#LoftyIdeals: Jim Malone P ’01, ’03
For the past 41 years, Mercersburg Academy faculty member Jim Malone has had a singular guiding principle: to make the world an interesting place for his students and to inspire a love of learning.
“I try to present my kids with high ideals about learning and about understanding the world and how it operates,” says Malone. “I want them to develop a sense of intellectual curiosity and approach the world from a point of view that you can never learn enough about it.”
For Malone, this perspective is rooted in his childhood, having been raised during the Vietnam and Civil Rights era by parents who presided over a household where science, religion, politics, and culture were ubiquitous topics around the dinner table.
Malone was exclusively a math teacher for his first 10 years at Mercersburg but has taught all physics courses or a combination of physics and math every year since then. For him, physics is “math with toys” thanks to the bountiful equipment and opportunities for physical demonstrations. (Recently, that involved hanging a student in a harness from the ceiling to demonstrate the principles of tension.)
“In many ways, I’m doing my job very similar to when I first started,” says Malone. “I really am dealing with things about how the world operates on a day-to-day basis, and a lot of the kids find the hands-on practicality of that to be really helpful. It’s not hard for me to make my material interesting.”
Malone finds joy in working with teenagers and seeing what long-term effect Mercersburg has on the trajectory of their lives. He relishes the chance to stay in touch with former students, who for him range in age from late teens to late 50s. (In fact, in every class this school year, he has at least one student whose parent he taught or coached.)
Outside the classroom, Malone is the current and longest-tenured adviser of the school’s Black Student Union, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Malone joined the group during its second year of existence because there were no white faculty members involved in the union. As important as his leadership has been, however, he’s quick to note that there are limitations to his ability to relate to students of color, and he hopes this school year’s theme of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion opens doors for Mercersburg to recruit more African American faculty members.
Beyond his classroom duties and BSU advising, Malone coordinates meal deliveries with faculty and staff for the Franklin County Homeless Shelter and the Cold Weather Drop-In Shelter in nearby Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He also volunteers with Mercersburg Outdoor Education, having served as assistant director and director of TREK (MOE’s predecessor) for a combined 22 years.
“The director at the time, Dan Kunkle, was looking to fill the [assistant] position. My credentials were that I knew how to fix a van and fix a Coleman stove,” Malone quips. “It ended up being a great fit for me.”
When asked about the biggest challenge facing education today, Malone cites the need to determine how best to prepare students for an ever-changing future. The enduring challenge for educators, he says, is synthesizing the old and new: vetting the latest ideas, trends, and pedagogies with traditional and established ways of teaching to create the best possible learning environment.
“I’m going to be retiring in a few years, so if there are any big structural and philosophical changes in the way we teach teenagers, I’m probably going to miss out on that,” he predicts. “But I think we do a good job right now of preparing kids for college and for the real world.”
That real world has, in Malone’s estimation, tilted a bit toward a disrespect for and politicization of science and an unwillingness to use the scientific method to simply look around, ask questions, and seek evidence to establish—or change—one’s view on a given topic. It falls on educators to imbue that appreciation for science and discovery early on, he says, though he worries that people lose their sense of wonder about the world as they grow older. As such, he seeks to set a positive example by the way he conducts his own life with that sense of curiosity and exploration.
While Malone may be an academic, a scientist, and an empiricist, he also has an appreciation for existential questions.
“I’m not a particularly religious person; I have a fairly scientific viewpoint of how we got here,” he says. “Evolutionary biology is one of my favorite topics, and it makes a great deal of sense to me, but I ask myself a lot of questions about spirituality. I’ve done that my whole life. It’s some of the most interesting questions that there are, and one of the things that I’ve gotten great pleasure from is talking with friends and colleagues about their particular views.
“You don’t reach some point in your life where you’ve got everything figured out,” he adds. “That’s the way it feels when you’re younger—that you’ll reach that point—but that’s far from being true. What you really have is just more deeper questions the older you get.”
Malone holds Mercersburg’s John and Cora Grove Chair in Mathematics and the Physical Sciences, which was established in part to support “excellent teaching that can inspire future inventors and entrepreneurs.” For him, excellent teaching is indeed about the inspiration of young people toward an intellectually vibrant life.
“They’ll forget the specifics of physics and things like that pretty quickly after the course is over,” says Malone. “But if they understand how to be a good learner and how to be curious about the world—and that you want to keep on learning the rest of your life—that’s what I hope my kids take with them.”
Editor’s Note: Jim Malone is one of several Mercersburg community members featured in the Winter 2020 issue of Mercersburg Academy magazine. He is married to fellow Mercersburg science faculty member Sue Malone, and the couple has two children: Molly ’01 and Jessica ’03. To meet other members of the Mercersburg community and enjoy all the content of this issue, visit mercersburg.edu/magazine.