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Friday, November 17, 2017


I feel a need to say something about the recent flood of revelations of sexual harassment, sexual violation, and outright rape by prominent men, even though I do not really have anything to contribute to the discussion beyond what many others have said and are saying.  I cannot very well run a blog and yet ignore what everyone is talking about.  Like everyone else, I am struck by three things. 

First, it is almost always the case that a man who is outed for one act of sexual abuse or harassment turns out, on closer examination, to be a serial abuser or harasser.  It is not at all surprising that once a woman has the courage to come forward and report what was done to her, many more women appear who have been treated in the same way by the man.  These are patterns of behavior deeply rooted in the man’s character.  Needless to say, getting away with it once merely emboldens him to try again and again.

Second, it is quite often the case that the man revealed as a sexual abuser is, by any reasonable objective aesthetic measure, an unattractive slob.  Harvey Weinstein is the poster boy for this feature of abuse.  I mean, let’s face it, very few sexual predators look like Brad Pitt.  Nor is it surprising that the abusers are often a good deal older than their victims.

Third, it is, I take it, obvious that these stories are more about the abuse of power than about sexuality simpliciter.  There is nothing intrinsically immoral about a man making sexual overtures to a woman [leaving aside marital status and such], or indeed to many women.  Some men find a favorable response all or most of the time [did anyone ever say no to Humphrey Bogart?], and some strike out all the time.  There is a delicate balance between being too diffident and improperly pushy, to be sure, but between a man and a woman of equal status and social power, there is nothing improper about either of them signaling an interest in sex.  The real problem arises when a man with social or economic or political or sheer physical power over a woman uses that power to compel a woman to submit to sex [or, for that matter, to anything else, but that is part of a larger discussion.]

By the way, an idle observation by a compulsive cable news watcher:  I have now seen six or eight panel discussions of sexual harassment featuring male and female anchors, commentators, and the like.  Every one of the women on those panels is, to my eye, physically more attractive than any of the men.  It is worth reflecting on what that tells you.

Which brings me to Roy Moore.  His behavior all those years ago was repetitive, creepy, pathetic, abusive, and in at least one case outright illegal.  It is also a gift from God, because it might just give the Democrats an otherwise unwinnable Senate seat at a crucial moment.  Like Josh Marshall of TPM Daily, I am extremely leery of the Republican desire to initiate an effort to expel him from the Senate, should he be elected.  I think that would set an extremely dangerous precedent.  Let us suppose my dreams come true and several real socialists [not faux socialists like Bernie Sanders] are elected to the Senate.  Does anyone doubt that an effort would be made to unseat them, an effort supported by many Democratic senators as well as all of the Republicans?  If Moore is elected, let him serve in that august body.  He will be a constant thorn in the side of the Republican Party, who deserve him.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


One of my favorite passages in the Platonic Dialogues appears in the Gorgias, at 490d.  Callicles is trying to speak grandly about his vision of the outstanding man, and Socrates asks him a series of apparently trivial questions about farmers and cobblers and food and drink.  Callicles becomes exasperated, and exclaims:  “You keep in saying the same things, Socrates!”  Socrates replies, “Yes, Callicles, not only the same things, but about the same subjects.”  The pathos of that reply is simply exquisite.  Callicles is striving for novelty, originality, for the acclaim of the listeners, which means that he just reach for more and more astonishing statements.  Socrates is seeking truth, which never changes, and so seems familiar, repetitive, even boring.  Whenever I read that passage, I think of Kierkegaard’s observation that the essence of the aesthetic is novelty whereas the essence of the ethical is repetition.

Which brings me to this:  I have been writing philosophy, as I understand it, for sixty-five years.  As I look over what I have written, I find things I wrote ten or twenty or fifty or even sixty years ago, some of which please me, as they succeed in saying what I wanted to say.  Inasmuch as I believe they are true, or at least worth reading, it occurs to me that I ought from time to time reproduce them here, not at all pretending that I have just written them, but offering them to those who are interested.  Some of these essays have actually appeared on this blog. 

Accordingly, today I am going to reprint a speech I gave at Teachers’ College, Columbia, some years ago.  I posted it here in 2011, which seems like yesterday to me, but is three lifetimes in the blogosphere.  I still think it says something important.

Some Heretical Thoughts on the Rat Race for the Top Jobs
Robert Paul Wolff

            A society is an articulated structure of roles occupied by, and functions performed by, adult men and women.  Every society, in order to continue in existence, must endlessly reproduce itself by preparing the young to occupy or perform those economic, governmental, religious, medical, legal, military roles and functions, so that in time they can take the place of persons in their parents’ generation.  Some of this work of social reproduction takes place in the family, some of it takes place in the workplace, some of it is carried on by formal and informal social groupings and organizations, and, especially in societies like ours, much of the work of social reproduction is assigned to the schools.

            In an agricultural economy, young boys and girls learn to grow crops and tend flocks.  In a hunter/gatherer economy, the young are taken along on foraging and hunting expeditions so that they can acquire the skills necessary to obtain food.  In some societies, the young apprentice to carpenters, masons, wheelwrights, or silversmiths.  They serve as pages to knights while they master the sword and mace.  As acolytes, they learn the religious mysteries of the temple.  They are articled to barristers so that they may be initiated into the arcana of the law.

            Now it happens, from time to time, that a young man or woman comes along who has a special gift for one or another of the adult social roles in his or her society.  Some young women take naturally to the sword; some young men have a special gift for tending to the sick.  Some people have green thumbs.  Others are able to craft beautiful furniture with a chisel and saw.  But no society can survive if it depends on a regular supply of outstandingly talented young people.  A little reflection will make it clear that every society must define its adult social and economic roles so that averagely gifted young people can fill them.

