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Thoughts That Count : Best Professor Has Many Questions, Few Answers

Times Staff Writer

The man just voted the best professor in the country beamed at 35 students and asked: “What does the Holocaust suggest about human nature?”

Then he asked: “Where was God?”

As students groped for answers, he suggested: “Let’s live with this for awhile, and see where it might lead.”

John Roth had no answers, only questions and more questions, ending with brain-crushing reading and writing assignments.

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That is why the Claremont McKenna College philosophy professor won the 1988 Professor of the Year Award, his students and colleagues believe. It was given by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, who chose Roth from among 500 who were nominated from all over the country.

‘Shotgun Kind of Thing’

Roth himself suspects his teaching style of questioning and making heavy demands on his students had a lot to do with the award. He also thinks his wide interests--what he calls “a shotgun kind of thing"--may have made him the winner.

For example, he teaches a course on the Holocaust and a course on the American Dream, chairs the philosophy department and is the college’s representative to the NCAA, the body that oversees collegiate sports. He also is co-administrator and a tutor for students participating in a special program that involves studies in politics, philosophy and economics, and study in England. He has written 15 books, including three on philosopher William James, and dozens of articles.

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“He’s what a professor is supposed to be about,” said Claremont McKenna College President Jack L. Stark, who called Roth “a tenacious worker who is very generous with his time.”

“We’re learning how to think for ourselves and to support our own conclusions,” sophomore Colleen McDonald said at the end of a 90-minute class called Perspectives on the American Dream. “Compared to other teachers, he is more excited and more interested.”

Roth began the class on the American Dream that day by reading opening passages from the Book of Genesis, and then God’s promise to Noah after the flood destroyed all other life: “Never again.”

Roth beamed as he praised and questioned students who gave conflicting views of Bernard Malamud’s novel “God’s Grace.” The book poses dilemmas facing the last man on earth after all others have been destroyed. The American Dream became a nightmarish examination of the effects of nuclear war.

Roth wondered: “Maybe human beings can do something so horrendous that it forces God to go back on his promise.”

On that same day the class on The Holocaust, wrestled with the roles of God and human nature.

At the end of another 90 minutes of unresolved dilemmas, Roth concluded that “people are likely to start killing each other when their minds are made up. But when they ask questions, they enter each other’s lives.”

Roth was paraphrasing his friend, author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Eli Wiesel, whose work has profoundly influenced his own.

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As the class on The Holocaust ended, students crowded around Roth to pick up their papers that he had read, and read from in class. Each bore marginal notes with critical, and often laudatory, comments--and more questions. Lingering long after class, several students said they work harder for Roth than for other teachers because of his individual attention.

“I had heard this was a great class and I realized that he could help me with what I was trying to study,” one student said. “He’s a superior teacher.”

Roth’s boyish looks and frequent grin belie his 48 years--22 of them teaching at Claremont McKenna College--and his struggle with the 20th Century’s greatest moral and philosophical dilemmas.

‘A Sadder Person’

A Presbyterian who once considered being a minister, he said in an interview: “I think my life took on a kind of intensity from the time I began the study of genocide and the Holocaust. Believe me, my 15 years of concentration on mass death has made me a sadder person.”

Questioning even himself, he asked: “How could I have anticipated that I could be interested in the American Dream on one hand and the Holocaust on the other?” It went unanswered as he explained his fascination with teaching.

When he was an undergraduate at Pomona College he decided to become a teacher because he loved his experiences at the small school. Roth later earned his doctorate in philosophy at Yale University.

“I’m a person who is committed to a small college,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a class of 200 people. It’s bad enough to be in front of 45. You get to know them but not as well as you would like.

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“It seems the best interchange with students is when people just talk to each other about important things,” he said

“I think you have to make questions something that students live with--questions that keep things boiling and bubbling.

“I guess if there is one thing that I would hope students would take away from my teaching it would be this kind of internalization of this questioning process. It’s nothing new. It goes back to Socrates. You learn if you inquire, but you must keep the inquiry moving.”

Yet while he churns up “inconvenient facts” of history and human actions, and usually leaves questions hanging, Roth said, “it is also important and possible to find sound places to take a stand.”

‘Act Responsibly’

“In a religious sense, you’re on the face of the earth to do something with yourself,” he said. “The key purpose of higher education is to equip men and women to reflect critically and constructively about the human condition and thereby enable them to act responsibly.”

Students praise Roth as a “personal” teacher who is always available. Roth has no teaching assistants and goes over every paper himself. His office hours are filled with student conferences, and in-between he tries to find time to write, to run the department and be with his family.

“I think he does everything well,” Stark said. “He has probably attended more athletic events and student activities than I have.”

Rising around 5 a.m., Roth runs or lifts weights before classes. His wife, Lyn, teaches the first grade at Mountain View Elementary School in Claremont; their daughter, Sarah, 16, attends Claremont High School and Andrew, 20, is a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

Busy Into the Night

Then Roth is usually at school all day and into the night, often with NCAA activities that he considers important to academe.

“I’m thinking a lot about classes today,” he said, “but also much on my mind is that Sarah is running in a cross-country meet and I want to be out there with her. In many ways, my family comes first.”

That same day, he said: “The flow of students and the issues they’re writing and asking about are kind of head-cracking. You want to try to respond in a way that’s helpful to them and it’s not always clear how to do that best.”

And, smiling again, he said: “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

‘Never Be Quite the Same’

“I think the hardest day of the year for me is the Monday after commencement. This place seems so empty. People with whom you’ve gotten to be very close have gone, and you’ll never have that again with them. You may see them again, but it will never be quite the same.”

Testimony from some of his former students helped to get Roth his latest award when they wrote letters nominating him. The Professor of the Year Award is given for achievement in teaching, scholarship and service and for the teacher’s impact on students.

Erin McKenna, class of 1982, said she is now teaching a course on the Holocaust at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. “Roth has helped me turn ambiguity and uncertainty into concern and caring,” she wrote.

The Rev. Timothy Safford of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, said: “Students who came into John’s class left understanding philosophy as a tool for thinking and living.”

‘Confident Decision-Maker’

Alan M. Fenning, vice president and general counsel of Mission Energy Company in Irvine, wrote that Roth “enabled me to become a confident decision-maker in my legal and business career.”

Dion and Megan Scott-Kakures, who met and married while students at the college, said Roth was important to both their careers. Dion received a doctorate from the University of Michigan and is now teaching philosophy at Scripps College, and Megan is an attorney with a Los Angeles firm.

“I have had no teacher before or since who gave such time and caring to his students,” Megan wrote. “He not only encouraged expression of our views, but forced us to confront their moral implications.”

Roth was in England last month when news of the award came and his reaction, he said, was “kind of disbelief.”

The effect, he said, was “maybe living with an added burden, of trying to be worthy of having received it.”

The reward, besides the $5,000 that goes with the title, was “hearing from people all over the country.”

An outcome is being asked to represent the college and its Alumni Assn. as a frequent speaker.

“I don’t say no very well. I like to do everything,” Roth said.


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