What happens when you thread together autobiography, literary criticism, pedagogical reflection, and travel literature, with Homer’s Odyssey as an organizing principle of it all? One finds out in Daniel Mendelsohn’s touching book, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic (Knopf, 2017). Luke Slattery describes the book as Mendelsohn’s “attempt to braid Homer’s fantastical seafaring tale into his own life; his own family story. It’s at once a lit lesson and a travel tale, an autobiography and biography: a double portrait of father and son echoing the bond between Odysseus, eponymous hero of Homer’s tale, and his son Telemachus.”
Among other things, the book repeatedly points to the fragility and sublimity of good teaching.
Mendelsohn relates an anecdote from his father Jay’s high school Latin classroom. The teacher, a harried European war refugee, appeals to five boys to continue on to senior year Latin, the culmination of which is reading the Aeneid. The boys, distracted by spring sunshine and weary of paradigms and irregular verbs, decline their teacher’s invitation. Dejected, he scolds them: “‘You refuse de riches of Fergil! Diss, you vill regret!’ And then he closed his briefcase and walked out of the room.” Mendelsohn recognizes in the episode the “almost unbearable image of a teacher filled with knowledge that no one wanted.”
In another tableau aboard a Mediterranean cruise ship retracing the supposed itinerary of Odysseus, Mendelsohn encounters an elderly Belgian man with a large scar on his leg, conjuring one of the great recognition scenes in Homer’s epic. He relates that as a fourteen-year-old during WWII, his family was destitute, reduced to digging up tulip bulbs to eat and scrounging for firewood to burn for heat. After badly injuring himself with an ax, infection ravaged his poorly nourished body. His teacher, an unkempt but brilliant eccentric, stayed by his bedside reading the Odyssey in Greek for hours on end, sustaining a sick boy with Homer’s spellbinding story. The Belgian credits his teacher’s reading with saving his life. “So that’s why you’re on the cruise,” Mendelsohn asks, “because you love the Odyssey?” To this question, the man solemnly answers no. “I am here because I loved my teacher. I always thought that someday I should find a way to honor him, and this seemed the best way.”
Later, Mendelsohn tells of his own teacher, a “fine-boned, olive-skinned, cigarette-voiced German . . . who took me under his wing.” Fred introduced him to the beauty of culture in its many forms. More than that, Fred welcomed him into first-hand experiences of such culture, providing him tickets to New York’s finest opera, philharmonic, ballet, and theater. Mendelsohn writes: “It was from Fred that I understood that beauty and pleasure are at the center of teaching. For the best teacher is the one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him.”
An Odyssey offers excellent insights into Homer’s epic. I will teach the latter better because of what I have learned from Mendelsohn. But An Odyssey is perhaps as much worth reading for the light it sheds on the teaching vocation. In Mendelsohn’s radiant demonstration of what Elizabeth Corey aptly describes as learning in love, one finds a marvelous portrait of teaching at a high pitch, indeed. May we go and do likewise.
Please give attention to a few other matters of common interest:
- A special word of thanks is due to our many colleagues who rallied around our alumni over a glorious Homecoming weekend. Apropos of the reflection above, our alumni routinely recall with fondness the lasting bonds of gratitude and shared understanding arising from their time at Baylor, whether last year or last century. They are a reminder of the blessings we enjoy by living up to our distinctive Christian mission.
- In one week, our annual Laura Blanche Jackson Lectureship in World Issues will feature Katharine Hayhoe. On Monday, October 25 at 7:00 p.m. in Cashion Academic Center, Fifth Floor, Dr. Hayhoe will present A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. Her recognitions include Christianity Today’s 50 Women to Watch (2012), Time’s 100 Most Influential People (2014), Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers (2014, 2019), Politico’s 50 Thinkers, Doers, and Visionaries transforming American politics (2016), Fortune Magazine’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders (2017), and United Nations Champion of the Earth, Science and Innovation, (2019). Please attend—and encourage students to attend—this truly timely and important talk!
- The following week, on Thursday, November 4 at 4:00 p.m. in Alexander Reading Room, Angel Adams Parham will give our annual Drumwright Family Lecture. Dr. Parham, who studies the historical and comparative-historical sociology of race, will present Canonical Reading that Bridges Divides: A Balm for the Contentions that Ail Us. She writes: “Why keep the idea of a canon of great texts when so many contend that this practice fosters inequality and excludes racial and cultural difference? While some ways of reading canonical texts can reinforce inequality and exclusion, this does not have to be the case. What does it look like to engage in canonical reading that bridges divides? I explore a proposal that has the potential to be a balm for the contentions that ail us.”
- Pell Grant recipients, minorities, and first generation college students often face challenges that impact academic persistence. The HC’s two majors, however, retain students in these categories at astonishing levels. Data show one-year retention rates of 100% for entering students in 2018 across all three subgroups. We also retained Pell, minority, and FGCS freshmen who began in 2019 at 100%. And in 2020, these same students had a 100% retention rate. Did you catch that? Over a three-year period, every single student in these categories returned after his or her first year—we didn’t lose one of them. I’m amazed and proud to see such fantastic results!
- We continue to make great progress in the Give Light Campaign in the area of student scholarships. A total of 19 new endowed scholarships within the Honors College have been created during the campaign, including a new $500,000 endowed scholarship commitment made last week. Endowed scholarships help us recruit and support students, reduce their financial burdens, and free them to focus attention on the outstanding honors education we offer across our four programs. Join me in gratitude for a growing pool of donors whose generosity benefits students so directly.
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University