGill Revisited

By Harry Dawe '58

"Historians don't
get the flu,
Mr. Dawe. "

"I know, sir, but
people do. "

A serpentine smile showed that the riposte was appreciated but the grade on the late paper was still lowered. I was, during that fall term of 1958, in an academic universe where extensions did not exist and circumstances did not mitigate. I was in the world of Professor Barry McGill. This dialogue captures, at least for me, the essence of a teacher whose death has prompted letters of appreciation in the last few issues of the alumni magazine. I would like to add mine.

Barry McGill's concern with you was only as a student and only in terms of his subject as you worked to make it your subject as well. Even the personal banter at his raucous end-of-term parties -- at which he displayed a good deal of knowledge about your extra-curricular interests -- was all about you as a student, rarely as a person. We were all playing our respective roles. Perhaps it was this dramatic and unencumbered focus, actually more like an iron gaze, that gave him his extraordinary power as a teacher. For Barry McGill, the purpose of a liberal arts college was to teach the liberal arts and sciences to late adolescents, to initiate them -- in his case, an accurate metaphor -- into the life of the mind. Your personal developmental issues were not his concern; they were your responsibility. His was to show you how to become a student, ideally a superior one.

This is perhaps a narrow vision, and he was not a particularly broad or prolific scholar. His publication record is spare, unlike that of his older colleague, Frederick Artz, who had an international reputation. However, this was of no concern to those of us who signed up for "England Since 1688." What counted was that the professor could make you, as a student, feel that what you were studying at the moment -- perhaps the details of Gladstone's fourth ministry -- was the most important thing in the world, and to find within yourself the moral and intellectual power to equal the professor's mastery of that subject, and then -- if possible -- to surpass him.

Many years later I tried to engage him in a conversation about my interest in comparative history in which, for example, Bismarck and Lincoln would be seen as parallel nation builders. He had no interest; I had gone outside of his range in which "Europeanists" and "Ameri-canists" did not mix. Yet nothing about this seemingly narrow vision kept him from having opened my eyes to the broad world of historical study. In fact, it was the fire generated by that intense focus that ignited what became a continuing commitment to an intellectual life and to an exploration of fields well beyond "England Since 1688" or "Europe Since 1815."

The truly good teacher need not know all -- McGill's interest in aesthetic and cultural history was all but nil -- but he must have the power to inspire a student and then the tact to stand aside to let him grow. Barry McGill had both of those qualities.

His measure as a teacher can be seen in the fact that you never missed his class -- not out of fear of him, but of missing something of value. There was no need to be counseled to attend class. The flame of his passion drew you, along with a few others, to the northeast corner of Peters Hall where, with the kind of anticipation that surrounds the end of pregame batting practice, or that moment when the oboe sounds its concert A, we waited for him to stride with unfailing precision across the Great Hall, enter the room like a biblical whirlwind, began his lecture en route and end it at the sound of the bell. He never wasted a moment of your time.

His basic pedagogical approach was quite specific. It was lecture-recitation, which in the hands of a master teacher can be a powerful and liberating teaching method. The lectures inspired you to read more than what was required; the recitations called forth a kind of creative terror, an intellectual probing from which there was no escape. After my first recitation for which I was found wholly wanting, McGill saw me with some older students in the snack bar binding up my wounds. He came over, smiled, and said, "Now Mr. Dawe, that wasn't so terrible was it." I vowed never to be caught short again, and the following year earned an A- on the first Blue Book, accompanied by the comment: "Congratulations, you have aged ten years in one." In the days before grade inflation, a coin stamped "A-" by McGill was pure gold. No more was needed to generate self-esteem.

I was once told by an old headmaster that all good teaching was simply "the imparting of truth through personality." As a proponent of that school of thought, McGill's teaching was informed and defined by his personality. His charisma was powerful, but he was not a cult figure; he neither sought nor had followers. He was more like a force of nature; independent of us all. He lacked the cultural breadth of F.B. Artz, the avuncular engagement of J.D. Lewis, the sinewy elegance of P.T. Fenn, the youthful comradeship of Tom Flinn, or the vulnerable humanity of Hayden Boyers. But he cared for you as a student with a stern passion as no one else could. Meeting him twenty years later, well into his cups, he said that as a young teacher he was scared because he did not know all of his material as well as he should, being particularly weak in the French Medieval period. Such was his concern for the quality of what he brought to his classroom for his students. He may have teased us, but he never trifled with us; he bullied us at times, but never exploited or abused us.

