It was one of the first days of spring semester classes at Miami University Dolibois European Center (MUDEC) in Luxembourg. Students filed into the Charles the Bold classroom and waited for the start of HST 270: The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler.
Shortly before the class was scheduled to begin, a man wearing a velvety black fedora and a black overcoat entered the room and headed toward the window.
Snow was still on the ground from earlier in the week, but the man opened the window and said in a thick accent that I couldn’t immediately place, “I think we should have fresh air in here. We will shut it when it gets too cold.”
Cold air rushed into the room, but the man removed his coat and hat anyway. He folded his coat and set it on the table in front of him and placed the hat on top.
Students looked around the room at each other, cold and confused.
The man at the front of the room started speaking.
What is that accent? I thought to myself. French? German?
He quickly explained himself and his no technology policy — handwritten notes only.
Everyone closed their laptops and pulled out their notebooks and pencils. He wasted no more time, and started lecturing about the effect of WWI on Europe. He rattled off specific dates and people.
I looked at the desk in front of him. Where are his notes? There was nothing there but his coat and hat. I looked at around at the other students who seemed to be equally as confused. Who is this guy?
Emile Haag grew up on a farm in a small village of around 150 people in the center of Luxembourg.
“For me, as a kid, Luxembourg City was pretty big,” Haag said.
The only time he went to the city as a boy was during a traditional pilgrimage, on foot, to Mary the Virgin of Luxembourg. It was a 12 km walk, about 7.4 miles, to the city followed by a mass in the cathedral.
Haag grew up speaking Luxembourgish, but like all Luxembourgish kids he was also taught German and French.
In the Lyceé (the seven year Luxembourgish equivalent of high school,) Haag took a classical track, so he also studied Latin and Greek.
He only knew English on a limited conversational level, but when he went to college, he managed to read one book in English, a Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls.
He attended college in Luxembourg and Aix-en Provence in France and spent his last two years at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Shortly after completing his studies with a Ph.D, Haag was hired by the Athénée of Luxembourg, a lycée, in June of 1968. But soon after, the director of the Athénée told him to also apply for a history position at a brand new university called Miami.
“I remember that my last question [of the interview] was, ‘What’s the working language?’ and he said, ‘English of course!’”
Haag told the director of MUDEC to give him 48 hours to think it over.
“I came back and said, ‘Look. I am willing to do it, but I can’t do it in September because my English is not strong enough. If you give me until January, I will work on it.’”
To improve his English, Haag taught history at the international school and read most of Agatha Christie’s books as well as many history books on the topics he would soon be teaching.
“I still remember my first day,” he said. “The class was on the second floor, so I waited to take the lift to be sure that no one else would come up with me. I was worried if someone would try to talk to me, I wouldn’t understand.”
He waited until the lift was free, snuck in and went up without speaking to anyone.
Haag also told the school secretary to tell him of the slightest negative things the students may say. He also told her that if the students complain, he would stop teaching at once.
“I was so nervous. I was waiting in the classroom, and I would not say a word until everybody was there, and then I started the lesson.”
He taught for two days, and after the second day, he went back to the secretary and asked what the students were saying, but she had heard no complaints.
“And I said, ‘Tell me the truth! I do not want you to get some kind of solace. I want to know.”
But three weeks passed with no complaints, so Haag continued to teach.
During his second year at MUDEC, the director came to him and asked him if he would be interested in teaching on the other side.
“What do you mean?” Haag said.
The director explained that he meant the United States. A history professor from Miami’s Oxford campus wanted to spend a few years teaching in Luxembourg and was in need of a temporary replacement.
“I thought it over, and decided ‘why not.’”
However, he told the director that he would be staying in Luxembourg until after the birth of his second child. As soon as his son was born, he hopped on a plane and headed off to Oxford, Ohio where his family would join him two months later.
After two years in the states, Haag and his family returned to Luxembourg, and he resumed teaching at both the Lycée and at MUDEC.
“From that moment on, I felt much more at peace in my classes.”
Haag hasn’t always taught from memory. He did use notes in the beginning.
“But I also had an activity as a public speaker, and I when I made a speech, I had notes laying before me which I only used as a guarantee that if I had a blank, then I could use my notes. But I never used them.
“When I am teaching, I know my topics. I see before my mental eye a page or a blackboard. I see all the different elements which are vital for the development of a topic.”
For a while, Haag said he had notes in front of him which were not relevant to the class whatsoever, but he figured he should have them so students would take him seriously.
But after a while, he figured even that was pointless.
In 1993, he became the director of the Athenée while still teaching at MUDEC.
He was the director for 14 years, and even after retiring from the Athenée, he still continues to teach at MUDEC a few days a week.
Haag and his wife, Karin, spend much of their free time traveling the world.
“We go to Italy; we go to Paris; we go to Amsterdam; we go to London and all over… I think we keep cultivating our cultural alertness and our pleasure because traveling really is a pleasure.”
He has always been intrigued and enthusiastic about the Italian Renaissance and cities like Florence, Venice and Rome — where he has traveled to many times.
“I feel extremely fortunate to live in this time-period and to be able to take advantage of all of these things,” Hagg said.
Haag is always furthering his knowledge by reading as much as he can on the topics he teaches, by visiting museums, listening to classical music and learning about the fine arts.
“I think you should avoid having unilateral things,” he said. “You should always look to have several arrows on your arc. You should be flexible and always have alternatives,” said Haag.
He enjoys American sayings because of the brief slogans which he even used in his Luxembourgish classes. One of his favorites is “always aim at the top.”
“Even if you might not get to the top, you should put your targets higher and never, never accept an average result,” he said. “I think that’s an important lifestyle, even in my personal life.”