Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at

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Friday, July 31, 2009


I have mentioned, I think, that I am now teaching courses in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke University, one of fifty or more such learning in retirement institutes funded in part by the Bernard Osher Foundation. [My sister, Dr. Barbara Searle, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a fabulously successful instructor in the Osher program run there, at American University. She teaches courses mostly on evolutionary biology and genetics.] In preparation for a course of lectures I will be giving in six months' time on The Thought of Sigmund Freud, I have started rereading the principal book I shall be assigning, Sigmund Freud, by the disinguished English philosopher Richard Wollheim. The book is now almost forty years old, but it remains the best thing I have read on the subject. For me, the central idea [and yes, it is, I think, a very beautiful idea] is the extraordinary process of reasoning by which Freud arrived at the discovery of the unconscious. I shan't try to summarize it here, simply recommend the book to anyone reading this who has a serious interest in Freud's work.

Forty years ago, when I was living in New York and teaching at Columbia, I attended a session of something called the Theater for Ideas, at which Bruno Bettelheim and several others spoke about Freud's hidden philosophy. The event itself was a hoot -- held in a loft used during the day as a dance studio, and attended by many of the leading lights of the New York intellectual establishment. I sat in the front row between William Schuman and Sidney Hook, and behind me were Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, among others. Bettelheim, who was a brilliant but thoroughly unpleasant man, gave a fascinating talk, the theme of which was that the centerpiece of Freud's work was an unceasing search for the unconscious. When he finished, Sidney Hook popped up to protest that what Freud had said was not original. "Quite true," Bettleheim responded. "Shakespeare could do what Freud could do -- witness the handwashing compulsion in Macbeth. And Dostoyevsky could do what Freud could do -- witness the anatomy of an Oedipus Complex in The Brothers Karamazov. Shakespeare could do what Freud did, and Dostoyevsky could do what Freud did. But Freud was able to teach us how to do it."

It was, I thought, the most successful put-down I had ever witnessed in an intellectual confrontation. Its impact was somewhat marred by Mailer, who then rose, his chest pushing out his vest like a Bantam fighting cock, and delivered a long, rambling attack on his latest analyst, who had, I gathered, somewhat disappointed Norman.

Those were simpler times.


For my small but faithful Croatian readership, my best-known book, IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM, is now available as an ebook in Croatian translation. Just go to and page way down to the end. Along the way, you will notice that I share this honor with Noam Chomsky and a ton of Croatian writers. As Mel Brooks says in the great remake of the old Jack Benny film To Be or Not To Be, world famous in Poland.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Sixty-five years ago, when I was a boy going to P. S. 117 in Jamaica, New York, we were asked as a homework assignment to choose one of the cities on the Baltic Sea and write a report. This was during World War II, when Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had not yet been swallowed up by the advancing Red Army and converted in Soviet Socialist Republics. Had I known that in twelve short years I would be writing my doctoral dissertation on Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, I might have chosen Koenigsberg, but instead I chose Riga. I still have a vague visual memory of the report, complete with a map of the three Republics colored with crayons. Last night, as I do most nights, I got up at about 2 a.m. and checked my email. [It is an old guy thing. I haven't slept through the night in decades. But I digress...] There, waiting for me, were two responses to my series of posts on The Ideal University, and one of them was from Riga. How cool is that! The author is an American philosopher who is, for reasons I have not yet ascertained, living and working in Latvia.

The second email was from the same woman whose comment I replied to yesterday. She was my student briefly at Columbia in 1967, and is now an Economics professor. Her politics, like mine, are not exactly mainstream. Here is a part of what she said:

"I feel that one of the important roles of the university is to teach "critical thinking" . This often means enabling the students to discern the ideological content, and then to pose alternative positions. This is how I might use the term "critique," directed towards the assigned readings rather than the student's performance. Rather than a method of "perfecting" student performance, I would hone student skills in articulating the author's unstated assumptions, and then exploring the influence of those assumptions on the argument"

She then goes on: "Is this already implicit in your aesthetic reconstruction/simplification of "great" authors works (with "great" still to be defined)? Or does this meaning of "critique" emerge in discussions among diverse, passionately committed students? Once students are sufficiently encouraged, does this form of "critical thinking" not actually require instruction at all (being more or less spontaneous)?"

These two comments, or questions, really call for a rather extended response, so be patient as I try to make myself clearer. [WHOOPS -- I ACCIDENTALLY POSTED THIS BEFORE IT WAS FINISHED -- IF YOU ARE READING THIS, COME BACK IN A BIT AND I WILL HAVE COMPLETED THE POST. SORRY ABOUT THAT.]

1. By all means, I think the development of the capacity for critical thinking is an essential part of the educational process. It is one of the reasons that I enjoy teaching Karl Mannheim's great book, Ideology and Utopia. One of the most exciting seminars I taught in my fifty years in the classroom was a graduate seminar on Ideological Critique, in which we read Edwin Wilmsen's Land Filled With Flies, to understand the ideological distortions involved in the anthropological examination of the people incorrectly called "bushmen," along with Henry Louis Gates' first [and only good] book, The Signifying Monkey, and Ed Said's wonderful and tremendously influential work, Orientalism. So on this we are in total agreement.

2. BUT: I am not comfortable with the belittling implications of the scare quotes around the word "perfecting." I think this may simply be a place where I part company with many who share my political orientation. I really do experience ideas aesthetically as well as ideologically and intellectually. The beauty of powerful and precisely clear arguments and conceptual formations is not some sort of extraneous decoration, like the wedding cake stonework on late baroque buildings. It is inseparable from the power of the ideas, and is, in my eyes, as valuable as their truth. Indeed, I suppose I share St. Thomas' view about the relations among what he called the "transcendentals" -- beauty, truth, and goodness. That identification has often been coopted by conservatives, but I refuse to cede it to them. To those who simply cannot see the beauty, and the power in the beauty, of Marx's Labor Theory of Value correctly understood, there is nothing more that I can say. Having shown that beauty and rigor as precisely as I was able, in Understanding Marx, I must simply rest my case.

