Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

INTERMISSION

 

Intermission

 

Several people have raised important questions about the materials of the first several parts of this extended essay and I thought it would be helpful to address some of them before continuing. The first thing to understand is that Smith, Ricardo, Marx, and the lesser political economists of the classical period all assumed more or less without argument that prices in the marketplace for commodities, for inputs into the production of commodities, and also for labor were regulated by competition in the absence of governmental rules fixing prices by fiat. They also assumed that entrepreneurs – what we would call capitalists – were motivated more or less single-mindedly by a pursuit of the greatest possible profit on the investments they made in their enterprises. This meant that they were assumed not to have traditional, religious, or personal preferences for one technique of production rather than another, the production of one commodity rather than another, or for the hiring of laborers of one racial, religious, or other character rather than another. The implication of these assumptions, which they all accepted without question, was that workers would go where they could get the highest wages, sellers in the market would sell to whomever offered the highest price, and capitalists would switch their investments from one line of production to another in so far as they could in pursuit of a higher rate of return on invested capital. They also assumed, without much discussion, that capitalists were rational calculators capable of figuring out, with available resources and techniques, how best to maximize their rate of return.

 

In addition, the classical political economists tended to suppose that there was one obviously best technique for the production of each commodity and that the information required by buyers, sellers, workers, and producers to make rationally self-interested decisions was readily available to all.

 

There were a number of implications of these pretty much unquestioned assumptions and they seem to have been obvious to Smith, Ricardo, and their fellow political economists. One implication was that capitalists would transfer their investments from one line of production to another solely as a consequence of their calculation of relative profitability rather than as a consequence of personal or family or national or religious or other traditions and preferences.

 

The second implication was that a rational capitalist would always take into account not only how much more his output sold for than was invested in the inputs of production but also how long the production process took.  Profit was calculated as a percentage return on investment per annum. Thus, if one technique of production of a given commodity took three months from the start of the process until the commodity could be brought to market and sold whereas another technique involving, perhaps, tools and materials of the same cost, required six months brfore the commodity could be brought to market, a rational capitalist would take this into account and recognize that tying up his money in materials and tools for a longer period of time was more costly and therefore could only be justified by selling the output at a correspondingly higher price. This is what Smith had in mind when he observed that the “accumulation of stock” posed a problem for the Labor Theory of Natural Price.

 

Third, Smith, Ricardo, Marx, and the other early political economists took it for granted without much discussion that at any stage in the development of capitalism in each line of production there was one dominant technique that was obviously more profitable than the others and to which rational capitalists would gravitate. By the time Mark was writing, capitalist techniques of production had developed to the point at which this may not have been quite true but very little attention was paid to this fact.

 

Finally, although everybody knew that there were skilled craftsmen in certain lines of production whose labor was more productive and hence more valuable, not much thought was given to how to deal with the distinction between unskilled, semiskilled, and skilled labor. Marx at several points chooses simply to treat skilled labor as a multiple of unskilled labor, as though a skilled weaver could be treated as interchangeable with several unskilled weavers. This was clearly not true and eventually economists began to pay a great deal of attention to the issue of variations in levels of skill among workers, but it plays no important role in Marx’s theories, so I will ignore it here.

 

I hope this helps. Now let me continue with part four of my essay, which as promised will begin with a trip to the supermarket.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

MY UNDERSTANDING OF MARX PART THREE

                         My Interpretation of the Thought of Karl Marx

 

Part Three: Classical Political Economy

 

Marx and Engels had a little private joke that they would use in their lengthy correspondence to one another. They would say: we got our philosophy from the Germans, our politics from the French, and our economics from the English. Marx began his revolutionary investigation of the nature of capitalism by studying everything he could lay his hands on in the new field of Political Economy. Before we can open to page one of Capital, therefore, we must remind ourselves of the elements of Marx’s predecessors, so that we understand how he understood the discipline as he began his great book.

