The Professor Who Earned Top Grades

October 28, 1990|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

To the uninitiated, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis appears as one of those last remaining bastions of dogma -- a stiff, lock-step place where up is up and down is down and if you think there's a middle ground then maybe you ought to think about transferring to one of those loosey-goosey colleges where they let you drift into class in shower clogs or a Bart Simpson T-shirt.

Students come to the Naval Academy to be pressed into a rigid military mold, uncompromising in its reliance on structure and adherence to rules. This is a place where everything seems to be either black or white. Take, for example, the classroom on the second floor of Chauvenet Hall, where a calculus class is about to get under way. Here, the walls, the ceiling, the blinds, the projection screen, the laminated desk tops, the chalk, the ghastly glow from the fluorescent lights are all stark, blanching white.

In contrast are the students themselves, each dressed in the severe black uniforms of Naval Academy midshipmen. They may try to tell you these uniforms are blue, even Navy blue, but they are as black as the highly polished shine on their shoes or the coal slate chalkboard to their front.

But even as this very tidy black-and-white metaphor begins hardening into a concrete conclusion, a sudden splash of color bubbles through the main hatchway: a whirl of a white-haired professor wearing a powder-blue jacket with a red-striped tie. In his eyes there is a twinkle, in his hands a length of chalk and in his manner a brimming impatience to get on with it.

He greets his audience with a barely restrained grin as one of the plebes calls the class to its feet with "Attention on deck!" When they are seated the professor scans the room with challenging brown eyes.

"Any questions from last time? No? Everybody knows everything?"

Students in this class know that now is the time to say something. If they don't, this professor will assume they're apace with him and he will then take off like a torpedo.

As in:

"OK, let's talk about the concept of sequence, the concept of procedure. It's the first topic of calculus and we will see how it is used in order to give us very nice formulations for algorithms of finding a square root of a number."

Algorithms. Square roots. Calculus.

To the uninitiated it may all be Greek, or worse, it may even be math. But as this spry professor begins tacking from one side of the classroom to the other, filling his chalkboard with formulas and graphs and equations, a curious thought occurs to the uninitiated. This is a math teacher who doesn't seem to be placing much emphasis on answers. It's almost as if the answers this class are not as important as the questions.

" . . . Our objective here is to be able to attack a number and prescribe a way of getting that number . . . in order to get the sum of this, what do we have to do?

"Here's the point. I want to show that no matter how I choose epsilon . . . I just say it's epsilon. Now the question: Can I choose an 'n' less than epsilon?

" . . . Somehow or other we want to get a number we feel is an approximation to the area of the curve . . . how do you choose it?

" . . . What do we really want to end up with?"

So what you have on this very stratified campus where order an sequence prevail is a professor teaching his students to think for themselves, to come up with their own answers. Is that possible? What would the top brass here do to this professor if they knew what he was up to?

Well, in fact, they've known for the past 50 years just what Professor Theodore J. Benac's been up to: author of three textbooks, translator of five others, chairman of the mathematics department 1956-1962, recipient of the Navy Superior Civilian Service Award in 1982, the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1989, the same year he was named Faculty Member of the Year by the Naval Academy's Alumni Association.

This time around they've seen to it that the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, an organization of more than 2,900 colleges, universities and independent schools, has chosen the 78-year-old veteran as Professor of the Year in Maryland, meaning he will soon represent the state in competition for the national title.

"He helps kids discover for themselves what he wants them to learn," says Capt. W. Denver Key, director of the division of mathematics and science. "They take that process with them, and don't forget it the way you might if you'd simply told them the answers."

WHEN TED BENAC ARRIVED IN AN-napolis from Yale University in the summer of 1941, he had it half-seriously in his mind that he had gone West, such was the parochial geographic conceit of an Eastern native. Anything that wasn't Connecticut, he jokes, must surely be out there on the western frontier.

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