3. As for critical thinking, once it has been introduced to students, not actually requiring instruction, being more or less spontaneous, all I can say is, From your lips to God's ear! That is certainly the ideal for which we all long. To show a student how something is done, and then have the student simply get it, and start doing it on his or her own, is what we dream of.

One more story, also from long ago. When my first wife, the well know literary scholar Cynthia Griffin Wolff, was an undergraduate at Radcliffe, she took the Shakespeare course taught by a great Comparative Literature scholar, Harry Levin. Her first paper was handed back with a low grade, and she rushed in, quite distraught, to see the Section Man who had graded it. He spent a few moments explaining what they were looking for, and then she said, "Oh! That is what you want," and left. She never got less than an A in the course again. Would that we were all blessed with students like that.

Well, this is really fun. Keep the comments coming. Anybody out there in Africa?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


One of my faithful readers has raised an interesting question about my description of the life of the mind, and its role in my ideal college. She wonders about the ideological component of the "great ideas," and whether it is acknolwedged or plays a role in the education of the college. I responded that of course there is an ideological component in all argument, indeed even in music [as Herbert Marcuse suggests in a brilliant passage in ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN.] But, I added, I was dead set against trying to use education to advance an ideology or indoctrinate my students.

It occurred to me that I could make this point more forcefully with a story than with a harangue.

Many years ago, during one of the interminable budget crises that has afflicted the University of Massachusetts, some members of the faculty decided to hold teach-ins [remember those?] in their classrooms to prep students for pressuring the State Legislature to reduce the severity of the budget cuts scheduled for the university system. It was agreed that on a certain Tuesday, we would all use our classroom time that day for the teach-in. The prior Tuesday, as it happens, I assigned my students a short paper, to be handed in at the very next class, on Thursday. One of the students, a rather serious and quiet young man, chose not to write on the assigned topic, but instead to pen an impassioned libertarian argument against state funding for education. It was, he said, inappropriate for me to use the classrooom time to advance an agenda, as though no one could possibly be opposed to it. I was troubled by his paper. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that he was right. By choosing to devote the class to the teach-in, I was compelling him to be complicit in a political position that he adamantly rejected. At the end of the Thursday meeting, I handed back the papers, and then told the class what the student had written [without identifying him, of course.] I ended by saying, "I have concluded that he was right, so, there will be no class on Tuesday. We will not hold a teach-in here. If you wish, you may attend one of the other classes at the same time where teach-ins will be in progress." As I picked up my papers and started for the door, I saw in his eyes a look of almost pathetic gratitude, that someone had actually heard him and paid attention to what he was saying. For many years after he graduated, I received complimentary copies of Cato Institute publications, where, I assumed, he had gone to work.

I think I was more truly a teacher that day, than on any of the days when I allowed myself, as I so often did, to give voice to my intense ideological commitments.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Now that I have concluded the series of posts on the ideal college, I welcome any reactions from those of you who have been reading it. You can post a comment on-line, or send me an email message at


Here is the last part of my extended essay on the ideal college. To read the entire essay, click on the following link:


The college will be organized into four Houses, each with a separate complex of small buildings around an inner quadrangle [very Oxbridge, of course, but why reinvent good ideas?] Each House will be home to 150 students, and several of the fifteen faculty associated with it. The faculty, of many different fields, will constitute a Senior Common Room. They will be collectively responsible for all of the administrative decisions and actions that the students may need. The entire faculty of the college will act as a Curriculum Committee, choosing what courses to offer, and in what sequence. They will also act as a Personnel Committee, making decisions about hiring and tenure. [Yes, the faculty will have, or be able to earn, tenure. And of they choose, they can unionize, although it is not clear against whom they will strike, should they decide to withhold their labor.] The President of the college will rotate membership in each of the four Senior Common Rooms.

The student rooms will be arranged into suites, each of which will be home to three, four, or five students. Each suite will have a small common room and a bathroom. Every student will have an individual small room, the door of which, suitably soundproofed, can be closed to provide privacy. The underlying assumption of the physical arrangement is that each student will spend most of his or her time studying.

Each House will have a dining room and kitchen facilities, where students will take the meals that some of their own number prepare. The dining room will double as an assembly room, and will be fitted out with all the latest audio and video accoutrements. It will serve as a venue for House meetings, public lectures, and the like.

There will be no intercollegiate sports at the college, and no coaches or trainers. The college will have some facilities for pick-up sports activities – a playing field with a running track, perhaps, maybe even a pool. But the entire focus of the college will be on the life of the mind. Students will of course be free to form whatever organizations they choose, but they will do so on their own, without encouragement or discouragement, or any financial support, from the college.

The academic year will be organized into two fifteen week semesters, in the customary manner, with the usual holidays and breaks. Since I expect that some of the students will be very poor, the college will try to remain open throughout the entire year, at least on a skeleton basis, so that students who need to, or who wish to, can spend all of their time on campus. If a sufficient number of students are interested, the college will conduct intensive summer study sessions during which students can delve ever deeper into the subjects that interest them.

One important point concerning grades, not mentioned earlier. There will be no such thing as flunking out at this college. Some students may decide to leave, having discovered that unrelenting study is not in fact what they are seeking. But once the college collectively decides that a young man or woman has the calling, and he or she is welcomed into the community, the faculty and the students will have a commitment to that young person and will do everything possible to make the four years at the college valuable and rewarding. We will be demanding and rigorous, always holding the student to a higher standard, but there will come no time at which the faculty sit in judgment on the student and vote In or Out, Pass or Fail. In this way, as much as in any other, the college will be more like a religious order than a school.

