Smart/Dumb

In my profession some colleagues believe that marking hard – giving more D’s than B’s, for instance – correlates with a high level of “rigour” in teaching. To my mind, though, there is often no connection between grade distribution and rigour. If you are handing out a dozen D’s, you need to look at both the quality of instruction and the level of preparation students have received prior to taking that course; something is wrong.

The most “rigorous” – that is, demanding and detailed – professor I ever had was Lionel Abel. He gave everybody A’s, yet almost nobody took a class from him more than once. He was too tough. He would read student essays aloud in front of the class and make brilliant if sometimes lacerating comments. One time he stopped after reading just the first paragraph and gazed, smiling, at the lady who wrote it, asking, “Did you take Freshman English?” She nodded yes, turning red. “Did you pass?” I had to look away. Abel finished his analysis of her work by writing a big A on the student’s front page.

I didn’t receive similar treatment until my second class with Abel. “Mr. Basil, do you mind if I read your T. S. Eliot essay in front of the class?” I said I would be pleased. Then the professor added: “May I be frank?” What could I say but yes? The professor showed the first page of the essay to the class, with several words circled. “I believe that you don’t know what these words mean,” he said, then went through them, one by one. It was very embarrassing. After class Professor Abel told me that I was trying to sound smarter and more educated than I was: a foolish endeavour, which made me sound dumb. “Don’t approach great poetry with big statements; come to it with questions. You’re never dumb when you ask questions.”

From that moment I resolved never to be embarrassed to be the “smart dumb person” in the room, asking questions when no one else raises their hand. At the very worst, this is entertainment for my colleagues. To my mind, it is also essential mental hygiene.

A lovely Lionel Able quote: “We realize we have made a friend when in a relationship we are able to suppress that special disappointment which follows getting to know him, her, anyone – even oneself – well.”

It is sweet to remember those first resigned sighs, from my loyal friends. The essence of friendship is neither correction nor therapy.

The New York Times titled its obituary of Lionel Abel “The Last Bohemian.”

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