Driving across the Triborough Bridge from Manhattan to Queens 46 years ago, I was terrified. It was not the height of the bridge but the prospect of teaching my first class, at Queens College, that tormented me. I had spent the summer preparing a lecture about ancienct Egypt, in panicked avoidance of an opening-day encounter that was supposed to be about Plato in my Western civilization course. That night, exhausted from my miserable debut, I read Plato.
Over the years I cherished what academic life, at its best, should be about: reading, writing, thinking, learning, and teaching. (And, as the baseball umpire Bill Klem famously declared: "You can't beat the hours.") To be sure, my teaching anxieties returned more than occasionally. But I remembered the wise admonition from my undergraduate mentor: When the anxiety vanishes, it may be time to retire.
Last January, I began my final semester of teaching. Or, as I preferred to call it, my victory lap, after 45 years at Wellesley College.
I fired up my motivational engines and forged ahead. Within 10 minutes of my first class, students had displayed all the familiar responses, from eager attentiveness to bored distraction. (I took it as a good sign, however, that no cellphones rang.) But in my seminar, with nine enthusiastic students sitting around a table prepared for thoughtful conversation about the history of Israel, I was instantly reminded of my own most rewarding college experiences.
During the semester several colleagues kindly inquired whether I would be giving a "last lecture," already something of an academic tradition among those who take pleasure in celebrating themselves. But I always remembered my visit to Professor Mark Van Doren's last class at Columbia University, 50 years earlier. A gentle and learned man, he entered the classroom, sat at his desk, and quietly resumed a conversation with his students about Don Quixote. At the end of the hour, without fanfare, he left. I wanted my last class to be like that.
By midsemester I had begun to empty my office of now-worthless paper accumulated over the decades. As I lugged each basket down the hall to the recycling bin, I felt pleasurably released from the minutiae that had grown around me like barnacles. After each class session, I also discarded my lecture notes. I enjoyed my new freedom from encumbrances.
Meetings, surely the bane of academic existence, reaffirmed the wisdom of my decision to retire. At one, no worse than so many others over the years, my colleagues and I were instructed to discuss which "goal," among several equally foolish ones, to impose on our two handfuls of senior history majors for them to demonstrate their competence (and, presumably, ours). It was an absurd exercise, designed by administrators who insistently claim that they can—and must—bureaucratize liberal-arts education.
With a month of the semester remaining, I felt twinges of sadness and loss as my contact with students neared its end. The day after my World War II class, a student stopped by my office to show me a Life magazine photograph of Buchenwald survivors, with her grandfather standing in the second row. I was touched that she had shared it with me. Another student came by—ostensibly to discuss her paper, which we did—but really to talk about her difficulties at Wellesley. There had been many such moments of trusting contact with students during four decades.
As the end approached, I was frequently reminded of my own best college teachers who, in their varied ways, had burrowed under my intellectual skin. If I could pose questions—while implying that asking questions is what education should be about—I was content. A former student, learning of my pending retirement, wrote to tell me that what she remembered most from our time together was: "Q & A: Question and Analyze." It was the highest teaching compliment that I could receive.
I wanted at least part of my final survey class to be open and spontaneous. In brief concluding remarks, I referred to the pleasures of uncovering the past while trying to make sense of it to students in their very different present. Then we had a delightful conversation. Inevitably, a student asked where I was during the 1960s, and what I had done to save the world. When I replied that I had spent most of my time in the library stacks at Columbia, she was incredulous. Another student perceptively contrasted my having lived through events (if from a distance) with her learning about them decades later. It was a poignant, if unintended, reminder of the passage of time.
As always, my seminar was special for its moments of intimacy and intensity. Near the end of each semester I would welcome the class to my home, which evoked fond memories of my own Oberlin experience. That meant a lot to me then, and I wondered whether any of my students would remember it, as I do, after 50 years. For a historian, after all, memory is immortality.
For our last seminar meeting—my final class—we gathered on a warm, sunny May afternoon on a shaded lawn beneath the iconic campus tower. I noticed that students instantly recreated their seating pattern from the classroom. I wondered whether, like me, they were having difficulty letting go. Our pleasurably meandering discussion wandered from their reactions to a video about Israel that they had watched with evident delight (as had I) to an intense discussion of the centrality of "the land" in the Biblical narrative and modern Jewish history. It was a perfect ending.
With graduation behind me, I began to dwell on a sobering reality: I had entered the final stage of my life. It took a kind friend to ask "But what about old age?" for my uneasiness to subside. I knew that I was not there yet.
But my cohort of closest academic friends, all of whom I have known for at least 40 years, is now easing into retirement. We were not the "lost" generation, nor can we claim to have been the "greatest." But as members of the "silent" generation we have left our legacy in less flamboyant, more private, ways during our privileged academic careers. With abundant opportunities, given the small size of our cohort and expanding enrollments to absorb the baby boomers, we enjoyed a great run.
By late August, as the children of younger friends began to drift back to college and I had not had my annual pre-semester anxiety dream, I felt the wonder of it all: I was free! I experienced the joyful absence of the academic calendar that had structured my life for 70 years. In the waning days of summer I felt the presence of that absence, and I cherished it.