 

There are three seminal works of Political Economy that contributed the key concepts on which Marx drew in his own work: the Tableau Économique of François Quesnay, published in 1758, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, published in 1776, and The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation by David Ricardo, published in 1817. In these three works, and especially works of Smith and Ricardo, can be found seven key concepts or theses that together form the backbone of classical Political Economy and provided the framework for Marx’s own thought.

 

The first concept, central to the work of Quesnay, is that an economy – in this case the primarily agricultural economy of France in the 18th century – can be understood as a cyclical process in which the output of one year, such as seed and fertilizer and tools, becomes the input into the next year’s productive activity. It is with this fundamental idea that the modern study of the economy begins. It is memorialized in the title of an extremely important monograph published by Piero Sraffa 202 years later: Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities.

 

The second thesis was articulated by Adam Smith eighteen years later. English society, Smith said, must be understood as composed of three great classes whose interests are mutually antagonistic – the landed aristocracy, the entrepreneurs (or, as they will later called, capitalists) and the workers. It is important to keep in mind that the assertion of an ineluctable conflict between the interests of capitalists and workers was not original with Marx. It was central to classical political economy.

 

The third concept, also introduced by Smith, was what he called the natural price of goods in the marketplace. Smith observed that although prices for goods brought to market might fluctuate from day to day as a result of variations in supply and demand, there was a standard predictable price that experienced producers and consumers came to understand and expect, which he called their “natural price.” Drawing on the physical theories of Isaac Newton who was at that time the gold standard for intellectual excellence in England, Smith compared these natural prices to centers of gravity that drew market prices to them.

 

Fourth, what was it that determined the natural prices of goods in the marketplace? At this point Smith made his most important contribution to the discipline of Political Economy by arguing that goods exchanged in proportion to the amount of labor required to produce them. Following a tradition going all the way back to the book of Genesis, Smith viewed labor as a burden, as something to be shunned when possible or at least minimized. Having spent their labor in producing goods for the market, farmers or craftsmen would demand in exchange goods requiring at least as much labor for their production. This fact did not determine fluctuating market prices that one saw day by day, but rather what Smith had called their natural prices. Smith had thus articulated what came to be called a Labor Theory of Natural Price, and since in the 18th century a synonym for “natural price” was “value,” what Adam Smith had offered in The Wealth of Nations was a Labor Theory of Value.

 

But fifth, Smith recognized that there was a problem with his theory. It failed to take account of two factors which clearly influenced the prices of goods in the market: first, the fact that all of the arable land in England had long since been appropriated by aristocrats who, without making any productive contribution to the growing of food nevertheless required that entrepreneurs pay them rent for the use of the land they controlled, and second, the fact that in the production of food and other goods something other than just labor was required, namely tools and equipment and other produced goods, what Smith referred to as stock. The appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, Smith recognized, would inevitably alter the ratios in which goods would exchange in the market and hence seemed to undermine his newly announced Labor Theory of Value. Smith had no solution to these problems, but Ricardo did.

 

Forty-one years after the appearance of The Wealth of Nations, Ricardo published his Principles in which he solved the problem of the accumulation of stock and in a great theoretical tour de force dissolved the problem of the appropriation of land. These were the sixth and seventh key ideas that Marx inherited. Ricardo’s major contribution was the idea of “embodied labor.” The tools and raw materials used in any cycle of production, Ricardo argued, were the product of labor expended in previous cycles of production and so we could think of that prior labor as having become embodied in those products and carried along with them into the present cycle. When a farmer used a shovel that had been produced in some previous year, a portion of the labor expended in making the shovel and “embodied” in the shovel was yielded up and transferred to the crops being grown with its use. When those crops were brought to market, the farmer would require in exchange for them other commodities embodying an amount of labor equal to the direct labor expended in that cycle of production plus the labor expended in prior cycles of production, embodied in the tools, and yielded up in the production of the goods being brought to market. Thus, Ricardo for the first time stated a fully developed Labor Theory of Value: goods exchange in the market in proportion to the labor embodied in them, whether that labor has been directly or indirectly applied in their production.

 

The seventh key idea, which need not detain us, was Ricardo’s demonstration that the rent paid by the entrepreneur to the landowner was not a cost of production, for all that the entrepreneur imagined it to be so, but was in fact a diversion of a portion of the entrepreneur’s profits into the pockets of the landowner and hence played no role in the determination of price.

