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Great Teachers We Have Known

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Dear Close Reader,

It was wholly a pleasure to learn that something I wrote got you to thinking about a great teacher you once had. What I'd written was: "We can still remember the piercing, unblinking blue eyes of a professor of biology who could look right through you, and see every vacuum of knowledge you were so desperately trying to cover up in class."


That memory of mine got you to thinking about your own days in law school:

"Students were called on to recite the assigned cases and explain what point of law should be applied. The professor was a genius at selecting students who hadn't read the case. Slump in your chair? He noticed it. Sit behind the biggest guy in the class? He would come right back to your desk and ask. Bluff your way through by sitting upright and looking eager? It was almost a 100 percent certainty he would call on you. Law class soon became one I was always ready for, thanks to the professor with the piercing eyes."

My own imposing professor -- of biology -- was named Mary Warters, who taught and inspired for almost half a century, 1927-71, at little Centenary College in Louisiana.

Dr. Warters turned out a good part of every entering class at the state's premier medical schools, LSU and Tulane, during those years. She was the finest teacher I've ever had, bar none, regardless of subject. Clear, direct, she made the complex simple and the involved as plain as the unforgettable drawings she'd dash off in colored chalk every class. After all these years, they're still engraved somewhere in the creases and crevices of my little gray cells. In color. She managed to teach even me a little biology and genetics, which have stood me in good stead in the debate of late over the use of human embryos for stem cell research.


Dr. Warters had no politics you could tell, thank goodness, but she did have an iron Presbyterian will that would accept no excuses, evasions or equivocations. And the debate over using embryonic stem cells for research has been full of them. But with Dr. Warters, a fact was a fact. Life was life. You knew or you didn't know. She could tell. And you'd better know. Behind that soft Georgia accent laid an absolute intolerance for the slurred answer, the shoddy evasion and lazy thinking in general.

A widely recognized researcher in genetics, Dr. Warters spent her summers at national laboratories like those at Oak Ridge and Bar Harbor experimenting with Drosophila melanogaster -- that's fruit flies to you and me -- in the days before DNA, the double helix and the human genome project were all over the papers.

What fun she would have had in our time! There's now an endowed chair named for her at Centenary, and to this day her old students pronounce her name with a respectful aura around it.

More than the knowledge and skills she imparted with such unsparing clarity, it was the inner change Mary Warters sought to make in her students that they would come to value in the years to come -- a respect, indeed awe, before the mysteries of Nature and Nature's God. She didn't just pass on information, but tried to plant the seeds of wisdom -- if her students would but cultivate it in their lives.


Kingsley Amis, the delightful English author, has a character in a novel about academic life say that the one word that summed up everything that had gone wrong with the world in his time was: "workshop."

In our time, the most depressing phrase in what's now laughingly called higher education has to be "skill sets."

Here in my state, the University of Arkansas is proceeding to dismantle its once respected liberal-arts curriculum, reducing it to a series of required courses for specialized vocations. It's technical skills that count, not learning or reverence for it. The university seems more concerned, indeed obsessed, with the sheer number of certified, degreed graduates it can churn out rather than whether they're educated. And the more they know about their own narrow specialty, the less they understand in general. What the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset called the barbarism of specialization proceeds apace. Right over the cliff.

The university's administrators would do better to study its great teachers, and learn from them. Then they might understand why even those students who aren't planning to major in a respected professor's specialty would sign up for his -- or her -- courses. It's to be enriched, broadened and inspired by his -- or her -- intellect and spirit. That is, to be educated.


How blessed we both have been, Dear Close Reader, in our teachers.

Thanks for the memories,

Inky Wretch

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