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Collegiate Tip-of-the-Month: Embody Knowledge

— I grew up in Massachusetts, and one of the historical anniversaries celebrated in that state each year is the Nineteenth of April, the day on which the American Revolution began in 1775. The symbol of that anniversary, and an icon of the United States itself, is the symbol of the Minuteman—the citizen-soldier who responded “at a minute’s warning” to the call to arms those many years ago. The United States Mint is in the process of issuing a series of commemorative coins that honor each of the fifty United States, and two years ago the coin for Massachusetts appeared featuring the image of the Minuteman. Soon after it went into circulation I was sitting in the Junior Common Room of my residential college and one of my students asked me who the Minuteman was. If ever there had been a teachable moment that was it. The opportunity it gave me was the opportunity to show that academic knowledge—whether of history, or science, or art, or literature—is not a classroom abstraction. Academic knowledge is embodied: it lives in human beings, in their minds and their hearts, in their views of the world, and sometimes even in their genes.

So I told the student about the Minuteman, and about the opening day of the American Revolution. But the opportunity he had given me was too great to let go, so that evening I sat down and wrote a little essay for all the members of the college, “That Memory May Their Deed Redeem,” an essay which brought together the student’s original question, the coin, the Minuteman image, art and poetry, war, history, and me. I posted the essay to the college’s e-mail discussion group a few weeks later on the Nineteenth itself, and if I read the reaction aright, it hit home. If the essay had been a reading assignment for a course, or a lecture from a vaguely-known professor at the front of a hall (or perhaps an e-mail message from someone you’ve never met), it wouldn’t have meant very much. But for the students in my college, it was from me: the strange character who lived among them, who ate with them in the dining room, who talked to them in the halls, who was always outside digging in the garden; and it came from a question asked in our own college living room.

We succeed as educators when our students in-corporate—when they em-body—the lessons we teach. But if we want them to embody their learning, we must show them how we ourselves have embodied that learning in our own lives. That’s hard to do in a classroom, but it’s easy to do in a residential college, and it was what I tried to do for my students in that little essay. There is nothing in any way distinctive about me, of course, that isn’t equally distinctive about all of us: all of us have worked our learning into our lives in unique and striking ways. That is what our students need to see, and that is the collegiate lesson: whatever your academic specialty may be, or your weekend hobby, or your personal background and experience, when an opportunity arises, put yourself on the line as an individual and show your students how you combine learning and life. From your example, they will come to see how they too can take classroom facts, and memorized dates, and even tiny pictures on coins, and make them live.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021