 

This was the theoretical state of play in 1817 and it remained pretty much at that stage of development until Marx took this theory up in 1867, half a century later. But there was a fundamental problem with Ricardo’s theory and Ricardo himself knew it. The problem was, to put it as simply and quickly as I can, that the theory was not correct when goods requiring relatively more direct labor and relatively less indirect labor – what later economists would call labor intensive goods – traded with goods that required relatively less direct labor and relatively more indirect labor – what later economists would call capital-intensive goods. Ricardo knew this was a problem and spent the last six years of his life trying to figure out how to deal with it but he went to his grave without having succeeded.

 

And there in a nutshell is the theoretical situation in Political Economy as Marx found it when he went to the British Museum and spent those endless hours and years reading everything he could lay his hands on in every European language on the subject of economics. If I may put the matter somewhat dramatically, this is what a reader in 1867 would have known as he or she opened the book and began to read page one of Capital (or more properly, of Das Kapital, since the work was not translated into English until after Marx’s death.)

 

Tomorrow we shall open that book.

Monday, March 29, 2021

MY UNDERSTANDING OF MARX PART TWO

My Interpretation of the Thought of Karl Marx

 

Part Two: Language and the Mystification of Appearances

 

Because Plato believed that the world revealed by our senses is merely appearance, not fundamental reality, and because he was convinced that only a tiny few – Socrates and those who followed him – recognize this fact, he needed a form of language that could capture this complexity and his solution was to write in what has come to be called Socratic irony. To speak ironically is not to speak with a wry smile on your face or a look of condescension at those around you. It is to use language with a quite precise complex structure. Ironic discourse presupposes a speaker and two audiences. The first, or superficial, audience hears what it thinks the speaker is saying and assumes that it has understood. But it has in fact only understood the apparent meaning of the speaker’s utterance. The second, or real, audience hears both this superficial or apparent meaning and the real, deeper meaning. Furthermore, it knows that there is a superficial audience mistakingly construing the utterance and so, in effect, it shares a private joke with the speaker at the expense of the superficial audience. In the Socratic dialogues, when Socrates says to one of his interlocutors “I am ignorant and so I ask in the hope that you can enlighten me,” the superficial audience – a sophist like Gorgias – is flattered and imagines that it is being asked for wisdom. Meanwhile the real audience – presumably the little circle of the followers of Socrates – smile to themselves, recognizing that what Socrates is really saying is something like “I am ignorant of the sophistical speeches that you give to your paying audiences, and it is my intention by asking simple questions to expose your lack of understanding of that which you claim to know.” Sometimes, as in the lovely little dialogue Crito, there is a double irony. Neither Crito, who has come to get Socrates out of prison, or the circle of Socrates’ disciples, understands the real pathos of the situation, which is that at the moment of his death Socrates must recognize that he has failed in his effort to educate his followers. So there is a third audience, consisting of the readers of the dialogue, to whom Plato is really speaking.

 

Because this is so important to my interpretation of Capital, let me give a second somewhat facetious but very clear example. It is actually an example I used in the first edition of my textbook, About Philosophy, but the editors got nervous and had me produce an alternative example in subsequent editions. Here it is.

 

A young man is having a passionate affair with a young lady who has been brought up in a very proper religious family. One evening he comes to call and take her out, claiming that they will be going to a church social. As they are leaving, the mother says to the daughter “be home by 10 o’clock and be a good girl.” The couple leave but instead of going to the church social they go to the young man’s apartment where they make love. The young man brings the young lady home promptly just before 10 and they find the mother waiting for her in the living room. “Were you a good girl?” she asks. The young man replies, “oh yes, she was good. She was very good.” The young woman smiles demurely.

 

What does all of this have to do with Marx? The answer is this. The great writers of the Enlightenment viewed the Middle Ages as a benighted time of mystery and miracle and obfuscation. The great English economist Joan Robinson quoted Voltaire as observing that you could kill a flock of sheep with magic so long as you also fed them arsenic. The goal of the Enlightenment was to dispel the clouds of mystification, to rid themselves of the mystery and tyranny of the church and the throne and to portray the world as it truly is, freed of all traces of the Catholic Church and the Divine right of Kings.

