Teaching from the Heart

By Greg Britton '84
  July 12, 2004

A Master Teacher Continues his Work
• Teaching from the Heart
History Professor Peter Frederick in The Chronicle

Peter Frederick

Professor Frederick


The first time I ever saw a person die I was with Peter Frederick, or actually I came upon him immediately afterward. I remember it now like a terrible dream.

During my first year in graduate school, I attended a national history conference. One of the headlining speakers was a senior scholar whose work I admired the way only a young grad student does. I went early to the session and sat in the front row.

Moments into his lecture, the scholar interrupted himself to make a political point. As he spoke he became increasingly agitated, pounding the podium and shaking his fist. And then he froze.

Time slows down in my memory at this point. I remember him taking a deep gasping breath. I remember him clawing at his chest. I remember him pitching forward into the cheap hotel podium and the whole mess collapsing at my feet. Papers scattered in the air. The audience was initially dead silent, then erupted into horrible pandemonium.

I hesitated for a few seconds—was it his heart or my own?—then I started CPR, and someone next to me helped. I loosened his tie and collar, and for whatever reason, I removed the rubber band that he had slipped from his lecture notes onto his wrist. I don’t think I worked on him long before someone from the hotel pushed me aside and took over. Paramedics arrived, and I tripped backwards down the aisle. I heard later that he was  pronounced dead at the hospital, although I am sure his attack was almost instantly fatal.

Stumbling out of the room, I needed air myself. I was shocked  at what I had seen, and I felt completely alone in the world—and I ran into Peter Frederick. I must have looked like I had seen a ghost. Noticing my agitation, he asked what was wrong. I think I burst into tears. Peter pulled me over to the couch, we sat down, he threw his arm around me, and we talked. After a few minutes, we paused and he asked what I was feeling. At the time it seemed like a curious question, but I realize now that Peter was showing me something about myself. He was also listening to me—really listening to me—at  exactly the moment I needed someone to listen. I hadn’t seen him since graduation nearly a year before, and none of that seemed to matter. His small kindness, in retrospect, was utterly humane and good.

Over the years, my path has crossed Peter’s several times. Once, in Toronto on a warm spring day, we had lunch sitting in a city park by a fountain and talked of politics and our families. Another time, on  a street corner in Washington, he told me of his own son’s death the year before. It began to rain as we stood there. We ducked into a  coffee shop, tears on both our cheeks.
Between these chance meetings, I know that Peter is with me in funny ways. Early on in my career, when I was lecturing before a room full of college kids, I would catch myself imitating my former professors. Sometimes I would stand before a blackboard and I would hear Peter come out of my mouth. Sometimes it would be an idea, argument, or favorite quote. More often, it was an expression, an exaggerated hand gesture, a meaningful glance at the ceiling, an arched eyebrow, all part of the theater of the classroom. I wonder if they, in turn, were borrowing from their own teachers and those instructors from theirs—an endless genealogy of learning that stretches to Socrates.

Peter’s genealogy, however, is not linear. It branches wildly, like a bur oak. Teaching students at Wabash, Peter learned what works and what doesn’t. He has shared that knowledge with teachers nationally and internationally. His articles, workshops, and books on teaching have become handbooks for secondary and college teachers everywhere. As I read them, I remember his classes at Wabash—always more freewheeling discussions than lectures, always directed at getting students to discover  history themselves. Peter seems  to live for that wonderful euphoric moment of "ah ha!" when a student figures out something for himself. He understands that the past is a mirror in which we see our reflection and understand ourselves  better because of it.

To watch him teach was to watch him argue, cajole, lure, and coax students to a place where they could see something for themselves. Those students live richer lives for having engaged with Peter in the classroom.

In retrospect, though, I realize that Peter was also learning in those Wabash classrooms. He was sharpening his craft as a teacher so he could show others how it is done. Some of them have gone on to teach their own classes. I imagine there are students and teachers everywhere who have part of Peter’s intellectual DNA. It’s an awesome legacy.

In 2001, the American Historical Association awarded Peter the  Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Prize, an honor given annually to a single recipient from the entire history profession across the United States. The prize recognizes outstanding teaching in the field of American history. For anyone who had ever experienced one of his classes, this award was no surprise.

Once I heard a student ask Peter what profession he’d have chosen if he hadn’t become a teacher. After a moment of thought, he responded that he would have loved either to conduct an orchestra or to be a short-order cook at a busy roadside diner. Peter’s teaching style reflected these alternatives. He seemed to love being in control of something that at any moment could easily  collapse into chaos. Because of his mastery of details, his attention to nuance, and his ability to keep 25 things going at once, the result was pure artistry. I still imagine him standing before the philharmonic in tux and tails with spatula raised for the first note.

For all his generosity to students, Peter’s relationship to  the Wabash community has rarely been a comfortable one. Often he has been the dissenting voice on issues, a loyal opposition of sorts. His stances have been principled, passionate, well-reasoned, and often hard to hear. He has been a conscience pushing us as individuals and as a community to do the right thing. In many ways, Peter has fought to make Wabash a better place since the day he arrived on campus in 1969. That record seems to be the embodiment of the "Wabash Always Fights" motto, a legacy of which we should be proud.