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Thursday, May 20, 2010


There were moments, however. When Toby was four, we decided to visit the Moores so that Barry could meet his godson. We all piled into the big green Chevy station wagon and drove in to Cambridge. When we arrived, we discovered that Marcuse was there. Herbert's wife, Inge, had passed away shortly before, and Herbert had come East to spend time with an old friend. Barry was delighted to meet little Toby. The Moores had no children of their own. But he had not the foggiest idea how to play with a four year old. The best he could come up with was to talk German to Toby. Marcuse, on the other hand, was an absolute natural with kids. With his shock of white hair, rosy cheeks, and piercing eyes, Herbert looked like one of those big blow-up rubber figures that pop back up each time you tip them over. He got down on the floor with Toby, picked up a desk globe that Moore had on a table, and started spinning it, telling Toby wild stories about all the places in the world. Toby was enchanted. Eventually, it came time for us to leave, and the Moores and Marcuse accompanied us out to the curb. As we were loading the kids into the back seat for the drive home, Toby suddenly looked up at Marcuse, waved his hand, and said "Bye Herbie." I told that story to Tobias' UPenn law colleagues when I visited them to present a paper. I think it gained him some considerable hit points in the competitive world of academic law.

One day when we were having lunch, Herbert told me a lovely story about himself and his son, Peter, that has stayed in my memory because it so perfectly captures the way I feel about Patrick and Tobias [I must school myself not to write "Toby" when I am referring to his adult years.] After Marcuse left Brandeis, he taught for a time at UC Dan Diego. It is there that he taught Angela Davis. His son, Peter, was working in the area as a city planner. One day, Marcuse said, he was walking on the beach when a young man approached him, hesitantly and obviously nervous about disturbing him. Finally, the young man got his courage up and said, "Excuse me, but aren't you Peter Marcuse's father?" Herbert roared with laughter when he told the story, obviously delighted to take a back seat to his son. I am always tickled to be acknowledged as Patrick or Tobias' father.

Although both Patrick and Toby were preternaturally smart, they were, after all, little boys. Very early on, they acquired a taste for comic books, which accumulated at such a rate that we finally bought two big plastic laundry baskets for their rooms, to maintain some semblance of order. Both boys had the uncanny ability to plunge a hand into a basket filled with comics in order to pluck out just the one they wanted to read. After a bit, I grew curious about what was in them. Comics in my day had been rather benign affairs -- Richie Rich and Looney Tunes -- but these seemed to be a good deal more violent than that. So I sat down one day and read a couple of dozen chosen at random from the two baskets. I made two discoveries that reassured me. First of all, the vocabulary in the comics was actually rather sophisticated. You could learn more from reading them than you could from the readers the boys were given in school. The second discovery was even more surprising. The underlying moral sensibility of the comics was unswervingly liberal. The villains, to a man or woman, were basically good people who had become angry and bitter because of some terrible experience, such as falling into a vat of hot oil or being dropped from an airplane without a parachute. They weren't evil, they were just misunderstood. [Rather like Anakin Skywalker.] "Well", I thought, "that's all right then," and left the boys to their comic books. Now that both Patrick and Tobias are astonishingly successful men, people sometimes ask me what I did when they were little to produce this result. I just say, "I let them read comic books and watch television, and I spent a lot of time talking to them."

As I have observed, my years at Columbia were anomalous in one respect: while there, I had no involvement with other departments or programs. I had enjoyed my brief time as Head Tutor of Social Studies at Harvard, as well as my engagement with the last remnants of the Hutchins curriculum at Chicago, and I wanted to continue that sort of broadened intellectual activity. During my job interviews with Dean Seymour Shapiro, I had asked whether there would be an opportunity for me to create an undergraduate interdisciplinary program at UMass. "Sure," he said, "if you want to." Once I was settled into my new department, I cast about for some way to proceed. What I had in mind was a left-wing version of Social Studies. That may sound odd to any Harvard types reading this, because in the hermetic world of Harvard Square, Social Studies is considered a way-out radical program. I have no doubt that it attracts to itself the most progressive students at Harvard, but the program itself lies squarely in what I think of as the intellectual mainstream. Smith, Marx, Tyler, Weber, and Freud are the bread and butter of social theory. I had in mind something a bit edgier.

