Simply stated Binks Little is the finest teacher I ever encountered.
It has been nearly five decades now since I left his classroom behind. This gives me more perspective than I might wish. Yet as I sit down to write this appreciation it is striking how vivid my memories are.
First and foremost there was the love and passion that Professor Little brought to his subject matter. My initial impression of him as I sat in that introductory course was that this man really, really cares about this material. And did he ever. But more importantly he had that most special gift of making us care deeply too, and at least in my case, to care to the point where the hours spent in those classes became a positive joy.
On the bookshelves of my house to this day are the dog-eared texts that Professor Little explicated. Max Weber, Freud’s Future of an Illusion, Eliade, Durkheim, Troeltsch, Niebuhr, Talcott Parsons, Buber’s I and Thou, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Paul Tillich. It was a heady brew.
But the texts were a point of departure. Beyond them was a pedagogical style or strategy that was masterful. There are great professors who are of a strongly Socratic bent, who indulge in the aggressive give and take of rigorous cross-examination. The atmosphere is adversarial and the student is challenged to sin boldly or risk failure. The rewards of this strategy can be great. So too the costs.
There are also great lecturers. Spellbinders with carefully crafted set piece presentations, or brilliant extemporizers, who hold forth at length, free-associating and jamming like a good jazz ensemble. This too can be fine in its place, although the risks of losing the audience or descending to mere showmanship without substance, and thus pandering to baser instincts, can pose real dilemma.
Somehow Binks Little contrived to be both Socratic and gentle, to hold forth without becoming disengaged. There was a spontaneity to the give and take as well as an underlying discipline that were the hall marks of a style of teaching that I never saw equaled.
It is my belief that Professor Little was a happy man in those classrooms. I know I was a happy student. For me it was a magical place and a magical time.
The next thing I remember were the words. Big wonderful polysyllabic words that rolled off the tongue with marvelous precision. German words, Latin words, Greek words, all rigorously defined and then deployed one after another to spin out a web of meanings and ideas that stretched my mind in a dozen directions….eschatology, hermeneutics, epiphenomenon, in illo tempore, agape, caritas, cupiditas. It was intoxicating.
Beyond that flowed a torrent of sayings and aphorisms:
The maid in her milkshed does as much glory unto God as the monk in his monastery….
And at a remove of nearly thirty years, the words and the phrases stick, they retain their meaning.
It is commonplace today to decry the use of jargon, and deplore the professionals’ use of terms of art to obscure sharp practice. One lesson that I learned from Binks Little (although Lord knows it was then reinforced in law school and later, in practice) was the other side of that coin. It was remarkably liberating to watch and then imitate Professor Little’s practice of carefully defining complex ideas, capturing them symbolically in a phrase or a term, and then proceed to whole new levels of analysis and sophistication. Yet at the same time, and this was the wonder of it, there never seemed a moment when any subject discussed lost its force or decayed into dry abstraction. I was introduced to Plato’s cave and the realm of form in freshman philosophy. I grasped the concept in Professor Little’s class as we worked our way through distinctions between Augustine and Aquinas.
I was conscious at the time that I was being intellectually transformed. Over the years that followed, my appreciation of Professor Little’s profound influence upon me has not fundamentally altered.
On what might be said to be my first date with my wife Diane we spoke of many things for many hours. But no small part of that discussion, or at least of my contribution to that discussion was an explanation of how I found “religion” at Williams. “Being-in-the-world” is how I described it, as I talked about my own Jewish heritage, my teenaged rejection of it, and then my subsequent refashioning and reintegration of that identity in a manner that worked for me, because I had become informed by a rigorous and supple foundation that I could accept both intellectually as well as emotionally.
