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Thursday, April 29, 2010


Chapter Three Columbia University in the City of New York

Columbia gave us one of its rent controlled apartments, and we moved in when we got back from Europe. Five rooms, kitchen and bath for $108.50 a month, although after we had them install a new fridge, they upped that to $111.50. Even in 1964, that was a fabulous bargain. The apartment was a slum, but I was about to go into full-scale analysis, which would cost a sizable portion of my annual salary, so I grabbed it. [I only realized the apartment was a slum some years later, when I was idly watching a public television special about efforts to renovate a block in Harlem. The did a before-and-after sequence on an apartment being upgraded, and during the before segment, as the camera panned around the ratty looking apartment, I suddenly had an epiphany. "My God," I thought, "that looks just like our apartment. We live in a slum!]

There are striking similarities between the physical locations of the University of Chicago and Columbia, but also major differences. Like Chicago, Columbia is situated cheek-by-jowl with a large Black community -- the most famous Black community in America. Like Chicago, Columbia bought up real estate and managed it in an attempt to preserve a White enclave. But whereas Chicago is insular, inward-looking, isolated from downtown, Columbia bleeds into Manhattan so that it is sometimes difficult to feel where the university stops and the rest of the city begins. Not for nothing does Columbia call itself "Columbia University in the City of New York."

The bulk of the university consisted then of a rectangle oriented north-south, with Broadway on its west flank, Amsterdam Avenue to its east, 114th street to the south and 120th street to the north. The cross streets from 115th to 119th were blocked off, creating something of a campus, although it did not feel like either Harvard Yard or the Quadrangle. The heart of the university was a large grassy open area crisscrossed by walks, with the administration building, Low Library, at the north end and the real library, Butler, at the south. If you have seen Ghostbusters or the Barbra Streisand Jeff Bridges movie The Mirror Has Two Faces or countless other films, you have seen that space. It is one of the most recognizable places in Manhattan.

Columbia sits on the upper west side of Manhattan, in a community called Morningside Heights [think Annie Hall]. If you stand on either Broadway or Amsterdam and look south, you see a long straight avenue going downhill for quite a stretch. Columbia is perched almost on the highest part of the Heights. Our apartment was half a block from the university: 415 W. 115th st., apt. 51. That portion of 115th street is a single block between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive, so I was not even two blocks from my office in Philosophy Hall. Morningside Drive runs along the western edge of Morningside Park, a vertiginously steep bit of land that falls away from Morningside Heights to Harlem below. It quite effectively divides the university from the Black community. Little did I know, when I moved into our new home, what an important role that park would play in the most dramatic events of my Columbia stay.

My first priority was to get to know the group of department members who would, I confidently expected, be my colleagues for the rest of my life. Since the Academy, whatever its politics, is a deeply conservative institution, propriety dictates that I begin with the most senior of my new colleagues. When I arrived in 1964 as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young Associate Professor, there were four grand old men in the Department who collectively embodied the ethos of the Columbia that had once been. Pride of place must be given to John Herman Randall Jr., who was sixty-five. [As I write these memoirs, I am back in that time, seeing things in my mind as I experienced them. Randall and the others will always be, to me, ancient relics, distinguished, hoary, survivors of a bygone age. The fact that I am now eleven years older than Randall was then makes no impression on my memories whatsoever.]

Randall had made his name, at the age of twenty-seven, with the publication of The Making of the Modern Mind, and had an enormous, and deserved, reputation in the Columbia community. He had been one of the architects of the famous Contemporary Civilization course required of all undergraduates, Columbia's answer to the Hutchins revolution and a forerunner of General Education at Harvard. Randall's principal focus was on the Greeks, so we did not really have much in common philosophically, but he and his wife, Mercedes, very graciously invited Cindy and me to dinner shortly after we arrived, as a welcome to the department. The Randalls lived in a big pre-war apartment on Claremont, a little street squeezed between Broadway and Riverside Drive that was home to some of Columbia's most sought after rentals. When we walked into the book-lined living room, the first thing I saw on the shelves was the complete multi-volume edition of the works of Immanuel Kant. The Prussian Academy edition is the holy grail for Kant scholars, and by the time I came along, a set was fabulously expensive. I thought, "This is what academic life is supposed to be!"

During dinner, Jack and Mercedes regaled us with stories of Columbia in the old days. Mercedes explained that when you were an Assistant Professor, you had a maid who came in before breakfast and left after washing up the dinner dishes. Once you got tenure, however, you hired a full-time servant who lived in a little room behind the kitchen that had its own bathroom. She cooked, cleaned, and baby-sat, and each summer, when you went to Europe, she came along to look after the children and handle the trunks. For a brief moment, I had a glimpse of an era that would not, I was sure, come again.

Two other senior professors, Horace Friess and James Gutman, were less academically distinguished than Randall, but both had played important roles in the Ethical Culture Society, a progressive, secular spinoff of Reformed Judaism founded by Felix Adler in the 1870's. The Society, readers of the earlier portions of this memoir will recall, had been responsible for the creation of the Child Study Association, where my mother worked until her first heart attack in 1950. It was through Child Study that my parents found Shaker Village Work Camp for me, as well as Dr. Bertram Schaffner, my first psychiatrist [Memoirs, Volume One, Chapter One -- see Blog post, June 28, 2009]. Algernon Black of the Ethical Culture Society was also the founder of the Encampment for Citizenship, where my sister danced with Marshall Cohen. In coming to Columbia, I was entering a world that was complicatedly intertwined with my family.

The fourth grand old man was Ernest Nagel, a distinguished philosopher of science and the teacher or mentor of several of the younger men in the department. Nagel was really more like my adoptive uncle than a colleague. He was just nineteen days older than my father, and the two of them had known each other as undergraduates at City College, along with my uncle Bob, then a professor of Astronomy and Physics at CCNY, and Sidney Hook. I still have an old photograph of my father, my uncle, Nagel, and my grandmother gathered around a little telescope in the Catskills, where my grandmother took the children every summer.

Only slightly younger than Randall and the others was the great humanist scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller. I had encountered Paul's work on The Renaissance while preparing myself to teach Soc Sci 5 at Harvard, and, as with Alan Gewirth at Chicago, I was tremendously impressed that I was going to be able to call myself his colleague. Paul had been educated in Germany, and was then forced first to flee Germany and then Italy because of the rise of fascism, a fact that played a large role in his reaction to the events of '68.

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