On Teaching: Tom Laqueur

by Fernando Quintero

History, as seen through the eyes of professor Tom Laqueur, is both relevant and wondrous.

Getting students to share his vision is the key to Laqueur's teaching success.

"I'm not a conduit of material. I regard teaching as quite personal. I teach the material through me. I try to teach things that appeal to me," said Laqueur. "Really good teaching also involves teaching about yourself."

Laqueur, who also serves as director of the Human Rights Program at the Doreen B. Townsend Center, has gained notoriety among undergraduate and graduate students alike for his personal, challenging approach to teaching.

He has been awarded Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, named Distinguished Visiting Humanist at Northwestern University Center for the Humanities, and published articles and reviews in major academic as well as mainstream publications.

History matters, says Laqueur, because "it is the stuff modern consciousness is made of."

For Laqueur, who was born in Istanbul shortly after his parents fled Nazi Germany and spent his youth in a West Virginia coal mining town, teaching the story of humankind is the stuff that his own conscience is made of.

"One of the biggest conflicts I had was whether being a scholar meant being a sellout," said Laqueur. "I realized the life of politics wasn't cut out for me."

But the scholarly life didn't change Laqueur. During his first teaching job as Instructor of Social Sciences at Concord College in Athens, W.Va., he started the first black history course and attempted to organize an anti-Vietnam War march.

And while writing his doctoral dissertation at Oxford on "Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, 1780-1850," Laqueur joined in on local labor protests.

In 1973, Laqueur came to Berkeley, where he said his energy "turned to academia." But Laqueur's former life of activism continues in his words--both written and spoken--and deeds.

His Townsend Center program is successfully linking human-rights activism with intellectual work. His moving, thought-provoking account of his trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is among several personally inspired works published or in progress. And for five years, he has helped run a homeless-aid program at his synagogue.

Most importantly, Laqueur's teaching and research is making the socially and politically vital connection between the past, the present, and the future.

"I want to make every student--and myself--think about what the stakes are. Real good scholarship has stakes," he said. "I don't tell students, 'Here's a gap. Fill it.' I ask, 'Why does it matter? If it matters to you, it matters to someone else.' I try to make their work be exigent."

Laqueur's words come out like short bursts of electricity. He emphasizes his thoughts repeatedly in different ways, but he is not redundant. His students sometimes erroneously interpret his intensity as scattered.

"I have a hyper-energetic quality. And I sometimes come across as hyper-critical because I tend to come on fairly aggressively intellectually," said Laqueur. "Students who come to know me see it as a kind of respect."

In class, Laqueur makes history come alive by giving examples that are around us but often overlooked. In his basic undergraduate course on the history of Western civilization, he begins the Renaissance period with a campus slide tour, pointing out how the building in Raphael's "School of Athens" is mirrored in Wheeler Hall, the architecture of the Campanile, and the Greek urns at the Hearst Gymnasium.

"Instead of just telling them about periods of classical revival, I try to get them to think about what it means to them. Why do we have this architecture around us. What is the aesthetic attraction? The role of a teacher is not simply to pass along an accumulative body of set learning."

In the 25 or so years since he began teaching, Laqueur has learned the secret to good teaching is the establishment of a personal relationship between himself, his students, and his subject matter.

"It's like an intellectual jam session," said Laqueur. "I've gotten better at jamming."


Copyright 1994, The Regents of the University of California.
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