Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Monday, January 23, 2006

“Make Them Think”

[gary daily col. 45 December 15, 2002]

“No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.”
--William Osler


John G. Sperling was the greatest teacher I ever had, and I’ve had many. He was an Assistant Professor of History at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, Illinois. I was lucky enough to have him for two courses as an undergraduate. I took these courses as a history major and came out a history major. This is not a “he changed the course of my life” story. But then again, perhaps it is.

Undergrads then, and I suspect continue to be, more impressed by style than by substance when it comes to remembering and ranking their teachers. (I shudder when I think this is the case in these days of specious “accountability” evaluations.) This guy had style that wouldn’t stop. He could prance, he could dance, he could really do the blackboard boogaloo. When the class started it was show time--but with a difference.

That difference was that he knew his stuff, front and back, in and out. The surface style that was so captivating at first was soon replaced by awe for what he knew and then, of far greater importance, for what we, his students, started to know and question. Classes did not end with his last word. They did not end when the group I hung with left the cafeteria after one or two hours of discussing what was said in class that day. For me, they have not ended to this very day.

On any given day in class, this teacher might, in organized detail, expound on the revolutions in Europe that took place in 1830 and 1848. Along the way, he pointed out the differences between the two and their relation to the ideas of the French revolution. Arresting personal and ideological portraits of key figures was part of the magic. Concluding remarks and discussion included how all of this did or (just as importantly) didn't relate to our personal lives and the temperature of the Cold War society and culture in which we were living. He did this through the traditional teaching style of lecture interspersed with questions to and from the class.

This “lecture,” however, was closer to what I imagine Shirley Maclaine’s channeling might be. It all seemed to come from a well deep in the man’s being. As he paced, and spoke, and questioned, stopping only to write in a sweeping scrawl a philosopher-revolutionary’s name, an obscure place name, or the author and title of some book on the blackboard, the scene resembled observing a medium in a trance. We all were entranced.

I remember Professor Sperling once being asked the awkward question we all wanted to ask: “How do you know so much?” His answer was modestly matter of fact, while at Cambridge University he read the equivalent of a book a day. He recommended this practice to all of us.

When I was about to graduate, I met Professor Sperling in the hall one day. He bestowed a wonderful compliment on me by asking me my plans and encouraging me to go on to graduate studies in history. When I told him my plan was to teach at the high school level all he said to me was, “Good luck” and “For God’s sake Daily, make them think!”

This wonderfully inspiring teacher, John Sperling, recently published his autobiography. When I picked it up I eagerly looked for the section on his time at Northern Illinois University. His comments on those bright shining times at NIU take up all of two paragraphs and are best wrapped up in this sentence: “Columbus had been depressing, but to me DeKalb, Illinois, was the dregs.” That’s OK with me. His classes did not reflect any of these feelings for the place in which he found himself.

Professor Sperling’s book has the ungainly and self-promoting title, Rebel With A Cause: The Entrepreneur Who Created the University of Phoenix and the For-Profit Revolution in Higher Education. It tells the story of a man born in poverty in the Missouri Ozarks (a long, long way from Cambridge University) who goes on to establish the Apollo Group, America’s largest internet higher education company, boasting 125,000 students and, in 1999, having revenues of $500 million. It continues to grow and is much copied.

Today, Professor Sperling has turned his searching mind and considerable personal financial resources to such projects as Seaphire International, “an effort to expand the world’s food supply by developing salt water agriculture suitable for third-world countries” and what he calls “demilitarizing” America’s “War on Drugs.”

Living up to the spirit of his title and the nature of the teacher I remember, Sperling notes early in his book that, “I have learned far more about how to conduct my business affairs from such novels as: Tom Jones, Emma, Notes From the Underground, The Red and the Black, Death Comes to the Archbishop, and The Great Gatsby than I ever have from reading a business book.”

If there are lessons in his life story, Sperling suggests we “find” and “choose from among them.” In this he’s still saying: “For God’s sake . . . make them think.”

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