Barry McGill was probably not a good role model in the current sense of the term. After doing a senior thesis under his supervision, I went to graduate school at Columbia and tried to follow in what I thought was his path. However, it was not mine and I was unable to find the right direction. I opted for a career in precollegiate teaching and administration, writing books and articles on subjects and issues quite different from what had been my academic beginnings with Barry McGill. Yet I recall receiving from him an un-characteristically effusive congratulatory letter when I took my first teaching position.

Now, from the vantage point of having worked in both schools and colleges, I can see the structural flaw in American education which creates such a professional and social gulf between these two levels of the education system. Barry McGill, although an absolute elitist, did not subscribe to the snobbism which fostered that separation. He was, first and foremost, a teacher.

The policies and practices of the postmodern academic world, including the notion of the student as customer, must have driven him wild and not brought out the best in him. I imagine him as a lonely, late Edwardian, practicing a pedagogy no longer in vogue and holding to standards no longer relevant.

When I returned to Oberlin a few years ago, I encountered him in the lobby of the Inn, a haggard giant on his way to a bridge match. We ex-changed words; he chided me for having become "an administrator," and corrected me on a date. When I returned to the table, my wife re-marked that I looked as if I had seen a ghost. Perhaps I had. Thirty-five years later we were engaging in a ghostly parody of once vibrant roles.

He was very much a man of his time. The passing years, with their revolutionary changes in society and in the profession of history, did not seem to have served him well. Also, the very qualities which made him such an effective and charismatic teacher were most likely the same that prevented intimacy. There were some who became friends with him after leaving Oberlin. I was not one of them, but the long-term impact on me as a student was in no way diminished. From the earlier letters in this magazine, the same seems to be true for those from later generations as well. There was something timeless in this teacher, even though he himself became an historical artifact. I believe it has to do with the kind of institution that he devoted his life to.

A liberal-arts college is a collection of teachers and students whose essential intention -- to use a current locution -- consists of teaching and learning the liberal arts and sciences. All else -- publishing, community building, personal development, social engagement, and a vast array of learning experiences -- is derivative. These "others" may ultimately have the most formative influence on a person's life, but the context from what they are derived is that of an academic community. My work as Hayden Boyers' assistant in producing Gilbert & Sullivan Operas during summers may well have given me valuable training for running a school, but my struggles with Barry McGill introduced me to what a genuine education needed to be. He knew in his bones the difference between what was accidence and what was essence in a liberal arts college.

And that may be why Barry McGill is worth remembering -- not to recreate his time or his teaching style, neither of which have relevance today, but to remember what
a liberal arts college is and what it can and cannot do. It can and it should work to turn a young person into an effective student. Many other things might also develop during those four years. But to presume that a college should consciously work to create a certain kind of person is to be arrogant in a way that Barry McGill never was. I graduated from Oberlin carrying with me many of its historic extra-academic values. They were absorbed merely by being in this special place, not from any particular professor, nor any special programming. Actually, I probably came with a predisposition toward them, as do many who become Oberlin students. What I did learn here -- rather than acquire -- was how to be an historian, and that has informed both my professional and private life. As a person I occasionally "get the flu," but the historian in me is immortal and as vibrant as it was when I was taught by Barry McGill. For that gift, I add my memorial thanks with the regret that I was unable to thank him personally in a way which would have meant something to me, but would most likely have embarrassed him.

Harry A. Dawe is Oberlin College's international re-cruiting specialist, spending much of each year traveling overseas to extol the benefits of an Oberlin education to future scholars in Asia, India, China, and other countries. When he is not "on the road," he lives in Oberlin with his wife, Nicolette Love, assistant dean of student academic affairs at the college.