Last week historian Jonathan Wilson asked a great question on Twitter:
I’d love to hear from readers on this one; feel free to leave a comment below.
For my part… I responded on Twitter with two classes: one in high school; one in college. But the more I think about Wilson’s question, the more come to mind. Let me try to cluster a few of them:
Like a lot of historians, I’ve got a special place in my memory for a particular social studies teacher. But outside my career path, I also think fondly about several classes I took at Mounds Park Academy:
• On Twitter, I mentioned my two years (!) of calculus with Mr. Edmondson. More than my humanities work — and even science classes — calc with Mr. Ed pushed me against my intellectual limits and forced me to learn from failure. While the particular content has mostly been erased from my memory banks, I’ll never forget the lightbulb experience of finally understanding why differential equations worked… or getting an F in one of my last tests that first year, then bouncing back to get a 5 on the AP exam itself. There’s a part of me that wishes I’d taken statistics as a senior instead of picking up some of those concepts on my own, but a second year of calc gave me a chance to conduct some research in the University of Minnesota library on a paper that had me starting to explore something like metaphysics.
• Earlier this morning, while I was grading some reflections from my World War II class, something one student said reminded me that I learned far more about writing in high school than college. Indeed, this is the one area where I’m convinced that having an expensive “college prep” experience truly prepared me well for college. That includes the work I did on grammar with Mr. Latham as a junior, but even more, what I learned about essay writing from Mr. Meacock in 10th grade Brit Lit (I can’t quote him exactly, but at one point he nudged me to work harder to anticipate, respect, and rebut opposing points of view) and compiling a senior writing portfolio for him that let me take a chance on writing free verse poetry (embarrassing, to the extent it wasn’t purely forgettable) and a short story about a 1920s detective (not bad, as a kind of genre fiction, though I’m not sure my Egyptian setting was all that believable).
In part because I brought in an unusual amount of AP credit for 1993, I was able to race through my William and Mary degree in just three years. Nonetheless, the decision to declare a major as small as History did leave me plenty of space to dabble in other fields.
• On Twitter, this is where I talked about my decision to stop one class short of a Religion minor and instead add an art history survey. In part, it was the kind of first-year class that spring-semester seniors sometimes take to lighten their pre-graduation load. I even took it pass/fail (ditto my one philosophy class). But that only deepened my joy at taking a class at whim (as Alan Jacobs says about the best kind of reading). Freed from any concern about getting a certain score or any need to rationalize why I was studying medieval reliefs or Impressionist watercolors, I actually learned a ton. More even than my undergraduate history classes, I feel like I draw on my art history survey again and again when I teach about the past. (Plus it’s made my travels in Europe that much more meaningful.)
• I couldn’t put a Religion minor on my transcript or CV, but stumbling into an Intro to Religion class during my first week on campus was the first of many examples of why serendipity is such a virtue of gen ed. I think I was at a point in my spiritual journey when I had a lot of questions about my own faith, but instead of getting the apologetics I expected, I was prompted to think academically — critically, but also empathetically — about Christianity for the first time. I not only learned about other faiths, but thought more deeply about my own beliefs and practices. And while it took a mid-career diversion into Pietism studies for me to study religious history seriously, I did end up enjoying subsequent surveys of American religious history (where I have fond memories of doing a group project on the architecture of churches in Virginia’s Peninsula area) and African American religion.
• Then since I’ve already talked about English classes in high school, I’ll skip the Shakespeare survey where I took my one and only shot at writing an explicitly Marxian analysis and instead recall my semester studying American vernacular music. For a long time, I didn’t like to think about that class — but only because it was the one time I gave a college professor a strongly critical course evaluation. What I didn’t realize, as a rather young college junior, was that she was actually an ethnomusicologist whose department had most likely stuck her with a course outside her specialty (Indonesian folk music, if memory serves). But in retrospect, I can appreciate how hard she must have worked to introduce us to everything from klezmer (bringing in a gifted clarinetist) to zydeco (one of many genres I learned about the old-fashioned way, listening to field recordings on vinyl) to 1980s hip hop (did we call it “old school” in 1995?). And because I happened to be teaching myself guitar at the same time, I got to put my new knowledge of blues and bluegrass to practical, if rudimentary use!
Different as all these classes were, what their memories have in common is that they underscore two things I love about liberal arts education: first, the way it stretches you, never letting even high-achieving students settle into familiar ways of inquiring, thinking, and knowing; and second, the way it surprises you, affording you joys that you couldn’t have anticipated — and never would have known had you stuck to the professional pathways more and more students are encouraged to follow.