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Sunday, April 4, 2010


With this post, I continue my memoirs. Links to the first five chapters of volume One can be found in the post of June 28, 2009. Rather than write entire chapters which I then store on a UMass site, linking to them in my blog, I have decided to insert each segment directly into the blog as a daily post. To keep this all manageable, I shall make the daily segments reasonably short. Those of you who are actually as old as I am will recognize the reference when I say that this will be my version of The Perils of Pauline. We pick up the narrative in the early Fall of 1958, as I began my Instructorship in Philosophy and General education at Harvard. As I explain at the end of the previous chapter, I had been given the task of teaching the history of Europe from Caesar to Napoleon. For those of you who are wondering, No, I had no previous training in History.

During the time I spent as an Instructor in General Education and Philosophy at Harvard, I became an engaged, vocal, politically active critic of American society and governmental policy. I also matured into a scholar and philosopher ready to enter the Great Conversation as a full participant with my own distinctive voice. Though I did not realize it then, those three years worked a substantial transformation in me.

But first, I had to face thirty-three Harvard and Radcliffe undergraduates. Soc. Sci. 5 met as a group each Monday at 10:00 a.m. in Burr Hall for a lecture given by one of the six of us who were co-teaching the course. On Wednesdays and Fridays, we broke up into sections. There were thirty lectures a year, so each of us would give a block of five. I drew the segment covering the rise of capitalism, the scientific revolution, and the French Revolution, which meant that I would not have to perform in front of my colleagues until well into the Spring semester.

In the '50s, as many as half of all Harvard undergraduates were products of elite private schools, where classical subjects were still given pride of place. It was a good bet that many of my students would know a great deal more about Roman history than I. Nothing daunted, I worked up some lecture notes and went along to my assigned room to meet my class.

After a few introductory remarks about reading assignments, required papers, my office hours and the like, I launched into the story of the Roman Empire. "We begin," I said, "with Caesar, who was camped outside Rome with his legions." A young man in the middle of the second row began to shake his head very slowly back and forth. I froze. This was the first day of my entire career, and I was already crashing and burning. I thought seriously of chucking the whole thing and returning to the Army, which, I was sure, would permit me to enlist for a full three year hitch. Giving it one more go, I pressed on. "Now, there was a law that no Roman general could bring his legions into the province of Rome itself." The young man very slowly nodded his head up and down. I breathed a sigh of relief, and never looked back.

My rule of thumb was to stay one century ahead of the students, which took some doing as we rushed past the Merovingians and the Carolingians, barely pausing for the investiture of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800 A. D. I even brought in some authentic medieval helmets, courtesy of Fogg Art Museum, which to my astonishment allowed me to remove these eight hundred year old artifacts for a few hours from their collections. As the months went by, and my folders of lecture notes grew thicker and thicker, I grew more confident. The preppies were not as big on the Middle Ages as they were on ancient times, and with two millennia to cover in thirty weeks, we did not linger.

There were some bad moments, of course. One day in the Spring a student asked me what the difference was between a Jacobite and a Jacobin. I had read about both, of course, during my manic survey of European history, but I could not quite call it to mind that a Jacobite was a seventeenth century supporter of James 1st and a Jacobin was an eighteenth century French revolutionary. Still, Soc. Sci. 5 was supposed to be about ideas, and there I was in my element. I had no trouble fielding questions about scholastic metaphysics or the theory of the social contract.

My colleagues' Monday morning presentations were marvels of erudition. One of the odd quirks of the Harvard culture in those days was that even very senior professors, who gave short shrift to doctoral dissertation students or senior honors thesis writers, poured their hearts into the lectures they prepared for big undergraduate courses. Jim Billington led off with five lectures on the Roman Empire and the Constantine Conversion. Jim was an historian of pre-revolutionary Russia whose first scholarly work, The Icon and the Axe, would make his reputation. I thought he wore his religion rather too visibly on his sleeve, presenting the fourth and fifth centuries not as the decline and fall of a great empire but as the triumphant victory of Christianity.