I think it can be taken for granted that the academic performance of the students will be such as to merit a Bachelor’s Degree after four years of such rigorous and intensive study. I anticipate that graduate and professional schools will compete for them, should they choose a career path that requires their certification.

How will the faculty be recruited, and what sorts of academics will we be looking for? The simple answer is this: the instructors must have the same commitment to the life of the mind that we demand of the students, and they must themselves be so gifted, so brilliant, that they are capable of teaching the sorts of students we shall be recruiting. They must be as devoted to teaching as the students are to learning, and they must have a capacity for experiencing and, in their own way, expressing the love for one’s students that lies at the core of all great teaching. [Here I will simply make reference to Paul Goodman’s two great extended essays, COMPULSORY MIS-EDUCATION and THE COMMUNITY OF SCHOLARS.]

What sort of person will we seek as President? The first, and absolutely non-negotiable requirement is that the President must be a scholar of such power and distinction that he or she will be recognized as pre-eminent in any gathering of scholars, regardless of titles or administrative position. This is of course not now the custom in the American higher education community. The norm is for some failed academic, who recognizes early on that he or she is not really going anywhere academically, to shift over to the administrative track. A Department Chairmanship, then perhaps an Associate Deanship, followed by a Provostship then a Chancellorship, all the while moving from institution to institution – what Robert Michels long ago, in a somewhat different context, called “the circulation of elites.” The result is a University President who, stripped of his title, would scarcely be noticed in a Senior Common Room. The exceptions are notable – Robert Maynard Hutchins at Chicago, James Byrant Conant at Harvard, even, in his odd way, Leon Bottstein at Bard.

Well, there you have it, at least in sketchy outline – my utopian fantasy of the ideal college. Is such a place even possible? Well, my big sister, Barbara, reading an earlier portion of this essay, remarked that the academic side of it sounded to her much like the Swarthmore College that she attended from ’48 to ’52. As I said when I began, I conceive the college as sort of co-ed monastery, with sex, and monasteries of some sort have a long, distinguished history.

Will such a college ever come into existence? Not unless a dot com billionaire [if any have survived the crash] reads these posts and decides to throw several hundred million into the pot.

What value is there, then, in the fantasy? Here I stand with the Utopian Socialists against Engels’ mocking criticism. The value of this fantasy, or Ideal Type, is that it allows us to clarify certain principles underlying an activity in which we are engaged, but whose roots we have not really examined. What follows are a few conclusions I draw from the fantasy:

First: The two central and indispensable features of the college are that it is a genuine cooperative community, in which the members of the community themselves perform the labor required to sustain the community, and that there is no fee imposed on some, but not on others, for participation in the community. These two conditions, taken together, will communicate and instill the underlying ideological orientation far better than any forced indoctrination of principles. Those who work together cooperatively in such a community come to understand that they are part of a shared enterprise. There is no class of persons who are, in Orwell’s immortal words, “more equal than others.”

Second: Critique is essential to education; certification and ranking are irrelevant to education.

Third: Once a student is admitted to the community of the college, everyone is committed to helping that student to develop intellectually. There is no flunking out, nor is there any graduating with honors, just four years of intense cultivation of the life of the mind.

Finally: The closer we can come to embodying the principles of this ideal college in our actual educational enterprises, the more perfectly will we serve out students. Perhaps we may even succeed in inspiring a few of them with the same vision, which they in turn can pass on to their students. When all is said and done, it is the vision underlying and inspiring this fantasy that gives value to our careers as teachers and scholars.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Here is Part Six of my extended essay on the ideal college. To read the entire essay as it has developed thus far, click on this link:


The college education will be free. There will be no charges for tuition, room, board, health care, books, or other expenses, and each student will be given a small stipend for personal needs. Students from wealthy families will not be charged exorbitant fees to help defray the expenses of students from poor families. Hence, all students will graduate with no loan burdens, making it possible for them to follow career paths that are not defined by the need to pay off student loans.

This is a utopian vision, but the absence of fees is hardly a novel feature of our ideal college. Monasteries and convents also do not charge fees. They are supported by churches or states. In many countries of the world, higher education is free for those who can gain admission, though rarely are food, clothing, and shelter also provided.

Our college will therefore need a large endowment. To be sure, the non-academic labor of the students and faculty will reduce considerably the cost of maintaining the college, but an endowment will still be essential. How much? I confess that though I have made some back-of-the-envelope estimates, I really am not sure what the annual operating budget will be. My guess is that the college might cost fifteen million a year to run. That translates into an endowment of perhaps three hundred million, over and above the capital cost of the campus and buildings. Chump change for Amherst or Williams, but still a significant pile of cash.

As soon as the word gets out that our college is free, really free, we will be inundated with applications. Merely paying for a staff large enough to read all of them could add several millions of dollars a year to the operating budget. How WILL we select our students? This is clearly one of the two most important tasks facing the college [the other being recruiting the faculty – more of that anon], so we need to talk about it at length.

We will NOT be examining the performance of high school students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or any other supposed measure of student academic ability. Nor will we be examining grade point averages. We will take no interest whatsoever in sports, music, art, drama, debating, or other extra-curricular activities, and we will not be reading letters of recommendation. In fact, we will not invite applications at all. We will not accept students; we will go out across the country and look for them.

Let me be clear about what we will be looking for. Quite simply, each year we shall seek one hundred fifty young men and women who are prepared to devote four years of their lives to the rigorous intellectual activity of the college. Adverting yet again to the religious analogy, we will be seeking one hundred fifty young people who have a calling to the life of the mind. We will not be looking for the BEST one hundred fifty. That way lies self-defeating madness. Once we have found one hundred and fifty, we will stop looking until next year, even though there will almost certainly be many, many more whom we have not found.

