Illustration by Giulia Neri

“I come not to teach but to awaken.”

By Nick Lyons

A professor of mine once fell asleep in the middle of his own lecture. He was an old, much lauded medievalist and he regularly droned on, reading word for word from lecture notes that had turned yellow, trying to fill us with facts as if we were so many eager vessels. He rarely looked up. He never asked or allowed questions. He could not have known that dozens of us, among the 200 students, often slept too. He merely tipped his head that day to the side and rested it on his podium. We thought he was gone—with his boots on, you could say.

Everyone awoke. The silence was electric. You could have heard a dull fact drop.

And then, after a long couple of minutes, he roused himself, peered over his half-inch-thick glasses, and blithely returned to his reading—so a lot of the students promptly returned to sleep.

This is a true story. I was there, and I’ve never forgotten that day. In fact, his snooze was one of the most dramatic moments in my long academic life.

Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times announces that hard facts are what’s needed in classrooms and that nothing else matters. The old medievalist had certainly turned the wit and wisdom of The Canterbury Tales into hard facts, and I remember nothing of his lectures except the drama when he seemed to die.

It’s easy to remember such drama in a classroom. At Wharton I had a fine professor of business law who taught me forever the principle of caveat emptor. Beware before you buy. If you’re worried that tomatoes might be frozen, ask, as he once suggested, play-acting the role of a would-be rube, “Hey, Joe, are dose tomats froze?” And I remember Solomon Huebner, the “father of insurance education,” saying boldly that he had gone to Congress and told them, “You have got to put a dollar value on a human life.” I later sought other values in life, and used his comment ironically, but I knew what he meant and never forgot it.

We remember little from the mumblers, the overly technical teachers, the unprepared, the ones with too much pedagogy and too little wisdom. Father Taylor, the “seaman’s” preacher, prototype for Father Mapple in Moby-Dick, once shared his pulpit with a bright young graduate fresh from Harvard Divinity School, whose talk was filled with quotes and allusions.

“That was a brilliant sermon,” he told him as they walked out together, “but if the text had had the pox you wouldn’t have caught it.”

I have remembered teachers with some flair for drama along with those who were unique in some memorable way—one who conducted tutorials while walking along a stream; an English poet nearly blind, with a stunning capacity to share the secrets of a dozen poets; a young professor of 19th-century Russian fiction who positively loved what he taught … and liked to call on me who was reading three novels for every one he assigned. I remember a great scholar who walked around the seminar table, never with notes, and taught me how to think about literature as  a world full of connections and contrasts. And the teacher who sat cross-legged on top of a desk, with a Coke in one hand, and introduced me in a dreary, sparsely attended night class to Nashe, Lilly, Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, Jane Austen, and a flock of others who created the richness of English prose style. He talked with passion about a subject he loved—and I caught his passion.

Of course, nothing can happen in a classroom without some help from students who must hold up their end of the bargain. Damp or wet straw won’t burn. And after wasting precious years ignoring who I was, I went back to college fiercely wanting to learn, and then to teach.

Emerson says that the main goal for a teacher must be to set the hearts of youth on flame. And the great Indian master Meher Baba said, “I come not to teach but to awaken.” Sometimes it takes something starkly unusual, vivid, even dramatic to penetrate the recalcitrant mind.

I tried. I taught with passion, trying somehow to share not only the subject I had learned to love but some of the spirit with which my most effective teachers taught. I had my successes. One student in a night course I taught became a seated professor at a first-flight college. Others, meeting me on the street or in a restaurant, had appreciative words for me 50 years after I left the academy.

One night, teaching Melville, whom I loved, I came to the chapter where Ahab, the obsessed captain of the Pequod, puts the point of his peg leg into an auger hole and decries what untold and dark purpose he and his crew are about. Suddenly I stepped up on a chair—and from there onto the desk, planting one foot in an imagined auger hole and declaiming in a loud voice, “And this is what ye have shipped for men, to hunt the white whale!”

Oh, come on, Nick, I thought when the class ended. Did you have to act like a lunatic?

Perhaps I had thought of Wittgenstein’s distinction between what can be said and what can only be shown. Maybe.

Dining out that night I heard someone at the table behind me begin to say something to her companions about the crazy professor she’d just had … and before she could say more I asked her politely to wait until my wife and kids left before she finished the sad story. And many years later a woman I didn’t recognize declared that she had been a student of mine and vividly remembered that fateful evening—which made me worry if there are still students out there, in the opaque world of the past, who remember only my theatrical Ahab and his bold revelation  and little, if even anything, about that great and mysterious masterwork.

Nick Lyons W’53 is a longtime Gazette contributor.

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    1 Response

    1. Roxanne Bok

      Who wouldn’t want to stick their leg in an auger hole and be Ahab and rage at the blank unknown when reading the great Melville, if only for a minute? In solidarity I might’ve arranged some desk chairs to feel out Queequeg’s coffin. One is a fortunate reader to experience such flow from humanity’s best literature. To feel that genius inspire is a privilege. To pass it to students is an art. Continue to man the decks!

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