Brooks students entered a dated and pretentious room with the feel of an old study. They sat in a circle as they listened to Professor Edward Blum. One lecture illustration was the defaced image of Christ from after the Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The room transformed as Blum’s slide showed the stained-glass window with a hole where the holy face of Christ had been.
“Tell me what a feminist looks like,” the woman at the microphone chanted. Obediently and enthusiastically, we responded, “This is what a feminist looks like.” It was a beautiful, if chilly, April afternoon, and several hundred students, faculty members, and administrators had gathered in front of the University of Mary Washington’s administration building to mourn the murder of Grace Rebecca Mann and celebrate her life.
Brooks School, where I teach, is a traditional elite New England boarding school with roots in the Episcopal tradition. Founded in 1926 and named after Phillips Brooks, a well-regarded Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, the school defies tradition as it seeks to diversify its faculty and student body. This diversity extends to its spiritual life. Its faculty represents a collection of bright, dedicated, and hardworking people. Like many academic institutions, Brooks began as a single-sex male school, and was slow to become co-educational, which transpired in 1979. New England boarding schools have long held a certain mystique among the American populace, a mystique found in films such as Dead Poets Society and in books such as John Knowles's A Separate Peace.
Many, perhaps most, readers of Then and Now teach in one context or another. The responsibility, joy, and challenge of teaching is paradoxical: it is a complex exercise, and yet the task is simple. Is teaching a calling? Can one learn to be a great teacher, or is teaching a gift with which someone is born? What is the future of teaching, particularly in higher-ed settings? How do we teach students to love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with their God?
Sidney E. Mead died this summer at age 94. With Sidney Ahlstrom he dominated the study of American religious history a generation or two ago. When Mead, along with Jerald Brauer, invited me to study at the University of Chicago, I was 26 years old and had not spent an hour on what became my own teaching field for 35 years, American religion.
We buried a fine teacher the other day. He was not a scintillating lecturer, nor was he a particularly exciting person. But he was an excellent scholar, and his passion for his subject matter, for the life of the mind and for his students all shone forth brilliantly.
I have been dreading this semester. Bill Mallard, my colleague in historical studies at Candler School of Theology, is retiring at the end of the year. Together he and I have team taught the first semester of the History of Christian Thought each fall for 21 years. It is hard for me to imagine what the autumns will be like now.