I pushed open the wide, wooden door and walked into MOTR Pub, one of the Over The Rhine renaissance bars inhabiting the nineteenth-century-built neighborhood. There were three twenty-somethings leaning against the bar and an equally young bartender joined in the conversation. I slid onto a stool, caught the eye of the bartender, ordered a draught and a burger, and scanned the sparse, hipster-chic interior. At the center of a small raised stage stood two microphones on stands, backed by a tall black drape, washed in a narrow purple light. Weathered high-top tables and stools suggested the place would fill up soon enough, which is why I came, after all.
The beer was too bitter for my liking, but the burger hit the spot. I pulled my notebook out and scribbled a few observations, wiping french-fry salt on my jeans. That’s when I began thinking about the lessons I learned as a college freshman at Xavier University. Rule 1…never schedule 8:30 a.m. classes. Rule 2…given the option, always choose the easier professor. Rule 3…pad the GPA with an easy A.
Those rules ignited a flashback to late August 1982, a Monday, 8:30 a.m. I leaned lazily in my desk, groggy from my early-morning commute. The teacher walked in, a youngish, bookish educator, wearing business casual slacks and a sport coat featuring the very latest in early-80’s elbow patches. He had curly black hair, professorial glasses, and an all-business air to his classroom entrance. Welcome to freshman English with Norman Finkelstein.
8:30 a.m? Norman Finkelstein? Easy A? So much for rules.
I had been an accomplished student throughout high school, but on this day I was to meet my match. Young Dr. Finkelstein proceeded to kick my intellectual ass. “Come on,” you’re saying. "It’s not calculus," you’re saying. "How difficult could it be," you’re saying.
Think back on any English class you ever took. Listen to lectures…take a few notes…write three pages of an assigned three-to-five-page paper about something someone wrote sometime before penicillin was discovered. Sound familiar? This was not a Norman Finkelstein class.
“What’s your source? Back it up,” Norman demanded. Chilling words to anyone trying to bullshit his or her way through an English essay. What is this source he speaks of? Back it up? But...but...? It was sink or swim time. The GPA was in jeopardy so sources were needed, arguments had to be justified, clear thought was imperative, and good writing was table stakes. In the end, I earned a B in that class but the die was cast. From then on, education would be more than simply showing up for class. To succeed I needed to think, not just regurgitate facts and figures.
Although English was not my undergraduate course of study, I decided to take more classes with Norman. Why, if those classes did not confirm to Rules 1 through 3? I returned because I enjoyed the subject matter and because it was working. I was being educated, challenged. And I was becoming more of a writer. Then I lined up for more. Several years after earning my undergraduate degree, I returned to Xavier to pursue a Master of Arts in English. And who was there to challenge me? Dr. Finkelstein.
My experiences at Xavier taught me how to think instead of coast, how to learn instead of simply show up. Professors like Norman challenged me, made me work for every grade. They were relentless, critical, unwavering, and I enjoyed it. Damn…I actually enjoyed it.
A lot to contemplate over a burger and a beer. But I came to MOTR Pub that night to do just that…think. Now, 30-plus years later, I was attending my first poetry reading, one featuring new work from my old friend and professor. I listened to published poets, aspiring poets, and unpolished poets. Some poems were simple, others more formal. But each was crafted with purpose, each word like the single paint stroke of a portrait. I understood some, was perplexed by others, but there I was…thinking, challenged, learning after 30-plus years. I didn’t have the guts to read my own scribblings that night. One night, perhaps.
Too much of what we hear in conversation, from the media, from corporations and politicians is taken as truth. People simply don’t question. They don’t demand sources and facts. It takes time and it’s not easy. Unfortunately, those who refuse to think, to consider or to question become pawns. Simple game pieces to be moved from square to square by those in the business of manipulation. Is that what you want from life? Is that what you would want for your children? Or would you rather consider, contemplate, challenge? Thinking makes us human. It’s a rare gift to be told that, to be trained in its practice, and to exercise that capacity freely, without hesitation.
I walked into a bar one night, sat down and thought. It’s great to reconnect with people, especially those who, often unknowingly, make a positive impact on our lives. Here's to you, Norman. Thanks for teaching me how to think, to question, and to demand more of myself.
Click here to learn more about Norman Finkelstein, including his latest collection of poetry, The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New and Selected Poems.