Yesterday, I had my say about the Peretz mess at Harvard. Today, I would like to try, in an introspective fashion, to clarify to myself [and the entire blogosphere, of course] the rather complicated feelings aroused by my brief return to Harvard. To signal in advance my conclusion, I came to realize once again that my decision to leave the Ivy League thirty-nine years ago was wise.
Initially, the return was a good deal of an ego trip. People treated me as though I were somebody, despite the fact that I was surrounded by a number of real somebodies. E. J. Dionne said twice what an honor it was to meet me. Amy Gutman, in her big lecture, mentioned me as someone whose writings had inspired her. Outside Robbins Philosophy Library in Emerson Hall, a graduate student came up to me rather excited and said, "Aren't you Robert Paul Wolff?" When I allowed as how I was, he blurted out, "Oh, I know a great deal about you!" [referring to my Memoir.]
All of that was simply wonderful, for about half a day. Then, it began to feel burdensome. Why?, I wondered. Slowly, it began to dawn on me. Harvard is a collection of people who are Somebodies. Many of them have acquired that status legitimately, a few perhaps not. But everyone is expected to cooperate in and acknowledge everyone else's somebody-status. It is all quite casual and understated, but very definitely present in the social climate. Now, I have no hesitation at all in expressing my admiration for many of the genuine scholars there, as I do anywhere. But the feeling tone is, if I may put it this way, political, not intellectual. It is rather like the elaborate and utterly false courtesy that members of the United States Senate show to one another. "My good friend, the distinguished Senator from North Dakota." That sort of thing.
There is a reason for this faux-courtesy in politics. When Harry Reid speaks to Jeff Sessions, regardless of what each may think of the other, that is all of the people of Nevada speaking to all of the people of South Carolina, through their representatives, and it is to all of those people, not to the person who happens to represent them, that the courtesy is being shown. But nothing at all like that is true in Academia. Each of us is there on his or her own merits and footing, representing no one.
The effect is to make the interactions at Harvard elaborate, exaggeratedly courteous, but meretricious. I was flattered by E. J. Dionne's deferential greeting, but the simple fact is that in his panel presentation, after praising me, he went on to praise Peretz. Well, I don't really want to be mentioned in the same breath with that wretched man, and I don't want to have to smile while it is being done.
After a while, I found myself comparing the feeling tone of the occasion with that at the University of Massachusetts, where I spent thirty-seven years. Now, many of the people at UMass are quite as smart and intellectually accomplished as those at Harvard. I will put Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis up against anyone in the Harvard Economics Department, and I had three or four colleagues in Afro-American Studies who were clearly more than a match for Skip Gates or Tony Appiah or even the irrepressible Cornell West. But at Harvard [and elsewhere in the Ivy League] there is all that money, and all those titles [everyone sits in a name chair], and all that attention and reverence in the media. By the end of the day, it was an enormous relief to talk honestly to the Harvard Crimson reporter and say what I really thought about what was going on.
The next morning, when Susie and I were having an early breakfast at the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, I began to sort through my thoughts about the Social Studies program, which was, after all, the real focus of the event [Peretz being simply an unwelcome distraction.] Once again, I was able to gain some perspective by comparing it with UMass. As readers of my Memoir know, when I arrived at UMass from Columbia in 1971, I started an undergraduate interdisciplinary program called Social Thought and Political Economy [STPEC], which I conceived quite consciously as a left-wing version of Social Studies. Now, by every possible objective measure, Social Studies stands head and shoulders above STPEC [which also continues to exist to this day, now almost forty years later]. The students are academically stronger, the instructors are, on average, academically more accomplished, the demands made on the students are academically much greater, and the senior honors theses written by the Social Studies students are in a different league from those written by the STPEC students [Amy Gutman spent much of her speech reminiscing about her 197 page honors thesis, which she thought of at the time, she said with amusement, as her life's work].
And yet: I honestly think STPEC is a better program. What can I possibly mean by that? Well, to put it as simply as I can, if by some miracle anyone were to offer STPEC $650,000 to honor someone of the ilk of Marty Peretz, I can say with absolute confidence that it would be turned down. And if the UMass Development Office tried to cram the money down STPEC's throat [as it might, since at UMass, unlike Harvard, offers of $650,000 are as rare as hen's teeth], the Director and staff of STPEC would be at the head of the group of students marching on the Administration Building to protest. At Harvard, the protestors were outside and the Directors of Social Studies were inside. At UMass, they would have been outside with the students [as I thought I should be too, to be honest.]
That is very heartwarming, to be sure, but what does it have to do with the academic quality of the program? Here is my answer, one that it has taken me a lifetime to learn. Programs like Social Studies and STPEC have it as their mission to teach students how to understand the socio-economic realities that lie beneath the often beguiling and glittering surface appearances the social world presents to us. What is more, the people who run Social Studies and STPEC [as well as the only person who was in at the founding of both of them -- namely me] hope that students will fight in their lives for justice and equality, using what they have learned to make them more effective. But we learn how to act courageously and effectively not only by mastering texts and grasping concepts -- accomplishments that are essential, I believe -- but also by coming to see how these intellectual skills are inseparably linked to traits of character -- courage, honesty, integrity.
Perhaps I could learn multivariate calculus from Marty Peretz, however unpleasant an experience that might be. But I could not learn social theory from Marty Peretz, because who he is would interfere fatally with what he was supposedly teaching me. And what is more, I could not learn social theory from someone who would make excuses for Marty Peretz as "a wonderful teacher." So, whatever generations of Social Studies students may think, and however famous Michael Walzer may be, they were not learning how to be fighters for social justice from him. Nor could I learn to be a fighter for social justice from a program that, when the money was dangled, was willing to honor the likes of Peretz.
I am not what Gramsci called an organic intellectual. My old friend Enver Motala in South Africa is an organic intellectual. He has spent his life in worker education programs in townships and unions. I am an academic through and through. But after my first thirteen years teaching at Harvard and Chicago and Columbia, I finally came to realize that I am not an Ivy League academic. I feel more comfortable in the grubby surroundings of UMass than in the elegant architectural gems at Harvard. To get into Widener Library at Harvard, I need special permission, obtainable on a temporary basis because I am a Harvard alumnus. But I can get into Davis Library here at UNC, Chapel Hill, simply because I am a resident of North Carolina. That feels right to me,.
All of which brings me to the conclusion I announced at the beginning of this blog post. Returning to Harvard after fifty years reminded me that I made the right decision when I walked away from a senior professorship at Columbia to spend the rest of my career at a land grant school.