Romancing the past

Paul Silver got his PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania. Before coming to Johnson State College in 1971, he taught at other schools, including the University of Akron in northern Ohio for five years. In the 1986-1987 school year, Silver taught at the Shanghai International Studies University in Shanghai, China, and has since taught courses in Chinese history at JSC. Besides reading from his vast collection of books in his spare time, Silver enjoys playing the clarinet, and does so in the woodwind quintet “Cadenza,” the JSC Concert Band, as well as the Vermont Philharmonic. He is the chair of the Humanities Department, and is passionate about both his subject material, and his many students.

When did you start playing the clarinet?

When I was about six years old, I started playing piano. A friend was a music teacher a friend of my mother’s. And I guess I got pretty good for a while. My mother thought it would be a good idea if I played some instrument that was in another group than piano. With piano, you know, you’re playing by yourself. And since I was a rather shy type, she thought, “Well, at least he’ll see other people.” So I did. That was when I started. was about 12 years old, and I’ve been playing ever since for the Vermont Philharmonic, for other shows in Hyde Park, and now the concert band here. And it’s fun.

What does music mean to you?

I guess that at some time, I decided I could star more in academia than music. Music is a tough business. Theater is a tough business. I see some people here who are enormously talented, but, boy, is it tough. In New York or any major center. I just enjoy playing because it’s not a career. I’m not going to be yelled at by some conductor, so I enjoy it. I guess music’s been a part of my life for a long time. It’s just another whole world. Another language, really. I mean, a lot of people don’t read music, but it’s a language.

Why is it important to learn about history?

Well, to understand now and the future, you got to understand where we came from. What happened. Well, in the 20th century class, we’re learning about the end of World War II and the atomic bomb. That’s an issue now. Iran and the bomb. Korea and the bomb. It’s still very much an issue and every time the Japanese make some move about revamping the military mission, making it more aggressive, people remember. If it happened then, it can happen now. At the end of the Civil War and the reconstruction, that’s still going on. We’re still dealing with hostility toward a people in the South and who still defend the succession movement. People have longstanding reasons to hate, dislike, and to act in a very negative way…You’ve got to understand why the attitudes are there, why the hostility remains.

If you could go back to any period in history, where would you go?

I’m kind of interested in the 1930s and the New Deal, because there was so much going on – the social security, the labor movement, all these. And, as one New Dealer said, “Now is our time. If we want change, now’s the time.” And Roosevelt was a fascinating figure, as was Eleanor Roosevelt. She really changed what the role of the First Lady was. Mostly it had been pouring tea and having dinner parties, and she was active- partly because he couldn’t get around – and all over the place. There’s a lot of interesting people in that period, a lot of what the Right Wing is trying to undo now, unfortunately.

If you could invite five historical figures to a dream dinner party, who would they be?

As long as I don’t have to make the dinner. I don’t know. I think probably Roosevelt, maybe Obama. Lincoln, I think, because Lincoln was a marvelous figure. Lincoln also told good jokes – some of them dirty. He was interesting. Eleanor Roosevelt, absolutely… Theodore Roosevelt, probably. He was a good talker.

If you were given a million dollars today, what would be the first thing you’d go out and buy?

You mean after I leave my significant contribution to Johnson State College? I don’t know. I would not buy a car. I would probably invest in some books… It’s hard to think of things to buy. And there’s so many ads for hunger and food. It seems incredible that the Vermont Food Bank needs so much all the time. And if you’re cold getting from your car to here, how do you think people are that are homeless? It’s incredible. The story always goes that you win, you quit your job, and then two years later, you have no stuff, no money, and no job. So what would I buy? I might buy some tickets to travel to various parts of the world.

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Well, I’ve been to China. That was a long time ago. But it’s changed. We spent a year in Shanghai, but we’ve been told we wouldn’t recognize it now. Where would I go? I’d like to see the historic parts of Europe. I haven’t been to Japan, actually. That would be interesting. Haven’t been to parts of Africa, either, although at the moment, Africa seems to something of a medical problem…But I’d like to go.

You went to Shanghai International Studies University for a year. How has that experience affected you?

You live in a different environment. You get used to your mail being read – of course, now we’re doing that, too. It’s a different culture and it gives you some understanding of how other people live. And language is a way of introducing yourself to another culture. We tried to learn Chinese but we felt we were too busy doing the teaching that we were doing, so, really, we were wasting this fellow’s time… Chinese is a tough language. It’s a very tough language. I was standing there in class while they were doing in-class writing in a language that was not close to theirs, and I was impressed… They took us on weekends to various places. There would be two interpreters – one for English, one for Spanish. And I learned that, in some ways, students are the same everywhere. The first of October is when the Communists took over, and it’s like Independence Day. And there was a trip planned that weekend. We decided we were still new, bumping into things with jetlag. So we decided not to go. And the students said, “You really should go. It’s a great trip.” And they tried to persuade us. It turns out the reason they were trying to persuade us was, if we did go, they wouldn’t have to come to our classes. And they had a sense of humor. And the staff had a sense of humor. They told me I spoke very good English, and I told them they spoke very good Chinese.

What would you say you like best about teaching here at JSC?

The fact that it is small and informal. That students will stop in. A lot of people say, “If the door’s open, come in.” It doesn’t have to be about a course. If it’s open, just come in and chat. There was somebody I had an independent study with – he’s since graduated. He was marvelous. He would come and we’d have conversations about courses and it would range to all sorts of other things. I loved it.

What are qualities that a good teacher has to have?

Be able to listen. Be able to encourage students to ask questions and know some material, too. But especially to know that their point of view can obviously be different from yours…It’s understanding, I guess. It’s difficult, but you have to understand that almost all of their life is in the 21st century with technology, and technology not only changes, but changes rapidly. The ads are on TV are like, “What? You’re still using that old thing from last year? Blow three hundred dollars and get a new one!” Be able to see it from another point of view. We certainly tried in China. And be able to express significant ideas in a way that they can understand.

What has your greatest achievement been?

Surviving. Resisting the pressure to ski. I don’t ski, and never have. Another achievement, I guess, is appreciating Vermont. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and New England was always “up there.” The slogan used to be: “Vermont, the beckoning country.” We’d come here occasionally. But when I think of where else I’d like to live…It’s hard to think of anywhere other than Vermont. I didn’t get tenure at Akron, which I’m eternally grateful for, because I came from there to here.

What would you say is the biggest lesson life has taught you?

I guess that there are other ways of doing things besides just what you like or are used to. The Chinese society was very different… There are other ways of relating to people, other ways to organizing society, other ways to make meals. My mother and sister lived in Iran for a year and a half in the sixties…Friday was the Sabbath there, so they would take short trips out and try new things. Just try and make the best of the opportunity.

When would you say you are happiest?

There’s two aspects when I am happiest. One is when I’m playing in musical organizations. I played in a lot of shows in Hyde Park. I wasn’t responsible for the action on the stage. I just played and had fun. Or, being in class when students are discussing things or asking. And when students’ writing improves over a period of time. I mean, writing is still the way you communicate. Of course, we do it on emails and we don’t always proofread those things. They can be amusing. I just want to go into class and talk about the subject if I think it’s an interesting subject…It’s just fun.