 

As a young man Marx accepted this enlightenment view of the world of capitalism. He described capitalism in the Communist Manifesto as having destroyed all the illusions of the feudal era. In one of the many famous passages from the Manifesto he writes “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.”

 

But the failures of the revolutionary uprisings taking place across Europe as he was writing these words forced Marx fundamentally to change his conception of the way in which capitalism presented itself to the world. Eventually he concluded that capitalism was even more mystified than feudalism ever had been. Indeed, like the Devil, whose greatest illusion, it was said, was to persuade human beings that he did not exist, capitalism had accomplished the ultimate mystification – it presented itself as completely without mystery, hence without any need to be demystified. If I may borrow a term from my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, capitalism accomplished the ultimate deception of presenting itself as one – dimensional.

 

Once Marx arrived at this complex conclusion he faced an extraordinary literary problem, more difficult to solve even than the problem confronting Plato. Marx had to find a way of presenting capitalism to his readers that made it on the page as mysterious as he – but not they – recognized that it was in reality. He had to force his readers to realize that they were confused when they thought they saw clearly, so that then he could dispel the mystifications and show them the reality of capitalism. And he had to do this while remaining true to the nature of capitalism, describing it in however mysterious a fashion correctly, so that when the reader, finally disabused of his or her confusions, went back and looked again at those early chapters it would be clear that everything Marx had written was precisely true and correct.

 

Those of you who have actually read the opening chapters of Capital will, I think, readily agree that it is absolutely nothing like any work of classical or indeed of modern economics that you have ever encountered. This is not at all a dissenting view of the work. Indeed, that most refined of all French Marxists, Louis Althusser, actually recommended that students skip the first chapter and come back to it only after they have read the rest of the book – not a wise suggestion but one that acknowledges the utterly bizarre nature of the language in it and the several chapters thereafter. Indeed, in the English-speaking world, readers puzzled and offended by those early chapters offered what I like to refer to as the childhood polio explanation. According to this view, very popular in Cambridge England for example, Marx as a young university student contracted a nearly fatal case of the Hegelism that was raging pandemically across the University campuses of 19th century Germany. The disease nearly killed Marx, according to this theory, and though he survived, he was intellectually crippled by the encounter, so that it was simply unkind to expect him to make his way gracefully from the premises to the conclusion of an argument like Michael Jackson moonwalking across the stage or Fred Astaire tip-tapping his way up a flight of stairs. The short version of this explanation was simply that Marx was German and therefore could not be expected to write like an Englishman.

 

Fortunately, we know this explanation to be false. How so?

 

Well, in 1865 when Marx had essentially completed writing volume one and was endlessly fussing with it to the great exasperation of Engels, he attended a meeting of the First International at which a workingman, John Weston, delivered a speech in which he argued on the grounds of David Ricardo’s economic theories that there was no point in the worker striking for higher wages because the result would simply be a rise in the price of the food and necessaries that they bought so that they would be no better off. Marx, who was a member of the governing Council, decided to respond and being Marx he wrote a response so long that it took him two meetings to deliver it. Marx wrote the response in English, he delivered it in English, and eventually it was published in English as a little pamphlet called Value, Price, and Profit.  If you take the trouble to read this little pamphlet you will find that it is written in language fully as clear and transparent as that of Ricardo’s great work, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Indeed, save for the difference in the theories being put forward, much of it could have come directly from Ricardo’s Principles.

