Professor Worthington' Quest



Preparing at a New England private school which had an exceptional reputation for scholarship and deportment, Roger Worthington entered and took honors at the most prestigious University in the East, married his thesis director's daughter, and started a career at a second-rate little New England college where he planned to spend thirty five years of teaching before the age of retirement. At fifty he had retained much of his engaging, boyish manner, although his hair had whitened and his face showed those deep vertical lines which reinforced his reputation for being a serious thinker. But his schoolboy ardor for learning and the acquisition of new knowledge never deserted him, and he was always actively engaged in the pursuits of the mind, or as he always put it "knowing".

He used to say that knowledge can be found in books, it doesn't make much difference whether they are read or not, impassive and dispassionate knowledge is always there on the library shelves. But "knowing" was something different, the active pursuit of important matters which were desperately trying to slither away. With the instinct of a terrier off and running after a swiftly vanishing cat, he continued his grand pursuit of knowledge year after year, his eyes always fresh and glinting with the joy of finding each day something fresh and entirely new. Many of his colleagues made fun of his eternal boyscoutism, as they called it, but the students appreciated this teacher with his driving streak of zeal, whether they understood it or not, and it was this which bound them to him. Roger had his coterie of admirers, and he was happy.

History was not only his field, but his passion. He knew how to ask hard questions answerable only by harder answers, which had a way of looking exactly like the truth if you thought about it long enough. Years of classroom practice made him the perfect history teacher. He seemed to know all and at the same time to have grave doubts about everything, so that he was always outlining on the blackboard the final chapter of The Meaning of History , but simultaneously erasing critical sections of it with his other hand. To his students history came to look like a kaleidoscopic view of people performing arbitrary actions in a perpetual quandary. "You know, it could all have turned out quite different, if Duns Scotus had not made this very point, which Pope Julius II took literally, thus causing the unfortunate situation of... " Following possibilities to their logical consequences was his game, it was an exciting venture in historical casuistry, and the good professor played it with a passion, which was exactly the way he played chess.

But Dr. Worthington went beyond history. He extended his queries into the larger and less definable area of what he called "Life", penetrating into a world which he had little knowledge of and less technique for handling. He knew he was off his base out of the academic world, but he felt that a question was still a question, and to each question there was an answer somewhere if you looked hard enough. Lacking a library card file system to the real world, he figured that if you want to know something, you ask the people who do know, and they will be delighted by honest zeal and gladly communicate what he wanted to know. Doing this kind of research, one must to be careful, it was not at all like working in the college library. He was often hesitant and shy before speaking, he screwed up his eyes a great deal, coughed a couple of times, stroked the right side of his chin, and feigned not going any further with the investigation. Then he would change pace, and come right out with it: "You know, I've often wondered about some things that you probably know a great deal about, and I'd like to ask you... "

Nobody could be put off by such an honest beginning, and the good professor went through life asking a lot of sudden and surprising questions of many very surprised people. Since his questions were like his history problems, asking something simple but at the same time expecting complex answers. No one could satisfy him by answering in enough detail, people would later not be sure what it was he had wanted to know, or even remember how they had responded. While respecting his obvious show of sincerity, they thought later that it was odd asking questions like that, in fact on second thought it seemed downright peculiar. But next morning they had forgotten their reservations, and joined the world in thinking him a sincere and scholarly, if rather odd, personality.

Dr. Smith of the Psychology Department had just been divorced, unexpectedly surprised by his wife's sudden need for room to lead "her own life", and was now depressed because he knew he had no idea what she had meant. Some weeks after the court action Roger Worthington caught up with him walking down elm-lined Pleasant Street. They walked along together in silence, until the historian thought a moment, screwed up his eyes, stroked his chin a moment, and came right out with it: "Jim, you probably know a great deal more about these things than I do, but I've often wondered, and I'd like to ask you a question. What's it like to be divorced?"

A well known militant black leader was brought to the Campus, and the Activist Students' Union had invited Worthington to have dinner with him. Afterwards they all pulled up their chairs around a warm and friendly fireplace, when Worthington after a few hesitations and strokings of the right side of the chin, came out and asked him, to everyone's amazement, what if felt like to be black. After a pause, during which it wasn't clear whether the speaker was going to ignore the professor or eviscerate him, he replied casually: "Well, I'll tell you, it's just like being white, except you know everything people say to you has a dark side, if you know what I mean." Roger thought to himself "How terribly interesting, I'm not sure exactly what he meant, but a most engaging point of view. I'll discuss it with my students tomorrow in the Imperialism Seminar. Nice man, that fellow, even if he goes by a strange name like X., or whatever it is. People ARE so very different."

Stranded downtown in New York City with a flat tire and no spare, he took the opportunity of asking a black mechanic who was fixing his flat how he felt about things. "I'll feel a lot better when I figure how we're going to wipe cats like you right off the face of the earth." What an incredible idea, he thought to himself, and you know, the most interesting thing about it is, I believe the chap actually meant it. I could feel it in my bones.

An Assistant Professor in Sociology, who had work stained, callused hands and an Italian name, when asked about the identity of the working class second generation immigrants, told Worthington to fuck off. This bothered him, because nobody had ever refused to answer a well-meaning question before, but afterwards he decided this was, in its own way, an answer, a compressed kind of social signaling, no doubt stemming from the man's background. He filed this away in his mind as something quite new.

Turning to Harry Levine of the English Department one day as they were leaving the Faculty Club, he asked if Harry had any thoughts about the difference between Jews and other people. "Considering the long history of antagonisms, not only under Roman domination but in medieval Europe and on into the Reformation, you know, something must be very different to keep the Jews apart from the whole Western Tradition. We have been looking at this problem in my European Developments course, and there is little for me to tell the students on my own, so I thought perhaps I could ask you for your personal point of view." Levine looked at him with amazement, said he hardly knew where to begin, but if he would read something on the Holocaust preferably with photographs, and he still had questions, he could drop by his office sometime. "Harry, do you have a scrap of paper, I think I should write that name down. Yes, that's good. Thank you so much Harry, this has been most enlightening."

Some years later, Dr. Wilkinson Chairman of the Religion Department died, and the college community turned out at the College Chapel for a suitably high church memorial service. Everyone seemed suddenly to have forgotten that Wilkinson was a tyrant in his department, completely incompetent elsewhere, and a terrible bore on every possible occasion. But now that he was at last dead, he was hence "beloved". During the lengthy memorial service, Roger Worthington sat at the rear of the college chapel, musing deeply on life and death. Finally the service ended, the Chaplain was talking with members of the family at the far door, and everyone else had left, when the good professor proceeded cautiously to the open coffin, looked all around as if had some secret thing to ask which nobody should hear. He coughed once or twice and stroking the right side of his chin, asked . . . . . .



William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris