“Is This Heaven?”…”No, It’s A University.”


I would first like to thank everyone assembled here tonight, and thank the larger Colgate community for bestowing on me the great honor of “Professor of the Year” for the 2003-2004 academic year. I am as deeply moved tonight as I was last April while hearing my name announced at the awards ceremony in Memorial Chapel when I was decked out in my full academic regalia, which I affectionately refer to as my “academic drag.” (Oh how I love long flowing gowns and caps with frilly tassels streaming down.) Returning to Colgate today for me is returning home.

I would like to talk tonight about the role of learning in my life, and the path I have taken to enter the field of education. And I will share some reflections and insights I have picked up along the way.

Learning, as life itself, is a journey. Sometimes learning takes you to deep and luminous places of the mind, places of the soul, places of the spirit as life takes you to spiritual, emotional, and physical places you’ve never imagined. When I was young, I never fathomed concepts like Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, Postmodernism, and Postcolonial Theory. On a physical level, I never imagined that I would one day walk hip deep in snow that covered the frozen ground five months out of the year in a village called Hamilton, and loving every minute of it; and I certainly never imagined walking in the bright sun of an August day at the Iowa State Fair and actually witnessing the renowned life-size sculpture of a cow crafted entirely out of high grade sweet butter, or I never thought that on occasion, I would be crouching beneath my basement stairway with my dog Hamsa held tightly to me amid the air raid sirens screaming their warning of an immanent tornado. This reminds me of the film “Field of Dreams” when a team of baseball players from a bygone era, now long deceased, returned, and one player asked Kevin Kostner, “Is this Heaven,” to which Kostner quipped, “No. This is Iowa.”

One thing about which I was certain, though, at a very young age was that I was somehow different, somehow outside, on the fringes of the so-called “norm,” relative to my peers, and even at times from my own family. Looking back, I have concluded that my identities, my multiple social identities, have had an important impact on both my perceptions that I was different, and on my motivation for learning, learning from others and hoping I could transmit what I have learned to others.

Young children are naturally inquisitive. For some, this natural curiosity remains with them over the full course of their lives – and I use the term “course” quite deliberately. For some people, due to life circumstances, this inquisitiveness, this quest, this passion, this fire for learning gradually or not-so-gradually sputters, and sometimes goes out entirely, for it becomes extinguished. Young children at a specific developmental age enter into, what I am calling, their “Why?” or “But why?” stage. They might say something like: “Mommy, why are we going to Uncle Bill and Auntie Susie’s house tomorrow?” “Because they want to see you,” the mother might reply. “But why?,” is the child’s immediate retort. Or, “Daddy, why did the doggie lick my face?” “Because the doggie likes you.” “Buy why does the doggie like me? But why?”

I have been very fortunate indeed to have never lost the “But whys?” I have never lost my love, my quest for answers to life’s major, as well as the seemingly smaller questions. My, as I call it, “But why? friend” has walked with me, hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder along my life’s path. And I am here to tell you that I believe we are more united and our bonds are stronger and more intense than ever before. So, when did this friend join me in my life-long quest for learning? Well, probably we cohabited the womb. (Hey, that would make this friend also my sibling.)

Coming back to my social identities, the salient identities for me in my learning process are specifically my religious and ethnic backgrounds, the socioeconomic class of my childhood, my biological sex, and my sexual and gender identities.

When I was around five years old, I remember sitting on my maternal grandfather Simon Mahler’s lap. Looking down lovingly and earnestly, he said to me, “Varn”-he always pronounced my name “Varn”-“You were named after my father, your great-grandfather Wolf Mahler who lived in Poland.” “Where is he now,” I asked. With his eyes visually welling up, he responded, “He is no longer alive, and neither is my mother, your great-grandmother, Basha Mahler, or most of my 13 brothers and sisters, and most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.” “But why are they not alive?,” I asked curiously. “Because the Nazis killed them.” “But why?” “Because they were Jews?” “But why? But why? But why?….”

