Getting it Right
by John McLain
Dave Hitchens was halfway through his first year as an assistant professor when he discovered that something was terribly wrong. Toward the end of a Monday afternoon lecture at Tennessee's Austin Peay State College, a timid hand went up.
"Um…Mr. Hitchens…Sir…I don't know quite how to say this, but, didn't you give us this lecture on Friday?"
Startled, he looked down at his notes. The student was right. For 45 minutes, he had been repeating himself, right down to the jokes. With trademark honesty, Hitchens thanked the student. Teaching five sections of the same U.S. history course that met on different schedules was a challenge. The days had started to run together.
But the incident touched a deeper nerve. "We were well into winter quarter," he recalled recently in his Olympia home, "and I realized that no one had ever asked a question. This kid sat there for 45 minutes listening to a lecture he'd already heard before he got up the guts to say something, and he was the only one."
"Whatever I thought I was involved in," he said, "wasn't happening." It was a pivotal moment that would forever change the way Hitchens approached teaching.
A boy with ideas
David Lee Hitchens was born in 1939. A poor kid from east Tulsa, Okla., was an unlikely candidate to go to college, let alone become a college professor. Most boys in the neighborhood expected someday to work in the nearby oil fields, sell cars downtown or deliver milk for Meadow Gold. Most boys weren't the son of Frances Marie Rasmussen. Fran made sure that the Hitchens household was a place for books, ideas and intelligent conversation. The young Hitchens fed his imagination with literary classics his mother could pick up used for a quarter, library books about anatomy or historical figures (World War I fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker was a favorite), even texts from the occasional college class Fran took when she could scrape together the tuition. One Saturday, his parents left him home alone and Hitchens toppled headfirst into her criminology text, only to surface from the world of Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger when they returned hours later. Surprised at his choice of books, his mother asked if he had any questions. "Just one," he said. "What's a sexual psychopath?" His father, he recalled, beat a quick retreat to the kitchen.
Hitchens' inquisitiveness came naturally, as did an early love for talking about what he was thinking and reading. The neighborhood could be rough on a boy who read books and spoke up too much, like the time three classmates threatened to beat him up every day unless he stopped raising his hand and answering questions in class. (Not one to cave quickly, he shot back, "One at a time or all three at once?") His curiosity even worried his grandmother. Thinking Hitchens was out of earshot, she once asked her daughter-in-law, "Fran, where does that boy get those ideas?"
But Fran knew what she was doing. "Because she was my mother, I clearly didn't appreciate her at the time," Hitchens said. "I was just a kid. One of the earliest things I remember her saying to me was, ‘When you go to college…' It was never, ‘If…'"
Fran was willing to go to considerable lengths for that to happen. She grew up Chippewa on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin, while Dave's father was Shawnee and Cherokee—facts Fran tried to keep from her son. Her experiences with racism, particularly at a government boarding school in Kansas, had continued to haunt her. Hitchens didn't find out he was American Indian until his paternal grandfather told him when he was 9. Fran, however, would never talk about it, and went so far as to petition the state of Oklahoma—successfully—to change the race on Dave's birth certificate to "white." He's spent a lifetime puzzling about his mother's motives. "I think she just didn't want me to have to deal with the kind of racism and barriers that she had encountered," he said. "My life was going to be different."
Hitchens can pinpoint the moment he fell in love with history to a day in September 1956, the week after he turned 17, when a class assignment sent him to the University of Tulsa. Pulled in by a project on Rome and dissatisfied by the scant offerings at his high school, he found himself for the first time at a university library.
He still recalls the spiral staircases, the narrow, dimly-lit aisles, and an entire bay of shelves—floor to ceiling—devoted to Rome. He picked up a single, blue leather-bound volume and blew the dust off the top.
"Something happened at that moment," he said. "Years later, I would describe it: Clio, the muse of history, came sidling up and stuck her tongue in my ear."
The next year he entered the University of Wyoming on a swimming scholarship to study history and literature. He stayed on for an M.A. Then, married with two kids, he was off to the University of Georgia for a Ph.D. Fran sent a credit card to help with expenses.
