May 12th, 2008

Indy/History Nerd

Personal: On My Teachers of History

I have been unusually fortunate in my teachers over the years. Looking back at the litany of their names, I can see them almost as mile-markers leading me along the path that has brought me to where I am today.

I just happened to start thinking about this for rather silly reasons. I only just realized this morning that the new Indiana Jones flick is coming out in ten days, going for the classic Lucasfilm release week. That'll be the day after I leave Jackson, where Harrison Ford lives, although I suspect with all the premieres and promotions that it'll be a while before he would be seen around town, much less invited to the local movie house's premiere. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in what I remember to be a huge movie theatre in the Florida Keys, some weeks after it had come out, as a delighted sixth-grader. It was a rather fruitful 24 hours. I had severely burned myself that afternoon in the swimming pool, and would spend the next few days peeling my back off. But the pain didn't start becoming apparent until we were on our way back to my Dad's place that evening after seeing the show. Stopping in a 7-11, I picked up my first issue of The Legion of Super-Heroes (just before the great Paul Levitz run), and later, unable to sleep for the pain, I stayed up all night watching a festival of the old Charlie Chan movies on WGN, which was a blast and very much increased my taste for the old 1940s flicks, an appetite probably already heightened by the Spielburg-Lucas homage to the serials that I had witnessed earlier that night. So while that night introduced me to three great favourites, Dr. Jones, as a character, made a particularly long-lasting impression, reinforcing a growing belief within me that old things were incredibly cool, and that history itself was the greatest adventure.

I had seen the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition at the Field Museum the year before, crawling on hands and knees under the crushing crowd so that I could surface next to the death mask. The nationwide craze inspired by that art tour heightened a certain awareness of, and interest in, old things for me, such as when I read local author Leona Ellerby's novel King Tut's Game Board. This was probably built on the foundation of a year living outside Washington, D.C. in first grade, and being taken by my Mom to all the historical sites and museums. So by this time in Oregon, Illinois, I was then starting that list of teachers I mentioned above. Mr. Robertson, 5th grade social studies teacher and WWII veteran. I had started reading WWII histories the year before – probably my real introduction to reading history – and he was shocked when I gasped when he mentioned that he had served on the U.S.S. Hornet and then blurted out, "You were on the ship that took out the Yamato?!!" Looking back on it, that moment seems to stand out as a realization that I was picking up more history than my peers (although now I wonder if he said U.S.S. Wasp, and I got it wrong). My 5th grade science teacher Mr. Bouska, while helping me win the science award for the year and leading me on what seemed to be my clear path toward the physical sciences, also introduced me to local history, which I became quite well read in by my teen years, and learning that love of the local as well as the global. World History with Mr. Hicks and U.S. History with Mr. Hart were also masterfully taught with an eye toward young students, and what usually has a reputation for being a dull topic was anything but in their hands. In high school, World History and a particularly deep immersion into the French Revolution with Jim Sullivan was followed by the real treasure: starting to study U.S. History and Government with another WWII vet – Amherst and Kentucky-educated William Ellerby, the husband of the local author mentioned above, who was also the high school's librarian. "The Colonel" leaned heavily on me, holding me up to public ridicule for anything less than an "A," but done in such a way that I both accepted and was challenged by the teasing because I could trust the good-hearted motives behind it. Reading his letter of recommendation for my undergraduate honors program gave me just about as much insight into myself as I've ever received from another person, and taught me something about how much attention a good teacher is really paying to his students. High school was rounded out with the arrival of another extraordinary instructor, Larry Loomis, one who made current events dramatic on a daily basis and tried to inflame students' sense of their always living in the midst of electrifying history.

So I had had an uninterrupted string of no less than six highly-gifted history instructors over these eight years of my childhood formation. I cannot think that that is a streak of good fortune that most kids would get, but by my sophomore year of high school, I already knew that the study of history was going to be center to my college education. By my graduation I was thinking in terms of a double-major with Museum Studies, which Northern was shortly going to be starting a program in, and which I figured, with its proximity to Chicago, would be an easy internship and entry to the major Chicago museums. I had been asked so repeatedly by family what I was going to "do" with History that Museum Studies seemed a more "hands-on" or concrete prospect.

Two weeks into my first History class at Northern – a standard ancient/medieval Western Civilization survey – I was so taken with straight History that I never really bothered with the Museum Studies idea again. Dr. Jones came up again here, as my Mother repeatedly warned me that "it's not like in those movies," which speaks volumes for what was deemed regarding my possession of any basic sense. But I didn't owe this one to any entertaining fantasy. Medievalist Thomas W. Blomquist taught that first survey, and I just read that he died last August 17, 2007, which especially sparked writing these thoughts. That's another one of those debts I never really acknowledged: although I never studied with him again, he certainly did something right to so attract me to the field.

But it was the following semester that the major event of my undergraduate education occurred: Marvin A. Powell, Jr. taught an honors-only section – about eight students – of a course entitled "Ancient Greek Culture." We immersed ourselves in the literature of the ancient Greeks – Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato. The individual attention was extraordinary and every bit as brutal as I needed. Having been pleased with myself for turning in what I knew was a kick-ass first paper on Homer, I was shocked to receive back a paper sodden with red ink and dripping with criticism, featuring a large "C" on top. There was a difference between high school success and college success, I had now learned (a lesson I fear I've visited on many of my own students, in turn). Marvin adopted me after that semester, and in doing dual emphases on Ancient and Intellectual History through my undergrad, I never ceased profiting from his continued pressure and criticism – and availability. And there were others: Stephen Kern's guidance through modern European intellectual history was revelatory; Allan Kulikoff introduced me to social history in his survey of early American history; Robert Schneider lead me through a number of surprises in modern American intellectual history; Albert Resis bulldozed me through a magisterial semester on Soviet history, and became the first to suggest to me, my sophomore year, that I get a Ph.D.; and Samuel A. Kinser guided me on a brilliant trip through the social history of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, and gave what was my single most pleasurable course of my undergraduate years: the History of the Renaissance. That course by itself almost wooed me away from the interest in the ancient Church that was then forming.

I would be handed off to greats in Notre Dame's Department of Theology after this, but in this fun moment of seeing the trailer for my favourite swashbuckling fictional professor this morning, I found myself looking through him and seeing in his Hollywood ideal the real heroes of the study of, and love of, History that have made my life so rich. </sentimentality>