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A Great Teacher - A Tribute

By Elizabeth Runkle Purcell ’31, Chairman, Board of Trustees

My brief remarks to you today are inspired by an extraordinary woman. She was one of the great teachers who contributed richly to the tradition that made Vassar known for the quality of its teaching.

Helen Drusilla Lockwood (at right in 1956) taught English at Vassar College for 29 years. She not only taught but invented courses. For all I know, she may have been the first person here to teach the course we knew as "Blake to Keats" and to invest it with compelling meaning. She certainly made it famous. And I’m sure she invented the course called "Contemporary Press" which I took the first year she taught it. In 1946, years ahead of the wide popular interest in this subject, she created an experimental course called "Today’s Cities." Her teaching, and she herself, who was so much a part of it, were a perpetual topic of discussion on campus and later wherever her former students met.

I was fortunate to be a freshman at Vassar the first year Helen Lockwood taught here. I took her courses in "Blake to Keats" and in "Contemporary Press." Her teaching was electrifying; she wanted nothing less than to rouse the unaware. Her influence changed my outlook on the purposes of living and made me feel forever unsatisfied with not quite knowing and not quite doing. She enlarged my whole conception of the fascination and complexity of societies and individuals, past and present, and made it impossible for me to do anything less than my best for the world of which she made me feel so much a part. I could not, after learning what hard intellectual work really was, and after experiencing the excitement that comes with intellectual and self-discovery, possibly have settled for a way of life that demanded too little of me and that could have left my own decision-making to the mercy of whims and moods and accidental events and passing enthusiasms.

To Helen Lockwood there was nothing unfriendly or incompatible in the relationship between the theory and the practice within any field or discipline; nor was there a chasm between art and science. For her also there were no chasms between the community and the student and the teacher. She taught for many summers during the depression at the Bryn Mawr Workers’ School, and served on many boards and committees in her own city of Poughkeepsie.

There is an erroneous notion abroad today that there is a dichotomy between intellectual discovery and self-discovery--that if you are bent on one of these missions, you cannot achieve the other. Helen Lockwood made it clear that a great teacher can help a student to achieve both. Lest there be any misunderstanding of the effect of her teaching, may I say that it has made for a joyous life. She never suggested a life of dutiful self-sacrifice; but suggested rather the deep satisfaction that comes through self-realization in active form. To look at Helen Lockwood’s own life was to understand this. She was a convincing example of wholeness.

When I graduated from Vassar, she became and remained a friend of mine until her death in England in March of this year. Shortly after her death, another friend of hers wrote: "Among those of us who studied under Helen Lockwood there must be many besides myself in whose lives she became an abiding presence, who found in her not alone an incomparable teacher, an enduring challenge to mediocrity and complacency, but also a lifelong friend."

There are great teachers on the Vassar faculty today. I know some of them, and I’m sure each of you does too. They are those who have devoted their major energies to helping you to make intellectual discoveries, to sharpen your mental equipment and to discover yourselves. It will be these teachers whom you will remember because they will influence what you do with your life. I think you will find that they are the enduring legacy of your years at Vassar.

In the past few years, the nation’s view of its colleges has been influenced by the spectacular semi-political activities on many campuses--sometimes on Vassar’s--and, in reacting to these events, not only the public’s thoughts and emotions but yours and mine have too been drawn away from the teaching and learning which is the central purpose of a good undergraduate liberal arts college. So far, it is our temporary loss; but, unless we are careful, it may be our mutual and permanent loss if institutions like Vassar cease to inspire the belief and support they once enjoyed for their excellence in teaching.

Helen Lockwood was a great teacher and a great human being, and she is at this moment symbolic of the best that a college like Vassar has to offer. We need to remember--students, graduates and faculty, trustees and alumni alike--that the kind of teaching she did, the way of life she exemplified and the part she played in her community illustrate the central purpose of an educational institution. We must not be beguiled by the crises of our times into making colleges political instruments, through the political activities of Vassar students and others in this community should be a source of pride. But there are many avenues for political action in society. Let Vassar play its essential and valuable part as an institution of learning.

I hope that you as alumni and as members of the wider community will help us to see to it that Vassar’s primary educational purpose is preserved, protected and strengthened for the future when it will be as much needed as it is now. As you leave Vassar, which has given you its best in good teaching, you can go out with confidence in your capacity to understand and to take action in the making of a better and more just society.

Originally published in the Vassar Quarterly, Summer 1971