What We Learned From professors Who Never Taught Us

St. Lawrence Magazine Essay - Spring 2011

Right after the American Civil War, Emerson advised an aspiring poet who was then a student at a small liberal arts college to “remember that marble is nothing but crystallized limestone… [and] some writers never get out of the limestone condition. Do your own quarrying.” Because we can’t study everything in the course catalog that may interest us while we are young, the unfulfilled portion of our campus days should not leave us empty-handed. Rather, a liberal arts degree gives each of us a chisel to tap against the stone.

The late Donald C. Peckham, who held the Hayward Professorship in Physics, greeted me one day last year with a twinkled expression and the gentlest words of admonition: “I noticed that you never took a physics course from me.” I had the wit to say what I believed to be my best defense: “But Dr. Peckham, I knew who you were, I knew your students, and through them I gained an appreciation of your science.”

At first he wasn’t convinced by a history major’s diplomatic but hot-footed retreat. Then I reported that I had read over the years, if only occasionally, Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, and Richard Feynman. I confessed that I could not do the math of physics, but could understand the general concepts and even explain the difference (and similarity) between cosmology and quantum mechanics.

My dilettante’s curiosity about thinkers in science originated from professors such as Don Peckham, teachers who never taught me, but whose reputations inspired me to learn, nevertheless. I also failed to take classes in art history, economics or psychology. But I can name today the great teachers on campus in those days, the masters who were covering such areas with power and good effect; I can even recall some of the titles assigned their classes, from bookstore browsing or thumbing the pages of texts belonging to my friends.

Another commencement has passed at St. Lawrence, now over 150 of them. We send our graduates into every field imaginable; they are as ambitious, well prepared and socially grounded as any generation of Laurentians could ever claim. What their diplomas do not mention, and what they have not yet realized, is the time-released benefit of the liberal arts atmosphere that permits a keen awareness of subjects they never formally touched as students. This point is terribly neglected in most public discussions about the efficacy, cost and rewards of a liberal arts education. It is hard to demonstrate it as a “measurable outcome” or in a closed system of “metrics.” And yet, even without cold facts, it’s a solid truth.

John O’Shea’74 stopped by campus this spring. To say that John is a government scientist would be like remembering Mickey Mantle for merchandizing leather goods and forest products in the Bronx.  Dr. O’Shea directs a lab at the National Institutes of Health with more than 100 Ph.D. and M.D. scientists doing world-class research on diseases that do not yet have names. In constant demand to present his work at conferences and medical schools all over the world, he spent time with our students in biology and chemistry classes, visited professors in their offices and labs, and delivered a public lecture based on mysterious medical cases. These particular case histories led to an understanding, at least a partial one, of what goes wrong, and why, in complex human cells governed by molecular signals, switches and paths. 

The conclusion of his talk, however, took a surprising turn.  John said, “To be a great, hard-core scientist, you need to be much more than just good in biology.” He then recounted the life-changing contact he had with two St. Lawrence professors outside his major. 

John took Dan O’Connor’s famous year-long course on the Bible. He still remembers the experience as being “extremely intimidating, but when you were with O’Connor, you knew you were in the presence of a major intellectual force.” The NIH scientist remembers his first dramatic encounter with a scholar this way: “From him, I learned what it meant to be an absolute expert and have complete command of a subject.”

Dr. O’Shea’s other formative example was a painting class with Guy Berard, who “taught me what it meant to create something, how to really conceptualize a project.” He explained, “During Berard’s course, I went to a big Cezanne exhibit and looked at how Cezanne tackled the problem of painting Mount St. Victoir over and over during his career. Berard’s discussion drove home how one could approach a problem from many perspectives, which can change over time. I tell this story to my trainees, as it’s a lot like scientific research—you keep coming back to the same problem with increasing sophistication and fresh insights.”

When St. Lawrence professors don their academic regalia and assemble for Commencement, there is a protocol that is different from that at large universities. They line up according to seniority, not in clusters formed by schools, disciplines or departments. A chemist stands next to a linguist; a philosopher is beside a musician. As they watch their students graduate, everyone in that academic chorus is simply a teacher; no one is specifically a historian, a mathematician or a sociologist. The scene is a living palindrome—everyone a teacher, a teacher of everyone.

—WLF