Another important social identity in my learning process has been my socioeconomic class, for I was raised working class. When looking back over my life, I reflect on how amazing it is that I am standing here before you, or for that matter, that I am holding the position of Professor at all. I am a first-generation college graduate in my family. Both my parents completed high school, but due to the times and due to their economic backgrounds, they could not pursue higher education. The country was coming out of a major economic depression followed by World War II. My mother stayed at home and took care of my sister and myself. My father, who due to limited educational opportunities, worked as a traveling salesman who was often away from home a total of three to four months a year. My father was one of the hardest working people I have ever known. He died six years ago having accumulated virtually no money or assets, but he died with the pride of knowing that he worked hard to support himself and his family.

At the beginning of each new school year, my mother took me to Sears to buy new cloths consisting of two pairs of school pants, one pair of jeans, a pair of new shoes, a few shirts, all which my parents reminded me would have to last the entire year.

“Mom, why does dad have to stay away from home for so long?” “Because he has to travel around six states to sell clothing to the stores.” “But why does he have to travel so far away.” “Because he works hard to support us so you and your sister have food and clothing and a place to live.” “But why if he works so hard, don’t we have any furniture, and why do we hardly ever eat in restaurants, or go on many vacations, or have enough money to go to many movies?” “Your father doesn’t make enough for those things.” “But why can some people buy two or three homes and buy entire companies, and still have lots left over?” “But why? But why? But why?….”

I was raised at a time of strictly-held gender roles (and as I often inform my students, one cannot buy gender roles in a bakery). “Warren, you have to learn to let your sister enter the car first and to open the door for her.” “But why?”

“Warren, you have to take out the garbage, and your sister has to wash and dry the dishes.” “But why?”

“Warren, we don’t want you to learn to play the violin as you have asked. But we would be really happy if you joined little league baseball.” “But why?”

“Warren, you don’t have a curfew, but since your sister is a girl, she has to be home by 10:00.” “But why?”

But the time I was four years old, my parents thought I was or soon would be gay. At age four, they took me twice a week and lasting over the next 8 years to a child psychologist for the expressed purpose of ensuing that I would grow up heterosexual. Since we didn’t have much money for the sessions, we attended a clinic that was subsidized by the county.

There was a basic routine in the sessions. I would take off my coat and put in on the hook behind the door. The psychologist would ask me if there was anything I wanted to discuss. When I was not forthcoming with any information, which was on most occasions, he proceeded to take down a model airplane, or a boat, or a truck, and for the next 50 minutes, he would watch me build it. He told my parents that he wanted me to concentrate on behaviors and activities associated with males, avoiding those associated with females.

For most of my years in school, I was continually beat up and attacked by my peers who perceived me as someone who was “different.” Names like “queer,” “little girl,” “fag” were thrown at me like the big red ball the children hurled on the schoolyard in dodge ball games. I would not and could not conform to the gender-based roles expected of me, and I paid the price. “But why?” “But why?” “But why?….

The more I have tried to answer my “But whys?” throughout my life, the more questions I have had, and the more I still want to know. This reminds me of the old truism: The more I know, the more I know I don’t know. In my case, the more I know, the more I know I don’t know, and the more I want to know all the more.

One important notion I learned back when I was in graduate school working toward my teaching certification was the derivation of the word “education.” It is based on two Latin roots, e and ducere. Ducere means “to lead” or “to draw.” And e means “out of.” The true educator, therefore, is more like a facilitator leading or drawing knowledge from the student by facilitating thought, reflection, critical awareness as opposed to what is commonly considered as education, something that Paolo Friere referred to as the “Banking System,” whereby the instructor deposits bits or morsels of information into a supposed docile and waiting mind as one would deposit money into a back account.

Lev Vygotsky, the preeminent Russian educational psychologist, posited that the learning process is multidimensional and multidirectional in that a true and authentic learning environment is one in which, yes, students certainly learn from their teachers and their professors, but very importantly, teachers learn from students and students learn from one another. In fact, the very terms “student,” “teacher,” “educator,” “learner,” constantly shift, mutate, change form, and then reshift into new and increasingly dynamic configurations.

