It was Bill Geer who launched me on my “life of unlearning.” In fact, Professor Geer (as we insisted upon calling him no matter how often he said ‘call me Bill’), challenged us to live just such a life, taking the term from Lincoln Steffens’ essay. It was, he would bellow from the front of the class room, “a damn shame that so many smart young people come to this great University just to convince themselves that what they already know is all they need to know.” Disabusing us of such nonsense and getting us to think for ourselves was a mission he set himself to with great relish, and I was lucky to have stumbled upon him as a professor.
I met Bill Geer at a pre-college camp sponsored by the campus YW/MCA. He was one of a number of lecturers and speakers that came that long weekend to try to get us to think about what college held in store; we were more interested in finding our first dates for the football home opener. To this day he is the only thing I really remember about the camp.
On a clear evening he held forth about the so-called dangers of Chapel Hill–at that time the hub of all things liberal in the great north state. He was sure we had been told by the folks at home not to let all those radical University of North Carolina professors fill our heads with nonsense; and no doubt we had been warned about the dangers of dope smoke wafting across the green and other sensual pleasures that lie in wait for us. His point, in gently mocking the fears we imported with us, was that it was time we tried out some new ideas and new ways of thinking. That college should not be like the education we had engaged in to prepare us to get here. Rather, it was time to think broadly, to talk to people with whom we disagreed, to read authors sometimes banned at libraries back home, and to maybe, just maybe, hatch an original thought or two of our own.
Heady stuff. All presented with humor and the grace that only a 50 something balding man who looked like Santa Claus but could talked like Marx (both Groucho and Karl) could pull off. I had to find a way to be in his classes.
As soon as the term opened I found the registrar’s office and asked to move to Professor Geer’s class. Much to my surprise, rather than teaching an upper level elective that he was certainly entitled to as a head administrator and tenured faculty member, he was teaching the introductory Western Civilization course, History 101. The class was full, so I found out where it was meeting and camped out in the hall waiting for him to show up…along with about a dozen other hopefuls. It said something about Professor Geer as a teacher that he signed us all into the class…if there were chairs in the room he figured the tuition paying students were entitled to them.
He also thought, much to our surprise, that we were entitled to him and not a graduate student. He appeared at every class, graded every essay, kept office hours daily. And he changed my life.
I staggered back to my dorm room under a pile of books after that first class. Books that I would never have found or read on my own. And over the next three years I took every class Professor Geer offered and still have the books I purchased for those classes. In fact, at the end of semesters when I was not in his class, I would slip in the back to listen to him lecture just to remind myself of why I was at ‘the University’ as he would call it in worshipful tones.
Bill Geer put in my hands books that challenged my way of thinking and into my ears ideas that I had never heard before. He dared me, all of us, to join in the battle of ideas as if that battle meant all the world. He took us seriously, argued but never belittled, challenged but never humiliated, jested but never made fun. He put forward controversial and challenging interpretations of how the world worked, knowing us well enough to know that we were the privileged and had never considered carefully how we came by our status. And then he listened to us, heard us try out ways to hold on to our past or find a new future. And he laughed and laughed with us.
Learning from Bill Geer never stopped in the classroom. He invited us to join him at plays that we normally would not attend. I remember going to dinner with him and eleven other students and with dessert he produced twelve tickets to the latest campus production. “I believe,” he told us, “that this group would benefit particularly from going to this play and discussing it amongst your selves afterwards. I hope you make it.” With that he strode out of the room….we all went, and we all loved it.
Late at night we would see his light on in his third floor office at Vance Hall, and if we could get his attention with a well-aimed stone on his window he would join us at the Rathskeller for hot Apple Pie Louise and iced tea. We just want to sit with him and talk, and he wanted to do the same with us.
Most of all, Bill Geer wanted his young scholars to go where they never imagined they could. For me it was in rethinking how power and privilege work in our society. He had placed in my hands a copy of Michael Harrington’s book Socialism and asked that I critique it for the class. When I wanted to know more he simply said, “Well, pick up the damn phone and call the man.” I did; and ended up with an invitation to spend a weekend trailing Harrington around New York City asking questions and trying to keep up.
There was no one event or experience with Professor Geer that was the most memorable. Rather it was a collection of events. The time he spent with us out of class learning about who we were. The care with which he chose readings designed to challenge each of us. The lectures crafted not to cover content (it was our job to get the content by coming to class having read the material) but to engage us in content rich discussion. And the evenings and weekends spent rehashing the New York Times in the context of the history he brought to life every day.
Bill Geer thought we were all capable of learning. By learning he meant not just bubbling in one more Scantron sheet prepared to meet the official History Department syllabus. What he meant by learning was that we were to be busy about the work of unlearning–so we could begin learn for ourselves.