Where will we look? In secondary schools across the country, some in up-scale privileged neighborhoods, some in blighted inner cities, some in tiny rural communities, some in working class enclaves. Wherever we go, we will ask the teachers in the schools one question: “Do you have a student who is obsessed with books, in love with learning, passionate about ideas?” We will not be asking, “Who is your best student?” Very often, the best student in a school is a performing seal who has mastered the trick of balancing a ball on his nose while playing The Star Spangled Banner on a set of horns. When we find prospects, we will talk with them about what they have been reading, read what they have been writing, listen to them as they talk about what excites them, engages their intelligence, puzzles and fascinates them. We will explain in great detail what life in our college community would hold for them – what their responsibilities would be, what we would provide, and, equally important, what our college would not offer. When we find a young man or woman who is right for our college, we will offer admission on the spot. If the offer is accepted, we will put one more chalk mark on the blackboard in the President’s office. If the offer is declined, we will move on. No positions will be held open for especially “qualified” candidates. There will be neither early admission nor a waiting list, just instant admission.

Who will carry this burden of recruiting? The question answers itself – the Faculty. No one else is competent to judge whether a candidate is suitable for our college. Each Fall, upwards of half of the Faculty will fan out across the country on weekend trips, searching for students for the freshman class entering the following Fall. On average, each professor will be responsible for finding five students. By early in the new year, we will probably have filled our class.

We will be seeking a gender, racial, and ethnic balance in each class. How can we do this without falling afoul of laws against quotas and racial preferences? There are two answers: First, we are seeking one hundred fifty suitable candidates, one by one. At no time will we be comparing one candidate with another, ranking them comparatively. Each potential candidate will be measured against an inflexible standard: Is he or she a person who has the commitment and the ability to be a member of our college community? If the answer is yes, then he or she is in. Otherwise, not. Thus there will be no elaborate system for sorting a flood of applicants into various categories, hence no possibility of adding points for race or economic background or gender.

Second, it is entirely up to us where we look, and as anyone who knows America is aware, when it comes to race, ethnicity, and gender, where you look very powerfully shapes what you find.

Will the faculty be able to recognize suitable candidates, without relying on the usual stigmata – SAT scores, grades, letters of recommendation? Well, ask yourself this: Can an athletic scout recognize baseball, football, or soccer prospects, simply from watching them play? Can a music teacher recognize musical talent? If we academics cannot actually tell whether young persons are suitable for our college after spending time with them, talking with them, reading what they have written, then we have no business calling ourselves Professors!


Selfishness is the unwillingness to distinguish between one's own interests and some larger purpose. Hypocrisy is the pretence that there is no distinction. Narcissism is the inability to make the distinction. The first is immoral. The second is contemptible. The third is pathological. After listening yet again to Sarah Palin's explanation of her decision to resign the Governorship, I have concluded that she is pathological.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I have been getting more and more depressed by the unwillingness of Democrats to pass meaningful health care reform. I assumed the Republicans would be obstructive, and that there would be some heavy negotiating with so-called Blue Dog Democrats, but the level of resistance has surprised me, even though I come to the political world fully outfitted with Marxist presuppositions and a lifetime of disappointments. For solace and wisdom I turned, as I often do, to the words of my old friend and one-time co-author, Herbert Marcuse, now long departed. In the Preface to his most powerful book, ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN, Herbert apologizes for the abstract character of the analysis, with these words:

“In the absence of demonstrable agents and agencies of social change, the critique is thus thrown back to a high level of abstraction. There is no ground on which theory and practice, thought and action meet. Even the most empirical analysis of historical alternatives appears to be unrealistic speculation, and commitment to them a matter of personal (or group) preference.”

He then continues, a paragraph later: “The fact that the vast majority of the population accepts, and is made to accept, this society does not render it less irrational and less reprehensible. The distinction between true and false consciousness, real and immediate interest still is meaningful.”

The fault, in short, lies not in our President, but in ourselves. Were there sufficient support in the electorate for the necessary and salutary changes he seeks, there would, I have no doubt, be a sufficiency of Representatives and Senators willing to vote for them.

What to do? Well, I spent a few hours yesterday at the Chapel Hill Public Library, collecting signatures on a petition being circulated nationally in support of the principles underlying Obama's health care proposals. As might be expected, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. In ninety minutes, two of us collected seventy signatures. The principal resistance came from a few folks who were holding out for a single payer system. But Chapel Hill is to North Carolina as Berkeley is to Northern California, Madison is to Wisconsin, Hyde Park is to Chicago, and Harvard Square is to Cambridge. Still, the welling up of protest here in the newly Democratic South does seem to have turned Kay Hagen around, and perhaps a comparable outpouring in other swing constituencies will do the trick.

Is it any wonder that I have retreated further into the clouds even than theory, to spend my time spelling out a fantasy of the ideal college?


Here is the fifth part of my extended essay on my ideal college. If you would like to read the first four parts of the essay, you can find them by clicking on this link:


Considering the history of experimental undergraduate education in America, it might be natural to suppose that I have in mind some special set of required courses as the core of the curriculum of my ideal college. One thinks immediately of St. John’s College, at which students read classic texts in the original Greek and Latin, or the University of Chicago of Robert Maynard Hutchins, with its broad interdisciplinary survey courses in Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities, and its final capstone course based on Aristotle’s classification of knowledge [a program in whose final dying throes I taught for two years]. One thinks as well of General Education at Harvard, which first became a regular part of the curriculum in 1949 [the year before I entered as a freshman] and continues, with many alterations, into the present day, or the famous required course on Contemporary Civilization at Columbia, which draws on the talents of the university’s most distinguished scholars.