During my brief time at Colgate, I hope and I believe my students got something from me. I am very certain that I have learned much from them, much that I will treasure for the remainder of my life whether I remain in Iowa – which some affectionately refer to as “the heart of the heartland” – or whether I return to my beloved Massachusetts or New York State. Students here in this room and others who are not present tonight have inspired me.

In a number of ways, my “But why?” friend/sibling helped me make the decision to enter first the field of teaching, and specifically special education, and then to earn my doctorate degree to be a university professor. Being an educator is the best profession for me. In what other field does one get paid to read books and discuss important ideas with bright inquisitive students in a supportive and nurturing environment? For me, I can ask the question. “Is this Heaven?,” with the answer being, “No, but close. It’s university.”

And Colgate in its presence and in its very name attests to the conditions, functions and processes of learning. Let’s take the name “Colgate” letter by letter to show this.

First there is “C,” which stands for Commitment, Community, Communication, Critical Thinking, Courage, Creativity and Change.

  • Commitment to pursue the truth wherever it may lead,
  • Community whereby learning happens with others-through and with others in constant and continual
  • Communication, open and engaged communication,
  • Critical Thinking – evaluating your previously-held notions and assumptions, looking at all sides and viewpoints, and making conclusions based on what is available while proposing that which has not been seen or proposed previously,
  • Courage to formulate these new proposals and ideas that might go against the tide or the norm – even your parents thinking, beliefs and dreams for you – to think
  • Creatively, outside of the box, and
  • Courage to strive and work for change that advances the discourse and the base of knowledge and understanding.

“O” is for Opportunity, Open-Mindedness and Obligation.

  • Opportunity to embrace and make the most of what you have been given. If you look over our planet, only 1 percent of all the human inhabitants of our world have the equivalent of a college education.
  • Open-Mindedness: the mind can only expand when it is open to new ideas, even those ideas that challenge some of our hard-held beliefs.
  • With our opportunities, and when we remain open minded, we have an Obligation to share our learning, to share our opportunities with others to make the world a better place.

“L” is for Life-Long-Learning to realize that learning is a life-long process that certainly does not end at university graduation. An institution like Colgate can give us a basic foundation. It can set us toward a direction by which we can further investigate ideas and concepts throughout lives. But learning itself must go wherever we go for as long as we shall live.

“G” is for Goals and Guidelines.

  • Goals to open up the ‘Gates to our futures, to set us on our future paths to learning, to careers, to relationships, to how we want to run our lives, and
  • Guidelines or the principles (ethical and moral principles) that are the bedrock, the foundations of how we guide our actions on that path.

    Because “A” is for Action, taking what we have learned into action, to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk, which is certainly a part of the process as well.

    “T” is for Talk, Truth and Trust.

    • Talk, dialogue, communication is important because it is in the talk, the sharing of ideas with others, that we grow and are enhanced.
    • Truth: never settle for less than the truth. What is true for you is not necessarily somebody else’s truth, but your truth.
    • Trust your process. Trust that your path will eventually lead you to the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. At times when I have begun to loose trust in the process, I realized that it was only because I underestimated just how long was the tunnel. Though the tunnel is longer than first imagined, the light, nonetheless, remains at its end, with glimpses appearing every now and then along the way.

      And “E” stands for Equality and Equity. I believe that the concepts of Equality in terms of opportunity and Equity-when people across this planet have their needs met-are inevitable, and that the day will come when we all follow the conditions, functions, and processes of learning, when we join together as a world community, when we share our wisdom, our experiences, and our opportunities.

      In closing, I would like to leave you with a central tenet of Jewish tradition, which is Tikkun Olam, meaning the transformation, healing and repairing of the world so that it becomes a more just, peaceful, nurturing and perfect place. I would like to leave you with my hope: It is the hope I have that we can all join together as allies to defeat all forms of oppression and to make the world a more nurturing, perfect and welcoming place for people of all social identities and backgrounds. I end then by asking us all to join and go out into our lives, and to work for tikkun olam. Let us transform the world.

      Thank you and Peace!