Saturday, February 2, 2013

Concerning My Teachers


This essay attempts to reflect on the influence of some of the teachers who played a siginificant role in my intellectual development.  Critical to that development were the labors of Mrs. Welcome, Miss Fields, Miss Faye Fenty (on whom I had a crush), and my high school English teacher, Ms.______, who inspired in me social and black consciousness and introduced me to Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold’s “Sohrab and Rustum”, Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and Tennyson’s “Morte D’Arthur”.  But perhaps the most influential were four men under whose tutelage I studied during my four-year sojourn at the Jamaica Theological Seminary.   I credit these men for the role they played in helping to shape who I am today and for the knowledge and critical thinking ability I have since acquired. 

Now my readers will find it strange when I say that I learned nothing from these esteemed gentlemen.  By saying such I certainly mean no slight of their ability as teachers, for, to the extent that they are still educators, they are excellent teachers; however, more importantly, they were like signposts, pointing out certain directions, leaving me with the decision whether to follow whither they were pointing and whether to pursue those to whom they introduced me. 

“Ah, Mr. Couchman!”
My peers in my Introduction to Philosophy class experienced the same frustration as I.  We would be given a reading assignment, and then the next day we would be greeted in class by, “What have you gleaned since last we met?”  Further adding to our frustration (and also providing cause for amusement) was Mr. Hall’s penchant for correcting or critiquing his own suggestions that we used in his initial correction of our essays.  One such essay was my attempt to show how Hegel arrived at the conclusion that the “real was rational”.  My sources were carefully chosen, and in my second rewrite I made sure that I used the suggestions that Mr. Hall had offered for improving the essay.  I used one of the statements attributed to Hegel in our text book, and in the margin of my paper Mr. Hall wrote, “Did Hegel say that?”   I was stunned. From that moment I resolved to read directly the printed works of every major western philosopher and not that which other scholars have written about them.  Thanks to Mr. Hall, I made good on that resolve and then some.  

During that semester in Mr. Hall’s class, I can recall no spirited debate about Plato, Aristotle, or any of the more well-known philosophers, neither were there discourses on ultimate issues.   Billy Hall would just sit there in front of the class or pace with his hands in his pockets, a sort of smug smile on his face, and offer platitudes.  One such was a bit of advice that he said he received from one of his professors, “Read for your degree.”  I must say that I followed that advice, literally. 

The most significant moment in my experience with Mr. Hall came one day in class during our discussion on some idea of which I have no recollection.  Whatever it was, he was berating our deficiency in analysis and admonishing us to, “Think.”  That was an imperative that I had heard my entire life from my parents and my teachers, and for which lack I was often severely scolded.  So here was my opportunity to find out the answer to that question that had always plagued my mind, and who else but my philosophy teacher could provide the answer.  I raised my hand, and upon being acknowledged, I asked, “Mr. Hall, how does one think?”  All he said was, “Ah, Mr. Couchman,” and continued with the point that he was making at the time.  I left the class that day feeling empty.  I understood that ones successful completion of the intellectual quest depended on his or her ability to think, and from that day, thanks to Billy Hall, finding out how to do that effectively, became my relentless pursuit.

“Mr. Camus, I presume?”
I had very little patience for Church History and even less patience with a teacher who simply gave chalkboard talks inundating students with endless notes, resulting ultimately in taking tests or quizzes based entirely on those notes.   My Apologetics course was also offered in similar fashion.  The primary thrust of the educational experience around those two courses seemed to be the appropriating of material or demonstrating mastery through memorization.   As I attempt to recollect information presented during those lectures, no substantive concept comes to mind.  But what do come readily to mind are the names of authors and their works that the professor of those courses referenced.  Las Newman had this way of giving the names of important individuals and their major works.  More than anything else in the two courses he taught, his references to these figures appealed to me, and I decided to vigorously pursue those authors and their works to ascertain whether they indeed corroborated those things that Las shared with us.   I often found myself wondering whether he himself had read all the works to which he was referring or whether he were simply doing what most professors did - refer to sources that they themselves merely came across in reference and did not directly read. 

As Las taught those two courses, I found myself looking forward to his references more than to the content of his presentations. As a result, I was introduced to and discovered the humongous City of God and Summa Theologica, among others, tremendously expanding the breadth of my reading in ways unimaginable.  Above all, it was Las’ presentation on Existentialism that was another major point in my intellectual journey.  Again, I reiterate, it was not his exposition on that movement that was critical to my development, but the individuals connected with the movement to whom I was introduced.  Like a signpost, Las pointed me to Marcus Aurelius, Camus, Kierkegaarde, T.S. Eliot, and many many others, all  of whose complete works I have read.  I was relentless in my pursuit; the result was that I also pursued authors who were referenced in the writings of these authors and so on.  The very title of this essay reflects that of which I write, Augustine’s Concerning the Teacher is the influence.  Las never told us that we were to read those authors, but for me it was obvious.  I took very seriously Billy Hall’s advice about being responsible for my own education.

My most significant discoveries during my time in Las Newman’s Church History and Apologetics courses were Camus, and Kierkegaarde.  The discovery of these men’s works also coincided with the beginnings of my disenchantment with the life of faith.  Their idea of self-authentication and self-definition as opposed to a universal definition of who I or any other individual ought to be appealed to me.  The concepts of choice, freedom, and their logical corollary of loneliness, dread, and anxiety, I could accept.  They made sense to me at the time.  These men, in turn, led me to Dostoevsky (especially his Brothers Karamazov and one of the key characters in that novel, Ivan, who impressed me with his decision to “…refuse the ticket.”), Tolstoy, and many others.  The floodgates of literature and philosophy burst open, catapulting me into the pre-Classical and Classical Greek periods, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Romantic period, Modernism, and Post-Modernism.  It was truly the beginning of my period of discovery, significantly enlarging the breadth and scope of my reading.  Las Newman’s reference approach helped to make that happen.

