Cook: Leading Immersion Group is Paying Back

Professor Bill Cook - I have probably been in Florence more than a hundred times since my first visit in 1961. It has never become routine, and I always try to visit some place I have not been or have not visited for many years. Still, I navigate Florence with at least as much ease as I do the east side of Crawfordsville. Perhaps my greatest joy when I return to Florence is to introduce this city to people who have never been there. When those people are my students who have studied in anticipation of the visit, I get a special thrill. As I told my class as we were about to enter the room containing Michelangelo’s David, I enjoyed watching them as they viewed for the first time the giant-killer who has become a giant.

Of course, I worry a bit every day. The best laid plans can vanish so easily. Our flight into Florence was diverted to Bologna because of weather, limiting what we could do that first day. The two days off were December 31 and January 1. I do not have to overwork my imagination to shudder at what some of the men were up to. Anything short of visiting someone in a hospital or jail is a victory! On the afternoon of January 1, I asked the hotel manager how the guys had behaved when they came in after a night of ‘celebration.’ “Like little angles,” he proclaimed. I’m glad he didn’t have a video so I could more easily believe his description. We arrived in Crawfordsville without a wallet having been stolen , a passport lost, or a broken bone. For me, this is a cause for wild celebration. To celebrate, I slept for 11 hours!

Of course, it is a special privilege and thrill to take absolutely brilliant students to visit the monuments. They know a lot about them and they have the rich context to understand the details I point out. However, I would never select students for an immersion course based on GPA. I want to bring some less accomplished, even less motivated students. In August, as I first met the students who traveled to Florence with me after Christmas, I hoped I could get each one on the edge of his seat every day as we analyzed a text from the Renaissance. Some students were clearly not as engaged as others. I told myself that Florence would persuade them even if I were not always inspiring them on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings in Baxter 212. One of the most satisfying parts of a course such as the one I just completed is watching some the less motivated students come to life intellectually. As I was walking along with one of those students, he made a really perceptive and important observation. “Yes!” I thought to myself, “Florence has worked its magic, and this young man will never be the same.” This is why I have been taking students to Italy since 1974 and why I will continue to do so.

With complete immodesty, I think of myself as being part of the “A Team” among those who show Florence to others, and over the years I have been able to arrange some ‘special’ experiences. For example, Wabash students had a private visit to the Uffizi, the greatest museum of Renaissance painting, and a discussion of Machiavelli’s writings in the room in which he wrote them. But for this group, I added New York Times bestselling author Ross King (Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power). We have done a half dozen programs together in the last eight years and are friends. I asked him if he would come to Florence from his home near Oxford to spend a couple of days with our students if Wabash would pay his expenses. He agreed, and I begged some money from the Hadley Fund of the History Department and the Eric Dean Fund of the Religion Department. Ross took us up Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence and shared some thoughts about Machiavelli when we visited his villa near Florence.

Long before there were immersion courses at Wabash, I had a forerunner experience. I took Jack Charles’ course on ancient Rome, and a month later I was in the Eternal City with the Wabash College Glee Club. As I walked through the Forum and into the Colosseum, I knew what I was seeing and was thrilled. The only thing that would have been better is Jack Charles being there with us. I came to Wabash in 1962 hoping to be a lawyer, and I think I would have been a good one. But thanks in no small part to my proto-immersion experience, I decided to major in history and become a professor. I know that I am a much better professor than I would have been a lawyer, and I know how many young people I have helped to educate. When I take Wabash students abroad, I am giving back to my alma mater and honoring those who educated me. And if that isn’t enough, my son Eric Huynh (’07) told me recently that the immersion course he took to Mexico with my colleague Rick Warner was the best experience of his life. I owed my students of Renaissance Italy the best possible experience!

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One Response to Cook: Leading Immersion Group is Paying Back

  1. Roberto Giannini says:

    Dear Professor Cook:
    I followed your immersion trip to my home country every day and I thank you for your wonderful insights, knowledge, appreciation, and – I believe I can honestly say – love for Italy in general and Florence in particular. I am sure your students have benefitted from your vast experience and deep connection with Florence’s art, history, and culture.
    Being from Bologna – as you know on the north side of the Apennine Mountains – I can’t deny that our two cities have a love/hate relationship that goes a while back. Nevertheless, I traveled to Florence many, many times and always discovered something new on every visit.
    Bologna is not as full and attractive as Florence, but has many interesting and attractive sites as well as an engaging history, appealing art and beautiful architecture. And the food…. Perhaps, you can spend a day or two in Bologna next time you take some students to Italy. I would be honored to be in your company and allowed to tag along, if you’d like.
    Grazie ancora!
    Coach Giannini