At the end of each semester, Ed McDonald usually poses the same question to his students: “Who learned the most in this course?” He finds it amusing how students tend to look at him somewhat bewildered until they hear him exclaim, “That’s me!”
McDonald has received satisfaction over the years from researching the ever-changing course material in preparation for the likewise ever-changing class discussions and cherished the joy of being in the classroom.
“Surely this is no ‘job,’ at least not in the traditional sense,” he says. “In the final analysis, there is no dichotomy between what I am (or would ever want to be) and what I do. Interacting with the students is sheer fun!”
It seems so much that has happened in McDonald’s life led him to College Hill, where as a professor of German he has enjoyed the longest continuous service as a member of Lafayette College’s faculty—48 years and counting.
McDonald’s interest in language and literature began as a child. Although his mother struggled to make ends meet as a single parent, she enrolled him in a children’s book-of-the-month club. He eagerly anticipated the new book selection that arrived promptly each month. Unable to afford to send her son to college following his graduation from high school at 17, McDonald’s mother agreed to sign the document needed to move up her “minor child’s” draft. So, one month later, he found himself in an Army boot camp. What happened next was a twist of fate, he says.
Upon scoring a passing grade on the Army’s proficiency-based optional language test, which gave him the military occupational specialty of translator, McDonald was sent to Germany on special assignment as a diplomatic courier for the Judge Advocate General Corps, whereas his fellow trainees were shipped off to Korea to guard the 38th parallel.
From 1956-57, Private McDonald was entrusted with taking highly confidential and secret mail via the German Federated Railway from Northern Area Command Headquarters in Frankfurt am Main to Southern Area Command in Munich. However, being the only diplomatic courier in the unit without a formal college education, McDonald would scurry over to the base library to read, essentially so that he too might meaningfully participate in his colleagues’ lively discussions about what they had been reading while on the trains en route to their respective destinations.
As fate would have it, while he was walking one day near the University of Munich, he struck up a conversation with a female student about the book she was holding, which led to further discussion over coffee and in turn to her inviting him to attend a German literature class with her at the university. While occasionally sitting in on additional classes, McDonald was introduced to other students and gradually became smitten with the idea of teaching German language and literature.
“My free time spent in this milieu was socially and intellectually stimulating; truly an exciting and wonderful period in my life,” he recalls.
Following his army discharge at age 19, McDonald matriculated at St. Peter’s College, and with the help of the G.I. Bill’s educational provision was able to earn his bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. in Germanic languages and literatures from Columbia University.
McDonald maintains that the teaching/learning interface, the quotidian give-and-take that occurs in the classroom, can never turn stale, at least not for him. Even teaching a language at the elementary/intermediate level isn’t only about trying to master the fundamentals of grammar and syntax, for the language can neither be divorced from its native speakers nor from the cultural mores.
“A huge faux pas is in the making when a student looks into an Austrian or German’s face and concludes, ‘Well, he/she looks like me, and thus must think like me,’ for that’s far removed from the truth,” says McDonald. “There’s a whole different conceptual attitude toward interacting with other people, as well as toward the way one experiences familiar entities, such as time, distance, and space. The greater one’s awareness of the cultural codes and of knowing how to comport oneself accordingly, the easier it becomes to interact with Germans and the world at large. Nowadays it is a platitude to assert that in our ‘global village,’ it has become increasingly more important to understand how the ‘other guy’ thinks.”
The best way for college students to move closer to this ideal of genuine linguistic and cultural understanding is to study abroad. Along with Ilan Peleg, Dana Professor of Government and Law, McDonald inaugurated Lafayette’s first interim (short-term) study abroad trip in 1979 to Vienna, Austria. Today, Lafayette boasts a robust interim abroad program, with more than 150 students traveling each winter all over the globe as well as to various parts of the U.S.
During the course of researching a project, McDonald became interested in how the postwar or so-called “second generation” of German children felt while growing up in the aftermath of World War II. He was especially interested in them as young “victims” who were psychologically derailed by the legacy they had inherited from their country’s sordid past. This was exacerbated by the discovery that many of their loved ones, parents, and revered teachers had not only jumped onto the Nazis’ propaganda bandwagon, but also had been de facto perpetrators of Nazi war crimes.
To a certain extent, this same perplexing emotion is something McDonald experienced firsthand. While stationed in Germany, he connected with German relatives in Regensburg, who felt extremely indebted to McDonald’s grandfather for the life-saving care packages he had sent them during the years of famine immediately following the war.
McDonald recalls how these relatives had treated him like a son, perhaps first out of gratitude, but later out of genuine affection. It was the first time McDonald recollects that he felt as though he were part of an integrated family unit. Yet the family warmth was short-lived, for he soon had to reconcile conflicting feelings upon unearthing offensive— and as such alienating—factors relating to some of the parents’ attitudes toward Hitler and their involvement in the war, especially those of the woman whom he had come to love as a surrogate mother.
Those feelings suddenly came to life again for McDonald when he saw them mirrored in the international bestseller The Reader. McDonald’s book project, Psychological Aberration and Emotional Confusion in the “Hanna-Story” of Bernhard Schlink’s Erratic Chronicler as Cause for Facile Readings—A.K.A. Misreadings—of “Der Vorleser (The Reader),” forthcoming from The Edwin Mellen Press, focuses on the inability of the love-stricken fictive narrator to function as an objective biographer of his maternal caretaker Hanna Schmitz, especially in the years following her trial as a Nazi war criminal.
In or out of the classroom, learning never stops for McDonald.