August 14, 2008 — Ernest Mead's formal academic title is professor emeritus of music. But for generations of University of Virginia students, he has been much more. He has been a professor of life, a mentor who has helped them make sense of their years of education before launching them into the real world.
Now 90, Mead has been active in student life since 1960, shortly after his return as a music professor. He had been a student from 1936 to 1940, majoring in German language and literature with additional study in Greek and biology.
While students gravitated to Mead's kind manner and nurturing ways early on, his legend can be traced back to a May afternoon in 1972. He and his wife were on an outing in the country with a group of third-year students, who approached Mead with a request: Would he teach a course in their final year that would focus on topics that were important to them, without the strictures of curriculum, quizzes and exams?
That was the start of "Mr. Mead's Liberal Arts Seminar," which has become an institution continued each spring by student request, long after Mead's formal retirement from the faculty in 1996.
For decades, always at student request, Mead taught the seminar every semester, sometimes even in two sections, but since retiring has cut back to once a year. Enrollment is limited to about eight students, drawn from all areas of study, who arrive at the first meeting ready to discuss a topic Mead communicated to them earlier — perhaps a quote from Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" or John Donne's poem "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
This spring, he gave them the inscription from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece: "Know Thyself." These topics are intended as ice-breakers and also underline one of the goals of the course — self-discovery.
"It's really interesting the way students engage and develop in the course of the semester," Mead said. One student told him that she had known the other students in her seminar since her first year at the University, but the seminar was the first time she had really serious discussions with peers — and it was a wonderful experience.
Students come to the first class armed with their own interests and enthusiasm and five suggested topics to pursue during the semester; the group votes on the ones they will explore together. The goal is to take up, study and discuss issues of serious concern to them. Over the years, topics have included Israel and Palestine, community in the megalopolis, technology and the art of communication, Bach's "St. John Passion" and 20th-century American art.
"As members of society, they will be responsible for knowing about issues and having convictions about them," Mead said.
Mead's expectation is that the students become informed and arrive at each seminar session prepared to discuss the topic as "intelligent laymen." He acts as a counselor or moderator.
"Sometimes I take the position as devil's advocate," he said. Mead himself spends a great deal of time researching each subject in depth.
But the seminar comes to be about much more than the chosen topic. "The seminar is about exploring ideas and doing it in a free-spirited and collegial way," said alumnus Gregory Tilton, who took the seminar in 1973-74.
"One thing Mr. Mead tried to teach was not to be afraid to make mistakes. You can't play it too close to the vest. You have to take some chances," he added.
Mead emphasizes no-holds-barred discussion on any topic. As the semester develops, the frank discussions often build enduring friendships.
According to Stefan Underhill, who also took the seminar in 1976-77 and is now a federal district judge, "Mr. Mead uses the 'Mead Method', a method of questioning and being interested in what you think. He is a modern-day Socrates, constantly asking questions."
Underhill, like many of the students, has kept in close touch with Mead through the years. Today they often talk about topics related to justice, ethics and morality, crime and punishment, and issues the Supreme Court is addressing. "It's incredible the way he can make connections and ask provocative questions," Underhill said.
As with many former Mead seminar students, a real bond developed between the student and professor. "I feel like he is family," Underhill said.
Mead shares the close friendship. When they are together, the conversations pick up "just as though we took up where we left off," Mead said, "perhaps with a little bit more wisdom than we had then."
Mead's inspiration has spanned generations, sometimes within the same family.
Underhill's daughter, Mariah, has the same warm feeling about the man she calls "Boots," a nickname Mead's mother gave him as a boy.
"I grew up with Mr. Mead in my life. He is what attracted me to U.Va.," said Mariah Underhill, who took the seminar in 2007.
"He is interested in knowing students' hopes and dreams and in trying to get them to know themselves," she said. "He's always interested in honor and in the latest issues on Grounds."
Tilton's daughter, Lauren, who took the seminar in 2008, appreciated that the course was "learning about people, not just information," she said. "It was exciting to be in a small seminar having wonderful conversations with people who thought so differently about issues. It was about learning from each other."
"The seminar experience is very gratifying to me," said Mead, who has already heard from students interested in taking the seminar next spring. "I am always impressed by what they say and do. They are sincere and uninhibited in talking about the subjects. It has proven a very fine experience for me and I hope for them."
Mead has received many honors during his time at the University, but perhaps the most fitting was the creation of the Mead Endowment in 1996. The endowment, funded by hundreds of former students touched by his mentoring and friendship, supports other faculty who propose projects and classes that reach out to students and become involved and active in their lives.
When asked about the endowment, Mead shook his head with a warm, modest smile and said, "I had nothing to do with it."