Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How to Have a Heroic Mind (a eulogy for Dr. Mike Mehlman)

In his essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says that “there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action.” To be a scholar is to be a type of hero. And heroes are people of action. However, those who use their minds to create action are exempted from that moniker. But like time and space, true thought cannot be separated from action. But what exactly is the action? I believe it to be the bestowing of your thoughts. For what good are thoughts if they cannot be shared?

So if thought equals action, then imparting those must also be a heroic deed. Dr. Mike Mehlman was that type of man, that type of hero. To teach is to train other young scholars, which is no mean feat. And Dr. Mehlman would agree with Emerson and say that mere thinking is not enough, for “the true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power.” Your thoughts must produce action. And for Mike, he chose the classroom (or the hallway or the parking lot) to act, to teach, to tell stories.

And for a man who loved stories and loved history’s quirks, he would no doubt chuckle at my use of “American Scholar’ to eulogize him. I’d first received the idea of teaching Emerson’s essay only after skimming through an American Studies book that he’d lent me. He’d also find an odd measure of humor in the melancholy coincidence that when I heard about his death, I was preparing to teach the essay for the first time. It was as if Mike was combining his love of history and teaching and irony even after his death.

Those ingredients were what made him so great at what he did: he looked at history as one great big story made up of many little ones. And he taught the subject as such. The ironic facts, the odd coincidences—those are what he relayed to his classes; those are what he relayed to his colleagues. And he didn’t tell history’s stories simply for the sake of telling them. No. He told us so that our thoughts could become actions, so that we could find our own stories, or better yet—make are own.

It’s at this point where the conscientious reader points out that the “American Scholar” talks of history as being “laborious reading.” Emerson does say this. But we can’t hold it against him; he never knew Mike Mehlman.