Not a bit of it! Those programs are perfect for your typical bright, well-prepared, directionless undergraduate, for whom college is a way station on the road to a career in one of the professions, and who is content to sample bits and snatches of Greek tragedy and philosophy, Russian literature in translation, history, sociology, anthropology, and perhaps even the laboratory method in the life sciences. But the students at my ideal college will be recruited not for the equanimity of their idle curiosity but for the intensity and passion of their thirst for knowledge, and I hope and assume that many of them will be possessed by very specific epistemic obsessions. I have in mind someone like the young E. O. Wilson, who was fixated on ants at a time when the social behavior of animals was utterly d̩class̩ in Biology. [My sister, Barbara, was a fellow graduate student of Wilson in Biology at Harvard in the early fifties, and she describes him as reclusive and eccentric. I once spent an afternoon with Wilson in his lab Рa sort of arranged date Рand can attest to the accuracy of her memory.]]

One student may arrive at our college desperate to learn as much mathematics as she can, as fast as she can. A second my have become fascinated by the periodic open air markets of 13th century Flanders. A third may be launched on a quest to find some common insight uniting all of the major religions. The very worst thing that could possibly happen to each of these young people, as they arrive at the doors of our college, is to be told, “That is very nice, dear, but first we have seven required courses we think you ought to take so that you will be prepared to take your place in adult society as a citizen of a democracy, or so that you can participate in the great conversation that we educated folk have been carrying on for the past two and a half millennia.”

There will be a certain amount of unavoidable direction. During that first weekend when new students are unpacking their bags and scoping out their classmates, we may require everyone to read the same book, so that serious conversations can begin immediately. Something challenging but manageable – perhaps Plato’s GORGIAS, or THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, or THE SELFISH GENE.

We want immediately to establish two principles that shall guide students during their time with us: First, that the jobs they choose or are assigned as part of their contribution to the communal life of the college take precedence over all else, because their fellow students and instructors are relying upon them; and second, that there is absolutely no book, no discipline, no idea that they cannot master with sufficient hard work and guidance from their instructors.

There will, of course, be a wide array of courses from which the new students may choose, and those who are not hell bent on following a pre-existing obsession will receive all manner of helpful suggestions from the faculty. But no effort at all will be made to turn out well-balanced, broadly educated citizens.

I openly admit that I am here reproducing the distinctive features of my own undergraduate education. Despite having to take two large surveys, in the Social Sciences and the Humanities, as part of new General Education Program at Harvard, I was left pretty much to my own devices when it came to choosing courses. In my first semester, I took symbolic logic with Willard van Orman Quine. In my second semester, having just turned seventeen, I took a rather specialized graduate course in Philosophy and Logic with Nelson Goodman. The next year, I took five courses in mathematics, graduate mathematical logic, and set theory and three advanced courses in philosophy, together with the required Humanities course. Taking all in all, I had the most appallingly unbalanced undergraduate education imaginable. It was wonderful!

I anticipate that the students will put considerable pressure on the faculty, who will have a hard time keeping up with them. But that is as it should be. One final story, this one possibly apocryphal, will capture the spirit of my vision. This story is about Paul Samuelson, who went on to become the first person to win the newly created Nobel Prize in Economics. It is said that when Samuelson came up for his doctoral orals at Harvard [prior to writing the dissertation], he was examined by three extremely brilliant and distinguished economists, including the great Wassily Leontieff, who himself won a Nobel prize. After two hours of intensive questioning, the candidate was asked to step out of the room while the committee deliberated. When he had closed the door, Liontieff turned to his colleagues and said, with a smile, “Well, gentlemen. Did we pass?”

`Now THAT is my idea of a student.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Here is Part Four of my extended essay on my vision of the ideal college. For the entire essay up to this post, click on the following link:

FOURTH POST: 25 July, 2009

All of the courses of study in our college will be small seminars, with an average of ten students each. There will be a great deal of individual instruction, of course, but no large lecture courses or Teaching Assistants. The normal course load for each student will be three courses per semester; the normal teaching load for instructors will be three small seminars per semester. Thus, each instructor will teach thirty students each semester. He or she will know them all by name, and over the course of four years, I would expect instructors to get to know a good many of the six hundred students at the college.

Seminars will meet a minimum of two hours a week, though many instructors may prefer to spend more time with the students in formal classes. The work will be extremely demanding, and there will be a great deal of written work in addition to class discussion. Instructors will be expected to read, comment on, and return written work immediately – certainly no later than one week after it is submitted – so that students get constant feedback on what they have written. The goal toward which everyone is striving, student and instructor alike, will be simple and unambiguous – perfection.

This is perhaps a good place to take up the vexing subject of GRADING. No subject – not politics, not sex, not race – is so fraught with emotion as the assigning of grades. Young people with any serious interest at all in schoolwork are conditioned virtually from infancy to seek, cherish, and respond to grades. One personal story will suffice. Shortly after I joined the University of Massachusetts Philosophy Department in 1971, I found myself teaching a huge four hundred student section of Introduction to Philosophy, with a large staff of graduate student TAs. I devised what I thought was a rather exciting course, organized around the theme of the healthy personality in the just state, a rather attractive alternative to the usual snooze through logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. After I had finished describing the theme of the course, a young man roughly in the middle of the sea of students raised his hand. “Aha!” I thought with pleasure, “I have captured their interest.” When I called on him, he asked in a rather flat nasal voice, “Professor Wolff, can you tell us what will be on the final exam?” I was so deflated that without thinking I replied sardonically, “A thousand short answer questions.” There was a gasp from the assembled multitudes, and I realized that I had blundered badly. “No, no,” I rushed to assure them, “that was just a joke.” For the rest of the semester, a sizable fraction of the four hundred remained convinced that the final exam would indeed contain a thousand short answer questions, and when they discovered that it was actually a list of essay questions, with choice, they were seriously bummed. I learned my lesson and never again made a joke about exams or grades.

