Over the years I’ve spoken to successful individuals about any teacher who ignited a spark that drove their success. In my case, that teacher is Bill Fowler, who taught three or four of my classes at Northeastern University. He changed not only the way I thought about history and life but also demonstrated a leadership style that I emulate to this day.
What separates this Renaissance Man from every other instructor is interaction.
I recently spoke with Dr. Fowler, who has just retired.
My goal was to learn, first-hand, how he perfected his particular style of pedagogy, what traits characterize the best teachers and how today’s crop of students compare with my generation.
Becoming Abraham Lincoln
Fowler literally brought historical figures, from James G. Blaine to Robespierre, to life. He did what stand-up comedians call “acting out.” So, you’d sit down in class and, boom, all of a sudden you were listening to Ulysses S. Grant, King Louis XIV or Andrew Johnson.
It not only made for superb drama. It made learning an experience.
Fowler stumbled upon this experiential technique working as a park ranger with the National Parks Service. “I gave talks at the Old North Bridge. There were barking dogs, jets flying overhead, all sorts of distractions and I needed to keep the group focused.”
In addition to shouting so he could be heard, Fowler had to communicate directly with individuals in the audience. “That’s where I learned direct eye contact could give them a sight, a sound and a smell. I wanted them to feel as if they were on that bridge on that fateful day long ago.”
Then & Now
As far as the difference between students in the 1970s and ‘80s and their modern contemporaries, Fowler refers to the latter as ‘The Wikipedia Generation.’
“They think everything they could possibly need to know is in Wikipedia. Period. As a result, they’re able to access information, but they can’t process it. They can see almost anything, but they can’t understand it.”
And, that’s where great teachers like Fowler fill in the blanks.
“The first thing I do, at the beginning of a new semester, is acknowledge they’ll be turning to Wikipedia for all of their answers and suggest we go there together, see what’s on Wikipedia, examine the information and analyze it.”
“My classes are journeys into the nuances of history that today’s students would otherwise miss completely if they relied solely on Wikipedia. Truth only comes from reflection and thought and analysis. And, that’s what the Internet is taking away from us. Good teachers need to intercept, interpret and, in effect, be a filter for what the students learn on Wikipedia.”
But, don’t get the idea that Fowler is down on Millennials and Generation Z. He isn’t. “Every generation suffers amnesia. They think what they’re doing today, in the here and now, is the only thing that matters. And that holds especially true for our political leaders. They want you to believe the world began on the day they took office. Millennials are just a reflection of our nation’s leadership. There are no more Harry Trumans, JFKs or Teddy Roosevelts who studied and wrote about history,” he observed.
Fowler believes his job was to make students think about what came before and put what is happening today into a frame of reference for them. He certainly did that for me.
Note: In part two, tomorrow, Dr. Fowler will address the key attributes that a great teacher (or leader) should possess.