            How could it be otherwise?  If the food supply were to depend on the talents of outstanding agronomists, the society would likely starve before those young Luther Burbanks appeared.  If the governance needed for survival absolutely required the gifts of a Thomas Jefferson or an Elizabeth Tudor, then a society would be doomed, for even if such a leader were to appear, he or she would not likely be followed by another, and another, and another.  Sooner or later, and probably sooner, a Millard Fillmore or George W. Bush would appear.  The legal institutions of a society must be so fashioned that lawyers of average ability can manage their essential functions.  The society will of course celebrate an Oliver Wendell Holmes, should one appear, but it cannot depend on a regular supply of jurisprudential giants.

            The truth of these observations is reinforced by the fact that almost every society systematically excludes large portions of its population from whole ranges of adult roles and functions.  Most societies before the present day excluded women from the military, the law, medicine, government, and major portions of the economy, and some still do.  Similar exclusions have regularly been imposed on groups identified by race, class, religion, or ethnicity.  The effect of these exclusions is dramatically to decrease the pool from which young people will be drawn to fill adult roles, thus making it ever more unlikely that outstandingly talented boys and girls will be available.  In effect, the more exclusionary a society is, the more it depends on its institutions being manageable by average talents.

            In American society in recent decades, formal education has taken the place of almost every other social mechanism for preparing the young for adult life.  The legal, medical, business, and military spheres have come to rely on schooling and the associated credentials and degrees to prepare young people and determine which among them shall be assigned to one or another adult role or function.

            There is nothing intrinsically wrong with society choosing this way of reproducing itself, although listening to lectures and taking written examinations is not always the best way to prepare for a productive role in adult society.  But the process is powerfully warped and conditioned by an extraneous factor so pervasive that many of us fail even to recognize it for what it is.  I refer to the steeply pyramidal structure of the rewards and privileges associated with the various roles our adult society.  To state the point simply, in modern post-industrial societies, there are a relatively few really good jobs with big salaries and great benefits, and lots of mediocre jobs with small salaries and very few benefits.  In a society like ours here in America, the quality of life of a young person is determined almost entirely by what sort of job he or she ends up in, and that, in turn, is very considerably determined by the quantity of education he or she obtains.

            Now, the top jobs [corporate lawyer, corporate executive, doctor, engineer, etc] are scarce, and their rewards are way out of proportion to those associated with jobs lower down on the pyramid.  Hence, there is a ferocious competition for the scarce slots.  Since we live in a society that gives lip service to fairness, justice, and equality, those who end up in the favored positions quite naturally tell themselves – and also tell those who fail to make it – that their success is a reward for their extraordinary accomplishment.  Those at the top of the pyramid, they tell themselves in self-congratulatory fashion, are the truly gifted and exquisitely trained.  But as we observed above, this cannot possibly be true.  No society, not even ours, can survive if it must rely on finding an endless supply of outstanding lawyers, doctors, or CEOs to fill its top positions.  The simple truth is that despite the ferocity of the competition, those in the favored roles are, by and large, only averagely competent at them.  [Many years ago, a British child psychiatrist observed that nature only requires that women be “pretty good” mothers in order for their children to survive and flourish.  This wise observation can be generalized to all of society’s reproductive efforts.]

            Enter “metrics” – Grades, the SAT, the LSAT, the GRE, the MCAT, and all the other impressively mathematical devices for sifting and sorting young people, of allocating them to scarce positions and justifying that allocation.  These measuring exercises play absolutely no role at all in preparing young people for productive adult life.  Indeed, they do not even play any sort of role in preparing young people for the education that is, in turn, supposed to prepare them for productive adult life.  Their sole purpose is to decide, in an ostensibly objective and neutral fashion, which small number of boys and girls will be allowed to ascend to the heights of the job pyramid. 

            Now, in a society that depends on sheepherding, all the young boys and girls learn to herd sheep.  Some do it better than others, of course, but virtually all of them learn how to tend sheep sufficiently well to become shepherds.  If someone were to propose that the boys and girls be tested every two years to determine their progress in sheepherding, he would be laughed out of the village.       

            But in our society, every stage from infancy to young adulthood is accompanied by batteries of “objective” [which is to say machine graded] tests, and at crucial junctures – the completion of secondary school, the transition to college, and later the transition to graduate study – success on these tests, however that is defined, is treated as an absolute precondition for advancement to the next, more exclusive, stage of education, and thus for admission to the ever more lucrative jobs.

            After this system has been in place for a while, it quite naturally comes to be the case that the adults occupying the most favored social roles turn out to be the ones who performed unusually well on the various tests at each stage in their growing up.  After all, since performance on the tests determines whether they are admitted to the cushy jobs, it is self-evident that those in the cushy jobs will be the ones who did well on the tests.

            And now, by a flagrant bit of circular logic, society concludes that success on those tests is evidence of the outstanding ability absolutely required by the cushy jobs!  This circular argument is virtually forced on us by considerations of elementary fairness.  After all, if the cushy jobs do NOT require outstanding ability and accomplishment, then how can we possibly justify their cushiness and their scarcity?  And if the tests do not actually identify those special few capable of performing at the heights of the economy and society, then how can we explain the fact that those at the top have all done so well on the tests?

            All of this is dangerous and arrant nonsense.  And it is the nonsense on which our entire educational system rests.  There is very little evidence that success in pre-school, in elementary school, in high school, on SAT exams, in college, on GRE exams, and in graduate school is intimately linked with the ability actually to perform well the jobs  that are won by these strings of successes.  It is of course true that the senior partners of the most prestigious law firms graduated from the most prestigious law schools.  How could it be otherwise?  Those are the schools from which the law firm’s young associates are recruited.  But has anyone ever done an objective, double-blind evaluation of the work of such lawyers and of their counterparts at less prestigious firms who graduated from less prestigious law schools?   We are no better able to carry out such evaluations of the performance of lawyers, doctors, and corporate executives than we are to evaluate the performance of auto mechanics.  In the end, the “evidence” of the superiority of those in the privileged positions is the fact that they accumulated all the grades, degrees, and other markers that we have chosen to use as filters in allocating scarce desirable positions to an excess of applicants.

