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Tuesday, April 20, 2010


The Sophomore Social Sciences survey course was a hoot to teach. It was called "Culture and Freedom," which was broad enough to include just about anything we wanted to assign. To give you some idea, the semester I started teaching it, the students read both portions of Plato's Republic and the classic study of the Trobriand Islanders, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, by the great Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski. The course was organized into sections, with no common lectures, and taught by a staff of faculty drawn from many different departments. None of us was even remotely qualified to teach so broad a range of materials, of course, although each of us could find at least one text in the syllabus that looked familiar, so we did the best we could.

One of my favorite colleagues was David Bakan, a short, plump Psychologist with a serious limp, the product of childhood polio. David was an extremely unusual figure in academic Psychology because he was both a master of the Freudian tradition and also an adept of the statistical methods used by the adherents of Behaviorism in Psychology. Several years before I met him, he had published Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition, which challenged the standard view of Freud as a rationalist enemy of religious faith. Even more fascinating was Bakan's study of the roots of Behaviorism in American Psychology. He discovered that the men who developed and shaped the Behaviorist school had all come from Protestant families in small mid-Western towns and had then moved to big cities [typically, Chicago], where the culture shock of the extremely heterogeneous population mix drove them to maintain some sort of control over their shattered moral framework by seizing on Behaviorism. Bakan did a careful analysis of the experimental reports published in the leading Behaviorist journals, and also of the papers that were turned down on the grounds that the authors had not done enough experiments to make their results statistically significant. He reanalyzed the data to show that the editors and reviewers routinely overestimated the number of experiments required for statistical significance, in effect treating experiments as a place holder for Protestant good works.

Bakan did his best with the readings as they followed one another week by week, but when we came to Malinowski, he ran out of ideas. Knowing less than nothing about cultural anthropology, he hit on a brilliant pedagogical dodge. "Let's not talk about the Trobriand Islanders," he said to his class. "Instead, let us ask ourselves, What does it say about European society that so many of its finest minds took themselves off to godforsaken corners of the globe to spend years studying primitive peoples?"

The course, like all the old Hutchins era courses, did not merely have a common final examination, a relic of the bygone days when one could get credit for the course without sitting in class. It had a multiple choice final examination. I was appalled. How on earth could one examine students on Plato, Weber, Malinowski, and Freud using multiple choice questions? The course examiner - which is to say the member of the staff responsible for assigning portions of the exam to each of us and collating the questions we came up with - was Gerhard Meyer, a dear, sweet, lovely man who had been a minor member of the famed Frankfort School of Social Research, before fleeing Nazism. As the resident philosopher, I was told to write five multiple choice questions on Plato's Republic. "I can't do that, Meyer," I said. "Try," he said. Well, I was the new boy on the block, so I tried. I finally wrote five multiple choice questions, and handed them to Gerhard. The next week, we all received a draft of the exam to look at and comment on, containing all of the questions that we had written. Gerhard had supplied a key, and I noticed that in one case, he had identified as the correct answer something that I thought of as one of the attractive but wrong alternatives.

I steamed into Gerhard's office, full of righteous indignation. "You see?" I yelled. "You have marked as right one of the answers I meant to be wrong! That proves we shouldn't be using multiple choice questions on the exam." Gerhard was unfazed by my outburst, and engaged me in a quiet discussion of the disputed question. After forty-five minutes, we came to an agreement on the correct answer. "Well," Gerhard said, "so we agree." "Gerhard," I expostulated, "it took us forty-five minutes to agree on the right answer, and the students have forty-five seconds to pick one." "But that is all right," Gerhard explained. "If a student thinks his or her answer is not the one we intended, there is a blank page at the end to justify the answer. If we think the rationale is good, we can give full credit." I was flabbergasted. "That means a student must first figure out what answer we want, then figure out that it is not the answer he or she would give, and then provide a rationale. That is even worse." [I think I would actually have said "the answer he would give." I was not adequately sensitized to gender neutrality until a good deal later, but that is a story for my University of Massachusetts years. Gerhard, on the other hand, almost certainly would have said "he or she."]

The upshot of this encounter taught me an important lesson about what really lay at the heart of the Chicago ethos. The staff decided that since I was so opposed to the use of multiple choice questions, I could write my own exam. So it was that in my section, but in none of the others, the final examination consisted of a group of essay questions, with choice. I have always thought that was a real touch of class on Chicago's part.

The undergraduates were required to take a Freshman Humanities survey in addition to our Sophomore Social Sciences survey, and the folks teaching that course had offices along the same hallway as we putative Social Scientists. One of them was a tall Literature type named Eugene Goodheart. Gene had crafted a question for one of his quizzes with which he was especially pleased, and he passed it around for our admiration. The question consisted of a series of lines arranged as though constituting a poem. The student was first to say whether they really were or were not a poem, and then justify the answer. I read the lines and unhesitatingly pronounced them nonsense. The first two lines were "Margaret, are you grieving./Over goldengrove unleaving?" Cindy had not yet completed my literary education.

One of the side-effects of the gossip about ideas was a certain genial insider-dopesterism that seemed to infect the students. Two examples will suffice. The University of Chicago, unlike Harvard, awarded honors to very few graduating seniors. There were apparently many years in which not a single senior majoring in Philosophy earned a degree cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude. But my first year, as it happened, two Philosophy students earned honors degrees. I was chatting with an extremely bright Junior major one day after the announcement had been made, and he said to me, "I understand there is a rule in the department that just two students are to receive honors each year." "No, no," I assured him, "there is no rule like that. It is just chance that two students got honors." He gave me a knowing look and wandered off. The next year, he himself was awarded departmental honors. I passed him on the campus and shouted "Congratulations." Without missing a beat, he replied, "Who is the other one?"

The other story was a bit scarier. By the time the Spring semester of the second year rolled around, I had made something of a name for myself because of my political activities on and off the campus [of which more in a moment]. When school reconvened after the Christmas break, a young man came into my office. "I have just got back from seeing my parents in New York," he said, "and I heard a rumor that you are going to be fired because of your politics." "Nonsense," I replied. "There is no truth to it at all!" Several days later, another student came to see me. "While I was on the West Coast over Christmas, I heard that you are going to be fired. Is that true?" I got the impression he was all set to organize a protest on my behalf, but I insisted there was nothing to it.

Still and all, I was a bit nonplussed, so I went to see Manley Thompson. "Manley," I said, "there is a rumor sweeping the country from coast to coast that I am about to be fired. Is there any truth to it?" Manley laughed and assured me that I was in perfectly good standing. I left, reassured. Later that Spring, I was invited to visit at Wellesley for a year, to replace Ingrid Stadler, who was going on leave. Cindy and I were eager to get out of Chicago because we found her parents, who lived there, oppressive, so I jumped at the chance. When the students heard that I wouldn't be at Chicago the next year, they all nodded sagely, and as much as said, "You see? We knew they were firing you." I protested repeatedly that I would be back the following year. But the next Spring, Columbia offered me tenure, and I took it. I fear that some of the students to this day are convinced that my politics got me axed.


jeff house said...

Your recollection of David Bakan was delightful to read. I knew him here in Toronto before his death.

I have passed on the link to two of his sons with whom I have had an ongoing, though distant, friendship.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Wonderful. His sons should be very proud of him!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Are you by any chance the Jeffrey House who has worked as a lawyer with war resisters? If so, my congratulations.