Liberal Arts Living

Yesterday afternoon I found out that one of my college professors died at age 55. It sent me for more of a tailspin than I would have anticipated.

I don’t know that I could point to one professor as “my favorite” or “my mentor.” I sometimes wonder if I’m an oddly prickly, independent person who doesn’t attract or retrain mentoring well. But that, I suppose, is another post.

But Rich was definitely in the handful of professors who were most influential to me, the people whose offices I might try to stop by if I’m ever on campus again. He taught English, and although I was an English major, for the life of me, I can’t remember if I had an actual English class with him. More significant than that, though: he was one of the three professors who formed the teaching team for the two year great books program I was part of, the Great Conversation. Those 60 students and 3 professors became my intellectual orbit as a college student. I miss them as a group today especially. I would like nothing more than to find a few and get together for coffee and a laugh and cry, but I can’t quite figure out how many of us are in Chicago (to be fair, one of them does live with me: Erik is also a Great Conner, which was really nice last night). Facebook has to do, and I’m glad for whatever camaraderie that’s provided.

Rich was a Miltonist with a strong background in classics as well (in other words, he was into a really dead poet and some dead languages). That could easily be a discipline where you would assume a level of academic elitism and remove from the real world. But he was a warm and real a person as you could imagine, fully grounded on earth, completely engaged with the people around him. He could take literature that can seem incredibly inaccessible and make it relate to being human. He could do it by being funny: hearing him read from Paradise Lost with a full-on Cajun accent (his own heritage mixed in with Milton!) was one of the funniest academic things I’ve ever heard. And he could do it by simply making things relevant: who knew that Lucretius could be so easy to understand and would become one of the college reads that I would retain best?

He was also real to his students partly because he couldn’t help but keep part of his family life away from us: his wife was another of our English professors (and, she too, would definitely be among my top few profs as well). They did not bother hiding the fact that they loved each other from their students. (Not that we caught them making out in hallways.) You just knew when they were together and when they talked about each other that this was a good marriage. While we were students, one of their children became mysteriously sick, and eventually died. It was awful. They kept appropriate boundaries, but we knew what was happening, too. I don’t know if they realize how much the functioning of their family taught their students about how to live life, as well as what they taught in the classroom.

I tried yesterday to remember specific things that I learned from Rich, and realized that most of the content has seeped out of my brain. At first, this really upset me. My college education down the drain, right?

But then I started to realize that it wasn’t content that was most important. As far as I can tell, Rich was one of the profs who taught me to see and seek theology and religious themes in literature. That is hugely important to what I do now. Not that I have a lot of time to read Milton, not that my Latin or Greek can get me through much of anything anymore. But even when, for example, I’m listening to a secular pop song, I know how to look, and how to dig. Even the way I read the Bible is probably impacted by this: it is, after all, a great work of literature. And, yes, I do still get to look at SOME heavier literature!

And then there’s just the living of life, with a good solid liberal arts background to back me up. By my senior year, our great books program was officially over, but Rich offered a version of the required senior ethics course for our class of Great Con. A bunch of us took it. Again, I don’t remember too many specifics. But I do remember that the basic theme of the class was looking at great literature and philosophy and theology and trying to piece together what it was to go out and live a good life. All these written works that were not just for some sort of self-indulgent, ivory tower intellectualism, but for real life. And you know, I don’t care that I can’t remember specifics anymore because I can still remember what that classroom smelled like and how the light fell through the basement windows of Old Main, and Rich smiling and coaxing us on in conversation. I know that it somehow sunk into who I am today.

That’s how it works, I think, with a good liberal arts education. Reading college friends’ posts about this yesterday, I was struck by what a good bunch of people they are. How thoughtful and smart and funny and prayer-filled. And, truth be told, it’s not so much some sort of college-specific pride, but gratefulness that we had good teachers that fills me.

You can live a life well, even if it is too short…

2 Responses to “Liberal Arts Living”

  1. sko3 Says:

    I’m sorry for your loss. I think it’s the losses that are odd in that way–not clearly family–that are the hardest to mourn. blessings

  2. Johanna Says:

    Hi — I feel a bit odd commenting since I don’t know you and just stumbled across this post via Twitter. But I did know Rich — I’m a St. Olaf English major, class of ’09 — and I just wanted to say that this is a lovely tribute to him. I am also wishing I had my Ole friends around me right now; the Internet helps a bit.