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Earl Crow, still teaching people to think for themselves


When I started at High Point College in 1967, fresh out of R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, religion courses were required courses. High Point College (now High Point University) is still, I believe, affiliated with the United Methodist Church. However, its focus always was on the liberal arts, and the church did not try to keep it on a leash. Today, High Point University is a very different place with a lavish building and expansion program and, as far as I can tell, a focus on serving the modern economy.

In any case, I certainly would not have taken religion classes if I hadn’t been obliged to do so. As I recall, two semesters of Old Testament were required, followed by two semesters of New Testament. My teacher for both was Dr. Earl Crow. He later left High Point College for Wake Forest University. I was delighted a few months ago to see that Dr. Crow, now clearly in his 80s, had begun writing a column in the Winston-Salem Journal called “Everyday Religious Questions.”

Dr. Crow was one of the best teachers I ever had. He and a few other members of the faculty at HPC showed me something that I had never encountered before, despite the four-star reputation of the high school I had attended. That was the concept of teaching young people to question and to think for themselves, as opposed to opening a funnel at the top of their heads and allowing stuff to be poured in.

As I recall, my final paper for the New Testament class was on whether Jesus was mentally ill. There is a considerable body of academic literature on this, so researching such a paper was not particularly hard. There obviously was no censorship involved in what got into the High Point College library. I found many sources there to draw on.

I will never forget that Dr. Crow gave me an “A” on this paper, and I’m pretty sure I recall his giving me a funny smile when he handed me back the paper. If I’m not mistaken, I got an “A” for the course. No doubt I got a lesser grade for Old Testament, and I regret not ever having written a paper exploring whether everyone in the Old Testament was mentally ill. I should add here that I don’t think Dr. Crow gave me an “A” for this paper because he thinks that Jesus was mentally ill. I think it was because he knew that I was paying attention in class and because he likes not only good papers, but also open minds.

Imagine that. My hostility toward Christianity even then was well along. If you want to despise the church, pretty much all you need to do is to think for yourself and be dragged to a Baptist church for your entire childhood. (On the other hand, I have been in black churches, country churches, fairly often lately, and they teach a very different gospel of justice and equality, as, of course, do some “liberal” churches.)

But here’s the thing. Every fundamentalist I’ve ever encountered imagines that he knows quite a lot about the Bible. I have never met a fundamentalist who knew a damned thing. It’s also always assumed that I don’t know anything about the Bible. Because every fundamentalist assumes that, if you know something about the Bible and have actually read (most of) it, then you’d be just like them. Feeble minds think everything is obvious.

Dr. Crow, it seems, has spent his life opposing the forces of fundamentalism, inside the classroom and out. I found a book of his on Amazon, self-published, I believe, called Bible Stories You Shouldn’t Tell Your Children. One reviewer says that Dr. Crow “picks at scabs that fundamentalists don’t even want to acknowledge.”

In his column in the Winston-Salem Journal, Dr. Crow takes on questions sent in by readers, such as, Should Christians engage in war? What about the Christian concept of hell? You have mentioned that Paul felt women should be submissive, but were there not strong women portrayed in the Bible?

Apparently the Journal does not have a web page that collects links to all Dr. Crow’s columns, but here is a link to a search command that should find them.

While I was reminiscing about High Point College, another teacher came to mind whom I have thought about often over the years: Emily B. Sullivan, whose job as an assistant professor of English was to teach freshmen and sophomores how to write while guiding them through English and American literature. Though I never could quite make out what “existentialism” is (still can’t), and though I pretty much choked on pretty much the complete works of William Faulkner including his unbearable trilogy, I will never forget Emily Sullivan. She was the first person who ever told me that I should be a writer. Her love of literature was infectious. She understood — and somehow managed to impart to us — what beautiful English sounds like. On my papers, she often wrote little comments in French, but she was all about solid Anglo-Saxon English. It was Emily Sullivan who taught us how to scan poetry and from whom I first learned words such as “dactylic.” I have had fun with this all my life. I hope it cannot be said that any of Emily Sullivan’s students ever committed plagiarism. I am sure she checked our sources, and we would never have dared to fail to properly attribute, and to accurately represent, the ideas of others. One comma out of place and you were doomed down one letter grade. On some assignments for English composition, one grammatical error and you got an “F”. Can you imagine a professor doing that today? It would be considered abuse.

I have often referred to the concept of “intellectual DNA.” We pick it up from our mentors and associates, and from our reading, and we pass it on. It has been years since I worked as an editor. But even today, young people I encounter who care about language are likely to get my exhortations about English — its rhythms, some high-water and low-water marks in its history, the dangers of its vast vocabulary, and the poetry and precision that it is capable of. They would not know, of course, that I am passing on to them DNA that I received from people like Emily B. Sullivan. Who might Mrs. Sullivan have received it from? I will never know. I also don’t mean to imply that intellectual DNA always passes from the older to the younger. Often, young people get way ahead of older people. As evidence of that I need to mention only someone like Jedediah Purdy, whose new book After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, just arrived. I probably will have a review of it before long.

Emily B. Sullivan, on the left


  1. I am currently a divinity school student at Wake Forest University and have Dr. Crow for a class. He is a delight and does challenge you greatly. I really enjoy the class, Violence and World Religions.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2015 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  2. Lane Sapp wrote:

    Thanks so much for your comments on Earl Crow. He has been a major mentor in my life. I was a religion major at High Point College in the early 1980’s. Earl taught me to think for myself.
    Lane Sapp

    Wednesday, April 20, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  3. I arrived at High Point College as a brand new freshman in September of 1971. I was assigned to Dr. Earl Crowe, he was to be my advisor. Well, he was a very poor advisor, first of all because he was next to impossible to find…in his office or elsewhere. I could really have used his advice guiding my first semester freshman term. It was not the academics so much as feeling like a little lost sheep wandering around. And I had an older sister and two cousins who had all graduated from HPwithin several years of each other’s. Yes, Dr. Crowe was an okay person, and I had also been told he was an ordained Unied Methodist minister (like my father). I left after that first semester, never to return there as a student. As my advisor, Dr. CROWE could have influenced me to stay. But from all I heard, at time he had A LOT of irons in the fire, leaving no time to advise the students he had been assigned. If i remember correctly, he even had a talk program on a local TV station each week. He certainly had a hand in the direction mh life took.

    Sunday, September 10, 2023 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

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