By the fall of 1968 I had finished all my work toward a Ph.D in English except for my dissertation, which was still a work in progress. My three year U.S. Steel Fellowship at Case Western Reserve University left me free to take courses and study for two years but in the third required me to teach a basic course in English and to assist a Professor in grading, the latter a dreary task if there ever was one. In November of that third year a faculty member at CWRU who and had been an undergraduate at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York told me of a position just opened there to replace temporarily a senior professor going on sabbatical. He recommended me for the job, which was to begin in January of 1969 and, knowing that Hamilton took a liberal arts education seriously (and still does) I accepted the invitation to interview.
Landing from Cleveland at Oneida County Airport I was greeted by the Chair of Hamilton’s English Department, Dwight N. Lindley. Dwight was a co-editor with Cornell’s Francis Mineka of the later letters of John Stuart Mill and, to make conversation while we drove, he mentioned that his own role in that project was strictly minor. As I was to discover later, the only time Dwight’s honesty was questionable was when he spoke too modestly of his own accomplishments,
My interview was at Dwight’s home on Fountain Street in Clinton. With only two or three other English Department members present, I sensed that the job was mine if I chose to take it. Dwight was the last one to put up the pretense of a formal “meeting” when the outcome had effectively been decided already. I took the job then and there and what followed was a couple rounds of Dwight’s s best Scotch, then a delicious dinner artfully prepared by his wife, Janie.
Dwight and Janie were generous people. Shortly after my return to Cleveland I had a letter from Dwight asking me what books were absolutely necessary to continue my work on my dissertation and promising to have them purchased by the library if they weren’t already there. They were to be available to me for as long as I needed them once I arrived at Hamilton in January. They were.
When my wife Mary and I did arrive from Cleveland in our Volkswagen bug, we discovered that Allied Van Lines had placed our student sized load of furniture in the back of the truck and could not deliver it until several days after the promised date. Dwight and Janie immediately put us up, told us not to fret about the length of our stay, and fed us for over a week as though we were part of the family.
Hamilton College, though considerably changed in the nearly 50 years since I taught there, remains centered on teaching students to speak and write effectively and to think independently while learning from each other. These goals accorded well with Dwight Lindley’s scholarly focus on John Stuart Mill, whose best known essay is “On Liberty.” Dwight’s desk at home was generally piled with papers from the Freshman English course he considered to be the core of all his teaching. He spent more of his time making his honest and careful way through these papers than on any of his many professorial tasks. More than any college English teacher I have ever known, Dwight fully understood that students, by sharing their ideas through writing, can discover what they as individuals actually think as opposed to the tired views they pick up from the social majority. Slighting student opportunities to do that will not produce the genuine liberty of differing individual thought on which, Mill argues, a democracy depends for its continued existence. All that gets students is the lingo that happens to be the intellectual currency of the times they live in. (For that reason I was never happy about papers ending with the certainty that their proposed thesis would “make the world a better place.”)
I was about to turn 30 when I met Dwight Lindley; he was 50. He had been an army sergeant major in World War II, blowing up bridges as he once told me. He had high blood pressure, or so I suspected, and was easily “irritated,” especially by sloppy thinkers set on overthrowing the existing order of things, of which there were a great many in the later 1960’s and early 1970’s. He once pushed his insistence on common sense, straightforwardness and forcefulness of opinion so far as to shout uncivilly at colleague during a faculty meeting: “that’s ridiculous!”
Kirkland, an experimental college then attached to Hamilton, once advanced an argument for substituting final grades with written faculty evaluations of each student. Dwight was “irritated,” just as he would have been by letters evaluating faculty members that slid over their possible limitations. I think this rigorous honesty was due to his fear of losing a hold on reality. If you are about to blow up a bridge, you had better not miss a person on your side of the war being on it. Dwight religiously picked up the daily paper before he drove from his home in Clinton up the hill to his Hamilton office. And when much later he was close to dying, he religiously called down from his room to the desk attendant to make sure he had the day, the hour and the minute entirely correct. Though I never laid eyes on a letter he wrote evaluating me, I was always confident that he would be fair while avoiding overstatements of my worth. When exaggerated approval seems to be the order of the day, as it does now, our professions may be in for some trouble.