Bert Stern: Writing His Own Book
by Susan Cantrell
I'm not sure that isn't the way human beings live anyway. You know, each of us is caught up in a particular kind of ego and each of us tries to dissolve that ego from time to time and to know that we belong to worlds of other people. That's where our growth lies --in remaining open to otherness.
Bert Stern has engaged in countless connections and dialogues during the 39 years he has taught at Wabash College. He has taught over 4,600 students; opened their minds, even as he sought to open his own--ever growing, ever changing.
If you were a student of his in the early 1960's, not long after his arrival on campus from his teaching-assistant, Ph.D.-earning days at Indiana University, you might remember him sporting a button-down shirt and knowing the coolest folk songs. If you were a student of his in the late '60s or early '70s, you remember him as a social activist, protesting the war in Vietnam. Other Wabash men remember his serious commitment to preserving the environment; some recall his trips to China or seeing him rev up his motorcycle on the Mall. His most recent students have heard him return in faith to his Jewish origins. But regardless of what growth phase he might have been in at any particular moment of his nearly 40 years on campus, all his students remember Bert Stern as a first-rate teacher. Professor Stern is not a chameleon shedding one skin for another, but a rock adding layer upon layer until its shape is something firm and true.
He was so young when he came to Wabash to teach that some of his first students are retiring from the workplace when he does. He is a fixture of this College, but he is restless, always butting up against the edges, never satisfied that he has made quite enough of the connections that make life truly full.
Asked about the constant motion, he explains: "It's the upside of not growing up. I don't have a clue as to why, unlike a lot of people, I didn't simply reach a stage where my identity became composed and that was satisfactory to me. I only know that I'm glad that this didn't happen for me. In an odd way--and certainly not what I expected--life's gotten steadily better for me, and I certainly didn't think that at 67 I would feel that way. So I keep changing. I'm not sure this is on an ascending scale--that I'm rising toward wisdom or anything. But overall it's felt like growth, like change in the right direction. And, of course, in the midst of all that, much is constant: values, the things I love and dread."
He loves teaching Wabash students. If he seemed intimidating when you took his course in English romantic poetry, read on: "There's a sweetness about our students that's always drawn me. They're less jaded than students you'd expect to find in big universities. There's a kind of openness. I can't tell you how much I love them and how much I want for them at times..." Stern says. "I don't want to be sentimental about it, but there's this religious heart of teaching that wants conversion. Maybe it's an arrogance, but there's a sense that you really do have a light that they're not open to yet.
"I don't know what the substance of their resistance is. It has to do in part with the kind of arrangements that have been projected for them by businessmen or by politicians, sometimes even by parents," Stern surmises. "These are only coarse constructions of life. I teach to help students see through those coarse constructions into something subtler and sometimes more frightening, and certainly more profound than that.
"These deeper structures include the mystery of our origins and the mysteries of our destination, and the mysteries of our isolation from one another, and the still deeper mystery that, despite our isolation, we sometimes touch each other with language and melt through those isolations," the professor suggests. "Then there's the mystery of narrative itself and the whole peculiar business that out of our lives arises a kind of story-meaning that defines us.
"These are great adventures, our attempts to experience the deeper structures through literature, and to begin to understand that our lives are novelistic. It finally becomes a question of whether you're living in a book that somebody else wrote for you for the purpose of making you a consumer or some other kind of slave, or whether you struggle, with God's help, to write your own book."
For Stern, going his own way has often meant going off campus and out of the country to teach and learn.
"I simply love to travel; I've always loved to," he says. "I love to be an outsider; I love that peculiarly humbling experience of living on somebody else's terms and getting a little bit past the tourist stage."
He was teaching in Greece during the 1967 military coup when some of his students were arrested and his own safety put at risk. "I enjoyed the protection of being an American," he remembers, "but later, back home, that fed my sense of the importance of saying what I believed. One of the things I've seen repeatedly in my travels is people dying or doing long terms in prison for the sake of ideas. In America, because we're able to speak freely we lose the sense and the value of such ideas.
"In China, too, I gradually came to feel the kind of intellectual oppression going on there--gradually, because at first my family and I were ingeniously enclosed in a world of propaganda that we believed," Stern recalls. "That was before Tienanmen [Square], but all the pieces were already in place.
"So I've learned again and again that what we have here is not simply to be celebrated; it is also deeply endangered. People care so little to think for themselves and to struggle for some kind of personal meaning against the various kinds of propaganda that are always spewing out. Here we can say anything because it doesn't matter; part of the excitement for me in China was in being where ideas mattered so intensely. It's a terrible truth, but oppression makes for very lively intellectual life.
"Tam [his wife, poet Tam Lin Neville] and I are both aware of how easy it is to become secure and to gather around you that thicker layer of possession and habit that obviously give us a lot of benefits and a lot of pleasure, yet we're both suspicious of it. There's some kind of nakedness that you've got to keep open as a writer."
A great part of Bert Stern's contribution to the vitality of Wabash College over the last four decades is that each time he came home from his travels he passed on his new knowledge in the classroom and throughout the community. His accounts of time spent in China with the aged Robert Winter, Wabash, '09, who had taught English in China for decades, drew for all who heard them a line that cut through time and distance, cultural differences and political reality to complete a circle encompassing abiding affection for this place of learning.
Stern is at heart a teacher because, always the student of all that goes on around him, his generous nature wants to share. And yet, he says: "I don't think teaching is always a transmission of knowledge. Sometimes it just offers glimpses of things that you're not yet old enough or experienced enough to grab hold of--hungers and desires and love of certain kinds of mental pursuits."
Wabash College has been exactly the right place for him, a steady ground for a restless spirit: "I wish I could reflect historically about the College and the people who have come and gone," he says, "but all I know is that I've never been here when there weren't human beings around who were priceless for me, sometimes students and sometimes faculty, and, in the best of times, both. I love the renewal and hope that I get seeing these perpetually renewing students who amazingly don't grow old as I grow old. Each year there are always those kids who have fresh hungers and expectation. It's something about teaching that I never get tired of--that refreshment that's built into it."