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Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Quite the most bizarre event that I have ever witnessed during any department meeting in fifty years also occurred in that first year. Since this story is both an almost unbelievable tale and also a testament to the complexity of memory, it is worth spending some time on it.

It began simply enough when Donald Williams, one of the most senior members of the department, reported that he had heard from a man teaching Philosophy at a small school in Canada who had, some years earlier, been a doctoral candidate in the department. This man, who had served in the Canadian Air Force during World War II, had never finished his degree, but nevertheless had been teaching for some years. He had a wife and family, Williams said, and was now faced with a crisis. The little college at which he taught had decided to transform itself into a university [something that was also happening on many campuses in the United States], and it had announced that in keeping with its new elevated status, it would require all faculty to have doctorates, including those already on the faculty. In short, if this man did not finish his degree forthwith, he would be fired. The poor man had sent some materials to Williams on ethical theory, in the hope that they would constitute a dissertation. [Ethics was not Williams’ field, although he had actually published an article on “The Meaning of ‘Good’” in a major American journal, but the man had been away so long that he did not know the members of the department who did teach ethics.] The material was really just not acceptable, Williams said sadly.

“Well,” we all replied, “surely he can revise it with some suggestions from you.” “Not a bit of it,” Williams replied, “it simply does not have the potential to be an acceptable dissertation.”

What to do? We all scratched our heads, and looked glum, until a young Assistant Professor, Burton Dreben, spoke up. Dreben was Quine’s protégé, a logician who had been a Junior Fellow and had himself never earned a Ph. D. “Here is what we should do,” Dreben said. “I will move that this man be awarded the Ph. D. on condition that he never set foot in Cambridge, Massachusetts again. We will all close our eyes except Rod, and Rod will count the votes.” [This was Roderick Firth, Chair of the department – an upright Quaker of impeccable character]

We were all stunned, and looked at one another incredulously, but no one had an alternative suggestion, so in the end, Dreben made his motion, we closed our eyes and voted, and apparently enough people raised their hands, because Firth announced that the motion had passed.

This is the story as I have been telling it for fifty years, more or less as a corrective to the exaggerated respect that my Harvard Ph. D. in Philosophy sometimes evokes from people I meet. But having finished this memoir, I gave some thought to trying to have it published, and it occurred to me that even though all the participants save myself were, almost certainly, dead, nevertheless I really ought to try to confirm that my memory was accurate.

So one fine Spring day, Susie and I drove in to Cambridge from Western Massachusetts, and spent some time in Harvard Yard at the elegant underground library extension between Lamont and Houghton that serves as the storage for archives relating to Harvard itself. I had long since forgotten the man’s name, but after some searching through old lists of doctorates awarded, I found someone who seemed a likely candidate. He had graduated from a Canadian university in ’41, just before the war, and had been a student in residence in the Harvard Philosophy Department in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

Some web surfing located the school he had been teaching at, and some more probing revealed that this school had indeed transformed itself from a college into a university exactly when I recalled Williams coming before the department with his problem. So it seemed that I had indeed found my man.

It remained only to take a look at the dissertation itself. On a second trip into Cambridge, I called for and was presented with the dissertation, which I read from cover to cover. Now, if the truth be told, it wasn’t all that bad. It was totally without actual original philosophical content, but it was very smoothly written, and had the requisite number of footnotes. There is no question at all that it would have been considered acceptable in the Columbia University Philosophy Department in which I served as a senior professor from 1964 to 1971, or in the University of Massachusetts Department of Philosophy in which I served from 1971 until my transfer to Afro-American Studies in 1992. But the Harvard department, at least in the fifties, held itself to a pretty high standard, and I could see why Williams despaired of guiding its author to a more acceptable product.

It remained only to check to see that Williams had indeed directed the dissertation. This required asking for the cover sheet, signed by the three members of the committee, which, although preserved in the archives, was separate from the dissertation itself. I submitted a call slip, and in time a librarian brought me the document. Sure enough, the Dissertation Director was Donald C. Williams, and his signature was there. The second reader was John Ladd, a young Assistant Professor visiting that year from Brown University who become a quite well known ethical theorists. The third reader was … me! There was my signature, “Robert Paul Wolff.”

I had not the slightest glimmer of a memory of ever having been in any way associated with the entire affair, save as a young, silent, passive observer. How on earth could I recall so many verifiable details of the matter, and yet completely forget that I was one of the readers of the dissertation? Had I even read the thing before affixing my name? I have no idea. Nevertheless, I think I can continue to say, when I meet someone with an unhealthy respect for a Harvard doctorate, that it is not as hard as one might think to get one.

Who knows, maybe Sgt. McVicker had the right idea about Harvard Ph. D's


NotHobbes said...

Perhaps you have no recollection of signing the cover sheet as you also have no memory of the first drink the applicant gave you that night he came calling, no recall of the disturbance outside later on in the evening(as the wine freely flowed) and the ensuing fracas with the local constabulary, breaking the officers nose in a neanderthal display of strength and aggression- taking his squad car and speeding off. The flight to Havana and those feisty Cuban girls..Oh the girls!
Just a theory....Not a very plausible one, but a theory nonetheless

{Sorry :-)}

NotHobbes said...

As expected, our election has been called for MAY 6.
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here

Wish us luck, we`re going to need it!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ah, if only the Academy were that exciting!

Bob said...

Great story! I retired from a Canadian college that is now a university so I can understand the situation in your department. Rich and enjoyable. Thanks for sharing.

ajrosa said...

Always one of my favorites, and now with a revised ending. Love it Bob!!

Jacob T. Levy said...

I believe that John Ladd is still living; I've had exchanges with him in the relatively recent past about the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, of which he was (I think) the first Secretary-Treasurer. Living in retirement in New Hampshire.

David said...

Isn't one possibility that the gentleman was awarded the PhD as you remember it, and then your superiors at Harvard needed to go through the motions of placing his thesis in the record books -- and subsequently placed your name as one of its readers without telling you?

Certainly a nefarious solution, of course, but one that does satisfy both your recent experience and distant memory.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

David, an interesting hypothesis, but the signature on the cover sheet is indubitably mine. I have recorded other stories about memory in the earlier chapters of my Memoir.

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Jennifer, What fun to have you enter the conversation in regard to something a posted a year ago. If I had not been checking the list of "recent comments" I never would have found it. Now, just to be clear, you aren't Professor Jennifer Jensen-Wallach, are you?

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