One of the great history teachers in those days was a University of Chicago professor named Karl Weintraub. He poured his soul into transforming his students’ lives, but, even then, he sometimes wondered if they were really listening. Late in life, he wrote a note to my classmate Carol Quillen, who now helps carry on this legacy as president of Davidson College.
Teaching Western Civ, Weintraub wrote, “seems to confront me all too often with moments when I feel like screaming suddenly: ‘Oh, God, my dear student, why CANNOT you see that this matter is a real, real matter, often a matter of the very being, for the person, for the historical men and women you are looking at — or are supposed to be looking at!’
“I hear these answers and statements that sound like mere words, mere verbal formulations to me, but that do not have the sense of pain or joy or accomplishment or worry about them that they ought to have if they were TRULY informed by the live problems and situations of the human beings back there for whom these matters were real. The way these disembodied words come forth can make me cry, and the failure of the speaker to probe for the open wounds and such behind the text makes me increasingly furious.
“If I do not come to feel any of the love which Pericles feels for his city, how can I understand the Funeral Oration? If I cannot fathom anything of the power of the drive derived from thinking that he has a special mission, what can I understand of Socrates? ... How can one grasp anything about the problem of the Galatian community without sensing in one’s bones the problem of worrying about God’s acceptance?
“Sometimes when I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted. I think it works on the student, but I do not really know.”