T.H. Von Laue and Teaching

I’ll never forget inviting Professor T.H. Von Laue to discuss Russian history with my class at Clark University: he introduced himself as a “student of history” (mind you, at that time he was in his eighties, wore half-glasses and a rumpled suit coat, he was fluent in four languages with a long list of publications, and he was the son of a Nobel Prize winning physicist). This “student of history” never lost his spark, the curiosity to learn and to question; he never got caught up in titles—education was a never-ending pursuit and he was determined to keep at it decade after decade. Von Laue also introduced me to the study of world history and the need to think on a global scale (he was a pioneer in this field). He invited me to attend my first world history conference at Bentley College in 1993. And he was clearly a role model—he interacted with everyone he met the way I’ve described here. Taken together, Von Laue’s traits and values are at the core of my educational philosophy: never stop learning; think globally; model intellectual curiosity.

Nobody with his or her eyes open can ignore the deluge of information the 21st has brought; nobody who has taught or studied world history can profess to know it “all.” The only logical path is to keep learning. This attitude helps teachers put themselves in the shoes of the students: it reminds them of what it feels like to learn something for the first time, the struggle involved, the excitement; it fosters a sense of humility and empathy; it lends itself to a kind of natural role modeling of the type Von Laue exhibited during his many years as a scholar and an educator.

Of course, talking about it only goes so far. Modeling intellectual curiosity works best through actions. Publishing, reading on a wide variety of topics, and discussing issues with students and faculty alike–all have a positive impact on students and teachers and the entire learning atmosphere in individual classrooms and throughout an entire school. (Didn’t Jefferson say, “I cannot live in a world without books?”)

Contemplating the enormity of the world’s problems and the palpable sense of uncertainty in our global age can be intimidating. It can just as easily be seen as an opportunity, a way to discover and explore new things. Historian William H. McNeill referred to cultural diffusion as the “drive-wheel of history.” The process of borrowing across cultures goes beyond the study of history, however. From music to math, from science to dessert recipes, our lives are a product of this on-going global process. We cannot stop it: we need to help students embrace it and adapt to it, armed with a sense of curiosity and the desire to keep learning. It is a set of values adults need to exhibit as well as expound. In a sense, we all need to become Von Laue’s “students.” I hope that I have followed in his footsteps so far. I hope I can continue to do so well into my eighties. Achieving this, I’d be able to agree with Cicero that “the life given us by nature is short, but the memory of a life well spent is eternal.”

For a Bio on T.H. Von Laue (click here).


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