‘A place that respected one’s confusion’

Not just nostalgia

In 1965, the University was approaching its 150th anniversary. Somebody had the idea that to mark the occasion there ought to be a book, an anthology of essays by distinguished alumni recalling their days on the campus.

The result was Our Michigan, a slim volume printed locally and distributed in modest numbers. Sixty years later, consigned to the shelves of a few libraries, the book seems at first glance to be no more than a charming collection of nostalgia.

But a closer inspection reveals a theme with striking relevance today — a retort to the argument that a college education no longer needs to be delivered in person.

When COVID-19 hit campus in 2020, confining professors and students to learning-by-laptop for months, some critics asked why higher education should ever revert to the status quo. Why pay the enormous costs associated with a physical campus when students could take their courses online? Digital college would be far cheaper and more flexible, and it would extend a university’s geographical reach.

All true. Yet those 37 little essays anthologized long ago in Our Michigan — the blended memories of scientists, corporate leaders, musicians, doctors, writers, athletes, engineers, teachers, economists, two astronauts, and a pharmacist — suggest that the claims for digitized education quite miss the point.

One writer after another said what mattered most in their time at Michigan was not the actual lessons delivered in lectures and labs. It was the experience of living and working side by side with teachers and peers in the sanctuary of a bricks-and-mortar campus.

The magic square

The West Physics Building at U-M prior to burning down in 1966.

The West Physics Building hosted Detlev Bronk, former president of Johns Hopkins University, while he was a Michigan student. The building burned in 1966. (Image courtesy of the Sam Sturgis Collection, U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Detlev Bronk (1897-1975) was a medical scientist and president of Johns Hopkins University. He first encountered the Diag “on a soft September evening” in 1921. He described it as a “magic square” bounded by “Hill Auditorium, the Michigan Union, Martha Cook, and Betsy Barbour, the bookstores … a movie theater … I can see it now as clearly as I saw it then.”

Unsure of his calling, Bronk gravitated to a lab in the basement of the original Physics Building. Soon he was doing research with two other grad students. “Each of five nights a week through two happy years was a night of high adventure … A moving spot of light, reflected from a galvanometer that measured the properties of molecules in a gas, led me on as sailors are led by stars through unknown waters … No matter what we learned during those long nights; it is written in dusty journals. What matters much more to me is that I savored the endless joy of discovering something new. In a dingy basement within the magic square my path in life came clear.”

‘His chemistry I have long forgotten’

Admiral Arleigh Burke (1901-96) wrote his remembrance not long after retiring from three terms as chief of naval operations, the highest post in the U.S. Navy. Burke had commanded destroyer squadrons in the South Pacific during World War II and directed naval operations during the Korean War. In the early 1930s, the navy sent him to Michigan for a master’s degree in chemical engineering so he could do research in explosives and chemical processes.

Burke’s military superiors expected him to come back with advanced professional knowledge, and he did. But “it was not nearly so important as many other things I learned which proved to be more far-reaching than chemical engineering,” he wrote.

These other things came to him during hours of dialogue with professors. One academic mentor was the noted scientist Moses Gomberg, the founder of the field of radical chemistry. But Burke remembered Gomberg the man — “how he used to talk to me in the evenings about his early life in Russia and Germany … From him I learned patience and tolerance as well as the necessity for hard work and persistence. He dwelt often on the philosophy of government, the free enterprise system, the advancement of individuals by merit in the United States … His chemistry I have long forgotten, his philosophy I will never forget.”

‘My whole soul and energy’

Shio (Shiho) Sakanishi, two images of the beautiful Asian woman in black & white.

Shio (Shiho) Sakanishi was one of the few women invited to contribute to ‘Our Michigan.’ (Image courtesy of Nichi Bei.)

Regrettably few women were asked to submit essays for Our Michigan. One was Shio Sakanishi (1896-1976), who had a distinguished career as a translator of literature and advised the Occupation government of Japan after World War II.

Raised in a Christian family in Japan, Sakanashi came to the U.S. to pursue a bachelor of arts degree at Wheaton College. When her family died in the Japanese earthquake of 1923, she concluded she needed more education to make her way alone. “Overjoyed” to earn a Barbour Scholarship — Michigan’s financial award to Asian and Middle Eastern women of outstanding academic promise — Sakanashi completed a PhD in literature in 1929.

“The most exciting part of my days in Ann Arbor was to choose courses and then visit the professors,” she wrote. She was one of only four students in the course in Old English with Professor Samuel Moore who, “with a twinkle in his eye,” paired her for blackboard exercises with A.A. Hill, a giant who towered over her. She took DeWitt Parker’s course in aesthetics and became an assistant instructor. She made close friends.

“My professors and friends accepted me as a human being and never as a strange foreigner from the East,” Sakanashi wrote. “I put my whole soul and energy into learning the democratic way of life, and it certainly was a most rewarding experience.”

‘The freedom to search’

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller learned “there might well be years of work ahead,” when he chose to get serious about writing. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Arthur Miller (1915-2005), author of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, arrived in Ann Arbor a year after Arleigh Burke. He was full of questions: “Could I hope to become a writer? Who was the best writer in America? Why?”

Miller wrote his first play as an English student, and when his professor, Erich Walter, praised the work and read it aloud in class, the young writer considered it a “high triumph.” Obviously, he thought, he was on the brink of getting his play produced on Broadway.

