Earl Tilford: Professors teach, students learn | TribLIVE.com
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Earl Tilford: Professors teach, students learn


While all the rage in education, my hackles rise when an educator declares, “We learn from our students” or “Students should construct their own knowledge.” Granted, the 55 years since I was a freshman may explain my antediluvian notion that professors should teach because students need to learn.

At 8 a.m. on a Monday morning in 1964, I was in an auditorium at the University of Alabama filled with other freshmen when a young professor strode in with his graduate student assistant in tow. He introduced himself: “Welcome to History 101, Western Civilization. This is not high school. You will be here on time and in your seats before I begin lecturing which will be promptly at eight o’clock. Unendurable pain and distress are the only acceptable reasons for leaving class during my lectures. My hours are on my office door located on the second floor. If you have any problems, see my graduate assistant first. If phoning me at home will save your physical life, then, please call. Otherwise don’t.” After a pause he turned to his notes. “We begin our discussion with the fall of the Roman Empire.”

There was no discussion. We took notes, by hand, lots of notes. It was the same in other classes where I learned from knowledgeable and demanding professors. I absorbed tales of Russian czars and Bolshevik commissars. Southern history took me from Jamestown to the civil rights movement. My basic American history course went from Colonial America to the Civil War. Dr. F. David Mathews, a future secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Gerald Ford, required us to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Samuel Eliot Morrison’s “The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England,” along with The Federalist Papers. My professors offered up lives of kings and queens, rise and fall of empires, innumerable wars, dictators and patriots, along with sinners and saints who emerged to explain the present in light of the past and hopefully inform our progress into the future.

The following semester I found Botany 101 boring. The lives of moss and corn did not match the drama of Henry VIII and Peter the Great. So, I constructed my own knowledge only to discover that sleeping with the textbook over my face did not foster learning by osmosis. It did, however, render a solid “F.”

Faced with repeating botany, I hired a tutor who asked why I failed. I answered, “Botany bores me.” She replied that the core curriculum was devised for my edification and not my entertainment. She then asked if I had ever driven to a new city. I replied that I drove from my hometown to Tuscaloosa when I first came to campus. “Did you use a map?” I did. She stated textbooks are maps to their courses so read the appropriate assignments before each class. I also should take copious notes and then rewrite them after re-reading the assigned texts.

On my second try I passed Botany with a hard-earned “B.” It helped that Dr. Joab Thomas, a future president at Alabama and at Penn State, made the lives of moss and corn as fascinating as those of royalty and dictators. While my professors were the architects of the construction of my knowledge, my role was to labor diligently.

In September 2001, after a career spent in military service, I returned to higher education to teach history at Grove City College. At 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, I gave my first quiz in Humanities 101. I had quizzes scheduled for two afternoon classes as well. Shortly after 10 a.m., President John Moore informed the faculty that given the horrific events of the day, we had the option of canceling afternoon classes. This made sense because many of our students came from New York and the Washington, D.C. area. Before class met, another hijacked plane crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania. I opted to press on.

As students entered, they saw words from the hymn “Be Not Afraid” projected onto a screen. To start class I said softly, “Let us pray.” I prayed for victims and for God’s guidance in the struggle ahead. With the “amen” students began gathering backpacks to leave.

“Hold on!” I declared, “You have a quiz and then I have a lecture.” Students sullenly settled back into their seats. As I passed out quizzes I explained, “The terrorist did this to make us change how we live. If we do that, they win.” Then, with a rage barely sufficient to stifle overwhelming emotions, I loudly declared, “They are not going to win!”

Five years later, a former student from that class invited me to speak to her civic club in a nearby town. At the end of her introduction, she related the events of that day and ended with, “When Dr. Tilford returned my quiz on Thursday, it was the first ‘B’ I had ever received.” The young lady then thanked me.

It is for professors to teach and for students to learn.

Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East and terrorism with the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.

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