Like Robert Fagles and Robert Goheen GS '40, both of whom died in March, Mike was one of Princeton's great humanists. Soon after I arrived here, I was assigned to precept in Mike's course on the Scientific Revolution. Undergraduate buzz - and the gloriously detailed Student Course Guide of the 1970s - described his lectures as some of the most exciting in the University. The gossips and the evaluators were right. Whether Mike was presenting the alien, Aristotelian cosmos that Western intellectuals had inhabited in the Middle Ages, tracing the big conceptual shifts that replaced it or reconstructing the microscopic details of scientific practices, his lectures were always sharp, elegant and precise. It was thrilling - and humbling - to listen to them.
Some years later, I took over another of Mike's courses, on ancient and medieval science. He lent me his lecture notes - a characteristic act of generosity. Each lecture was written out in his beautifully legible hand; each one came with a file of references and primary and secondary sources he had brought up to date year after year; each was both erudite and elegant. It wasn't just Mike's great natural gifts that made him a great teacher: he had worked at it, year by year, day by day.
Over time, it became clear to me that Mike put the same kind of effort into more mundane activities. When it was his turn to write a report - for example, on a colleague who was up for reappointment or promotion - he always produced a closely argued, eloquent statement. Often these texts were more cogent and polished than most published scholarly articles. Reading them helped me, and others, understand exactly what a number of young scholars were trying to do, and how well they did it: It also gave us a kind of lesson in institutional civics.
These lessons weren't confined to Princeton University. Like most suburbs, the borough and township of Princeton spend most of their money on schools. Like most school systems dealing with high taxes and hot-tempered helicopter parents, ours is often the object of complaints. For Mike, though, the problems in local schools required more than griping. He served on the Princeton school board, acting as its head for a year, and presided over the choice of a new superintendent. Anyone who has watched this process knows the energy and effort it required - and Mike put the same energy into other programs for secondary school teachers as well.
We often talk about "excellence" here - usually when we're patting ourselves on the back for winning a tug-of-war for a brilliant professor or explaining why we're on top of some college rating systems. But most teachers are not so good at pushing students to work their hearts out to do the very best work they can. Mike - who regularly worked with Princeton's swimmers and athletes outside the University - had a coach's passion for making everyone do better and a coach's belief that drive and effort matter.
Statistics tell us that high teaching evaluations often correlate with high grades. In Mike's case, the correlation did not apply. He was, for many years, the hardest grader in my department. He held that those who did not work hard wouldn't do well, and he put this principle into practice. His students nursed their wounds and praised his integrity and high standards.
Mike brought the same sustained attention to bear when he read his colleagues' work. I've never had more helpful criticism than the gentle but forthright remarks he made after precepting for my first Princeton lecture course more than 30 years ago - or harder, better questions than those he asked when I presented a paper to a faculty/graduate student seminar in the fall of 2007.
An original, accomplished historian of science and technology, Mike had a worldwide reputation in his field. With his death, Princeton loses a distinguished scholar, and that's painful. But we also lose something rarer and much harder to replace: a passionate teacher, who saw his work as a calling, and a passionate citizen, who lived his commitment to his community.
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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