Then he took Professor Kenneth Rowe, who taught actual playwriting. Rowe was more exacting. “Not too slowly the truth began to dawn,” Miller recalled. “There might well be years of work ahead. A few better plays had been written in the world before mine.

“Rowe administered the kind of criticism that is hardest to take and most necessary of all — based on common sense…”

Miller remembered “Rowe’s calm, quiet refusal to encourage dreams of sudden glory and at the same time his sympathy with those dreams.”

When Miller won two Hopwood Awards, then lost a third, he could take the loss in stride. “Rowe did not lead, he accompanied. Maybe that is Michigan’s most endearing quality for me. It was a place that respected one’s confusion, which it countered not with doctrine but the freedom to search and the instruments for it.”

‘This magical address’

William Shawn (1907-92) was the longest-serving editor of The New Yorker magazine. He dropped out of Michigan to go to work in 1927. But he wrote with reverence about 408 Thompson St. — “this magical address” — where he lived his freshman year.

“A short walk, and I was on the steps of the Library, or on the Diagonal, or in a little lunchroom called Van’s; I was reading the books that were to mean most to me; I was seeing the friends who were to be remembered; I was having the cup of coffee and the toasted sweet rolls that tasted so much finer than they were. The world was just a few blocks around, and yet within it was everything I wanted to learn…

“Melvin T. Solve was there, and Lawrence Conrad, to tell me all there was to know about literature, and waiting for me somewhere in this tiny but comprehensible realm were history and philosophy and science — intimations of bliss … There are other places, surely, for other people, but for me there is only one place, Ann Arbor, for there it was I discovered what life’s bright possibilities were.”

Our Michigan: An Anthology Celebrating The University of Michigan’s Sesquicentennial (1966) is available in its entirety online via Google Books. The lead image dates to the 1930s and is courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Libary.


  1. Juli Highfill - (faculty)

    Interesting article, but it doesn’t explain that the photograph at the top represents a “rally for Spain” on the diag, in support of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. Arthur Miller’s essay addresses this in part.


  2. Doris Rubenstein - 1971

    I’ve been a New Yorker subscriber since high school, but never knew that William Shawn and I shared a common alma mater until reading this article. We share something else: the formative experience of studying and living at the University of Michigan. I want to second Shawn’s comment — both his words and his emotion.


  3. Ann Marie Fazio Aliotta - 1983

    I’m embarrassed to admit–and delighted to discover–that iconic New Yorker editor William Shawn attended U-M! His quote about discovering life’s bright possibilities describes exactly how I felt about my years in Ann Arbor! I got chills when I read this article! Thanks!


  4. Carol Kalamaras (Albers 1956-60) Kalamaras (Albers) - 1956-60

    Alice Lloyd (Hinsdale House) was my dormitory for four years on the 6th floor facing the west. It was a struggle to stay warm in the winter. By the time heat arrived from the central steam generator for most of the campus near east end of Huron Street, there was none so we covered the window with a blanket in order to conserve what the radiator could deliver and to keep out the cold wind. Riding a bicycle to campus in the snow was even more of a challenge! Pedaling back up the Hill took real energy especially if slippery! I recommend that the commencement address June 1960 given by Sir Geoffrey Crowther (best known as editor of The Economist 1938-1956) should be found and reviewed. What a tumultuous decade would follow! I went to UC Berkeley for MLS degree 1963 to escape Michigan winters and what did I experience but FSM and a new awareness of how fragile our world is. I agree with Arthur Miller. I, too, was influenced by UM being ‘A place that respected one’s confusion.’ That is why a rereading of TWO HERESIES is highly recommended at this time!


  5. Robert Berger - AB 1963

    These brief excerpts you presented resonate with me. Although i never reached the professional heights of the stars you quote here, I experienced at UM the same kinds of feelings and appreciation of place, teachers and fellow students which still resonate strongly within me. Thanks for presenting this strongly humanistic aspect of studying in the physical setting of a great university.


  6. Cliff Keil - BS 1976

    Let me echo the comments here that the Michigan experience was so much more than attending classes with outstanding professors and fellow students. I particularly remember notable visitors to campus that I had the opportunity to interact with, including Arthur Miller who graciously bought me lunch when he realized my dire financial straights and gently quizzed me on what it was like to be a student at UM in the turbulent 70’s. The personal interactions with the faculty outside of the classroom have been a lasting influence on my professional and personal development. While these were difficult years of self discovery and privation, I look back on them now in retirement as a golden time that only a place like Michigan could provide.


  7. Chris Campbell - Rackham '72; Law '75

    This statement resonated with me: “One writer after another said what mattered most in their time at Michigan was not the actual lessons delivered in lectures and labs. It was the experience of living and working side by side with teachers and peers in the sanctuary of a bricks-and-mortar campus.” Exactly. What U-M really taught me was the wonder of a place devoted to learning. What I remember was the experience of being there, integrated in the community.


  8. David Durham - 1989

    Admiral Arleigh “31-Knot” Burke is a revered hero among my fellow cruiser-destroyer surface warfare officers for his exploits commanding destroyer squadrons in WWII. USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) is the lead ship of the Navy’s most capable and largest class of surface combatants. For those who are unaware, he served an unprecedented and never to be matched three terms as Chief of Naval Operations during which he was instrumental in bringing the Navy into the nuclear age through the construction of nuclear powered submarines and the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM).


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