THE BLOG
12/28/2012 01:28 pm ET | Updated Feb 27, 2013

Monro's Damage Control

AP

In contrast to the normal search for comfort and security, John U. Monro had a tropism toward challenge. He tracked it the way a sunflower follows the brightest point in the sky. Leaving the deanship at Harvard College in 1967, Monro was famous for taking a humble job at Miles, a southern black college that had lost its accreditation, and there he started a program for incoming freshmen, some of whom were reading at a seventh-grade level. Friends assumed he was making a sacrifice and was some kind of saint.

As a college kid who met Monro in his office and later assisted him in teaching a freshman seminar, I believe he was seeking a challenge greater than deciding what hours women could be in Ivy League men's rooms. He'd done what he could do at Harvard, looking after the less affluent, veterans, public school graduates, commuters, Peace Corps volunteers and extension students. He'd helped open Harvard to the big world of people who, unlike him, didn't come from an old colonial family, people who hadn't attended a prestigious prep school (Andover).

Parts of JUM's exemplary story have been known to friends, but they have all been lovingly gathered and put together by Toni-Lee Capossela in a biography called John U. Monro: Uncommon Educator, published recently by the Louisiana State University Press. Why a southern publisher? Because Monro sought a second career in the south and stayed there until he retired.

When I had the opportunity to work a bit with Monro, I was a generation younger than he, and didn't know many of the details tenaciously discovered by the author of this well-balanced, far-reaching biography, a book as uncommon as its subject. The author avoids the traps of both hagiography and callow armchair criticism that mar many books about famous people.

The biography is absorbing because Monro is a model of moving deliberately out of one's comfort zone, instead of just dwelling there. The settings range, going back in time, from the deep south during the civil rights struggle, to Harvard Yard, to an aircraft carrier in the Pacific war, to towns in eastern Massachusetts where young Monro grew up and commuted to a neighboring town's school and then a prep school that was mainly for boarders.

While the biography starts with ancestors, the most amazing early part describes Monro's years as war-time "damage control officer" aboard the aircraft carrier called "Enterprise." Without duties until the ship was attacked, Monro, after a shell or kamikaze pilot hit, was suddenly one of the most important officers aboard. As the biography makes clear, his ingenuity and calm saved the ship on several occasions, for instance with a repair that enabled the "Enterprise" to fight on without making the long trip to a U.S. drydock, if not to the bottom of the Pacific.

After the war, Monro defined his job, in part, as winning access to Harvard for unconventional students, helping to convert Harvard from serving largely as a finishing school for sons of privilege to being an arena of opportunity for talent that was prepared for it. Most of the kids who attended had never been exposed to poverty such as Peace Corps volunteers encountered in, for example, Nigeria; had no idea of the life-world of black kids in the U.S. disadvantaged by inferior schools and locked out of most careers.

Monro admired clear, ingenious, capacious thinking, which for him was expressed, and often learned, through the enterprise of writing. When Harvard received funds for an experimental freshman seminar program, he volunteered to teach "expository" prose. As his teaching assistant, I watched as he challenged and supported kids whom he took the trouble to know personally.

In those years undergraduates called an easy course a "gut." Monro's seminar was no gut. It was challenging, but what he assumed and assured was that everybody would succeed. Like the students who were just a few years younger, I was pretending to have it all together, while actually my first experience of teaching was hard. At whatever level the students were, Monro kept eliciting the next level of articulateness. We all had a long way to go.

But teaching privileged kids who'd been to good schools, knew how to take tests, and were poised to enter some kind of elite could not, like being a dean of students, challenge Monro forever. It was a glorious task to stretch financial aid to cover a maximum number of people who needed it and who were prepared to do the work and move gracefully into an Ivy League college. But what about talent that, by the age of 18, had been half-neglected? What about kids who hadn't been raised to regard themselves as "elite"?

Here is where somebody needed to perform a kind of damage control on our society, which had a hole blown close to the waterline, a hole called slavery and its aftermath. At the end of the war, a book appeared from Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Written by a Swede, the book's thesis was that this country had admirable ideals, but was struggling to apply them to former slaves. Measured against the values, the performance could be dismissed as hypocritical. But Myrdal's argument was different: that the ideals were a great contribution to human welfare and needed only to be taken more seriously.

Invited to be considered for the presidency of a southern black college, Monro realized that black Americans had to solidify and enlarge their own leadership class. What he could do was help. The programs that he founded first at Miles and then at Tougaloo were each gradually absorbed into the departmental structure of the colleges, and in this sense, like many other Caucasians who took part in securing some rights for black Americans, Monro was eventually pushed aside, less by black power in his case than by holders of advanced degrees. Meanwhile, however, he helped teach a generation how to think more clearly, write with more articulate energy. In going where the need was great, he offered a model of enhancing life by meeting tough challenges.