            Since all of this flies in the face of received wisdom that is as firmly entrenched in the collective mind of our society as the truth of the theory of the bodily humours once was, I want to spend a few moments elaborating on what I have just said.  Suppose, to continue my example, we wish to test the hypothesis that a high score on the LSAT, admission to one of the prestigious law schools, and academic success in one's legal education are all good predictors of one's eventual successful performance as a lawyer.  How would we actually test that hypothesis?
            Well, the first thing we would have to do -- this is absolutely fundamental to any scientific test -- is to define objective measures of successful legal performance that are logically independent of the LSAT scores, law school admission, and law school grades whose relationship to that success we are trying to measure.  How could we do that?  One thing we might do is select a group of graduates of Harvard Law School now working at prestigious New York or Washington law firms, all of whom, we may suppose, are former clerks of Federal District or Appeals Court judges or Supreme Court Justices, and count their percentage of successes in the multi-billion dollar corporate law suits they have prosecuted.  Then we could collect the same figures for a comparison group of graduates of Suffolk Law School working at small low-prestige Boston law firms.  If the first group has a significantly higher success rate than the second group, that might tell us something about the objective merits of the LSAT and the prestigious law schools in identifying or producing legal excellence.

            There are two difficulties with assembling this body of data.  The first is that on any big multi-billion dollar corporate law suit, there are hordes of lawyers on each side, so that it is really virtually impossible to identify the measurable contribution of a single lawyer.  The second problem is that graduates of Suffolk Law School working at small low-prestige Boston firms don't ever get to try multi-billion dollar corporate law suits, because the corporations demand a team of lawyers from the most prestigious and expensive law firm staffed by graduates of the most prestigious law schools, all of whom, of course, have done very well indeed on the LSAT.  I leave it to you to work out on your own the comparable tests that would be required to measure the relevance of SATs, GREs, MCATs, Ivy League degrees, and all the other markers by which we select young men and women for the best paying jobs.

            Let me repeat what I have been asserting:  Virtually all of the boys and girls in our society are capable of learning how to perform well-compensated jobs in a perfectly adequate fashion, and most of them could perform creditably in even the most demanding jobs, if given half a chance and the proper preparation.

            I know that this is educational heresy in modern America, so let me pull together the strands of my argument with two stories from my own life.  The first is an experience I had not in education, where I have spent my entire life, but on active duty in the Army, where I spent six months, more than fifty years ago.   I am of the generation that faced a military draft, and I chose to satisfy my obligation by six years in the Army National Guard.  The first six months of those years were spent on active duty, and the first eight weeks of that were devoted to what the Army calls Basic Training.  As the name implies, this is the time during which the Army teaches young men [and now young women] to march, salute, polish their boots and make their beds, disassemble and assemble a rifle, even to shoot it a bit at targets, and generally to become soldiers.  I did my Basic Training at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

            On the first day of Basic, an angry, mean-looking sergeant started to yell at me and he pretty much kept on yelling for the entire eight weeks.  Everything I did was wrong.  I marched out of step, my salute was feeble, my fatigues were messy, my shoes were not properly shined, my bed was not made tight enough to bounce a quarter, and I did not stand up straight.  He threatened to make me get up at three a.m. to GI the barracks if things were out of place, to clean the latrines with a toothbrush, and to march me until I dropped.  He was not yelling only at me, of course.  He said he had never seen a sorrier collection of recruits, and he doubted that any of us would make it to the end of the eight weeks.

            Somehow, miraculously, and to my great relief, I made it through Basic, and so did every single one of the men in my company!   What is more, virtually every man and woman in every eight week cycle in every year of the modern Army’s existence makes it through Basic.  You can count on the fingers of one hand the recruits in any cycle who actually are drummed out of the Army for failing to meet its strenuous, rigorous standards. 

            The explanation of this astonishing record of success, so dramatically in contrast to the rather poor record of our country’s educational institutions, is two-fold.  First of all, the Army, in its great wisdom, demands of its recruits only what long experience has shown they are capable of.  Despite all my sergeant’s threats and harangues, all of his brow-beating and chest-thumping, the tasks in Basic are aimed roughly at the lower end of what is average for the recruits.  The Army’s task is to motivate us to do what it already knows we are capable of doing, and to make us feel good about achieving what is, after all, an average performance.

            The second reason for an almost perfect rate of success is that the Army holds those in charge responsible for the successful performance of the men they command.  If recruits start dropping out of a Basic Training company, the Company commander will get a black mark on his record that will effectively ruin his career.  That angry sergeant yelling at me will be raked over the coals by his commanding officer if I fail to do the requisite number of push-ups.  The result, of course, is that those in charge do everything in their power to ensure the adequate performance of those whom they command. 

            My second experience, which stands in complete contrast to the first, occurred twenty-five years ago in South Africa, at the University of Durban-Westville, an historically Black university which I visited regularly in conjunction with a scholarship organization that I started called University Scholarships for South African Students.  I was meeting with a self-assured, rather smug young White man who chaired the university’s Economics Department and taught their big first year introductory course.  Data I had obtained from the Registrar showed that in the previous year, only eleven percent of the students taking the course had passed.  I expressed dismay at this appalling performance, and he agreed sadly, saying that the Black students were very poorly prepared.  I asked him what made him think he was a teacher, if only one in ten of his students could pass his course.  He was genuinely astonished at the suggestion that he had any responsibility to help his students master the material.  I suggested that if he were the head of a hospital in which ninety percent of the patients died, he would be brought up on charges as a quack, but he remained thoroughly unrepentant. 