“…slow riseth worth…”
Anyone who has lived and grown up in the so-called Third World will tell you that models and standards of beauty, scholarship, perfection, morality, etc., were those that were presented to us through the films, magazines, news, and other media of white people.  So imagine my confusion when for the first time in my life I am being praised and recognized for my intellectual ability by a white man.  My initial response was that he was simply trying to patronize me and that he was just another white person who was being condescending to another “native”.  At the time, I disdained the presence of white professors on the JTS faculty, for in my view they were all part of the white missionary enterprise to bring “light” to us hapless third world people.  Within that frame of thought, Tim Erdel was the exception to that which I perceived as the rule.  In his mid-thirties, with scruffy beard, staring eyes behind glasses, and blue jeans, he looked the combination of hippy and Quaker.   It was because of him that I came to know G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, and especially Miguel De Unamuno. 

I first saw the quotation that begins this section of my essay at the beginning of a recommendation that Tim wrote for me for acceptance to Princeton Theological Seminary.  I was not accepted to Princeton, but the three individual to whom Tim introduced me did more for me than Princeton could have done.  I found out that the quotation was from Samuel Johnson’s poem, “London” – a wonderful poem indeed, but it was Unamuno’s short story, “San Manuel, the Good Martyr” more than any of his other writings that significantly changed my life.  I will leave the discussion of that text for another essay. 

I took two courses with Tim Erdel, one (Religion and the Classics) in my undergrad program and the other (World Religions) in my graduate program.  What I particularly liked about Tim as an instructor was that he allowed students to pursue their own interests.  As a result of that approach, I was able to focus entirely on Albert Camus’ The Fall, Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology, and on Hinduism.  My in-depth study of the latter made me re-discover the “Bhagavad Gita” and opened up for me the world of the Mahabharata (the one book that I would have with me on a desert island if I could choose only one book) and the Ramayana.   Further, because of Tim’s approach, I was also introduced to some of the interests of my fellow students in his classes.  I remember being awed and moved by classmate’s, Dave Gosse’s analysis and presentation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.  It was in Tim’s classes that I began to see the connection between literature and philosophy and in which both those disciplines started to draw me in more than ever.   My passion for literature and philosophy has continued unto this day, and I have incorporated both into my Great Books class as a high school teacher.

The Bishop of Woolwich
For a very long time, one prominent inhabitant of my library was a tattered, beaten up, little brown book, with an image of Robert Tait McKenzie’s The Competitor on its cover.  I referred to it lovingly as “my little brown book”.   I had rescued it (while studying in Jamaica) along with a few other books from a box of books put out for disposal.  When I placed it among my small stock of books at the time, I made a mental note of its author.  Then not long afterwards in my course on the Book of Romans, I heard the professor making a reference to J. A. T. Robinson and his Honest to God;  I remember returning home later that afternoon and knocking off that little book in one sitting.  The professor was the Rev. Sam Vassel, and that book, drawing on the works of Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich, marked a pivotal point in my experience.

As a professor, Rev. Vassel was not only instrumental in introducing me to the Bishop of Woolich, he did something far greater; he gave me his friendship – that which no other teacher has ever given me as a student.  Our friendship grew and deepened during the times we spent jogging in the early morning hours before classes started.  It was during those runs that I came to know Sam better – his humility, his great sense of humor, his passion.   His passion as an educator was admirable, and that passion was also seen in his role as husband, pastor, and father.  I have since become an avid runner, but that love of running began back then with our morning runs.   I have long forgotten all the things Sam, my fellow students, and I discussed in that class on the Book of Romans, but Bishop Robinson’s work still resonates with me, Rev. Vassel remains my friend, and I will be participating in a 15K race in Central Park next Sunday.

I know the value of teachers.  They are our unsung heroes and heroines guiding us, helping to train our minds, and helping to shaping our values.  In some cases they are our models of how we ought to be.  My teachers have been the signposts and stepping stones in my life’s journey, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. 

I have come a long way since my experience in the classes of Billy Hall, Las Newman, Tim Erdel, and the Rev. Sam Vassel.  After my engagement in the field of Biblical Studies and Theology and subsequently devouring countless works of literature and philosophy from the major cultural movements from the Pre-Classical period to Post-Modernism, I chose the profession of a high school teacher.  I have chosen to work with teenagers because I do not have to worry about trying to impress them with my knowledge and intellect; they simply don’t care about the teacher’s intellectual ability.  That frees me up to be genuine with them as I try to guide them through their intellectual journey. 

I have also since walked away from “faith”, a faith for which I continue to maintain a profound respect and that I regard as having been immensely functional for me during a certain period of my life.  The “walking away” was also by choice (on account of a rather significant event while sitting under a tree on the JTS campus), in the mold of Ivan Karamazov’s “refusing the ticket”, with my holding a simply philosophy that life makes sense and that people make sense.  Looking back, I must say that I have come a long way, and the men mentioned above have been influential in a certain part of that journey; to each of them I am extremely grateful. 

As I bring this reflection to a close, I would like to also draw attention to two fellow students who, during that time at JTS, helped to make my experience there during those four years superbly rich and a lot of fun.  I consider them my friends and brothers – David Pearson and Alex Chambers.

[Photographic Art by Ric Couchman]

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