What will you, dear college student, remember four decades after you march up to the stage and receive your diploma placeholder? What, in the world of 2062 or 2063, will you retain from your time in college? I can’t tell you, but I can perhaps anticipate your experience by telling you a little bit about what I remember from my years at Pacific Union College, graduating in 1982.
First, most of what happened and what I was taught has faded away. I remember the faces of many of my professors, and some of their mannerisms, and something of how I enjoyed (or not) being in their classrooms—but not many of their specific teachings. In my one quarter as a possible business major, I could never get my credits and debits to balance out—or was it “reconcile”?—and it’s as much as I can do now to complete my tax return with the help of software prompts. College algebra left no lasting impression. I can’t remember a single speech I gave in my communications class.
However, a few things stick. My American history teacher, Eric Anderson, talked with us about how most people in the eighteenth century and earlier never traveled more than ten miles from their homes—during their entire lives. This was a shock to me, sitting in a classroom nearly five hundred miles from my home in Loma Linda. “People back then lived in a geographical bubble,” he said. “They were naive about other places and ways of living.” “Today, we get around much more,” he continued, “but without the study of history we risk getting trapped in another kind of bubble, a temporal bubble, without any comparative perspective on our own times.”
I’ve thought about Professor Anderson’s words many times over the years. They complement something another professor, Winona Wendth, once told me: “People who don’t study history think that everything that happened before the twentieth century happened simultaneously.” And professor Kent Seltman required us, his Eighteenth-Century Literature students, to memorize the birth and death dates of the notable literary figures of the period, which is how I can tell you that Alexander Pope’s dates are 1688-1744. In college, I acquired more of an appreciation for learning about the past, learning about people, books, customs, different places and different times—something I still love today.
With professor Norman Wendth, I tackled my first Greek classics (in translation) and learned how a professor’s smile or encouraging word about something I wrote or said could inspire me to work even harder on the next piece of writing. From professor David Nieman, I learned that one fitness metric is body fat, which could be measured by an underwater scale, suspended from the pool’s diving board. He also taught us in his aerobics class to enjoy cross-country running through Angwin’s hills and woods-lined trails. He encouraged us to try Grape-Nuts with pineapple juice for a nourishing and tasty breakfast. I have yet to give that a try, but there’s always next week, and I do have Grape-Nuts in the cupboard. The fitness awareness and body stewardship nourished in professor Nieman’s class is still with me.
From professor Herbert Ford, I learned that in a newspaper you must spell everyone’s name correctly, every time. “Everyone’s world starts at the end of their own nose,” he would say, “and if you spell their name incorrectly, they and all their friends will know it and you will diminish the credibility of your publication.” I also learned from him that it’s good to get lots of names into the school newspaper, because everyone likes to see their own name in print (spelled correctly), and they and their friends will faithfully read stories that include them and their circle. It’s a point I try to pass on to successive generations of newspaper writers.
I am forever grateful to my summer intensive Spanish professors at La Sierra, Juan Velez and Ernestina Garbutt-Parrales, who got me out of an English-only rut and taught me that every language carves up the world differently. If you only know English, you don’t really even know English. Gracias also, to professor Rafael Escandon, at PUC, who introduced me to Spanish literature and jokes in Spanish. Learning Spanish and a little bit of French not only served me well in private life—as the spouse of a native speaker of Spanish—but helps me feel more at home at Andrews, where there are so many multilinguals and such a diversity of world experience.
From professor Barbara Youngblood I learned that yes, I could actually read Shakespeare and enjoy it. Once I got started, I couldn’t believe how many things we still say today go back to Shakespeare, from “a heart of gold” to “break the ice” to “neither here nor there” to “one fell swoop.” Isaac Johnson was the first Black teacher I had, and he introduced us to the stories of Jean Toomer, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. From these professors and others, I kept increasing my appetite to learn more about the subjective experiences of diverse peoples. It must have been in professor Steve Price’s American Literature class that I first read the (to me) electrifying words of Henry David Thoreau, in “Walden”: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?” And I realized that yes, through literature, I could see the world through the eyes of another, time and again.
I’ve never forgotten professor (and pastor) Morris Venden telling us, in his Personal Spirituality class, that even if we weren’t feeling close to God we could make a choice to hang around with friends who would have an uplifting effect on our lives. His message definitely applied to me at that time, and ever since I have had a special appreciation for the positive effects friends can have in encouraging us in good ways of thinking and behaving.
Returning to professor Seltman, he told us that one of the purposes of college was to help us understand how much knowledge was out there and how little of it we knew. This, he hoped, would help to give us a healthy skepticism toward being dogmatic or arrogant, unable to see or appreciate the nuance or the gray area in any subject matter. He introduced us to the fact that the more you know, the more you realize that there is to know—that you don’t know. College stoked the joy of learning.
I’m amused by the poem “Did I Miss Anything?” by Tom Wayman, which imagines a conversation between a professor and a student who missed class. Sure, a lot of what we “learn” in college goes in one ear and out the other (an expression from Chaucer!), but we never know when we’ll walk into a classroom and hear something, see something, or do something, that can have a positive effect on the rest of our lives. Thank you so much to all my college professors.
Note: I recreated as well as I could what I recall my professors having said.
This article originally appeared in the Student Movement, the student newspaper of Andrews University.
Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University. He teaches creative writing in poetry and also writes poetry.
Title image credit: Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash
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