There are three quite distinct activities that are conflated and confused in the notion of The Grade. These are Critique, Certification, and Ranking. [For a more extended discussion of this subject, see THE IDEAL OF THE UNIVERSITY, Part Two, Chapter One.] Critique is the identification of strengths and weaknesses in a student performance of some sort, for the purpose of helping the student to improve his or her grasp of the activity in question. When I correct the grammar of a student paper, I am offering a critique. When Yo-Yo Ma shows an advanced cello student in a Master Class how to play a phrase of one of the Bach cello suites with greater fidelity to Bach’s style, he is offering s critique. Without critique, education is reduced to feel-good finger painting. The aim of critique is not to enhance the student’s self-esteem, but to improve the student’s performance, and the goal, as I suggested above, is not a pretty good performance, or a slightly above average performance, but perfection. If this seems unnecessarily rigorous, ask yourself this question: Would any self-respecting violinist wish to settle for a performance that was slightly out of tune [but mostly – perhaps 97% -- in tune]? Would any serious apprentice mathematician be content with a proof that is almost valid?

Certification is the evaluation of a student performance for the purpose of determining whether the student shall be admitted to some socially defined role. The Bar Examination certifies prospective lawyers as ready to argue cases in court. The Medical Boards certify medical students as ready to practice medicine. The Doctorate in one of the Arts and Sciences certifies a student as ready to serve as a professor in an accredited college or university. The only relevant question in any certification procedure is whether the applicant does or does not merit certification. There is no such thing as one applicant being more certified than another.

Ranking is the establishment of a linear ordering of the performances of a number of students, for the purpose of arranging them in some hierarchy of relative strength or success of performance. The ONLY purpose of grading is to sort a superfluity of students into a scarcity of desired posts or to assign to a superfluity of applicants a scarcity of desired rewards. There are fewer positions in the handful of highly desired law schools than there are applicants for those positions. There is a similar shortage of openings at the handful of highly desired medical schools and highly desired graduate departments in Arts and Sciences. [You will notice that I say “highly desired,” not “highly desirable” or “elite” or “best.” That is an entirely separate question that need not concern us here.] THEREFORE, undergraduate instructors rank the performances of their students, using letter grades or numerical grades. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO OTHER REASON TO ASSIGN GRADES, ONCE THE PROCESS OF CRITIQUE OR CERTIFICATION IS COMPLETED.

It is not the purpose of our college to certify students as ready to adopt socially defined roles, nor is its purpose to sort them into scarce positions in some other social institution. Therefore, at our college, there will be critique, constant critique, unrelenting critique, but no grades as they are commonly understood. If you strive for perfection, there is no need to be told just how much you have fallen short. Should you achieve it, you will need no instructor to tell you that you have done so.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Here is Part Three of my extended essay on the ideal university. If you would like to read the first two parts of the essay, you can page down to earlier posts, or click on this link for the entire essay up to today's post.


Henceforth, I shall focus my attention on undergraduate education. The term “university” as we currently use it carries with it the implication of professional schools certifying students for careers, and that is not what I have in mind at all. So let us imagine, if we can, an ideal undergraduate institution, a liberal arts college, as we in America would call it.

Hollywood types use the phrase “high concept” to describe an idea for a movie that can be stated in less than a complete sentence. “Terminator in drag,” “Brangelina as paid assassins” [that one actually got made], “George W. Bush – the musical.” That sort of thing. When I search for a high concept to capture my vision of the ideal educational institution, what I come up with is “co-ed monastery, with sex.”

I imagine a community of six hundred students – no more – and sixty professors. A ten to one ratio is already utopian. Anything less would open me to ridicule. This community is like a monastery in at least three important respects. First, it is a community of people who are, and understand themselves to be, united by shared commitments, reciprocal responsibilities, and a common conviction that the life of the mind is a valuable and important component of life. Second, it is a a community whose members have committed themselves to hard work in pursuit of a rich and productive life of the mind. And third, it is a community of persons who take collective responsibility for the daily life of the community, and who share the labor of maintaining it in good order while they pursue the life of the mind.

As this last may strike some as odd or unfamiliar, a few preliminary words are in order. In all of the actual colleges and universities with which I am familiar, there is a sharp distinction between town and gown, between the students and faculty who ARE the educational community, at least in their own eyes, and the large number of men and women who cook the food, tend the grounds, clean the buildings, answer the telephones, run the errands, and in general provide the indispensable support without which the activities of the community would almost immediately come to a halt. No matter what the superficial casualness of the relations between support staff on the one hand and students and faculty on the other, everyone understands the status distinctions, as rigid as any caste system, that ordain the social and economic hierarchy of the community.

In the ideal college that I envision, as in a monastery [or, for that matter, on an Army base], the work usually done by hired staff will be performed by the students and faculty. The students and faculty will cook the food that they eat, clean up after themselves and wash the dishes, maintain the grounds, repair the plumbing leaks, clean the buildings, and do the filing and phone answering and other office chores. This labor will not be left to the financially disadvantaged students who do it as “:work study” to help pay their bills. It will be a natural and integral part of the responsibility of all who live in the community. Medical services will be provided by trained professionals, of course, and even plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work will have to be overseen by licensed practitioners, but one of their duties will be to teach the students the elements of those trades, so that under the guidance of licensed tradesmen, they can do most of the work.

The administration of the college will be the responsibility of the faculty, and the internal organization of the college – of which, more later – will facilitate their efforts. There will be a President of the college, who will teach as well as preside, but there will be no Deans or Assistant Deans or Provosts or Vice-Chancellors, no staff-run Learning Center. There will be a library, of course, and it will require one or several trained librarians, but all the rest of the work in the library will be done by the students. In short, to the extent possible in the modern age, this will be a self-sufficient community of students and scholars.

