Beatrice van Cortlandt Berle '52
I entered Vassar in the fall of 1948. My mother, Beatrice Bend Bishop Berle, was a graduate of the Class of 1923 who often talked to me about Lucy Maynard Salmon’s view of teaching history and her emphasis on original sources. I found history rather boring in high school, full of lists of dates which I could never keep straight. I thought that as a freshman I would take European History 105 since I had always been confused about the rise and fall of various European countries and empires.
My parents were good friends of C. Mildred Thompson, who had recently retired as Dean of Vassar, and was also a history professor. Miss Thompson had been a frequent visitor at our house. I believe she sent an entrance fee deposit to Vassar when I was born. When my sister and I were little, on one visit she read us “How the First Letter Was Written”, from Kipling’s Just So Stories and for many years whenever she came we would request it. We would howl with laughter at the phrase “for he was a Tewara.” My parents suggested that I consult Miss Thompson before choosing my courses. Miss Thompson insisted that I take English History 130 with Mildred Campbell rather than History 105. She said that Miss Campbell was a wonderful teacher and that I would learn a lot from her and that I could sort the European countries out later. After some resistance I agreed to take English History. I loved it and came to see that history not only showed the shape of things past but also gave insight into things to come. The course was rigorous. We learned the importance of original sources and how to find them in the library, as well being introduced to creating a “Note Topic”, a technique which was essential for those interested in pursuing history at Vassar. English History, was also fun. After Miss Campbell recommended 1066 and All That, by Sellar and Yeatman, a book which spoofed English history, I acquired it and found that reading 1066 was an excellent way to review for a test. If I couldn’t see the humor, I had not absorbed the history.
In my sophomore year I decided to major in history and went on to take many more history courses including Latin American history with Charles Griffin. Unfortunately I never took European history from 1500 to 1900 and so have still never quite sorted out the European countries during those centuries. Evalyn Clark’s courses were justly celebrated and her course in French Revolution was probably the most interesting course I have ever taken. In addition to following the events of the French Revolution we learned to evaluate the bias of the many, many writers in our reading. It was inadvisable to come to class without having read the morning paper as there were frequent references to daily events which related to events and policies during the French Revolution. When I took the course the USSR dominated and subjugated Eastern Europe and we frequently compared and contrasted the course of the French Revolution with that of the Russian Revolution. I have applied the concepts I learned in that course to daily events and revolutions from that day to this.
In my senior year I took Miss Clark’s Twentieth Century Europe course. I remember vividly a cartoon we were shown. A small house in the woods was labeled Versailles Peace Conference and outside in the dark and menacing forest was a large wolf labeled Russia. Our assignment was to comment on the cartoon. How unfortunate that the men who positioned the armies at the end of World War II and negotiated the peace settlement had not studied under Miss Clark. My friendship with Miss Clark and Miss Campbell did not end with my graduation from Vassar. Whenever I returned for reunions or other events I would visit them and often be offered a Pimm’s Cup. While planning a family visit to London when my three sons were in grade school, I asked various friends for advice. Miss Clark and Miss Campbell’s three page single spaced typed recommendations were by far the best and most useful. They included suggestions to visit the diorama about the great fire of London in the Museum of the City of London, to visit a restaurant with a honky-tonk piano and sing-a-long music such as, “singing cockles and mussels, sweet Molly Malone”. They also recommended walking up Baker Street to see where Sherlock Holmes lived. One of my sons, who remembered that long ago visit, took his two sons to visit London recently and a highlight of their trip was a visit to Baker Street and the recently created Sherlock Holmes museum there.
How I wish I could visit 162 College Avenue again to discuss recent news while sipping a Pimm’s Cup with Miss Campbell and Miss Clark.
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