Vere Chappell suggested I talk to Jim Shaw , a young man who headed up The College of Arts and Sciences Information and Advising Center, or CASIAC. Jim warned me that folks at UMass did not like "empire builders," and he thought that I might do better to fly under the radar at first by creating my new program within something he called BDIC. [I was beginning to discover the State University penchant for acronyms]. This stood for "Bachelor's Degree in Individual Concentration," and was actually a rather intelligent way for students to create their own fields of concentration if none of the existing departmental majors got their scholarly juices flowing. All a student had to do to be a BDIC major was to find a faculty member willing to serve as advisor, work up a plan of courses drawn from a variety of departmental offerings, and run it past a reasonably complaisant committee. Shaw pointed out that there was nothing to stop me from crafting an interdisciplinary major and then inviting a group of students to sign on. Technically, each of them would be doing an individually designed major. It would simply be a coincidence that all the individual plans were the same.

My first move was to call a meeting of forty or more people from all five colleges whose interests would, I thought, incline them to join with me in this venture. I went out of my way to invite several of the Pioneer Valley's best known right-wing intellectuals. I was still under the influence of the Ivy League mindset, and simply assumed that it would be people from the four private colleges in the area who would be my best resource. Almost immediately, I learned some hard lessons that shaped the program from then on. UMass was growing so rapidly that people's teaching duties were rather fluid. A goodly number of the UMass people at the meeting assured me that they could get sprung loose from their departmental teaching obligations to participate in a new program. But the representatives of Amherst, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke were unanimous in expressing grave doubts that they could contribute as little as one course every two or three years. In the end, I gave up on the idea of a Five College program, and laid plans for an exclusively UMass structure.

My idea was simple enough. Students would cobble together courses from four or five different departments -- History, Economics, Philosophy, Political Science, principally -- and then take a two semester senior seminar designed just for them and taught by a brace of professors drawn from two different departments. I would handle all the administrative work, such as it was, so the only cost would be some freed up time of two professors each semester. The UMass Sociology Department was such a disaster that I had no expectation of being able to draw anyone from that quarter. Indeed, there is a sense in which the program was a substitute for a vibrant Sociology major. I called the new program Social Thought and Political Economy, which pretty well said, to anyone in the know, where I was coming from. The faceless gnomes who made up the course catalogue shortened this to STPEC, and this in turn came to be pronounced "Stepick." It sounded distressingly like an oil additive advertised by auto parts stores, but Stepick it was, and Stepick it has remained for more than thirty five years.

As one would expect, things got off to a slow start. The first few students who drifted into my office were attracted principally by the fact that there weren't any requirements. I did have one fascinating glimpse into how the other half of the university lives when an Engineering major walked in to ask about joining the new program. Since I had never met an Engineering major before, I quizzed him a bit on what sorts of things he was learning. At one point I asked whether there was much class discussion in Engineering courses. He said, "Well, we have a saying in Engineering. If you ask a question you have a problem." I allowed as how things were a bit different in Arts and Sciences.

When the program had been around long enough to have some seniors in it, I scheduled our very first senior seminar. It was taught by a member of the Political Science Department, William Connolly, and me. Bill and I taught a rather demanding seminar, and word of it filtered down to the Juniors, who grew terrified that they were not ready for so high-powered a theoretical exercise. They really did not feel that their course work was preparing them adequately. So I designed a Junior Seminar devoted to the classics of social theory that Bill and I had been presupposing. I cadged some money from the Provost to spring someone loose to teach it, and the Junior Seminar became a regular part of the program.

Several years later, I succeeded in recruiting a really high-powered Five College faculty member, Tracy Strong, to teach the Junior Seminar. Tracy, who had actually taught in Social Studies at Harvard, put together a demanding Junior Seminar, word of which filtered down to the Sophomores just entering STPEC. They didn't think they were ready to tackle a Junior Seminar like that, and wanted to know what they should take to prepare themselves. There really wasn't anything in the catalogue that fit the bill, so I invented a Philosophy Department course called Introduction to Social Philosophy, and taught it for several years.

