Ears pressed against texts the rhythms of which they have memorized over decades, some professors can similarly syncopate their pupils’ minds and hearts. Students with the sense and luck to find them discover quickly that the status quo in most courses doesn’t apply in this one; regurgitation is anathema. These teachers forge thinkers, showing their pupils how to analyze and assess for themselves.
Over the past 47 years, Alan C. Kors, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, has played this role in his students’ lives. I was fortunate to have been enrolled in the last courses of his residence here.
Professor Kors is anomalous in several ways. For one thing, his syllabi encourage students to come to office hours and promise that “students’ emails come first.” Even more astounding is that he actually means it. He is among the few professors who value their responsibilities as educators above their roles as researchers and authors.
Professor Kors’ dedication to his students extends beyond what fuel and training he provides, to what he diligently excludes. We are given just enough information to wrestle with the texts assigned. All personal biases and prejudices are checked at the door for both student and teacher.
What does that look like practically? In his intellectual-history course, one of the two sessions a week is a lecture. This inevitably includes the weekly reminder that we ought infer nothing of Professor Kors’ beliefs from the lecture content; each week he assumes the opinions and outlook of the thinker assigned. When speaking as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he is an ardent deist; the next week, as Joseph Butler, he is a pious priest. Students in the class have no idea with whom professor Kors most agrees, with which thinker his views most align. What’s more, they are repeatedly reminded both that it does not matter and that it is their right as learners to be taught by an impartial guide.
The second class of the week is dedicated to student discussion. Our teacher reminds us the subject of this conversation is not is this thinker correct? but solely what is this thinker saying? As a class we are invited to answer one another’s questions about the texts, and to grapple with the greatest contributions to thought to which we have access. How these texts and movements bombinate inside our heads after the class is over is our business, but while in his classroom we are never to pass judgment on the merits or veracity of the texts themselves, or to preach our own opinions. Aside from clarifying comments, Professor Kors allows his classes full freedom. He will not silence an unpopular opinion or uncomfortable reading of an assigned text, nor tell a student that they have come to an inappropriate conclusion. Equal and full participation is granted to all; content is ours, deduction is ours.
Contrast this pedagogy with an episode from my first semester. I had written a paper comparing Petrarch and Luther. After the paper was handed back, I met with the professor to better understand her assessment of my work. She informed me that my paper was flawed because “you’ve made it sound like you agree with Petrarch!” Surprised, I protested that the assignment was to compare the two figures’ views, and that this required an articulation of both, to which she responded, “Yes, but you’ve made it sound like you think he was right—Petrarch was wrong. Historians have known that for 50 years.”
For Professor Kors and a shrinking number of his fellow educators, the most important job of a college professor is to equip students with the tools to understand the work of great minds. This is empowering. He reminds us that we have the intellectual imperative and capacity to engage in age-old symposia. Groupthink is for minds too weak to operate autonomously; we are not so fragile.
Is this really a novel way of teaching? “Free speech,” Professor Kors cautioned in a speech on the modern university, “is most threatened today in the very places in America where you would think it would be absolutely the freest: our colleges and universities, where dissent is punished, graded down, where conformity is rewarded and where speech codes—in a nation that so desperately needs to educate in liberty—where speech codes are the rule rather than the exception.” Where is the proof? In the speech codes themselves, and especially in their use to censor political positions. The University of Maryland banned “idle chatter of a sexual nature.” At Vanderbilt, a conservative student organization was shut out of the university after refusing to report the racial composition of its staff, which members argued was none of the university’s business.
Of course, private institutions have the right to enforce whatever rules they wish. But with potential students, these universities are far from forthright that they enforce speech codes, or that particular political outlooks are banned. As Professor Kors put it, “No one cashes a check at Brigham Young to discover halfway through the year that it’s Mormon, but our neomarxist institutes, you found that out only after they have cashed your check.”
“Truth itself benefits the most from a confrontation with error,” as Kors also said; if you fear opposition, then you lack faith in either your veracity or your ability to defend the truth. If the former, opposition will prove it; if the latter, opposition will sharpen your ability to defend what you believe. In a university there is and should be no room for mandated silence, and yet that is the policy that reigns.
During one of my many visits to his office hours this fall, sitting amidst piles of books, Professor Kors told me that spring 2016 would be his last semester teaching at Penn. “You’re abandoning us, Professor!” I (half-)quipped. “Celeste, I’ve fought the good fight for 47 years,” he responded.
And he has. Not only did he cofound FIRE, the foremost organization combatting illiberalism on college campuses, and not only has he personally defended students and provided guidance to institutions, but, perhaps most importantly, he has been the sort of teacher every student committed to intellectual growth and integrity deserves. He has challenged us to truly think, and in so doing has shown us how.
He is an educator in the truest sense. The word itself “educate,” from the latin ex ducere, to lead out, promotes encounter with unfamiliar thoughts and minds in pursuit of sharpening one’s own. For the past four and a half decades, Professor Kors has indeed led his students out of safe spaces, into foreign, demanding, and fantastic ones. For this we will always be indebted to him.
Celeste Marcus is an intellectual-history major at the University of Pennsylvania.