            The lesson I glean from these two stories, and from a lifetime in the Academy, is very simply this:  Any group of averagely intelligent young boys and girls, given the proper support, socialization, assistance, and opportunity, can prepare themselves to fill successfully one of the good jobs in American society.  If a large proportion of the young people of some racial, ethnic, religious, or gendered group are failing to do this, the fault lies with the society, not with the boys and girls.  Performance on so-called objective tests is neither evidence of, nor a prerequisite for, the ability to succeed in contemporary society.  The boys and girls of every city, town, or village in every society in the world are capable of becoming averagely competent and productive members of their adult world.  If they are failing to do so, it is the fault of the adults in the society.  With attention, guidance, and with the unshakable conviction on our part that they are going to succeed, they in fact will succeed in becoming averagely successful.
            Our job as educators is to prepare young people to take their place in the adult world -- all young people, not merely those who score well on SATs or get high grades or attend prestigious and expensive schools.  It is not our job to weed out the unfit, nor is it our job to raise the national scores on tests designed to satisfy the ignorant prejudices of reactionary politicians.  If our students fail, it is our fault, and our responsibility.   In our professional lives as educators, we must act like Basic Training sergeants [without the yelling], not like the Chair of the Durban-Westville Economics Department.

            What does this mean, concretely?  Since, as you will have gathered by now, I am an inveterate story teller, I will end these remarks with two more stories that suggest, anecdotally, how we ought to act toward our students.  The first concerns a very promising young man in the University of Massachusetts Afro-American Studies doctoral program that I ran for its first dozen years.  This young man had done some extensive,, solid archival research, but was simply unable to turn it into a dissertation.  I called him into my office, after several unproductive years had gone by, and told him to bring me everything he had written.  He produced a hundred pages or so of alternative drafts of bits and snatches of this and that chapter.  I sat him down and spent an hour or so sorting out the narrative structure of the project, dividing it into chapters and cutting it off at about the halfway mark, since what he had originally imagined was a long book, not a doctoral dissertation.  When all of this was clear, I said to him:  "I want you to go home right now and write page one of chapter one.  When you are done, send it to me as an email attachment.  I will read it and send back any comments or corrections.  Tomorrow, you will send me page two, and I will respond in the same way.  You will send me one page a day, every day of the week, from now until you have a complete dissertation.  If you start wandering off course, I will alert you to that fact.  If you are getting ahead of your story, I will slow you down.  One page a day is 30 pages a month.  In eight months, you will be done."  And so he was.  He now holds a tenured teaching job, and is about to publish an enlarged and revised version of his dissertation.  That is the sort of commitment to our students that I have in mind.

            The second story, with which I will end, is about one of my very favorite people, Esther Terry.  When these events occurred, Esther was the Chair of the Afro-American Studies Department in which I was the Graduate Program Director.  It was she who invited me to join the department in 1990.  Esther was a student at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina when she and other students from Bennett and NC A&T carried out the famous Woolworth's Lunch Counter sit-in that started the modern Civil Rights Movement. 

            One semester, Esther and our colleague Steve Tracy co-taught an undergraduate course on Southern Literature.  I happened to wander into Esther's office just after the first class in the course had ended.  While we were chatting, a young Black man knocked on the open door.  "Dr. Terry," he said, "I was just in your class."  "Yes," Esther said, "I know."  "I am afraid I am not going to be able to take the course," he went on.  "Why not?" Esther asked.  "Because you have assigned a lot of books and I just don't have the money to buy them."  Without missing a beat, Esther said, "Now look, young man, I want you to stay in the course.  I have just had a fence put up around my house.  I want you to show up this afternoon and start painting it.  I will pay you, and then you will be able to buy the books."  With that, she took out some money as an advance on his wages, and sent him off to by the first book they were to read in the course.

            Esther is a very shy woman, and does not like me to tell that story.  Indeed, if I had not been there when it happened, I would never have known about it.  But she did things like that for forty years, unbidden, without expecting or seeking recognition.  She simply viewed it as a normal part of her role as teacher.  She is my model for what a university professor should be, and it would make me very happy if she were to become yours as well.

Monday, November 13, 2017


A number of you have questioned my recommendation of the Johnson piece, and I can understand why.  I am afraid I am so angry and depressed that every so often I lose all perspective.  My apologies.


Some years ago, before my morning walk regime, I spent some time at a local gym working out on the treadmill.  I told my son, Tobias, who is in spectacular shape, that it depressed me to slog away and then see someone on the next treadmill going twice as fast, and uphill.  He gave me some very wise advice:  “Pay no attention to them.  Just concentrate on your personal best.”

With that in mind, I hereby report my personal best.  Never mind The Big Bang Theory or The Rachel Maddow Show or Huffington Post or even a Noam Chomsky video, all of which get more views on YouTube in a day than I could get in a lifetime.  My first lecture on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is eight views away from hitting the 50,000 mark!

To be sure, it falls off rapidly after that, so that the ninth and last lecture now has only 3554 views.  But still, 3554!  That is probably ten times as many people as I taught the Critique to in a fifty-year career.


Surfing the web, I just came on this old piece by Jason Johnson.  You must read it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Yesterday, Susie and I saw Goodbye Christopher Robin, an historically accurate account [apparently] of A. A. Milne's creation of the classic children's book, Winnie The Pooh.  It is one of the saddest movies I have ever seen, and left me horribly depressed.

You have been warned.

What Good is a Liberal Education? A Radical Responds

[Remarks delivered October 6, 2017 at the Heyman Center of Columbia University]

It is a great pleasure to return to Columbia after an absence of forty-six years, and to speak in this lovely building, which did not exist when I lived just three blocks south of where we now sit.  The Sixties were a good time for the Liberal Arts in America.  The dramatic expansion of higher education after World War II created so many entry level Assistant Professorships across the curriculum that doctoral students were being offered teaching positions even before they had begun to write their dissertations.  The Cold War prompted the Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act, and although most of the money went to military research and Area Studies, enough spilled over into the Humanities, and even into the Libraries, to create a seller’s market for Philosophers, Literary Critics, Historians, Classicists, and Comparative Linguists.