This student-driven character of STPEC became the hallmark of the program, and remains so to the present day. To an extent that may be unique in American higher education, STPEC grew academically and intellectually in response to the expressed needs of the students. It was in that Introduction to Social Philosophy course, by the way, that my training in sensitivity to feminist concerns was brought to completion. I was lecturing one day to the ninety students who had signed up when a woman sitting near the back challenged me on my habit of saying "he" or "him" or "his" when referring to some unnamed hypothetical person. I stopped, thought about that for a bit, and allowed as how she was right. On the spot I adopted the practice of rigorously alternating male and female pronouns in any sentence I was uttering in which one or the other was not required by the actual gender of the person being referred to. I have continued that practice to the present day. It requires a certain presence of mind, but then, actually listening to what you are saying when you are saying it is not a bad habit to cultivate.

STPEC grew rapidly, until I had to schedule several sections of the junior and senior seminars. Budget crises had tightened things up, and departments were demanding TA return for the release of a professor's time. That is to say, to compensate a department for the release, I had to give them enough soft money to hire one of their graduate students as a Teaching Assistant. Each time my enrolments increased, I would throw myself on the mercy of the Provost. It was an old and well-known bureaucratic game, and the Provost, who was a friend of mine, knew perfectly well what I was doing. Finally, he drew the line and limited STPEC to no more than 100 majors. That made it a small but really respectable Arts and Sciences concentration.

Beyond the internecine warfare, there is not really much to say about the Philosophy Department because my colleagues, with the exception of the rump group, were not a very interesting collection of people. They were smart, in a pinched kind of way, but in twenty-one years, I do not think I ever had an interesting conversation with any of them. They seemed utterly uninterested in politics, history, literature, art, religion, or even philosophy itself beyond the confined of their narrow conception of that field. Their recruiting efforts were devoted entirely to replicating themselves as closely as was possible, short of cloning. One story will suffice.

In 1989-90, after a number of budgetary crises, the Department was authorized by the Dean to recruit. We advertised for someone in the general area of the philosophy of science, and a rather impressive group of people applied, most notable among them Michael Dunn from Indiana. Dunn had by then published two books and a huge number of very technical articles in logic and related fields. He was a real heavyweight. Although I was not myself directly interested in his work, I thought he would be a tremendous addition to the department. The search committee consisted of several of the usual suspects, plus a young Assistant Professor, Linda Wetzel, whose field was Philosophy of Mathematics. She had been recruited with the support of the majority faction, and seemed to be on a fast track to tenure.

Among the many applicants was a young man teaching at Yale, Phil Bricker, who had, to that point, published roughly three articles, none of which, so far as I could tell, was especially exciting. A department meeting was called, and the chair of the search committee announced that the committee had with great enthusiasm decided to recommend ... Bricker. Wetzel, who was more honest than prudent, burst out, "What? You can't be serious!" I knew then that she had no chance of being promoted with tenure. Gettier and Feldman and the others had obviously passed over Dunn because the sheer weight of his accomplishments would have shown them up. But Bricker was just about their speed. Sure enough, Bricker accepted, and as soon as he arrived threw in with the majority. He became indistinguishable from Feldman, Gettier, Sleigh, Jubien, or Robison. He well understood the inadvisability of publishing. Linda Wetzel is now at Georgetown.

The rest of the university, however, was vibrant with debate, innovation, and exploration. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst became, during the 1970's and early 1980's, one of the most interesting progressive campuses in America, despite the budget crises that crippled it periodically. How had this happened?

There are two facts that explain it, one relating to UMass's relation to the larger expansion of higher education in America, the other the consequence of one of the few acts of genuine administrative courage that I have witnessed during my half century in the Academy.

When World War II ended, American higher education was still dominated by the private sector, despite the existence of Land Grant institutions in every state. But the enormous demand for admission to college, sparked by the GI Bill, produced a huge and permanent shift to an enlarged public sector. State Universities proliferated campuses. State colleges became state universities. Community colleges were opened, and many of them made the transition to four year state institutions. The demand for faculty was so great that graduate students were being offered teaching positions before they had passed their qualifying exams. This expansion began to slow down in the middle and late sixties, but UMass came late to the process, and was still expanding rapidly when most State Universities were pausing to consolidate. The consequence was that in 1969, 70, 71, and 72, UMass was able to pick off some of the best young men and women emerging from top graduate schools.

