It was the first day of classes, spring semester of my sophomore year, and that meant a new section of Contemporary Civilization and a new professor at the helm. I had already accepted, halfway through the first semester of the course, that we weren’t going to read anything remotely “contemporary” and that the worst readings were those that addressed what it means to be “civilized.”
My classmates and I sat around the long, boardroom-style table, trading groundless speculations about our new professor, who was, at this point, officially late. Eventually, the expectation of his arrival killed off this awkward banter, and we sat in silence, waiting. He was now five minutes late. Off to a good start, professor.
Just as the silence was about to break, the door flew open and there he was—tall, very tall, wearing a suit and tie. Barely glancing at us, he set his briefcase down at the head of the table and began to pace around the room. I studied him—the intensity of his demeanor, the energy in his step. I could already tell I’d be working my ass off this semester.
“What would the authors from last semester have to say about the Charlie Hebdo attack?”
These were the first words out of his mouth. I think that most of us were, at this point, extremely confused. How dare he skip all the niceties and formalities, the introductions and icebreakers, the verbatim reading of the syllabus? How dare he make us think about books that we were supposed to (but didn’t) read three months ago? How dare he put us on the spot like that?
We remained silent, and firmly so. But, the tone of silence had shifted from anticipatory to cagey. He raised his eyebrows and lifted a hand toward us, as if to say, “I’m waiting.”
After a painful minute, one brave student decided to give it a try, but failed, miserably: “Well... the Quran says that jihad is one of the Pillars of Islam?”
“No, it doesn’t,” he said, without flinching. He wasn’t being ideological, he was just stating the facts: “The Five Pillars aren’t in the Quran, they’re from the Hadith of Gabriel and jihad’s not one of them.” He looked to the rest of us for something better, but we had nothing to offer. Either we were incredibly intimidated, or we simply had nothing good to say. We had probably all managed to get through the last semester without having to think or read much at all. Not this semester.
We spent the next four months immersed in conversation, skipping summary and diving right into analysis. We pitted Rousseau against Hobbes, Mill against Kant, Marx against Smith, and ourselves against them all. It was an electrifying experience. I felt that I finally understood the point of CC: it is a tradition in the first place and, in that sense, just an arbitrary ritual; and, certainly, we shouldn’t practice ritual for ritual’s sake. We also, however, shouldn’t renounce a ritual just as we are given the chance to reshape it. Our professor gave us that chance. In his classroom, we were not meant to be passive observers and recorders of “the canon.” We were simultaneously its inheritors and the executors of its will.
So, we took his lead on one major modification: in our hands, the canon would not serve as a badge, signifying membership into a good ol’ boys’ club. It was not to be flaunted as a symbol of “civility” in lame invocations of Greek gods. In our classroom, it would be a tool—a tool for understanding the trajectory of an uncomfortable history and for confronting the question of progress in the midst of an imperfect present. And as I would come to realize, moral introspection was always at the heart of the matter.
One night early that semester, as I was walking out of Hamilton, something caught my eye. Perched on top of a potted plant just outside the double doors was a hat. Brown suede, outback style, with a beige leather tassel for flair—an obviously expensive, luxury hat. I looked around, surveying the dark courtyard for an owner, but there was no one in sight. Feeling bad, but feeling giddy, I swiped it from the bush and tried it on. It even fit my notoriously big head.
My sartorial instincts have never been particularly sharp, but I knew that I looked good in this hat. So naturally, I wore it everywhere I went. It made me feel like Indiana Jones: adventurer-scholar, equal parts brash and brilliant. Later that semester in CC, we were in the middle of a break from our discussion of Woolf’s Three Guineas, when the girl sitting across from me took notice.
“Cool hat! Where’d you get it?” she asked. Without hesitation, I gleefully told her that I found it on a bush, right outside. (It’s always fun to gloat about serendipity, isn’t it? Shame has no place where you can blame good fortune.)
Our professor, apparently eavesdropping, piped up from the corner: “So… you stole it?”
“Well, no. I found it!”
“And you didn’t think to turn it in?”
“No, I did... but... I couldn’t help it. It looks good on me!” I confessed, with a cocky smile.
“Yes. But, you wouldn’t think it right if somebody kept something precious that you lost, would you?” It felt like kindergarten all over again. But he wasn’t out to shame me like some schoolyard proctor. He seemed genuinely curious. At first I searched for a solid argument—a strong ethical defense of that childhood mantra, always deployed in obnoxious, nasal tones: “finders-keepers-losers-weepers!” But I came up dry.
“I guess not,” I said, coiling up in my chair like the Machiavellian snake I was just revealed to be.
“Everything goes back to Mandeville, doesn’t it!” he exclaimed, laughingly. “We all have our public virtues… but then our private vices too. Maybe it’s best to just be honest about them like Ian here…anyway, back to Woolf.”
It took me some time to appreciate the importance of that moment. In that moment, he painted a portrait of the good professor that surprised me. The good professor is an eavesdropper, who notices their students—who recognizes them, not as minds to be filled, but as beings caught in thick webs of lived experience. The good professor is a meddler, who refuses to accept that what lies beyond the syllabus is none of their business. The good professor is an interrogator demanding of their students that they have a defense for everything they say and do within the four walls of their classroom because, one day, someone will approach them on the outside and say “Hey! That’s my hat!” And they better know what to do.
When that day comes, professor, I’ll be taking my hat off to you.
Ian Hewitt is a Columbia College senior studying biological anthropology. He works as a teacher’s assistant and research assistant in the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology. He hasn’t done “the Twitter” since high school, and so cannot be held responsible for anything tweeted by @ian_hewitt. The Cloisters runs alternate Wednesdays.
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