I drove to Hamilton, N.Y., last December to take part in the funeral service for the Rev. Coleman Brown. Coleman, who had taught at Colgate University, had the most profound impact of all my teachers on my education. I took seven courses as an undergraduate in religion. He taught six of them. But his teaching extended far beyond the classroom. The classroom was where he lit the spark.
He was brilliant and slightly eccentric. Concerned one winter day that the heating system in Lawrence Hall was making us students too comfortable and complacent, he opened the windows, sending blasts of snow into the room as we sat huddled in our jackets. He had a habit of repeatedly circling words on the blackboard with chalk, leaving behind series of massive white rings and faint white streaks on his face (he repeatedly ran his index and middle fingers down his cheek as he spoke). His worn tweed coats seemed to always have a soft coating of chalk dust.
He was loved, often adored, by most of his students, whom he looked upon as an extended family. His office hours were packed. He regularly brought groups of students home for meals and evenings with him and his wife, Irene, and their four children. Three decades later, some of the most vivid memories I have of Colgate are of doggedly following him out of the classroom to continue the conversation he had begun in class, of meeting him weekly in his office, of listening to his sermons on Sunday mornings in the chapel, of dinners at his house and, finally, after my graduation, of bursting into tears in front of my parents as I said goodbye to him.
Education is not only about knowledge. It is about inspiration. It is about passion. It is about the belief that what we do in life matters. It is about moral choice. It is about taking nothing for granted. It is about challenging assumptions and suppositions. It is about truth and justice. It is about learning how to think. It is about, as James Baldwinwrote, the ability to drive “to the heart of every matter and expose the question the answer hides.” And, as Baldwin further noted, it is about making the world “a more human dwelling place.”