Many of these new Assistant Professors came to North Amherst intending to stay for a few years and then move on to better schools, once they had published that first book or series of journal articles. But the Pioneer Valley is a seductive place, full of lovely houses in old communities at quite affordable prices. As they settled down, got married, and had children, moving seemed less and less important. Since they were bright and hard-working walking in the door, they soon became reasonably distinguished in their fields. The Sixties ended with America's withdrawal from Viet Nam and Nixon's resignation [the Sixties were always more in the early Seventies], but the Pioneer Valley, like Brigadoon, did not change. It was still sandals and candles and far out bumper stickers. A strong women's movement was born in the Valley, and in unlikely corners of the university, like German and Legal Studies and the Labor Center and the Afro-American Studies Department, groups of bright, gifted, unrepentant lefties settled in.


TCR@LU said...

I was a graduate student at UMASS during the time period you are talking about. Whenever I passed you in the hall, I said "Hello," or "Good morning," or "Good afternoon." Your response? Act like I wasn't there. I am reasonably confident that I never did anything to offend you. Perhaps some of your problems at UMASS didn't have anything to do with people conspiring against you. (Thomas C. Ryckman)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tom, I find it hard to believe that I acted as you say, because I tried very hard to keep the anger at my colleagues (which was very great) from affecting the students. But if that is how I appeared to you, that is my fault, and I am very, very sorry. I apologize, albeit much too late. I realizae it would have been very hard for you to say anything then, but I wish you had. Perhaps this just shows how poisoned the entire atmosphere had become. I never experienced anything remotely like it at the other universities where I taught.

Unknown said...

Professor Wolff,

Did you ever have offers to get out of UMASS??? Alright, so you leave Columbia because you like a home in Mass. We all do such things, but surely you could have gotten out, no? We would have taken you, with some pleasure I think (but I was a graduate student so who knows, one thing is for sure it was also snake pit so maybe that is just the way it goes) at the Graduate Faculty at the New School.

Also on a bit more serious note: in retrospect, I know you touched on this a bit, do you really think now (today as you think about this and what you wrote in response to Professor Ryckman) it was wise to leave Columbia? Also, did you have any interactions --going back a bit in the memoirs --with Max Black and Norman Malcolm? I studied philosophy as an undergraduate with someone (who became my mentor and close friend) who did his PhD at CU at the time they were there. He seems to have followed your track in the sense he went from analytical philosophy to more continental phil. You were in the generation of graduates just before him, he recalls when you were at Chicago he was an undergrad at the time there. He is a Weber scholar and just co-authored a fine book on Joan Robinson, whom you mentioned on the other blog. I guess I ask about Black, Malcomb etc. because I get the sense these "hardcore" analytical philosophers seem oddly disconnected (uninterested) in the history of phil. continental phil. etc. And if you disagreed with them, it was career death: re: your remark that folks thought "you did not do real philosophy" it seems utterly absurd to me and, if I may: not very logical either :-)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Andrew, I did indeed get an offer to leave UMasas [several, actually], and that is a major part of the story, but it is coming up in a couple of episodes [God, I feel as though I am writing a soap!]

I think I have never actually met either Black or Malcolm. Somehow, though they were major figures in the field when I was younger, our paths never crossed. Indeed, I have never visited the Cornell Department.

Hang on. The story gets better. :)

Bob Unwin said...

After your story about not hiring Dunn, I wondered how the department got away with what they did. First, they were not doing the kind of philosophy that might be interesting to people in other areas of the humanities or sciences (with exception of the non-analytic faction). Second, they were not at all engaging with other disciplines in their teaching or academic interests. Third, within their own field of analytic philosophy they were not publishing significant works. Fourth, they were not hiring people who were publishing. How did Deans, etc. let this happen?

Also, I wonder if similar things happened in other departments with a circle of narrowly focused philosophers creating a power-bloc and focusing on promoting and protecting themselves as a group at the expense of hiring the most interesting and talented people they could.

