If I wasn’t the world’s worst English major, I never would have met the man who I think should be Hillsdale’s commencement speaker.
This isn’t a personal attack at Roger Scruton, who will probably do a fine job telling us seniors how to commence our lives. But I can’t imagine anyone better equipped for this job than Dr. John Reist.
I signed up for Reist’s Updike class because I thought Updike was someone else. It was the week before classes started in the spring semester of my sophomore year and I went to the English department head’s office to declare my major. As he shuffled through his desk for the paperwork, I noticed a row of books by John Steinbeck on his shelves. I’m a Steinbeck fan –– I think I read “The Red Pony” three times in high school just for fun –– so I mentioned this and added that I was taking the Steinbeck class.
He looked up abruptly.
“Which Steinbeck class?”
“Oh, you know,” I said, tossing my hair over my shoulder. “The one Dr. Reist’s teaching.”
There was an uncomfortable silence as I smugly waited for the department head to realize that his newest English major knew more about the course offerings than he did.
“That class is on Updike,” he said.
Here’s a fun fact: John Updike and John Steinbeck –– despite sharing a first name and two-syllable last names ending with a “k” sound –– are not the same person.
Here’s another fun fact, which I learned from Dr. Reist that semester: Unlike John Steinbeck, who writes about California and mountains and the devastating violence inherent in the human spirit, John Updike writes about sex. Adulterous sex, underage sex, spouse-swapping sex, back-of-the-car sex, on-a-bed-covered-with-money sex, sex-that-doesn’t-actually-happen-because-you’re-impotent sex, and a bunch of other kinds that I’ve forgotten because it’s hard to keep them all straight.
Hillsdale is all about the good, the true, and the beautiful, but sometimes it seemed like John Updike only ever cared about getting it on.
That’s where Dr. Reist came in.
He might be the oddest professor Hillsdale ever had. He has a bulbous red nose, squinty eyes buried behind bushy eyebrows and thick glasses, and a paunch you could spy from across the quad. Whenever he set foot outside, he either smoked a pipe or whistled. So if he was in the same square mile as you, you could see, hear, or smell him.
While I was in it, his Updike class felt like a complete waste of time. Instead of lecturing, he would sing old-timey songs that he remembered from his barbershop quartet days (“Why does she always say no / When you know that she wants to say yes?”) and tell the kind of jokes that make you wonder why anyone ever gets tenure (“She offered him her honor, and he honored her offer. So that’s how it was all night … ”). He threatened to dock a letter grade for every class you missed and made our take-home final a 25-page paper. I’ve never complained so much about a class in my entire life.
That’s because Dr. Reist’s teaching style was obnoxious but effective. He assigned tons of reading and expected us to figure it out on our own. We’d come to class disgusted, leave frustrated, and trudge back to our dorms in the snow talking about what power lines mean in “Rabbit, Run.”
Begrudgingly, I learned a lot. Ask me anything about John Updike, and I can explain it. Ask me what a tetralogy is, or how 20th century male narcissism works, or what John Donne and A. E. Housman have to do with post-war disillusionment, and I can tell you. Ask me to quote the epigraph from the first of the “Rabbit” books and I’ll do it.
Because of that class, I started reading Pascal and stopped eating gumdrops –– a fair trade-off.
Dr. Reist should be our commencement speaker because commencement speeches are usually garbage. Hillsdale has a history — to which Scruton will hopefully be an exception — of bringing in blowhards from Washington who tells us things we already know and pat the administration on the back. Instead of timeless wisdom, we get the Republican party line or “Churchill and the Presidency.” So let’s ditch that nonsense and bring in the wacky old guy. He’ll tell a few dirty jokes, wink at a lady in the front row, recite a stanza or two from Measure for Measure, and remind us that for the rest of our lives, we have to figure things out for ourselves.
And we’ll do just that.