I was planning to be a mathematician and had little interest in history until my fifth year of secondary school—which would be the equivalent of tenth grade—when I met Dr. Walter Isaacson. We were having a study hall, and he happened to be in charge of it that day. Wanting to engage us in some conversation, he casually asked the class what we thought happened to the philosopher who walked with his head in the clouds thinking great thoughts. I lifted my hand and replied, “He fell in the pond!” By Dr. Isaacson’s response, it was clear that this was the right answer. He congratulated me and briefly discussed the relationship between the world of ideas and the world of existence. I was hooked.
Dr. Isaacson spoke with a thick German accent laced with malapropisms. He had been a philosophy teacher in pre-Nazi Berlin and had escaped before the Holocaust descended. He was a passionate historian and philosopher and had known the great Hannah Arendt personally in Germany. Somehow, he had become the sage of the school. He would take a small group of students and prepare them for the Oxford and Cambridge history scholarship exams. He asked me to join his study group; there were three of us: Alan Ereira, Bruce Fireman, and myself. Unrestrained by a syllabus, he took us on a daily intellectual journey that spanned the history of man and his thoughts, from the Bible to Sartre without catching a breath. I have never had an academic experience to match it yet.
All three of us finished up at Oxford or Cambridge. I was fortunate enough to win an open scholarship to Oxford. We made it not because we knew the facts and dates of history but because he taught us to trust our own, sometimes off-the-wall, answers to challenging questions. There was no theory or model we presented that was ever put down. “You have it in a shelled nut,” he would say, and we would figure out the idiom.
Looking back, I realize that what he gave us was the confidence to express our thoughts without the limiting inhibition of potential scorn. To give this freedom to a sixteen-year-old is to give that student a gift that has lasted, in my case, for a lifetime. What I interpreted him to say was that all beliefs and ideas have equal value, that we should not necessarily judge them, and that whether from a sixteen-year-old or a learned academic, the process of creative thinking is more important that the result.
When I finally got my scholarship, I went to say goodbye and thank you to Dr. Isaacson. “Ronald,” he said, “don’t ever lose your curiosity.”
I have tried not to, Dr. Isaacson.
Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster