Last Saturday was Scholars’ Day at Wofford College, a time when high school seniors who are considering Wofford converge on the school to be interviewed. Particularly impressive candidates may receive scholarships as a result of their hour-long conversations with a panel composed of a faculty member, a current student, and a Wofford graduate. As young people seek to impress the panelists, the panelists are also charged with courting the students, since many of these folks are considering our rival colleges (Davidson, Furman, etc.) as well. With education costs rising, enrollment battles have become particularly fierce the last few years, so everyone needs to bring an ‘A-game’ to this contest.
I have always been impressed by the number of alumni who are willing to return to Wofford on a miserable February Saturday to help in this essential task. I’m not sure that my loyalty to my old university would ever be that strong! But each year I see people who graduated in years ranging from the 1950s to the most recently matriculated class happily come home for this chore.
I was gathering up my things to go to the meeting when I heard a knock on my office door. There were two former students of mine who had taken the time to look me up and say hello. Both are medical folks: she is already a practicing OB/GYN and he is in his final year of medical school. We quickly caught up on our lives, and as he prepared to depart, Mr. Hufford---who had been in my Sherlock Holmes Humanities class as a freshman---promised to send me an article from a medical journal, which argued that all potential doctors should immerse themselves in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
And that promise got me to thinking about what it is we really remember about our college experiences. I doubt that most of us---even those of us who might be accused of having too much education!---can recite any particular lesson. I would be hard pressed to recall the names of my textbooks, or even the monographs I read in graduate seminars. Classes that I sat through in order to meet requirements have vanished from my memory. I am far more likely to recall that a particular professor was funny, or boring, or especially difficult to please than I am to be able to discuss the content of his/her course. Even my beloved major professor is clearer to me for how he taught---his amusing phrases, his way with a story, the twirling of his spectacles in one hand---than for the exactness of the dates and facts I learned in his class.
Clearly, Mr. Hufford had learned a great deal at Wofford---he was in Phi Beta Kappa and glided into medical school. I’m sure he remembers many, many things. But I was so touched to find that Sherlock Holmes was still a part of his life, enough so that he would still want to share an article with me, his now ancient and decrepit former instructor! Sherlock had clearly ‘stuck’ with him. And I know that Holmes has staying powers with other students as well. I’ve often received notes from students in the years after graduation. One student told me that his copy of the canon was the ONLY book he didn’t sell back at graduation!
College is a treasure-house of memories. Students don’t always remember content (I have no illusions that my Western Civilization students will recall the details of the Hundred Years War or the French Revolution a decade from now!) but hopefully their exposure to the liberal arts will inspire lifelong curiosity and respect for learning. Even if the exact nature (and grade) of a research paper is dismissed, the ability to do research, think critically about a thesis, and write clearly remains. Young people may forget classes, but they will recall their friends, their good times and their struggles, and emerge from Wofford with the maturity and self-reliance to take on the world. I like to think that Wofford students leave us with the best ideas, examples, and challenges we can give them.
Clearly, Mr. Hufford left with Sherlock Holmes in his medical school survival arsenal! I can’t take credit for that. All the credit belongs to the genius of Arthur Conan Doyle, who crafted a series of stories that embody the liberal arts. The canon makes one think about science, history, psychology, art, music, politics, government, technology, sociology, criminology, and gender relations. A thoughtful reader will confront issues of colonialism, sexism, and racism. Most importantly, the Sherlock Holmes stories are invitations to critical thinking, which is the beating heart of higher education.
I’m delighted that many of my students take Sherlock with them, because he can always lead them back to being Wofford scholars.