He was a friend of mine
His former students, one after another, repeated those words—“He was a friend of mine”—at the memorial service a few Saturdays ago for Gordon Carper, historian and faculty leader at Berry from 1975 until his retirement in the early years of this century. They thanked his wife, Joyce, and his two sons Noel and Todd, for sharing Gordon with them and they thanked Gordon for sharing his life with them and for sharing Joyce, and his two sons (and later his grandchildren) with them. The crowd for the memorial was large and appreciative, appreciative of the four former students who spoke of their professor and the many more who came to pay their respects, appreciative not only of a professor and his family who could change lives, but appreciative as well of students whose lives could be changed by a professor. Appreciative of good teachers and good students, for you can’t have one without the other. We were honoring Gordon Carper, to be sure. But we were also honoring teachers, teachers whose lives made a big difference for at least some of their students, and their students.
I do not know whether this is true of all faculty under 40 years of age, but my guess is that for almost everyone of us over 40 we became college teachers—and I suspect it was the teaching that came first and the scholarship we happily discovered later—because of some Gordon Carper in our lives. What we do now we do because at some point we came to realize what a Gordon Carper had done for us. Exactly what a Gordon Carper (or, in my case, a Bill Kuykendall) did to change us varies. For some of us, it was simply that someone we respected and admired exhibited a passion and intellectual seriousness that we could tell was not just acting or entertaining. We were drawn to the light in their eyes. For others of us, it may have been a really smart person taking our thoughts or our expressions of our thoughts seriously, taking us seriously.
Professor William (Bill) Henry Frazier Kuykendall took me seriously enough to give me a D in a class in Old Testament Archaeology (as I recall, my only class in which my older brother was also enrolled, and that goes some way towards explaining my D, I would argue!) Kuykendall knew I was capable of doing A work and he knew that I knew I was capable of doing A work. He also knew that I would not be completely demoralized by a D. So he gave me the D I deserved—well, that he thought I deserved; surely I did at least C work—and we both got on with our lives. I took additional courses with him. I got some A’s. We talked a lot. He was a friend of mine.
I worry that we are fast losing or, perhaps, have already lost even the possibility of faculty like Gordon Carper and Bill Kuykendall, and of faculty changing the lives of students. We place a lot of demands upon our faculty. We expect them to be not only excellent teachers, but also productive scholars and active in service on multiple committees. We want them to be good citizens, too, and good family members if they have families. Any friendship is hard work and time consuming. And a friendship between a faculty member and a student, as Aristotle recognized, is almost impossible.
For Aristotle, friendship requires an equality that rarely characterizes the student-faculty relationship. The Gordon Carpers and the Bill Kuykendalls of the teaching profession realize this, of course, and thus act to elevate the student. Sometimes it is simply a matter of encouraging or enabling a student to transcend the mundane. Often it is helping a student move from the assumption that a college education is mostly about vocational preparation and credentialing to a conviction that an engagement with this event or text or idea or work is worthy of our attention—worthy of our love. Our Gordon Carpers and Bill Kuykendalls knew that in most instances we, their students, would not soon understand an event or artifact as well as they, but we could become their equals in love and respect for that which we studied. They made us better lovers, which is probably not why our parents sent us to the colleges we went to. And not why the parents of our students send their children to Berry.
Usually I am pretty skeptical about the claims some colleagues frequently make about Berry’s unique education of head, heart and hands. We may agree, more or less, on what an education of the head looks like, but what some mean by “education of the heart” strikes me as either silly or dangerous or mostly just empty talk. Until I remember what Bill Kuykendall taught me. Until I hear testimonies like those I heard about Gordon Carper. An Education of the Heart by Educators of the Heart.
We—society, the economy, parents, the academy, private liberal arts colleges with aspirations, etc.—haven’t made it easy for a faculty member to be an Educator of the Heart, not as easy as it once was, I think. But, though perhaps fewer in number, educators of the heart still exist, as do ready students. I am privileged to know a few.
Thomas D. Kennedy