Finally, given that you spent time studying and working with various major analytic philosophers at Harvard and Columbia. I wondered what you thought of the work that went on at UMass. I don't know much about Feldman and others, but I assume their work is reasonably mainstream. What did you think of the problems that they worked on and their approach? What was missing from it?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Bob, the questions you raise call for rather complex answers. Let me try, at the risk of running on.
(1) First of all, although they published very little, they were individually and as a group well respected in the field, known to other philosophers, etc. They were invited to speak at conferences, their students got pretty good jobs, all of that. I was not personally interested in their work, but that says something about me, not about them. If they had accorded us the same respect and space and role in the graduate program that we were perfectly happy to accord them, there would have been nothing wrong. Just different philosophers doing different things.
(2) Although they had few if any ties to scholars doing work in other parts of the university, there was one exception: Linguistics. Barbara Partee was a member of both departments, and Linguistics was rightly considered a star department at UMass.
(3) Despite the efforts Bob and I made, we could not convince the Dean that there was something wrong in the department, despite the obvious contrast in levels of scholarly productivity. I wasn't joking when I said that Bob and I, each one of us, had published more than all of them put together!
(4) Eventually, as you will see in several more installments, a big change took place, and I think the willingness of the administration to make that change was a consequence of the manifestly grotesque disparity in our respective roles in the department.
(5) The strangest thing to me was their scorn for the sort of work I did. I was a serious Kant scholar who then moved into fields like Game Theory and Collective Choice Theory. Did it never occur to them that if the person who did that work also did political philosophy, there might be some merit to it? Why on earth did they not send their students to study with me? Bob Ackerman had written books on logic and on the philosophy of science. In the philosophical world out of which I came, those were high status sub-fields, however narrow. When Gareth Matthews wrote two books on talking philosophy to children, they thought that was just fine [as did I], but when Leonard Ehrlich wrote a book on Karl Jaspers, their reaction was that it would have been better had he not written it. I saw a good deal of evidence that their mode of judgement had a baleful effect on their students who, like all students, imitated them.

Γιάννης said...

On a different register: "Hit Points", a Star Wars reference, reading comics (if only but 'a couple of dozen')... Professor, with all due respect, is the viola really your sole geeky hobby?

All the best from Greece!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ioannis, I maintain a steady 77% win rate at Spider Solitaire, and I watch The Young and the restless every day. Where in Greece?

Γιάννης said...


I am in Athens, where anarchist atheist Marxists are quite welcome!

(violists are subjected to the standard jokes)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

sigh. What is the difference between a viola and a lawnmower? Answer. You can tune a lawnmower. We don't get no respect. Just remember, Mozart was a violist.

Unknown said...

I thought Mozart played the pianoforte!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

He did. He also played the violin. But the viola was his favorie instrument. hem hem.

Anonymous said...

I am impressed with the pride you show towards your children. My father was the same way, often to my embarrassment but now that he is gone I realize he meant no harm in it and also how lucky I was to have a father who cared. Often he carried me in the car to deliver my newspapers when it was raining and I'm sure that was a strain on him as he was a manager and had to slip out of the office to help but he always did. But he easily made friends particularly with others with the same enthusiasm for their children so I hear the other men who are still on this earth talking about their children and sometimes I think it is a fault, but then I never had children of my own so I cannot truly understand this phenomenon. But there are those unlucky persons whose fathers had no time for them nor talked about them or showed any interest in them and I realize what a gift that it was to have someone who cared about you enough to go to ball games and holler at me to hold the bat right or something of that nature but then there was the matter of the umpire and I had to ask my father to quit coming to my games because of those few incidents.

I also appreciate your comments about feminism. My wife is constantly correcting me on such matters and even the church she requires me to attend has changed the hymnal so that even God, who I am agnostic about is often not referred to as a man. But I do hope when I enter the pearly gates that she will allow me entrance.

There was only one time that I took offense at something you said on the blog here and that was when the young lady was dressing up in an enticing manner and one of your colleagues was sure she was doing it to bedevil him. Now that I'm over fifty I think I should point out that it was probably the copy boy or some other person in the department about her age that she dressed up for. But you are forgiven for that but I don't think my wife would let me go if I told that story so I've taken on her role here and would ask you to reconsider those memories.

But carry on sir, this blog is quite a bit of fun reading the story of another person's life told in the narrative way that you do it and I have enjoyed this journey. But I'm sure it was the boy working in the other department or something like that when it came to the young hippie lady who was later arrested.