Humanizing the Humanities

John Rassias and the art of teaching

Joseph Mehling / Dartmouth College

Early in my undergraduate years at Dartmouth College, I signed up for a French theater course. I remember waiting in the auditorium with the rest of the class, a large one by the standards of our small liberal-arts school. It was a few minutes past the scheduled starting time, and everyone scanned the room looking for the professor.

Suddenly the lights dimmed and a booming voice emerged from the back of the room, growing louder while reciting a passage from Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, the classic French rewriting of Sophocles. Clad in a black cape, our professor, then in his 70s, nimbly climbed over seats and acted out the scene in the aisles, inviting giggling students to stand and become players in the unfolding scene. Finally this man, already larger than life, swept up to the stage at the front of the room and drew back his cape, delivering a breathless “Bienvenue au théâtre!” to his newly found apprentices. We broke out into applause, laughing and stunned in equal measure. This would be no ordinary French class. In John Rassias’s classroom, language was an experience of the mind and body, meant to be lived and breathed.

Welcome to the theater. With those words Professor John Rassias cracked open a world of possibility for me, as he had with countless others. For John, the art of language was not an end unto itself, but a beginning, a gateway to people and culture.

News of John’s death on December 2nd, at age 90, was not unexpected to those who knew him. But nevertheless, it left a hollowness. That stage would never be quite the same again.

The ensuing outpouring and tributes from alumni and colleagues from around the world is a testament to John’s enduring legacy, and to the way he conceived of education itself. While he is best known for the Rassias method, the immersive and relentlessly interactive approach to language acquisition that he sought to bring to schools and organizations around the world, curiosity and engagement were his primary tools of pedagogy. Learning was worth it for its own sake, and teaching was edifying in its own right.

Everything had the possibility of being a teachable moment to John, and when he wasn’t going around play-acting, he was asking questions, peppering students and colleagues alike on topics for papers and presentations, giving encouragement to work or study abroad (“There is a whole world out there!”) and constantly asking “why?” “Why would the character in the scene act that way? What is he really saying about that moment? What does that have to do with the human condition, my dear?” He answered questions with queries, adamant that students claim an intellectual independence for themselves. The approach was hands on, but the expectation was hands-off. Your education was yours to undertake, yours to own, yours to interrogate and define.

John’s literal staging of open-ended questions, and his predilection for French theater and for tragedy in particular, made intuitive sense. The Greek tragedy played to John’s deepest heart, as he remained proudly and inextricably Greek in identity throughout his life, even if parts of his personality were in turn distinctly American and French. Language acquisition was for him a means by which to evolve and expand the self and one’s concept of the world. The intertwining of French literature with Greek classics provided a unique framework, a vehicle by which to share with his students the elements of his life that had made him the soul that he was.

Rassias demonstrates the Rassias method to a group of teachers. Joseph Mehling / Dartmouth College

The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in New Hampshire and had served in the Marines during World War II, landing on Okinawa in 1945. He moved to France to complete his doctorate and study theater thereafter, followed by a long relationship with the Peace Corps in Cote d’Ivoire, and a career in university teaching. Antigone, like so many French plays of the 20th century, posed veiled commentaries on the war raging on France’s soil at the time, drawn from timeless tales recalling both man’s capacity for unfathomable destruction and for perpetual renewal. Through theater, he encouraged us to unpack a history to which we were the heirs.

John spoke little of his time in the military, but one does not face war unchanged. I always viewed his love of theater as a kind of catharsis, as a way of playing out the past and setting it free. John took the experience of war, in essence untranslatable to those who have not lived it, and created a life built on fostering bridges, communication, and human connection. To read tragedy with him was to witness someone have full acceptance of the deepest darkness of the human soul and, like Antigone, seek to defy the darkness by pursuing one’s higher good—to bury the past not to forget it, but to plant a seed for the future.

His large and imposing hands were always moving, always grasping at the air, or reaching out to greet the hand of an old or newly made friend. I spent many office hours watching those hands wave about as he told stories from the Peace Corps, sung a Greek folk song, or took a step out to hug a visitor (someone was always waiting at the door). This was a man who was above all unafraid to be human, to celebrate and discuss and at times curse about what made us all the same, and what made us different, throwing protocol to the wind—the messiness of authenticity. Language and literature were a means by which to question the boundaries of where one person or entity stops and another begins, of what makes us who we are. When a student stumbled on a French term, rather than condescend, he would correct with a celebration of the fact that mistakes meant effort, and moving beyond one’s comfort zone. In an educational culture that often pushed students to perfection, he taught resilience and pride in coloring outside the lines.

I am a third-generation educator, but it was through the gentle (and at times not so gentle) push to inquiry, searching, and discovery during my undergraduate years that I found my own passion for learning, and grew to fully appreciate the transformative power of a good teacher. An impassioned teacher loves her subject matter and transmits that enthusiasm, inviting students to find their own passion, their own gifts. Not everyone who encounters a language class will love it and go on to pursue graduate studies as I did. But hopefully students exposed to languages in particular and to the humanities in general, embattled as these academic fields are in the country’s current public discourse, may find themselves delving into a dimension of the shared human experience they had never considered before, if even for a single class. And for that, we are all better off.

I think of the importance of educators like John in the current climate, as the U.S. educational system faces profound challenges and its politics are increasingly debated in absolutes, absent shades of gray. As a culture, the country has come to place decreasing value on thoughtfulness, abstraction, and nuanced critical thinking that poses big (uncomfortable) questions rather than presuming answers. Those charged with overseeing learning often want “outcomes” rather than process, even if those outcomes are temporary, even if the picture they paint is incomplete. The labor of teaching—that hands-on, dynamic and most valuable of endeavors—is often shortchanged and even derided. The youngest of children are besieged by academic expectations rather than exploration early in life, and the nation’s college students and even the (often adjunct) faculty that teach them find themselves anxious about financial stability and the viability of higher education.

The humanities and the “soft” skills these disciplines foster are pitted against the sciences when in fact they are a part of an ecosystem of knowledge, a balance in ways of thinking and seeing. There is value in debating the ethics of King Creon’s refusal to allow Antigone to bury her brother in Antigone, just as there is worth in delving into the mysteries of atoms. While society at large requires more “education,” to advance, it has failed to see that it comes in many forms, arguably narrowing its meaning and application. Though educators are no less dedicated today than they were yesterday, the landscape of education, how we conceive of education itself, has changed, frequently eschewing the open inquiry and development of the individual with an eye toward the collective that was once the crux of higher education. With the loss of John, I mourn a beloved mentor and colleague, but also at what he represented: the humanizing potential of the humanities, of the intrinsic worth of the expansion of knowledge to the human condition, of its contribution to society.

The last time I saw John just over a year ago, he had changed. His body was frail, his mind was not as sharp as it once was, and he depended heavily on his daughter Helene, who now carries on his language teaching vocation through the Rassias Center, to get from place to place. I walked up to greet him, this time as a peer, and smiled. A burst of recognition twinkled in his eyes, and he opened his arms. “Lara! Ma chère.” I hold on to that last embrace, thinking of André Gide’s quote “Savoir se libérer n'est rien ; l'ardu, c'est savoir être libre.” (Liberating one’s self is nothing; what is arduous is knowing how to be free.) I thank John, and so many who teach with passion and grace, for reminding us all how to be just a little more free.