You remember the first time it happens to you at college. No, not that — the other spark. It happened to me in the early 1970s in Professor Carl Schorske’s class on Viennese intellectual history at the turn of the 20th century. There he showed, with remarkable eloquence and erudition, how Freud, Klimt, Schoenberg, and other seminal figures had changed Western intellectual life forever.
After we left college, many of us went on to have traditional, even distinguished, careers, but I venture to guess few had many more Schorskean moments.
Forty-five years after departing from Princeton, I felt something akin to that first spark. Through a CUNY program allowing seniors like me to audit undergraduate classes, I ended up in a class at Hunter College on “Narratives of Adultery in 19th-Century Literature.” Into the class strode young and hip, Armenian-born Professor Margarit Ordukhanyan. “So,” she said wryly, “if you’ve come to talk about sex, you’re in the wrong place.” Of course, that’s all we talked about during the remainder of the semester as we pored through novels by Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Hardy.
Though the two professors have different teaching styles, they have something fundamental in common: They both revere the artists whose works they are explaining. Sitting in class, you hear this: The artists you are studying are people who take ideas seriously and practice their craft at the highest levels. Put in the time to try to understand what they are trying to create and you will be rewarded, even changed. At the end of each class you feel it: You are being consumed by an intellectual delirium.
Editor’s note: To share a learning experience after Princeton that left a lasting mark on you, write to PAW or email firstname.lastname@example.org.