My college lost an extraordinary colleague today. Dr. John Thomas taught history. He died after a long struggle with cancer.
I won’t eulogize him here. There are so many people who knew him so much better than I did. They will tell his story.
What I want to say is this: when I think about the point of educating and becoming educated, I often think about a lecture series John put together in the aftermath of September 11. In the frenzied, frightening months after the violence of September 11, 2001, John Thomas delivered a series of lectures about British mercantilism. John’s stories of the British sugar, tobacco and rum trade with the American colonies helped me understand why the study of history matters. In the lead-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, John’s impassioned, amusing stories helped me see my own times in a more rational light. I majored in history as an undergraduate, but John’s lectures were the first time I felt that I really understood what the study of history was about.
I wasn’t learning about mercantilism, colonial politics or international conflict. I was learning about the kinds of questions historians ask. I was learning how historians think about the problems they encounter in their own lives. I was observing how the well-disciplined mind brings patience, perspective and light into confused, chaotic times.
John helped me understand why teaching and learning matter. We teach to help others discipline their minds to think in useful ways that make new kinds of ideas possible. We learn to train our own minds so we can become more patient and perceptive.
John’s response to the fear and uncertainty of September would have been the same no matter what discipline he taught. It could as easily have been math, literature or biology. The subject content is not the point. Teaching can be an act of bravery, a bold affirmation that our learning leads us forward, gives us clarity when times are unclear and offers the right questions when everything feels uncertain.
I am grateful to John Thomas and the other master teachers I have known. They remind us that the work has dignity and purpose. They remind us that the work is vital.