History, Food and Great Teaching

History, Food and Great Teaching August 13, 2004

One of the most influential people in my life was a teacher, Louis Johnson. He was my French teacher my junior and senior years of high school, but I knew him from conversations before I decided to take the class. He was exactly what a teacher should be – learned, passionate, consumed with the subject he taught but with an incredibly broad mind and education that allowed him to integrate his teaching with the real world. He understood, for example, that teaching French well required not only teaching how to conjugate verbs, but that we also had to learn about the history, literature, religion, art, food and other things that made up the whole of French culture. He would cook enormous meals showing the types of food made in different regions of France and feed them to his classes, and he would teach us how each region was identified with the food and wine that was made there. He would spend an entire class talking about Victor Hugo or Beaudelaire, or telling us of his experiences there.

Louis had spent many years in France while in the military, as an interpreter for NATO, and you could tell that he was very much in love with the place. He would constantly impress upon us the differences between French culture, which had such a long and mostly homogenous history, and American culture, which was (and is) the product of diverse and ever-changing influences and inputs. One of the places that he talked about, as almost a microcosm of French history in general, was La Tour d’Argent, perhaps the most famous restaurant in the entire world, and the oldest, having been opened in 1582. Just think about that for a moment, a restaurant that has been open for 422 years. Think of all the history that place has seen: Catherine de Medici and the edict of Nantes; the height of the French monarchy of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, Cardinal Richelieu and the building of Versailles; the entire Enlightenment period and the lives of Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet, d’Holbach, Diderot, and so many more; the storming of the Bastille and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, followed by the ascendence of Robespierre and the Jacobins; Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew, Napoleon III; the Franco-Prussian war; the birth of Impressionism; and of course the two world wars in the 20th century and our modern age.

So famous is La Tour d’Argent that Dumas used it as a setting for one of his novels. Henry III dined there in the late 16th century, when the restaurant introduced forks to the French people and much of the world (prior to that, everyone just ate with their hands in most places). It became so popular that men would fight duels to decide who would get a table. The restaurant has a breathtaking view of the Seine and the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, and its wine cellar houses over 400,000 bottles, some of them literally beyond price. Louis had dined there several times in his years in France.

I probably learned as much from him in our after school discussions as in class. There was one other student in my class of a similar intellectual bent and the three of us would sit for hours and talk about everything imaginable, particularly about religion and philosophy. Louis was an agnostic, but he was also the organist for a large Catholic church, something he did because he so loved the music and the history and the tradition of the church. This is something he instilled in me to some degree. I am obviously not a religious man myself, but I am still enchanted by cathedrals and religious music, largely as a result of him taking the time to show me the beauty of such traditions. He also told me something that I did not understand until many years later. He told me that education was largely the process of disillusionment. I was halfway through college before I realized what that meant, and that it was right on the money.

Needless to say, Louis was in constant trouble with the administration in our uptight little suburban concentration camp community. Some parents complained that he taught about the importance of wine in French culture, concerned that this would lead to teenage drinking (as though Pinot Noir was going to replace the kegger as the drink of choice). Almost everyone was sure he was gay because he wore flesh-toned makeup, but the truth was that he had skin cancer that discolored his skin and he was merely covering it up (and he in fact dated at least two very beautiful women that I met in the years that I knew him). In this very large public school system, he was simultaneously the best teacher they had by a wide margin and the one who upset the most parents. The parents didn’t much care about the dozens of teachers who mailed it in on a daily basis, who taught as though they were zombies, and allowed students to coast through without actually learning anything; the parents were primarily dullards and preferred that the teachers were as well. But a teacher who thought outside the box a bit, who challenged students and taught with passion, was a lightning rod for controversy, a human symbol to the simple-minded community of Everything That Scared Them. I don’t know what Louis is up to these days. He is almost certainly retired by now. But I know that far too many students missed out on a profound influence that could have broadened their view of the world.

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