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MacVicar speaker recalls his inspiring teachers

Dartmouth College President Emeritus James O. Freedman paid tribute to the teachers who inspired him during his student days at Harvard College and Yale Law School last Friday in the MacVicar Day lecture.

"By educating us to deal with words, with symbols, with values and with people, teachers superintend our intellectual and moral development and extend our capacity to lead humane and fruitful lives. More than any other persons in society, teachers are the curators of our heritage." Professor Freedman said in his talk entitled "Great Teachers, Great Teaching."

Noting that he attended Harvard during the 1950s, a period not noted for intellectual ferment, he said, "I regard it still as a period bursting with powerful ideas." Among the professors he cited were Douglas Bush, Walter Jackson Bate, Perry Miller, Albert J. Guerard, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and his tutor, John V. Kelleher. The Rev. George A. Buttrick also influenced him profoundly.

"By their loving immersion in their subjects and by the strenuous demands they made of their students, my teachers inspired me -- an anonymous student sitting in classes typically of several hundred -- to be passionate about the life of the mind," Professor Freedman said. "I yearned to become a member of their company of scholars. I hungered to write books like those they caused me so much to admire [he has written two and is working on an autobiography]. I wanted to partake of their professional way of life. What could be more thrilling and ennobling, I thought -- what could be more worthy or rewarding than a career as a teacher and scholar?"

At Yale Law School -- "best of all... a meritocracy" -- Professors Alexander M. Bickel, Joseph Goldstein and Louis H. Pollak, among others, contributed to Professor Freedman's continued intellectual growth.

"The most important lessons that my teachers taught me were not substantive," he said. "Indeed, I have long since forgotten most of whatever substance I may have learned in order to pass my exams. Rather, the professors who influenced me most taught especially from example. They were dispassionate in their search for truth, careful in their weighing of evidence, respectful in their tolerance of disagreement, and candid in their confession of error...

"Professors may teach most effectively about such values as integrity and honesty precisely when they admit their own doubts or ignorance. There is no more important event in the moral development of a student than that quiet, suspended moment when a professor responds to an unexpected question by saying, 'I don't know.'"

Finally, Professor Freedman said, he admires exceptional teachers for the commitment to "mastery and craftsmanship, to inquiry and skepticism -- that is, in the end, perhaps the most important of the transformative values that great teachers and great teaching impart."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 10, 1999.

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