“What have we learned from history?”
I asked Dr. Giovanni Costigan that question in his office at the University of Washington about 30 years ago. At the time, he had gained emeritus status but still rode his bicycle to campus each day and on special occasions lectured, all seats filled, people standing in the back and along the walls.
A mesmerizing lecturer, he taught Irish history and once debated William F. Buckley Jr. before a crowd of more than 8,000 people at Hec Ed Pavilion. Easily recognizable, he had students and curious onlookers alike enthralled when he carried on about potato famines, English colonialism and the Easter Rising. We all gathered standing room to hear the elfin man with wavy white hair.
Following my question, an awkward silence ensued. Surely, he was formulating a dazzling response, just the highlight for our oral history project. Finally, he heaved a sigh and said, “Nothing!”
His eyes welling up, he said again, “Nothing, we have learned nothing from history.” This sincere assessment came from a man who had spent his life studying and teaching history.
Excessive pride, you may surmise, is not an ingredient in people who possess giant-like dignity and accomplishment. Have you noticed that giants do not brag or strut? Their strength comes from honesty and humility, qualities commonly ascribed to those who need not raise their voices for others to listen.
I first noticed these unassuming values when a student in my poetry class dropped her Sharpie as she waited for William Stafford to sign his poetry book. Before anyone moved, the poet who had won a National Book Award stooped and picked up the pen, a small gesture that no one would remember. I sure did.
Humility. Surprisingly, that trait became the centerpiece of an oral history project a colleague and I undertook. We called the gathering of interviews “Callings” because we wanted to find the commonalities among those we considered giants.
Not surprisingly, we discovered that people who excel do so in a variety of ways. Some were reticent, some wildly creative, most were avid readers, but we could not make sweeping conclusions about the qualities they had in common. Except humility.
William Stafford (poet), Rabbi Levine (clergy), Ivar Haglund (restaurateur), Jean Enersen (news anchor), Professor Costigan (educator), Marv Harshman (basketball coach), a tug boat captain, a surgeon, and so on. We had a grouping of a dozen whizzes, all from the Pacific Northwest who agreed to be interviewed. About once a month, we headed out to meet the experts.
Without exception, they were self-effacing. Complicated in ways that defied categorization, they pooh-poohed their achievements. They shrugged, smiled, and mentioned that they loved what they did and wanted to do more.
Commonly, giants surprise us with self-abnegation, which brings to mind a scene in “Hamlet.” The prince asks that old windbag Polonius look after the visiting actors. Polonius sticks his nose in the air and says he will treat the players according to their deserts. At this thought, Hamlet flares in anger. “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.”
As I listen to those old recordings of the giants whom we selected, I appreciate their self-possession, honesty and quiet assurance that a life well spent is one imbued with purpose.
Surrendering to a humbling defeat against our failure to learn from history, Dr. Costigan never stopped teaching. Why? Well, what can one do but keep trying?
I think of all the lives he enriched in those lecture halls. I think of Mother Teresa leaving the comforts of her convent to live among the destitute on the streets of Calcutta. I think of the reclusive Emily Dickinson scribbling peerless poetry while leading what she called “a small life.” And I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion: “A great man is always willing to be little.”
It may be counterintuitive, but in measuring a person’s stature, a focus group or a fat bank account reveal little.
Giants do not step over others to reach the front of the line.
That is what I learned from history, Dr. Costigan.
Longtime Steilacoom resident Steve Jaech retired from Pierce College, where he taught literature and composition. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact him at email@example.com.