Great History Teachers: Part 2

My previous post on this theme honored the career of Mr. Hand who taught history at Ridgemont High in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  I hope you enjoyed that little stroll down memory lane.  Today we move to the campus of Northwestern College Great Lakes University and the classroom of Professor Turgeson who teaches Contemporary American History.  I hope there are a few of you who remember Professor Turgeson who was played by the late Sam Kinison in the movie Back to School.  The movie starred the late Rodney Dangerfield who played Thornton Melon, a successful businessman who decides to go back to school to encourage his struggling son.   This scene is set on the first day of class in Turgeson’s classroom.

Professor Turgeson: Welcome to Contemporary American history. I know a lot of people think history is just facts… just information about the past, but not me. I hold history very sacred. Sacred. The way a farmer looks at the Earth and holds it sacred. The way a Christian takes the Bible… and he holds it sacred. The way a lot of people hold their marriage sacred. That’s how I feel about it. So why don’t we dive right in… by interpreting one of the easiest events… in the last twenty years of American history. Now, can someone tell me… why, in 1975 we pulled our troops out of Vietnam?

Student: The failure of Vietnamization to win popular support… caused an ongoing erosion of confidence… in the various American… but illegal… Saigon regimes.

Professor Turgeson: Is she right? ‘Cause I know that’s the popular version… of what went on there. I know a lot of people like to believe that. I wish I could, but I was there. I wasn’t here in a classroom… hoping I was right, thinking about it. I was up to my knees in rice paddies… with guns that didn’t work, going up against Charlie… slugging it out with him, while pussies like you… were back here partyin’, puttin’ headbands on… doin’ drugs, listening to the goddamn Beatle albums!

Thornton Melon
: Hey, Professor, take it easy, will ya? These kids were in grade school at the time. And me… I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover.

Professor Turgeson: Well, I didn’t know you wanted to get involved… with the discussion, Mr. Helper. But since you want to help, maybe you can help me, OK? You remember that thing we had about thirty years ago… called the Korean conflict? Yeah. Where we failed to achieve victory. How come we didn’t cross the   th parallel… and push those rice-eaters back to the Great Wall of China… and take it apart brick by brick… and nuke them back into the fuckin’ stone age forever? How come? Tell me? Why? Say it! Say it!

Thornton Melon: All right, I’ll say it. ‘Cause Truman was too much of a pussy wimp… to let MacArthur go in and blow out those commie bastards!

Professor Turgeson
: Good answer. Good answer. I like the way you think. I’m gonna be watching you.

Thornton Melon
: Good teacher. He really seems to care. About what, I have no idea.

I’m not sure this is the best way to start a class discussion on the first day of the new semester.  What do you think?

6 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 21, 2006

    I thought it was Great Lakes University (most of it was shot at the University of Wisconsin).

  • Kevin Levin Sep 21, 2006

    Thanks Brooks. I stand corrected. That you remember such detail about this particular movie says a great deal.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 22, 2006

    Actually, all it says is that I went to Wisconsin … although I did like the scene you describe. I also found it ironic. Wisonsin had a reputation — richly deserved — as a left-of-center institution, and the exchange in the movie would have been highly unlikely at Badger U.

  • Ed Darrell Sep 22, 2006

    Do you plan at some point to offer examples of real, living or dead history professors?

    I’m feeling guilty that I haven’t raised money to endow a chair for James Clayton at the University of Utah. At the recommendation of a dear friend I took Constitutional History from him, an upper division class. Clayton was nothing if not thorough; I still use those notes. I used those class notes in law school, and I used them when I was the chief speechwriter for the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution. I find snippets of Clayton’s methods and outlines sneaking out into my general law classes, and every time I teach about the Constitution.

    But of course, he was nothing like the two you’ve already profiled. But then, he never really spoke about his days at the CIA, either. It would be difficult to believe, but perhaps he knew more than he demonstrated in class . . .

  • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2006

    Brooks, — I hope I didn’t offend you – just thought it was cool that someone out there was comfortable to admit some familiarity with a goofy movie.

    Ed, — This series will probably stick to great fictional history teachers which have been overlooked for far too long. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 22, 2006

    Nah, you didn’t offend me. Many of us are more than our cvs. :) For example, I only glanced at UVa getting stomped on last night. I’m sure you have had the same reaction from your students when they realize that your life isn’t limited to being a teacher. Yesterday, for example, in dealing with the historical construction of memory in preparation for a section on Gettysburg, I compared the Lee/Longstreet/Early postwar debate to [Torre/Jeter]/A-Rod/Giambi in Sports Illustrated, and the emphasis on “Pickett’s” Charge to Bill Buckner in Game 6, 1986 World Series. If you can make references work, it helps them to get it, and to make dead people seem more like real people. I may have gone too far a few weeks ago, however, when I said that George McClellan would not have even consented to play a hand in Texas Hold ‘Em unless he had “pocket rockets.”

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