By Jenny Collins ’05
If it weren’t for a pesky liberal arts requirement in college, the man who created Northwestern’s history major in the late 1980s might have missed his calling.
Charles Aling, Ph.D., chair of the Department of History and professor since 1985, was raised in a family of medical doctors and pharmacists. Aling’s father, A. Charles Aling, M.D., was chair of Northwestern’s missionary medicine department in the early 1950s and had served in Europe as head surgeon in an evacuation hospital during WWII.
Using logic and legacy as his rationale, a young Aling enrolled in the pre-med track at the University of Minnesota.
A major change
During his sophomore year, an advisor told him he was required to take a non-science, non-English liberal arts course. Curious about history, Aling picked up the thick history course catalog and paged through.
“I figured, why start in the middle?” he recalled. “Why not start at the beginning [of history]?”
He enrolled in the intro course for the ancient history major.
“I knew within two weeks that this is what I was going to do,” Aling said, and he immediately switched his major to ancient history.
Aling recalled that his father took the news surprisingly well, but his mother did not. “My mother saw three paths: medicine, law or ministry. She saw anything outside of that as illegitimate—it wasn’t practical.”
That is, until the family matriarch—Aling’s grandmother— said the words that made it all OK. Aling recalled that after his grandmother heard about his new endeavors, she excitedly said that her physician husband had loved ancient Egypt and would have been so proud to know his grandson was now studying it.
Royal history comes to life
Choosing to major in ancient history was just the beginning of defining points in his career. While at the University of Minnesota for graduate work, Aling met Professor Otto Schaden, an American Egyptologist who came to teach the ancient Egyptian language.
The esteemed professor taught at the U of M just long enough for Aling to study Egyptian hieroglyphics under him for six years. It was also with Schaden that Aling went to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings for an archaeological dig and found a royal tomb.
The excavation story gave rise to a nickname: “Indiana Aling.” Aling’s exciting tales and ability to make the past come alive in the present have endeared him to the thousands of students who praise his lectures on western civilization, ancient history and hieroglyphics.
“I really like his insight. His stories add to the class and make it a lot more interesting than most history classes that I’ve previously taken [at other schools],” said Jacob Coil ’16 of his western civilization class.
Aling, whose wife Dr. Helen Aling is chair of UNW’s Department of English, is quick to point out with a twinkling eye that in an age of multimedia, he and his colleagues in history “are on the forefront and have proven that lecturing can still be exciting.”