While teaching “Hamlet” to college students in the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program, Lecturer of English Matthew Mehan is writing the book he wishes Hamlet had read as a kid.
Titled “Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals” (or “M5” for short), the book features 26 colorfully-illustrated monsters with their own poems, one for each letter of the alphabet. Layered with meaning rich in classical and Christian tradition, the book should teach children about the liberal arts and offer them a way to cope with difficulties in life better than Hamlet did, Mehan said. Adults will have plenty to wrangle with, too.
“Literature lets you pull back and see things as a whole,” Mehan said, noting that it cultivates imaginations that determine how people deal with life.
Mehan’s philosophy is consistent with his vision for teaching English in the middle of politics-frenzied Washington, D.C. He said the political sphere is an important place to be, but it’s easy to “get lost in the weeds” if one loses sight of the big picture.
“Literature and beauty are a part of becoming wise,” he said. “That’s something Hillsdale wants to offer here in Washington.”
As the Worsham Teaching Fellow at the Allan P. Kirby Center, Mehan has been teaching an English class for Hillsdale College since the spring of 2015. He used to teach an American literature class, and now he teaches the continental literature class that fulfills a core requirement for students, many of whom intern for policy think tanks or the government during their semesters of WHIP.
“A lot of people on WHIP aren’t English majors,” noted Bert Hasler ’15, WHIP director and a former student of Mehan’s. “But it’s important to read the classics and great books, and Mehan inspires that in a lot of students.”
On the first day of class this semester, Mehan told students, “In order to have a healthy politics, you have to have a healthy poetics.”
He calls that his motto.
For Mehan, cultivating a “healthy poetics” for people in politics extends beyond lectures in the basement of the Kirby Center. On several occasions, Mehan has led a Saturday seminar at the Kirby Center for young professionals to come discuss literature, as he did recently on “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” And sometimes, he leads one of the regular “Coffee with the Classics” reading groups that Kirby organizes in the US Capitol.
It’s an opportunity to help young professionals “see their culture, their tradition” and “refine their ‘good mother wit,’ as Chaucer put it,” Mehan said.
Although he has his Master of English and his Ph.D. in literature, Mehan studied politics as an undergraduate. His ability to bridge politics and English is part of the reason the college hired him, said Matthew Spalding, the college’s associate vice president and dean of education programs at the Kirby Center.
“His approach is very consistent with the Hillsdale view of things,” Spalding said. “The way he looks at literature and its relationship to politics is very consistent with how we approach the question. He’s interested in the great writings that have to do with statesmanship.”
Mehan met Spalding through D.C. connections and knew several Hillsdale professors before joining Hillsdale’s faculty; he took classes at the University of Dallas under Hillsdale’s politics professors Thomas West and Ronald Pestritto and Associate Professor of Classics Grace West. There, Mehan also became close friends with Professor of English Steve Smith, who was a graduate student at UD while Mehan was in undergrad.
Looking for someone to teach an English class that would help students fulfill core requirements, Spalding said he knew Mehan would be a good fit.
“I wanted to have a local person who could teach literature and, more broadly, humanities, because that’s an important component of learning about politics and statesmanship,” Spalding said.
Senior Macy Mount, a politics major who took Mehan’s class while doing WHIP last spring, attested to Mehan’s ability to connect English and politics. For example, Mehan had the class read Machiavelli and Cicero while studying “Hamlet,” showing them the political elements in Shakespeare.
“He never tried to force the political element out of Shakespeare, but because we were reading the other works alongside, we sort of naturally had to see it,” Mount said.
Hasler remembered Mehan’s ability to make abstract concepts palatable.
“I thought he was the smartest professor I’d ever had,” Hasler said, adding that the class inspired him (a finance major) to read more literature. “His way of connecting things was so intelligent; he had a unique ability to take a high concept and bring it down to our level.”
Mount agreed, noting that Mehan saw the integration of the liberal arts into every aspect of life.
“The class kind of changed the way I view everything,” she said.” He has an incredible way of applying the liberal arts and the good, the true, and the beautiful to every single thing we talked about. Every time we ‘got off topic,’ we were never really off topic.”
Mehan is in tune with pop culture, Mount said. One time, she remembered, the class talked about Eminem as a poet; another time, a classmate brought up Kendrick Lamar’s new album, and Mehan listened to it so he could discuss it with them in class.
College students find him cool, but Mehan still “commands respect,” Hasler said, noting that Mehan could trust students to do take-home exams because they honored his rules. He’s also relatable: He even hosted a pizza party for the class with his whole family at the end of the semester, Hasler recounted.
Mount likewise remembered the class going out to dinner with Mehan and his wife, and she said she would email Mehan for extracurricular advice. She admired Mehan’s ability to integrate idea not only between different areas of study — like politics and literature — but between academics and the real world, she said.
“He could really take a lot of the ideals we talk about at Hillsdale and apply them to real life.”