Alas, half a century later, the balloon has deflated.  Teaching positions are scarce, commercial publishers no longer rush to sign up scholarly books, and a corporate model of management has taken over America’s college and university administration buildings.  I have even been told by a Columbia friend that thirty percent of Columbia College’s graduating seniors, have been blessed by a truly remarkable liberal education, choose investment banking as their career.  No longer do the Liberal Arts have the unquestioning support of alumni/ae and state legislatures.  So this is perhaps a good time to ask, once again, an old and familiar question:  What good is a Liberal Education?

In the next hour or so, I shall offer a new and rather unexpected answer to this question.  But although what I have to say has never, to my, knowledge, been said in quite this way before, it is not at all entirely original with me.  Rather, I shall be expanding on some deep insights offered more than half a century ago by my old friend and comrade and one-time co-author, Herbert Marcuse.  I shall lay before you today a politically radical defense of Liberal Education.  But Before turning to that defense, I thought it might be helpful to review briefly three familiar defenses of Liberal Education that have been offered by its champions. 

The oldest is a claim popular at Oxford and Cambridge four hundred years ago.  A study of the classics, it was thought, would give gentlemen of high estate the proper finish, or patina, that would allow them to move gracefully in polite circles. A command of Greek and Latin, like a well-turned leg and a well-filled codpiece, was an evidence of good bloodlines. It was even  suggested that a familiarity with ancient tongues and literatures might deepen a young man's understanding  of human  affairs, although that was, to be sure, more of  a tutor's hope than a realistic expectation. I say “gentleman”   because a gentle lady was expected to exhibit skill with the needle, perhaps to play a bit on the spinet, and of course to have mastered Oeconomics, which in those days meant the management of a household.

It might be thought that in these democratic times, when the rich masquerade in designer jeans and tie dyed skirts, this defense of liberal education has passed away, but it continues to crop up in unexpected places.  My favorite example is the Massachusetts Institute of technology, or MIT, as it is know throughout the world.  About sixty years ago or more, MIT was turning out class after class of superbly trained engineers, who secured good jobs in America’s great corporations, when the MIT deans discover ed that they had a problem.  Their students rapidly climb the  corporate ladder until, roughly ten years after graduation, they would become eligible for management positions in the higher reaches of their corporate employers.  At that point, they would be expected to exhibit some fluency with the written word and an easy familiarity with the writers, poets, philosophers, and painters whose names were dropped at executive cocktail parties.  MIT’s finest were losing out to competitors from Harvard, Columbia, Yale, or Princeton had conferred upon them the appropriate stigmata of a liberal education.   The deans decided they had to go out and buy MIT some humanists and social scientists to prepare their students for corporate success.  And, being MIT, they bought themselves Paul Samuelson, they bought themselves Noam Chomsky.  In 1980, they even bought themselves my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, an accomplished literary scholar, who was offered a professorship in the Literature Section of the Humanities Department at MIT.

The second traditional justification of a Liberal Education is that, in the steeply pyramidal and profoundly unequal American economy, it separates the Suits from the Shirts, as we used to say.  Without a liberal education, you can get a job that leaves you sweaty and tired at the end of the day, a job that pays a wage weekly, and which offers few benefits unless you are unionized.  With a liberal education, you can secure a position in which you end each day neither tired nor sweaty, receive an annual salary disbursed monthly, and enjoy a variety of benefits, including a paid vacation.  When I was a college Freshman in 1950, only 5% of American adults had a four year college degree.  Sixty-seven years later, that number has climbed to 35%, which means that two out of three Americans are forever barred from being doctors, lawyers, professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers, corporate executives, or FBI agents.

My description might suggest that I am scornful of this justification of liberal education, but I must not be too dismissive, for I am myself its very exemplar.  My grandfather, Barnet Wolff, arrived in America as a babe in arms in 1880.  He never finished elementary school and worked as a cigar salesman while devoting his life to the Socialist Party here in New York City.  His oldest son, my father, graduated from Boy’s High School, got a free college education at C.C.N.Y., and went on to become a high school teacher and, eventually, high school principal.  And here I am, the fulfilment of my family’s dream, a college professor who writes books.

I often think this must be what it is like for a young Catholic boy who honors his father and mother by becoming a priest.  Except that I did not have to give up sex.

There is, third, the justification for liberal education which I have always associated most immediately with the University of Chicago under the guidance of Robert Maynard Hutchins, but which has been given expression, in one form or another, in Harvard's General Education and Core Curriculum programs, in Columbia's Contemporary Civilization course, in the Great Books curriculum of St. John's College, and in countless other curricula and institutions besides: the conception of liberal education as an initiation into the two millennia long Great Conversation.

When I was a boy, I found in my parents' attic, buried under a mound of ancient science textbooks, a slender volume entitled "Heavenly Discourses," by Charles Erskine Scott Wood. This consisted, as the title perhaps suggests, of a series of imaginary conversations in heaven among famous men and women of the western cultural tradition who could not, under normal historical circumstances, have encountered one another here on earth.

The book made an enormous impression on me - so much so that my very first college paper was an imaginary heavenly discourse, featuring John Stuart Mill, T. S. Eliot, Zarathustra, and Carl Sandburg, on the issues posed by Ortega y Gasset's REVOLT OF THE MASSES. [As you might perhaps guess, Sandburg won.]

The ideal of the Great Conversation is merely an elaborate formalization of Wood's charming conceit. Western Civilization is conceived as a perpetual debate about a number of timeless questions, conducted by the great minds of the Judeo-Christian, Graeco-Roman tradition, with its medieval Arabic variants, through the medium  of a small, but continuously growing, library of great works of  philosophy, tragedy, poetry, fiction, history, political theory - and, more recently, sociology, anthropology, economics, and anthropology. Homer and the nameless authors of the Old Testament, Sophocles and Euripides, Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Caesar, Paul and the Evangelists, Ovid, Sappho, Philo, Tertullian, Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, Avicenna, Erasmus, Luther, Chaucer, Calvin, John of Salisbury, Jean Bodin, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon, Montaigne, Descartes, Spinoza, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Locke, Galileo, Newton, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Herder, Marx, Smith, Bentham, Mill - on and on they come, quibbling, quarreling, drawing distinctions, splitting hairs, proving the existence of God, refuting the  proofs for the existence of God, reading one another, referring to one another - a grand faculty seminar, captured for all time in no more than several hundred immortal books.