My insistence on this rather unusual feature of the college has its roots not only in my ideological persuasion – I am, after all, a Marxist socialist of the old school – but also in a lifetime of experience, going all the way back to a summer camp that I attended for three years when I was a teen-ager. Shaker Village Work Camp, founded by Sybil and Jerry Count, was a left-wing teen-age camp in the Berkshires that offered the children of progressive middle-class parents an eight week combination of music, folk dance, choral singing, and four hours of work a day. It was staffed, as you might imagine, by young lefties, many fresh from service in Word War II, who believed fervently in the educational and spiritual value of manual labor. We rolled and maintained the camp’s one tennis court, manicured the grounds, turned pegs on the shop’s wood like the ones that the Shakers used to hang chairs not in use [my favorite job], and helped out in the camp’s office. It was a formative experience for me, fleshing out my rather abstract understanding of communal responsibility.

What would the students and faculty of this ideal college do? I will leave that for the next part of this essay.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Well, everyone else has had a say about the arrest of Skip Gates, including the president [who handled it with considerable grace and some wit], so why shouldn't I? There is one aspect of the story -- in many ways the most important -- that has gone more or less unnoticed.

Let us forget about race for a moment, and just talk about class. Everyone who knows Harvard Square -- which in my youth really meant one small square, but now means much of Cambridge -- knows that there is a clear visual and body language distinction between town and gown, which is to say between people who are associated in some way with Harvard and people who live in Cambridge or work there or are passing through but are not students or professors or administrators or researchers. The Harvard folk dress differently, do their hair differently, walk differently, carry different objects [book bags, for example], and in general are immediately identifiable. Now, this is profiling, of course, and it is accurate profiling. I would bet that if you tested me or anyone else who knows The Square, we could distinguish Harvard types from non-Harvard types eighty or ninety percent of the time or better.

For a while now -- three hundred years or so -- the Cambridge police have treated the gown folk differently from the town folk. The gown folk are cut a good deal of slack, and the police force tends to abide by the maxim that What happens in The Yard stays in the Yard. [Notice, a propos, that as soon as the arresting officer found out that Gates was a Harvard professor, he called the Harvard police, even though the entire event took place off Harvard property.]

Think about Henry Louis Gates, abstracting, for a moment, from his Blackness. Anyone who saw Gates in the vicinity of Harvard would immediately recognize him as gown, regardless of whether they actually knew who he was. [By the way, Gates is not simply "a Harvard professor." He is what Harvard calls a University Professor, a title bestowed on only six or eight members of the entire faculty, and carrying with it the very highest academic status. But never mind that.] What is more, the incident took place on a very toney Harvard street, where the homeowners are all rich and upper middle class. A policeman seeing an obvious White gown type trying to enter a house on that street would NEVER, and I mean NEVER, imagine that he was "breaking and entering." Of course, he actually might be breaking and entering [upper middle class people do illegal things], but no policeman would think that he was. NOR WOULD A "NEIGHBOR" WHO LIVES ON THE SAME STREET THINK SO, EVEN IF SHE DID NOT KNOW HER NEIGHBORS BY SIGHT.


Sigh. You really have to know the history and culture of Harvard Square to feel, in your gut, just how impossible this entire incident would have been, had Gates been White.


Here is the second instalment of my lengthy essay on the Ideal University. Those who have not read Part One may do so by paging down in this blog, or by clicking on this link:

Everyone reading this blog is intimately familiar with one or more of the four thousand college and university campuses – tertiary institutions, as the jargon has it – that now operate in the United States. They vary enormously, from 50,000 student behemoths like Michigan State and Ohio State to tiny liberal arts colleges with no more than 600 students. Some award a full spectrum of undergraduate and graduate degrees, both academic and professional; others offer no more than a two-year Associate’s Degree. The large state university campuses resemble corporations a good deal more than they do the itinerant bands of scholars and students out of which the medieval university evolved. On modern state university campuses, the life of the mind is often not even so much as honored in the breach. As Clark Kerr, then the President of the vast University of California system, famously observed forty-five years ago, “I find that the three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty.”

Rather than suggest a suite of practical reforms that might marginally improve America’s tertiary education sector – which I suppose would be the realistic and responsible thing to do – I should like to try instead to flesh out an image I have long had in my mind of the ideal college. I am sure it will never be instantiated, for to accomplish that would require many millions of dollars in today’s world. But by thinking through the principal features of such an ideal, their relationship to one another, and the principles that ground them, I may at least be able to offer what Max Weber, in another context, called an Ideal Type of the college, and this in turn may serve as a standard against which to judge and also to understand our actual colleges and universities.

I unashamedly and unapologetically begin with the conception of a college as a community whose members are individually and collectively committed to the life of the mind. I have in mind men and women who are in love with ideas, who embrace them, caress them, probe them, celebrate them, and admire their beauty. [And yes, I do really intend the erotic overtones and implications of that language.] All my life, I have sought to understand profound and difficult ideas, to clarify them, to enjoy their beauty, and to share that beauty with others. My enjoyment of ideas is as much aesthetic as intellectual or ideological. A personal story will perhaps help to explain what I mean.

In 1985, when my long marriage to Cynthia Griffin was coming to an end, I spent time in therapy with a wise psychiatrist, Dr. Lenore Boling, whose offices were in the famous MacLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. This was in fact not the first, but rather the last, of many courses of therapy that I had sought out in my life to handle a variety of emotional problems. A good deal of each weekly session was, of course, taken up with my descriptions of what was happening as Cynthia and I tried unsuccessfully to reconcile. [There was nothing so dramatic as a Republican style affair at the root of our incompatibility – simply a growing apart of two people who had been deeply committed to one another for twenty-eight years.] Despite the fact that I was tremendously upset by what was happening to me and to our family, my monologues were utterly free of tears. Then, one day, I happened to be talking about my work, my writing and teaching. I explained to Dr. Boling that what I tried to do when I was struggling with the central passages of Kant’s CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON or Marx’s CAPITAL or Hume’s TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE was to turn the ideas over in my mind, slowly making them clearer and clearer to myself, telling the story of the ideas to an imaginary audience in my head, until I reached a point at which I could present the ideas to my readers or my students in their complete simplicity and profundity, so that they could see, as I could, how beautiful they are. As I said this, quite unexpectedly, my eyes filled with tears and I choked up, so that I could barely continue to speak. I think it was truly not until that very moment that I fully understood what my life had really been about.

