What lesson did the students teach Professor Howe?
Praised for his moral thoughtfulness, Lionel Trilling presents the conflict of life with art in his short story, "Of This Time, Of That Place." Indeed, it is this very conflict that often effects the emotional strife, hidden motives, and self-discovery in people. The professor's dilatory actions before entering his classroom are exemplary of his subconscious awareness of his vulnerability as a devotee to the ideals of high art who must expose himself to the worldly as represented by his new students.
Further, as he interacts with two students, Tertan, a brilliant, but unstable student of philosophy and art, and Blackburn, a materialistic-minded opportunist, the professor finds himself confronted with an examination of his own morality. For instance, when Blackburn threatens to expose Howe as an incompetent poet to the dean, based upon a scathing criticism written about him by a literary critic, the angered professor tells Blackburn he is mad and changes his grade of C on Blackburn's paper to an F.
Ironically, it is the devotee to art who is declared mad, not Blackburn. Earlier, this student has questioned himself: “Tertan I am, but what is Tertan? Of this time, of that place, of some parentage, what does it matter?” After his experience with both students, and his own actions toward Blackburn, Professor Howe learns that there are no absolutes; instead life is ruled by moral ambiguity and liberal values are vulnerable to the motives of materialism. For, Blackburn is the first graduate to be hired while Tertan appears in an outlandish outfit and vanishes in “the last sudden flux of visitors.”