A liberal education - so this story has it - is a ticket of admission to the Conversation. Most of us are mere auditors, much as I was when, as a boy of ten, I  sat on the steps of the staircase leading from my parents' living  room and listened    to my parents, my uncles and aunts, and the neighbors debating politics, literature, and the bureaucratic insanities of the New York City School System in which they worked.  An inspired few actually enter the Conversation, and make to it contributions that will be taken up into the immortal lists of Great Books. But for the rest of us, it is enough that we have been initiated into its rituals and shibboleths. Throughout our lives, that eternal debate will be the intellectual accompaniment of our quotidien lives.

And so we come, at last, to the real subject of this lecture, a new, radical, and thoroughly unexpected defense of Liberal Education.  I take as my text today one of Marcuse’s most profound and provocative phrases: “surplus repression,” which makes its appearance in his early work, Eros and Civilization. By an explication of the notion of surplus repression, and a close reading of a single paragraph from the chapter on repressive desublimation in Marcuse’s most famous work, One-Dimensional Man, I can, I think, lay before you a deep justification of liberal education that will explain both how it plays a central role in the critique and reformation of society, and why it is so appropriately undertaken at that moment in late adolescence and early adulthood which we in the United States identify as the undergraduate years.

Marcuse, who as a member of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, participated in the great early twentieth century attempt to fuse the central insights of Marx and Freud, begins Eros and Civilization by accepting the pessimistic thesis of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, that some measure of psychic repression is the necessary precondition for the organised social existence of humanity.  Let us begin therefore, where Freud does, with the earliest stages of childhood development.

The new-born infant does not possess a coherent rational self or ego with which to negotiate its relationship to the external world. Indeed, it does not yet so much as possess a conception of itself in contradistinction to its surroundings. What we think of as the ordinary thought-processes of reality orientation – the distinction of self and other, the recognition of relations of space, time, and causality, the distinction between desire and satisfaction, between wish and actuality – all these are in fact secondary accomplishments, painfully acquired in the wake of initial and continuing frustrations. Each of the stages of normal childhood development has a profoundly ambivalent significance for the child, at one and the same time a source of power, satisfaction, and self-esteem, and a suffering of frustration, pain, and rage.

The new-born infant is put to the breast and responds with a natural suckling instinct, gaining warmth, food, and comfort.  It is happy.  [Incidentally Freud, like other typical late nineteenth century Viennese professional men, probably spent virtually no time with his infant children.  His brilliant theorizing was derived from the interpretation of the dreams and associations of his adult patients.  But I am, if I may adapt the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a modern American father, and I have actually spent many hours caring for my new-born sons, so I can attest to the accuracy of Freud’s account.]  The next time the infant is hungry, or so Freud hypothesizes, it conjures the image of the breast, but the image, alas, gives neither warmth nor milk.  The infant suffers frustration and feels rage at this failure, the first of many, and it cries.  Anyone who has actually watched a tiny baby cry will acknowledge that it is as disappointed, as frustrated, as outraged as a human being can be.  It grows red in the face with anger.  [What, you will ask, has any of this to do with a liberal education?  Patience, patience.  I remind you that Rousseau’s great educational work, Émile, begins with an extended discussion of swaddling and breast-feeding.]  And then, something quite astonishing and unexpected happens, or at least it does in the early life of a normal, healthy baby:  the baby is picked up, soothed, and fed.  This is a profoundly important moment, the first of many similar moments to come.  Again and again, the baby, and then the young child, learns the deeply ambivalent truth that although it is incapable of achieving the instantaneous and effortless gratification that it desires, there are things it can learn to do that will, with delays and frustrations along the way, to be sure, bring the pleasure it seeks.  This elementary fact is, Freud teaches us, the basic template of all human existence.

One example can perhaps stand for the entire years-long process. Little babies, as I have said, are at first unable to express their desires, save by the painful and inefficient method of crying. Still, a fortunate baby will succeed in getting its parent’s attention by crying, and the parent will become hyper-sensitively attuned to those slight variations in the cry which indicate whether it is hunger, fatigue, colic, or teething that is the cause. Eventually, a baby learns to sit up in a high chair and eat with its hands or with a spoon, and (we may suppose) it learns as well that when it waves its hands and makes a demanding noise, it gets a cookie. The baby, let us remember, will be deeply ambivalent about this learned behaviour, for what the baby wants (or so Freud persuasively tells us) is to have its hunger, or its desire for a cookie, instantaneously gratified, without even the temporary frustration of waiting until the parent decodes the cry and responds. But though this state of affairs has come about at the cost of frustration and pain, it is also a source of power and gratification. By learning how to command its parent’s response, the baby can get the cookie. What is more, the parent is likely to respond with manifest pleasure to the baby’s ability to sit up and communicate its wants.

One day, something inexplicable, terrible, frustrating, painful happens. The baby makes its demanding noise, with the cookie in full view just outside its reach, and the parent, instead of immediately handing it over, as has happened every day for as long as the baby can remember, now picks up the cookie, holds it tantalisingly before the baby, and says in what can only be construed as a deliberately sadistic voice, “Can you say ‘cookie’?”

Well, all of us know the rest of this story, for all of us have lived through it. The acquisition of language, the mastery of one’s bowels, the control of one’s temper – all of the stages in development that make one an adult human being who is recognisably a member of a society – all have a negative side, a side associated with shame, rage, pain, frustration, resentment, a backside, as we learn to think of it, as well as a positive side associated with praise, self-esteem, public reward, power, satisfaction – a front, which, as our language very nicely suggests, is both an officially good side and also a pretence, a fake.