History, for him, had become a means for understanding the world, for making sense of the time we were in by understanding how we had gotten here. His most chilling lesson came when he and four other graduate students at Georgia clandestinely observed a 1963 Ku Klux Klan rally. He had himself experienced what he would call "casual racism" that inhabited daily life in the places he'd lived. He wasn't prepared for the focused vitriol of a Klan rally, the anger concentrated with religious fervor, or the presence of so many children. Nine months later, near the site of that meeting, Lemuel Penn, an African American school superintendent and decorated war veteran, would be murdered by the Klan. "I thought I was going to see a dying phenomenon," he said, "but I remember a little 18-month-old girl in particular whose family was standing near me. I've often wondered what became of her."
The experience cemented Dave's conviction that citizenship requires us to look forward as well as back, and to work to make things better. "You operate very differently in the world if you believe people are no damn good than if you think humanity has the capacity for betterment."
Hitchens was only 30 when he applied to join Evergreen's planning faculty in 1970, and though he didn't fit the mold of "senior scholar" that the ad requested, the allure of creating a college from scratch—of getting it right—compelled him to make the leap. As a young faculty member who'd changed jobs every couple of years, he'd seen too many colleges that hurt people. "Classes are places of fear," he wrote in his application, the last thing he thought they should be.
And he'd already been innovating. In an effort to mix it up at Austin Peay—to make sure that the students afraid to tell him he had been repeating himself would start getting their money's worth—he'd swapped classes for a week with an English professor teaching about the same historical period. His history students learned about the political literature of the era while he lectured the literature students about its history. That mingling of disciplines nearly got him fired. Later, at Rollins College in Florida, he'd joined an interdisciplinary initiative within the college, an effort that foundered when old guard faculty withheld their support.
"The reason for studying history" Hitchens has often said, "is to stop making the same dumb-ass mistakes." He saw right away that Evergreen could be different. Instead of tinkering around the edges, founding president Charles McCann had called for a wholesale reimagining of the higher education enterprise, unshackled from the traditions and structures that constrained learning. Students would be free to chart their own intellectual paths, with faculty as co-learners and guides—not dictators. Faculty would be free to teach without the artificial limits imposed by time barriers and set courses, and they would be accountable to one another for their work. Learning would be rooted in the practical as well as the theoretical. The curriculum, like life, would be interdisciplinary.
"I saw a chance to do things in a way where I could understand and feel that learning was taking place the way it ought to be."
He wasn't disappointed.
Hitchens recalls how the planning faculty hammered out, by consensus, the details of what would become a new college. He still marvels at how well it's endured over time. For him, it was a tremendous act of faith that students would come, that the experiment would work.
"We treated students as adults, we expected them to approach their learning as adults, we knew there would be a variety of ways that people responded to that, but that for the most part we could rely on them to respond."
Evergreen was also a place where faculty didn't compete with students, where students could be brilliant without worrying about outshining their teachers. He wrote in his application to the college: "Instructors must accept the fact that many students possess greater originality and more intelligence than they do." After 41 years, he knows from frequent experience that he was right. Perhaps best of all, Dave himself never had to stop being the inquisitive, 9-year-old boy who curled up with World War I flying aces, 1930s gangsters and the human circulatory system. "I've learned all sorts of stuff from colleagues that I never would have been able to achieve on my own. That's what the planning faculty were hoping for. That's what I ended up milking, because I realized what I could learn from my teaching partners, and hoped that I was giving them something important and useful in return."
Dave Hitchens wasn't supposed to retire. He would have been happy to go right on teaching—guiding students into the past with all its warts and intrigues, challenging their assumptions, knowing they would challenge his.
Life had other plans for Evergreen's longest-serving faculty member. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2010 and led his last seminar in January after a reaction to chemotherapy ended his treatment options. In June, the Board of Trustees honored him with emeritus status.
Since then, he doesn't get around—but the world is coming to him. Charlie McCann called him recently to talk about the Iliad. Other friends and colleagues drop by to relive memories and jaw about world events. Former students from all over the country email to tell him what his teaching and mentoring have meant to them. His six kids make regular stops to talk, give and get some good-natured ribbing, or just sit on the edge of the bed with him. His wife Joan, a former hospice volunteer, organizes the family's efforts to help Hitchens make the most of the time he has left and to enjoy every moment they have with him.
Joan, a 1982 Evergreen graduate, also wants to make sure the history professor's own rich history is preserved. A digital recorder often captures the conversation as the consummate yarn spinner entertains his listeners with memories from his Oklahoma childhood, homilies about why history matters, and stories from the college he helped to build and still loves fiercely.
"I love to talk," Hitchens said with a laugh. "I just don't have a podium anymore." He doesn't need one. There are still plenty of people who are happy to come around and listen.