Quite simply, my vision of the ideal college is a community of students and scholars who are capable of experiencing the beauty, the power, and the joy of great ideas. What might such a community look like, in today’s world?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Forty years ago, I published a little book called THE IDEAL OF THE UNIVERSITY in which, reflecting on my experiences as a student and professor at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Columbia, I attempted to think through the principles underlying my vision of university education. My mode of discourse was utopian, both in the good sense of being inspired by my conception of the ideal forms toward which I thought education ought to strive, and in the bad sense – mocked by Engels in his little book, SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC – of being abstract, rootless, unconnected to real social movements from which new forms of education might emerge.

For all of those forty years, I have continued to pursue my vision, in my classroom teaching, through a series of undergraduate and graduate programs that I created or had a hand in creating, and in my ceaseless musing and daydreaming about what a truly ideal college or university would look like.

I am no closer now than I was in 1969 to seeing my dreams become a reality. Indeed, in the past two decades or so, everything in higher education, worldwide, has been moving in precisely the wrong direction. The corporatization of education has proceeded apace, with profitability replacing knowledge as the measure of institutional success and students ever more strongly dissuaded by crippling loan burdens from following the arc of their curiosity.

Nevertheless, as I pass the middle of my seventy-sixth year, I find myself turning more and more frequently to the dream I have for so long cherished of an educational community that embodies the ideals to which I have devoted my life. This little blog, now visited regularly, I do believe, by at least eleven people, and perhaps a few more, offers me a forum for the deliberate articulation of that dream. In a series of postings, I shall spell out my vision with as much specificity as I can muster. I hope that for those of you who read this, it will be a source of reflection and even inspiration, and that a few of the people who have found something of value in my book over the past four decades will find their way to this site, in order to discover what more I have been thinking all that time.

My plan is to elaborate the vision in a series of postings, each of which is accompanied by a link to the entire series preceding it. [I believe I have figured out how to do this, without seeking the help of single young person!] I very much welcome your thoughts and responses, should you feel so moved. I remind you that my email address is

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


No sooner did I offer an adequate definition of kvelling than I was offered an opportunity to indulge. My brilliant younger son, Tobias [not to be confused with my brilliant older son, Patrick], has just posted an essay on The Huffington Post. For reasons that are beyond my poor brain, I cannot cut and paste the link into this blog, but if you go to you will find it.

Tobias, as I am sure I have mentioned, was Chair of the National Committee for LGBT Issues for the Obama campaign, as well as one of the leading gay legal rights experts in the country. He is Professor of Law at UPenn [see the entry under his name -- Tobias Barringtin Wolff -- in Wikipedia for more detail].

Now, if only it came in the form of an earring...


According to the on-line dictionary I have bookmarked on my computer, kvell is a Yiddish verb meaning "to be bursting with pride, as over one's family." The origin is given as the German word quell, pronounced the same way, which means Spring. No doubt all of that is very true, but it does not capture the combination of pleasure and smugness with which Jewish mothers advertise their children. [We all know the old joke about the Jewish mother pushing a pram built for two, who, meeting a friend, says "The older one is the doctor; the baby is the lawyer."]

I will give you an operational definition of kvell. In 1953, when I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, following my sister in this honor by two years, my mother appropriated both of our Phi Beta Kappa keys and had them made into a pair of earrings for herself. [Inasmuch as her maiden name was Ornstein, which means Earring, there was a certain mad logic in the act.] Now that is kvelling! It was also, not irrelevently, a marker being laid down for her three sisters-in-law, all of whose six children were younger than Barbara and I. Top that! she seemed to be saying.

In future posts, I will from time to time kvell about my two sons, Patrick and Tobias, who are, you will not be surprised to learn, the finest sons any man has ever had, old Joe Kennedy not excluded.


Here I am again, with another bit of folk wisdom to pass on to the young. This one is not mine, however. Thirty years ago, or so, when I was still relatively newly arrived at the University of Massachuesetts Amherst, I knew a Professor of Italian named Zina Tillona [she has since gone on to earn a law degree and now practices in Northampton, I believe]. A group of us were sitting around gossiping one day about a mutual acquaintance who had just been tapped for an administrative position despite no prior such experience. "I wonder what sort of Dean he will be," someone said, idly. Zina replied, "Well, most people do most things the way they do most other things."

Ay first, I thought the remark rather trite, almost tautological. But on reflection, I realized that it encapsulated a very deep truth. There are styles in human behavior, and those styles crop up across a wide range of activities, some trivial, some very important. So this man was likely to be a Dean in roughly the way he was a tennis player, a father, a teacher, or a lover. If he was fussy, obsessed with trivia, vindictive in his personal relationships, and perpatually late to parties or his children's teacher conferences, then he would almost certainly be fussy, obsessed with trivia, vindictive, and chronically late to appointments as a Dean.

Erick Ericson says something similar in Childhood and Society [I think.] People have styles in dreaming, he observes. Some always dream in color, others in black and white. Some have barren, simple dreams, others have cluttered dreams. And this is true regardless of the subject matter of the dream.

Why is any of this important, even granting that it is kind of interesting? Because lefties like me have to take seriously the idea that Obama will be the same sort of president that he was a community organizer, a state legislator, a senator, and a campaigner. It is natural for him to seek consensus, to listen to those with whom he disagrees, to look for something on which he can agree with his opponents, and on which he can build. His orientation is progressive, but he is not confrontational or ideological and he is very slow to anger.

We may like these features of his style of personality or not, and I think we can agree that they served him extremely well in the run for the presidency. But it is foolish of us now to want or expect him to channel our inner Dennis Kucinich.

Most people do most things the way they do most other things.