By and large, we do not forget the frustration, the pain, the rage, nor do we ever forget those infantile fantasies of omnipotence and instantaneous gratification.  We repress those fantasies, drive them out of consciousness, deny them, put them behind us, as we like to say. But, like our own backsides, and the faeces which issue from them, they remain, and exercise a secret, shameful attraction for us.

This brief reminder of our common heritage makes it clear that the repression of “unacceptable” wishes – as Freud so quaintly and aptly labelled them in his earlier writings – is an essential precondition for our development of the ability to interact effectively with the world, and with one another. Mastery of our own bodies, mastery of language, the psychic ability and willingness to defer gratification long enough to perform necessary work, the ability to control destructive, and self-destructive, rages or desires – civilisation, society, culture, survival all depend upon them. But necessary though they are, they are painful; throughout our lives, we carry, repressed, those delicious, illicit fantasies of total, immediate, uncompromised gratification, of instantaneous, magical fulfilment, of the permission to indulge the desires that have been stigmatised as negative.

With great flair, Marcuse combines Freud’s thesis, of the necessity of some repression for the existence of human civilisation, with the central concept of Marx’s political economy – surplus value. According to Marx, it is the labour required for the production of commodities that regulates their exchange in a capitalist market. Inasmuch as workers sell their own capacity for labour in the market like a commodity, through the wage bargain, competition eventually sets its price – the wage – at a level equal to the amount of labour required to produce that capacity, which is to say the amount of labour required to produce the workers’ food, clothing, and shelter. This labour, Marx says, can be called “necessary labour,” for in every economic system, including socialism, of course, it must be performed if the workers are to be able to remain alive and continue their labours. But, Marx argues, the workers are forced, by the conditions of the labour market, to work more hours than is embodied in their consumption goods, and the extra labour time, through the processes of market exchange, is transmuted into surplus exchange value. That surplus value, Marx demonstrates, is the source of the profits, interest, and rents that the propertied classes appropriate. In sum, Marx asserts, capitalism rests upon the capitalist appropriation of surplus value, or, more succinctly, upon exploitation.

Marcuse transfers these concepts of necessary and surplus labour to the sphere of the psyche, and rechristens them “necessary and surplus repression.” Just as there is a certain quantum of necessary labour that must be performed in any society, so there is a certain amount of necessary repression, as we have seen, that is the precondition of human existence as such. But in some societies, just as workers are forced to perform more than merely necessary labour, its fruits being appropriated by a ruling class, so in those same societies, and most particularly in capitalist society, workers, and indeed others as well, have inflicted upon them extra, or surplus, repression, whose function is not to make human society in general possible, but rather to serve and support the particular exploitative, unjust, repressive economic and political institutions and policies of the ruling classes.

Over and above the deferral of gratification demanded by the exigencies of nature and human intercourse, the capitalist workplace demands an additional level of work discipline, of self-denial, of obedience, of surplus repression. Marcuse notes, by way of rough proof, the extraordinary fact that despite the doubling, trebling, quadrupling of worker productivity achieved by technological advance, the average work week has shortened only slightly, if at all, in the past three-quarters of a century.

In One-Dimensional Man, in what has always seemed to me one of the truly inspired texts of twentieth century social theory, Marcuse deploys this insight to explain the structure and conditions of social protest, and the subjective psychological sources of the energy that fuels social change. The argument goes like this: The energy on which we draw for work, for art, and for politics, as well as for sex, is the fund of originally undifferentiated libidinal energy with which we are born, and which we attach to various objects through the psychic processes of sublimation, displacement, and cathexis. The gratifications we obtain are, as Freud poignantly shows us, always somewhat diminished, compromised, shadowed by the unavoidable adjustments to reality. The pleasures of useful, fruitful, unalienated labour, the satisfactions of artistic creation, even the sensuous delights of sexual intercourse, necessarily fall short of what is longed for in our repressed fantasies. To give a single, elementary example: all of us who write books of philosophy will acknowledge, I imagine, that in our most secret dreams, we lust after a review that begins something like this: “Not since Plato wrote The Republic has a work of such power and brilliance burst upon the scene” – after which, we become instantaneously rich, young, thin, and flooded with absolutely risk-free offers of polymorphic sexual satisfaction. What actually happens, if we are fortunate, is that we are moderately favourably reviewed, by someone with his or her own fantasies of instant gratification, and then have the genuine, but subdued pleasure, in years to come, of stumbling on references to our production, or of encounters with a praising reader.

Now, Marcuse suggests, there is real surplus psychic repression inflicted on all of us in our society, most particularly on those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and the established, institutionalised structures of political and economic repression being what they are, it takes an enormous, painful, dangerous mobilisation of psychic energy to fight those structures and reduce the quantum of surplus repression. But since the dangers of revolt and resistance are so great, and most especially because the repression has been internalised in each of us in the form of an unnecessarily punitive set of self-inflicted restraints, a reasoned, measured, realistic call for incremental improvements is unlikely to elicit the burst of revolutionary energy needed for any change at all. “Workers of the world, unite!  You have nothing to lose but your chains! You have a modest reduction in surplus repression to win!” is not a slogan calculated to bring suffering men and women into the streets and to the barricades.

What in fact happens, Marcuse suggests, is that revolutionary change is energised by the utopian, siren call of liberation, which, whatever the language in which it is couched, is experienced subjectively as a promise of the gratification of those infantile fantasies of instantaneous, magical, total gratification that lurk within us all. Workers’ liberation, Black liberation, Women’s liberation, Gay liberation – all appeal, necessarily, meretriciously to be sure, and yet productively, to these universal repressed fantasies. Only the tapping of such powerful wellsprings of psychic energy can move us to the heroic feats required for even modest reductions in surplus repression.

The upshot of every revolution is therefore inevitably disappointment, for no matter how successful the revolution, it cannot, in the nature of things, liberate us from necessary repression. After the victory celebrations, we must still go to work, use the toilet, submit ourselves to some code or other of dress, of speech, of sexual conduct. Nevertheless, despite these repeated disappointments, we must keep alive the fantasies, and attach them to our political aspirations, for they are the essential motor of real world social, economic, and political progress.