Stated differently, I was raised with the powerful influence of an Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish culture that had been profoundly traumatized if not mortally wounded by the Holocaust. I was also raised in a post-New Deal secular city that was itself being traumatized by racial strife and the war in Vietnam. At some level during those years at Williams the challenge that I faced was the need to synthesize these conflicting forces and to forge a personal identity or approach to swirling cross cultural currents. I am not entirely certain how well that challenge was met, or has been met in the years that followed. But I can say this, at a minimum Professor Little pointed me in the right directions. No teacher can do more.
As it turned out, my own vocation proved to be the law. Years were spent in the South Bronx prosecuting homicide cases, and even longer years thereafter representing myriad victims of industrial and environmental mass disasters. Asbestos, the Dalkon Shield, DES, ground water laced with volatile organic chemicals, servicemen exposed to radiation in the Nevada desert, and Navajo Indians with cancers and neuropathies caused by unconscionable mining practices. It has been and continues to be an exciting and challenging career, albeit one that takes as its subject matter the darker side of our public life.
But once again, and time and again, lessons learned in Binks Little’s classroom reoccur with frequency. For instance, there is a school of jurisprudence usually associated with the University of Chicago, which seems to understand justice and equity in primarily if not purely economic terms. Moreover, powerful and useful insights, particularly in my own field, emerge from that school. Still, in the end, the results of that jurisprudential approach often felt profoundly unjust and inequitable. Puzzling my way through this professional morass, I returned in my mind to Professor Little’s discussions of Marx and Freud and answers began to emerge. The change in perspective from man as an “economic maximizer” to a fuller appreciation of “being-in the-world” set me on the path of figuring out how to keep the tail from wagging the dog.
Even in smaller matters I could feel Binks Little’s influence. Nurturing a small law firm, managing it, and watching it grow and prosper brought to mind Philip Slater’s Microcosm, and professor Little’s discussion of the text.
I might go on. I do not believe that I was an especially memorable student, and it has been too many years since I last had the pleasure of chatting with Binks. Still, I am honored that I have been invited to offer this appreciation. More than once I have said to my own children that I could wish for few better things for them than an experience akin to that I had at Williams College. Binks Little was no small part of that experience.
As a twenty one year old I was too shy, too self-absorbed, and too lacking in social grace to properly say thank you or express my appreciation. It is a great pleasure to take this opportunity to make amends.
One thought on “H. Ganse Little”
Steve Phillips’ tribute to Binks Little resonated with me from first (“the finest teacher I ever encountered”) to last, when he lamented a young man’s inability “to properly say thank you” to a life-changing teacher. We could both have done better in that regard.
But better late than never. Two summers ago, I stopped off in Charlottesville, where Binks and Sue moved to get nearer to family. We had a fine visit, and after lunch got to chatting with a friend of theirs, also a former academic, who said to me, “So you learned a little something from this fellow?” To which I replied, a master of understatement still, “Oh, yes, just a bit.”
Steve’s tribute got it right in observing how students were “intellectually transformed” by Binks’ instructional style, which was “both Socratic and gentle.” His skill at pulling apart complex texts made him an intellectual godfather for me and for many. He made you think there was something worth finding in those texts, which motivated you to dig deeper.
I carried this enthusiasm to such an extent that after pursuing my Muse for five days past the final paper deadline (extensions granted, day by day, by my patient and understanding instructor), he finally had to gently tug the paper away from me—then validated my mad pursuit of meaning with an essay prize. Fifty years further on, I’ll recognize a “Little insight” and be reminded of him and the mysterious alchemy by which he converted texts and discussions into new ways of understanding ourselves and the world around us.
Steve’s tribute recalls “the words” that were so memorably part of those sociology of religion classes. Two words that didn’t make it into Steve’s roundup are especially appropriate in remembering this great teacher, with whom our intellectual lives are—and ever will be—“inextricably intertwined.”
Heartfelt gratitude expressed belatedly, five decades later, is its own meaningful commentary about the enduring intellectual legacy that Binks Little imparted to his students. For myself and for so many others who shared a similar experience, “Thank You!”