Dr. G & Me

An enduring student-teacher connection provides sustenance.

illustration of an arched window surrounded by bookshelves and displaying hands passing food around a table by Marcos Chin


The relationship between teacher and student is well documented throughout history. (See Aristotle and Plato.) Yet few of my friends stayed in close contact with their professors after graduation. Now that I’m an actual grown-up with my own kids in college, I see my friendship with Arthur Goldschmidt, professor emeritus of Middle East history, in a new light.

For more than 30 years, “Dr. G” has straddled the roles of parent, mentor, and adviser. I met him in 1985, when I took his popular History 181 class as a freshman. He brought history to life, and his lessons often involved a costume. Before one early lecture that focused on the rise of Islam, Dr. G made a quick outfit change in the Willard Building men’s room; he returned to class wearing a jellabiya, a long garment worn by Egyptian men. When we discussed the Ottoman empire, he donned a fez.

Unconventional in his teaching methods, Dr. G eschewed written tests in favor of oral exams over meals. He also used undergraduates like me as section leaders to run weekly discussion groups about current events in the Middle East. Looking back, I’m amazed that he trusted us to oversee conversations on one of the world’s most divisive topics. But, week after week, we managed to facilitate a civilized dialogue. It’s almost as if we were learning how to be adults.

Since graduation, I’ve returned to State College many times to visit Dr. G and celebrate his milestone birthdays. When he retired in 2000, I joined more than 75 of his former students for “The Mother-of-All-Section-Leaders Meeting,” which I lovingly renamed Art-Fest. The weekend involved lectures about our careers, group discussions on world news, and lots of dining together.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from him is that if you want people to understand each other, have them eat a meal together—or, even better, prepare one. Last December, I visited him and his wife, Louise, now both 85, at their retirement home. I brought two big shopping bags filled with bounty from a Syrian market near my home in Brooklyn, including hummus, baba ganoush, bulgur wheat, za’atar bread and knafeh (a Middle Eastern cheese pastry).

I was joined by two other History 181 classmates, who have remained friends. Dr. G adamantly requested one-on-one catch-ups with each of us. During a two-hour chat over tea, we discussed my career, my blended family from a second marriage, and yet another war in the Middle East, and even touched upon plans for my still-looming retirement.

When it was time to prepare dinner that evening, Dr. G printed out directions to prepare tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern salad, along with kibbeh, which is ground lamb that is seasoned and baked. We all crowded into the kitchen to squeeze lemons, chop parsley, and fry onions.

As I rifled through drawers to find spices, Dr. G carefully layered the cooked meat into a baking dish near the stove. Time stopped for a moment as I reflected on the ways food connects us. It is a recipe for teamwork, for understanding, and—perhaps someday—even for peace.


Lauren Young is a special projects editor at Reuters in New York.