We have now completed the second week of the fall 2012 semester at Murray State.
For years now, the first day of class for any of my university history courses has been given over to the reading of a poem.
In fact, the first thing that we do as a class and the last thing that we do as a class involves the analysis of a poem.
On the first day of the semester, I enjoy watching the students’ quizzical glances to friends in the next row and frantic consultations of class schedules to make sure they are not in an English department class–maybe Bad Poetry 101–as we put off the syllabus for a time to consider the lines of an Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem instead.
I first heard the poem years ago at, of all places, a high school basketball camp in western Kentucky.
I remember that Tom McMillan, a sensational left-handed forward for the University of Maryland and our guest instructor for the day, talked more about life than how to perfect a jump shot or block out effectively.
He talked about how we had a responsibility to make something of our lives, and he urged us to live lives of service.
There I sat–a fifteen year old freshman–perched on the first row of the wooden bleachers, drinking it all in.
McMillan made a deep, profound impression on me, and it has not surprised me that he went on to live a life of service as a member of the House of Representatives after his basketball days were over.
Here is the poem that he recited in that stifling gymnasium in Madisonville, Ky., in July, 1970:
One ship drives east, the
other drives west
With the selfsame
winds that blow.
‘Tis the set of the sails
and not the gales
Which tells us the way
Like the winds of the sea are
the ways of fate,
As we voyage along
‘Tis the set of a soul
that decides its goal,
And not the calm or the
I committed the poem to memory and, with my first college teaching job, recited it to my students on the first day of class.
A creature of habit, I have continued the practice ever since.
We analyze the poem. What hidden themes, themes that we will encounter in the course, can we find in the lines of the poem?
Students are very astute, and you suggest, for example, in an American history course that ships are used for warfare, and that surely we will discuss various wars in American history.
Someone else chimes in that ships are also used for commerce and that we will discuss the ebb and flow of the American economy in the course.
Yet another student states that the ship sailing west suggests the significance of westward expansion in American history.
We go on, playing with these themes and topics, and before long, students have a pretty good grasp of what the course is all about.
Then, after a time, I ask the students to personalize the poem.
What does the poem have to say to you as a student in this course? What does it have to say to you as a person? What motivates you? What particular challenges do you face? What do you want out of life? After all, “‘tis the set of the soul that decides the goal, and not the calm or the strife.”
We went through the ritual again in each of my courses this semester.
I recite the poem for selfish reasons. It serves as a useful tool to keep me on course, to help me remember that while I most assuredly teach the discipline and the subjects of history, I teach students as well.
Column by Duane Bolin, Professor of History