May 29, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 18

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    Quantrell award: Nathan Tarcov

    Professor in Political Science Taped to the wall in the Foster Hall office of Nathan Tarcov, Professor in Political Science, is a fortune cookie message that provides him a motto for his life as a professor: "One learns most when teaching others."

    Nearby is a photograph of one of Tarcov's own teachers, later his faculty colleague, the late Allan Bloom, pictured standing majestically at a podium, hands outstretched.

    While Tarcov and his former teacher differ greatly in their styles -- Tarcov's gifts are in scholarly conversation, rather than in commanding a stage as Bloom did -- he and his former colleague likely would agree on the potential of learning from teaching.

    "What happens when you teach undergraduates is that you learn new ideas and impressions of the major texts," said Tarcov, who succeeded Bloom as Director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy in 1992. "The interpretations and questions students bring to the texts reflect their own backgrounds and experiences and can change from generation to generation."

    Sometimes the lessons Tarcov learns from students give him new respect for their intellectual awareness.

    "I remember we were reading Locke and one of the students, a first year, said that he thought there was a mistake in the book, that Locke couldn't have meant parental in a passage, but meant paternal. It's the only way it made sense to him," Tarcov said.

    Tarcov checked another version of the book. He found the student had been correct and praised him for his perceptiveness.

    "That's what I like about teaching undergraduates. They have a spirit of excitement about learning and also have a broader outlook than do graduate students, who have tended to specialize in their field," he said.

    In addition to his Classics of Social and Political Thought core sequence, Tarcov also teaches College students in such courses as "Education for Liberty, Locke and Rousseau" as well as in his graduate-level courses. Additionally, he advises students on A.B. papers. He has been teaching at the University since 1978.

    "This year I limited my course on Locke and Rousseau to 20 students. It's the first time I've done that, but I've found that it creates a situation where we can have genuine discussion," Tarcov said.

    "Discussion is important because I see my role as a teacher as being an intermediary between the students and the texts," he said. "When a student answers in class, I try not to nod in agreement, but rather challenge the student's point of view. That's how I encourage them to improve their own thinking.

    "And when they write papers, I tell them to have a real thesis they are trying to argue and to present contrary points of view, rather than just picking a topic and writing about it," he said.

    "I want the students to remember 20 years from now how they fell in love with these texts. When I hear them talking about what they've read, I can see that they are doing more than just learning the material, but are also looking for ways the books apply to them and how they can change their own lives as a result," he continued.

    "That's what makes teaching these texts exciting. They prompt us to look at the big questions in life."

    -- William Harms