Jim was followed by Arno Mayer, whose lectures covered the barbarian invasions and the Middle Ages. Arno was an odd choice for this segment, since his specialty was twentieth century diplomatic history. He was writing a book on the interaction between domestic politics and international policy in the major nations that participated in the Versailles Conference. It was from Arno that I learned my first lesson about what real historians do. I came across him one day in the stacks of Widener sitting at his carrel reading. On the desk in front of him was a row of enormous volumes stretching the entire width of the desk. "Hi, Arno," I said, "what are you doing?" "I am reading the proces verbal of the Versailles Conference," he replied. "All of it?" I blurted out, astonished. "Of course," he said, looking at me rather quizzically. I said a silent prayer of thanks that I was in philosophy, and moved on.

It was also Arno who unintentionally taught me a pedagogical lesson that has stood me in good stead for forty-five years. His first lecture dealt with the waves of invasions by Germanic tribes that brought the Roman Empire to its knees. Arno had the brilliant idea of relating these invasions to the major battles that had been fought by Germany and the Allies in World War II. The terrain was of course the same, and inasmuch as the rivers and valleys had not moved in the intervening fifteen hundred years, the two made a lovely fit. The five of us sat in the last row of the lecture hall and marveled at the brilliance of Arno's presentation. But when we next met our individual classes, we discovered to our dismay that the students had been massively underwhelmed. The problem was simple. It was nineteen fifty-eight, and our students were eighteen years old, which meant that they had been four when most of those battles were fought. The Second World War was ancient history to them, something their parents did. They had never heard of the Battle of the Bulge.

Sad to say, this experience has been repeated endlessly over the decades. The Freshmen I now encounter were born during the Clinton Administration and probably came to some degree of awareness of the larger world during George W. Bush's second term. Anything before that might as well be ancient Rome. For many years, I compensated for this absence of historical memory by extracting my philosophical examples from Star Trek, but even that draws blank stares now, and as I do not get HBO, I cannot substitute The Sopranos. There is nothing that makes you feel older faster than teaching undergraduates.

My own lectures were something less than masterful, although considering my lack of background, I consider it very creditable that I got through them at all. In the lecture on the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I thought it would be nifty to do a dramatic demonstration I had heard about, but never seen. A very big, heavy metal ball would be suspended from the ceiling of the lecture hall by a cable, and I would pull it all the way back until it was touching my forehead. I would then release it, allowing it to swing way out over the class. As it swung back, seemingly on course to crush my head, I would stand immobile until, obeying the laws of the conservation of momentum, it would stop just as it reached me. I fielded this idea at lunch one day, and a distinguished philosopher of science, Gerald Holton, told me in no uncertain terms not to try it. No matter how firm your belief in the laws of motion, he said, you will find it psychologically impossible to remain steadfast. He told the story of one young Physics Instructor who stood with his back up against a rack full of empty soda bottles, to prove that he was not moving. When the ball got close to him, he flinched and sent broken coke bottles all over the classroom. I settled for throwing nerf balls at the class to illustrate the arced trajectory predicted by Newton's Laws.

At lunch that day, I sat down with a young man who had been at the lecture. He was shy and diffident, but very brilliant and painfully honest. I had a special place for him in my heart because his father was one of the Communist teachers who had been fired from the New York City school system during a red scare in the forties. I asked him what he thought of the lecture. Very tentatively, looking down at his tray, he said, "Well, uh, you know, it wasn't very good." He was right, of course.

Several times each semester, the six of us would get together to make up suggested essay topics, to each of which would be appended several suggestions for additional reading. This was an occasion for these young prodigies to show off, by off-handedly mentioning the most recent and most recherché bits of scholarship. As each one pulled out another plum, the others nodded sagely and made some comment designed to show that they had just read it. I sat there with my game face on, frantically making surreptitious notes in an effort to remember some of the titles.


NotHobbes said...

This entry to your memoirs draws my mind to the arguments raging over the work of Dr Stephen Oppenheimer, namely his "Myths of British Ancestory".

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