In this project, the great works of art, literature, philosophy and music of our cultural tradition play an essential, and rather surprising, role. Regardless of their manifest content and apparent purpose, these works, which we customarily consider the appropriate subject of a liberal education, play a continuingly subversive role. They keep alive, in powerful and covert ways, the fantasies of gratification, the promise of happiness, the anger at even necessary repression, on which radical political action feeds.

To explain somewhat how even the most seemingly abstract works of art perform this function, let me read to you a single paragraph from Marcuse’s discussion, and then explicate it by reference to a Bach fugue. Here is the passage:

The tension between the actual and the possible is transfigured into an insoluble conflict, in which reconciliation is by grace of the oeuvre as form: beauty as the “promesse de bonheur.” In the form of the oeuvre, the actual circumstances are placed in another dimension where the given reality shows itself as that which it is. Thus it tells the truth about itself; its language ceases to be that of deception, ignorance, and submission. Fiction calls the facts by their name and their reign collapses; fiction subverts everyday experience and shows it to be mutilated and false. But art has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order.

Consider now a Bach fugue, which can stand, in our analysis, for any work of art or literature that submits itself, as all true art must, to some canon of formal constraint. We could as well consider a sonnet, a portrait, a statue, or indeed a Platonic dialogue. The rules governing the composition of a fugue are extremely strict. They constitute, psychologically speaking, a repression of the composer’s instinctual, creative energies. In the hands of novices, the fugue-form is a straitjacket, painfully forcing them to adjust their musical line in unnatural ways. It is, speaking at the very deepest psychological level, the equivalent of being required to use the toilet, or to say “cookie” before being fed. But in the hands of Bach, all is transformed. Bach’s fugues seem effortless. They magically transcend the constraints of the form, all the while rigidly conforming to them.  Thus, we may suppose, God played as He created the world, laughing in delight at the effortless production of a cosmos ruled by inflexible universal laws.

The result is sheer, sensuous beauty which is, at one and the same time, liberated from the constraints of form and completely consonant with those constraints. The fugue thus holds out, magically, the promise of total satisfaction, the “promesse de bonheur,” that is to be found in the unconscious of each of us. In the same fashion, a Dickinson poem, a Rodin sculpture, a Platonic dialogue, a van Gogh still life reawaken in us the fantasy of perfect, effortless gratification. These works of art and literature keep alive in us the possibility that there is a life better than the network of compromises in which we are enmeshed, a second dimension to existence in which freedom replaces necessity, happiness replaces suffering.

The great works of humanistic writing, be they philosophy, history, theology, or criticism, accomplish the same end. The pure, rational arguments of Spinoza’s Ethics recall for us the image of a world in which reason is an instrument of liberation, not of domination. The sheer formal beauty of a mathematical proof, the effortless derivation of the most powerful conclusions from apparently innocent premises, holds out to us the hope of instantaneous ecstasy.

In all seriousness, I suggest to you that this is the real justification for keeping alive the great tradition of liberal arts and letters in our colleges and universities. Not as a patina for modern aristocrats, not as an instrument of upward mobility, not even as an introduction to the Great Conversation, but as a way of putting young men and women in touch with their repressed fantasies of gratification, in such a fashion as to awaken in them the hope, the dream, the unquenchable thirst for liberation from which social progress must come.

By way of illustration, let me tell you a true story. More than forty years ago, I taught for a year as a visiting professor at Rutgers University, in New Jersey. One semester I was assigned an Introduction to Philosophy that met, thanks to the peculiar schedule pattern then in use at Rutgers, on Monday mornings at 8:00 a.m. and Thursday afternoons at 4:00 p.m. For the only time in my teaching career, I assigned a casebook – a collection of readings from the great philosophers – instead of a group of complete original works, and each Monday morning and Thursday afternoon, I soldiered away, “covering” the material, as we delicately put it in the trade.

Sometime in the late Fall, I got to Hume, who was represented by a few well-chosen pages from Part III of Book One of the Treatise – which, as some of you will know, is the locus for his famous sceptical critique of causal reasoning. I was dead bored with the material, with the course, and with myself by this time, and I can confidently assure you that I was not doing a superlative job of teaching. I had studied Hume first as a Freshman, then as a Sophomore, then while writing my doctoral dissertation, and innumerable times since. I was so thoroughly inoculated against the force of his arguments that I could scarcely recall a time when I had found them even mildly provocative.

One day, after class, a young man came up to talk to me, very agitated. He had been troubled by Hume’s arguments he said – I found this rather astonishing, as you can imagine – and had gone to talk things over with his priest. The priest, whose seminary training had not prepared him for this sort of problem from his parishioners, referred him to the Office of Information of the Diocese. The young man called the Diocese, and was referred to a Monsignor, who, after listening to his concerns, said abruptly, “Well, some people think that. But we don’t,” and hung up the phone. What should he do?, the student wanted to know.

Let me tell you, I was humbled by the episode. Despite my best efforts to deaden the impact of the text, and the utterly unpromising conditions of an 8:00 a.m. introductory class, David Hume had reached his hand across two centuries, seized that young man by the scruff of the neck, and given him a shaking that bid fair to liberate him from a lifetime of unthinking subservience to received authority.

That is what a liberal education can accomplished, and that is why, in every college and university, a protected sanctuary must be preserved for undergraduate liberal education.

What good is a liberal education?  At its best, it can tap into deeply repressed infantile fantasies of omnipotence and instantaneous gratification and fuel our real world struggle for liberation.  It can give us courage to confront oppression and exploitation and to fight against it.  And as we struggle, it can keep alive our hope, doomed though it is to disappointment, that one day, we shall be able to cry, with Martin Luther King, “Free at last!  Free at last!  Great God Almighty, Free At Last!”