Kathleen Holman Langan ‘46
Seventy years have passed since my academic counselor, Professor Inez Ryberg of Vassar’s Classics Department, suggested that I major in history. It was a brand new thought for me. I had read Vassar’s catalog before I went to her office and had made a list of the courses that interested me. However, I couldn’t make the list add up to a major. The list included the history of art, music, religion and philosophy; German, French; economics; psychology and a couple of courses in history. Professor Ryberg looked it over and asked me to explain how I felt about history. I said it had always been one of my favorite subjects, but I was afraid that if I majored in it, I couldn’t take all the other courses I wanted. She smiled and said that there was a way for me to have it all. The history department offered two majors. The “A” major required 45 points in courses offered by the history department, but the “B” major only required 24, with the remainder coming from “the-history-of” courses offered in other departments. Foreign language courses were also expected to be part of the mix and economics was welcome, too. As for psychology, it could be an elective, outside of the major. It was a course of study that seemed made to order for me.
The first thing I learned from it is that Vassar’s mantra, “Everything correlates,” is a statement of fact. As I went to my various classes, I often found the same subject being discussed, but with a twist that gave a welcome new dimension to my understanding. I also quickly learned that having the history department as an anchor was what made it all work. Under the guidance of such brilliant teachers and scholars as Evelyn Clark, Mildred Campbell and J.B. Ross, I learned how academic honesty is defined and practiced. I also learned where and how to search for facts and how to distinguish them from opinions and fictions. With the help of Lucy Maynard Salmon’s famous note cards, I learned how to analyze and organize the facts I had gathered, as well as how to draw conclusions from them and then put the conclusions into cohesive, logical, understandable form. Most important of all for someone just becoming an adult, I learned to love to learn. These skills are not just for scholars. They are also tools for living in a world in which the pace gets ever faster, making the high-quality education that they represent more and more necessary. Obviously Vassar’s history department did not have a monopoly on teaching these skills. However, what it did have was an unrelenting insistence on them that helped me immeasurably in my other courses at Vassar, in graduate school and in life.
A story I love to tell happened in one of Miss Clark’s classes. She asked my opinion of an assigned book, which, alas, I had not read. Flustered and trying to cover myself, I blurted out that I thought it was “divine,” the 1940’s over-worked version of “cool.” Miss Clark’s response was quick. “Miss Holman, are you trying to tell the class that there is something celestial about this book, and if so, please cite examples.” It’s a small story, but it tells a lot about Miss Clark as a teacher. Her standards for us, her students, were high, but she was also a caring mentor and an approachable friend whose occasional invitations for dinner with Miss Campbell at their house were greatly appreciated. I still have their recipe for the cherries jubilee that they served one night.
I have spent my life being grateful to my “B” history major for offering me the very best kind of education, the kind that lasts a life-time and holds out the possibility of fulfilling one’s obligations to self, family and community with passion and grace. Now in my late eighties, I remain the staunch advocate that Vassar taught me to be for universal, first-rate education, which I see as the world’s best hope for peace. I am also still busy learning. I do my writing on the computer, but I prefer taking notes on those tried and true note cards. While I try not to be a chauvinist about Vassar College and its history department, I sometimes lose the battle. Still I try, because the Misses Clark, Campbell and Ross would not have it any other way.
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