The Columns

My W&L: Naphtali Rivkin ’15

— by on September 5th, 2016

Naphtali Rivkin '15

“In my four years here, most of my ‘classrooms’ were not in a classroom.”

I’m about to confide something potentially controversial. The most important part of your college career is the time you spend in the classroom, and I loved being in the classroom at W&L. But in my four years here, most of my “classrooms” were not in a classroom. My Russian 403 class was literally one-on-one with my professor. We usually met for lunch the local Co-Op to discuss the books I read and the essays I wrote. I wrote the bulk of my two honors theses in the Lexington Coffee shop on Washington Street, and met with my advisors in their offices to seek advice. I once had a politics class in my professor’s living room. We played with his terriers while we disagreed about Jane Austen.

I think I loved being in the classroom so much at W&L because the classroom is not limited to a single room, here. Once upon a time, the classroom used to be a place where a professor would descend the proverbial mountain and deliver to you new information.Today, all that information is available on the Internet. So the professor at Washington and Lee must be more than just a messenger and the classroom here must be more than just a place to receive information. At Washington and Lee, my classrooms have always been a space where we could fulfill George Washington’s imperative to “seek truth and pursue it steadily.” And I am thankful that my professors here have, like Robert E. Lee, instructed “spiritual and moral sciences.”

Some things you can’t learn without doing — sometimes experience is the best professor of all. So I guess my classroom at Washington and Lee hasn’t even been limited to my time with professors. I had classes about leadership at VMI through the Army ROTC program, but I learned the most about leadership by being on the executive committee of a Greek life organization at W&L. Greek life at W&L teaches students how to be leaders and active participants in civil society in a way no textbook can teach. I also learned from my experiences abroad in Russia, so I guess my Washington and Lee classroom wasn’t even limited to Lexington. When I was abroad in Russia, I met royally opulent oligarchs and migrant Tajik workers. When people in Russia saw my American passport, some wanted to kill me, and others wanted to marry me. There is no textbook that can teach you how to deal with these situations. I figured it out on the fly, and I learned.

Writing this piece, weeks from graduation, I am sad to leave Lexington. I’m not a native Virginian, but this place has become my spiritual home. When professors trust you to work independently — outside the confines of a four-walled classroom — it frees a self-disciplined and self-motivated student to explore and learn while staying grounded in the practical concerns of his family, community and country. Between the Fulbright and my Army post, I will be in Europe, near Russia, for the foreseeable future, because being over there will help preserve what I love over here. One day, when I can’t travel the world anymore, I hope Virginia welcomes me back with a small plot of land somewhere near Washington and Lee.