 

So Marx could write like Ricardo despite having started his intellectual life in thrall to Hegel but he chose not to. Why? Tomorrow I shall begin to answer that question with a trip to a supermarket. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

MY UNDERTANDING OF MARX

                            My Interpretation of the Thought of Karl Marx

 

Part One: introduction

 

In a career that has spanned 71 years, ever since as a first semester freshman I took Willard Van Orman Quine’s course on symbolic logic, I have devoted extended periods of time to the study and interpretation of the writings of two great thinkers: Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx. To the thought of each I devoted two books and a number of lengthy essays. Kant was my first love and my first great challenge. When I had come to terms with his thought, I was sure I would never encounter another thinker as difficult to master or correctly to interpret. However, when I plunged into Das Kapital three years after publishing my second book on the philosophy of Kant, I found myself confronted with a task even more demanding and multidimensional than that posed by the Critique and the Grundlegung.

 

For better or for worse, I am content with my engagement with Kant. The books I have written and the series of YouTube lectures I have posted do as good a job of laying out my understanding of Kant’s philosophy as I am capable of. But despite 45 years of effort and many thousands of words, I still feel that I have somewhat failed to articulate the full complexity of my vision of Marx’s thought. I have decided therefore to make one last effort. I am moved to attempt this in part by my sense that I have been unsuccessful in persuading others of my reading of Marx’s work.

 

It will surprise none of you who have been following my blog that this reminds me of a story, and I think it may be appropriate to begin my effort by telling it once again. In 1956, when I was a graduate student in the Harvard University philosophy department, the graduate philosophy club invited Roy Wood Sellars to give us a lecture. Sellars was at that time quite ancient – 11 years younger than I am now, I believe – and retired from the University of Michigan. Some of you may be familiar with the name of his more famous son, Wilfrid Sellars. Roy Wood gave a long sad plaintive talk, the theme of which was that his Midwestern version of causal realism had not received a fair hearing in the journals because it had been eclipsed by the East Coast version of causal realism. We all sat there in stunned silence trying desperately to remember what causal realism was. The talk was not a success. And here I am, 65 years later, seemingly complaining that my version of Das Kapital has not received a fair hearing perhaps because Analytical Marxism has dominated the journals. Nothing changes, alas. At any rate, here we go.

 

I first read Volume One of Das Kapital in the spring of 1960 when I was preparing to co-teach a sophomore tutorial with Barrington Moore in Harvard’s newly established Social Studies program. I read it quickly and was unimpressed with it. Over the next 16 years I taught things by Marx frequently but it was always the early writings – The 1844 Manuscripts, The Communist Manifesto, The German Ideology. Then in the spring semester of 1977 I decided to teach a seminar at UMass on Classics of Critical Social Theory and assigned Volume One. When I reread it to prepare for the seminar, I was bowled over. I thought I had never read anything so brilliant, so complex, requiring so complicated an interpretation. I had what the French call an éclaircissement. On the spot, I decided to devote as much time as it took to struggling with the text and getting absolutely clear what I could see was going on in it. Marx, it seemed to me, had found a way to analyze the impossibly complex character of capitalist society and to capture its complexity literarily in those puzzling and unforgettable opening chapters.  To reach my goal, I would have to bring to bear on the text an understanding of philosophy, history, economics, and literary criticism, for all of these, I was convinced, had been integrated by Marx into a single seamless interpretation of capitalism.

 

The philosophy was no problem. That was, if I may steal a phrase from Eliza Doolittle, mother’s milk to me. And since the first course I taught at Harvard after getting a PhD in philosophy was a history of Western Europe from Caesar to Napoleon (don’t ask), I was sure I could handle the history. I have never in my life taken a course on literature, but at that point I had been married for 15 years to a gifted literary scholar and I had picked up some of the elements of literary theory from pillow talk, as it were. The economics, however, posed a problem. 

 

I could handle the writings of Smith and Ricardo easily enough, but as it happened, this was just the time when a number of brilliant mathematical economists around the world were bringing modern analytical techniques to bear on the work of those great classical political economists as well as on that of Marx himself. For reasons that I shall explain later, the mathematical tool they used most often was not the calculus of the neoclassical economic school but rather linear algebra.  I had studied a fair amount of calculus in college but had never engaged with linear algebra, so as soon as I had submitted my grades in December 1976, I bought a linear algebra textbook and spend the month of January teaching myself the subject. And then I was off on my adventure.

 

What Marx had done in Capital was to bring to bear on the analysis of capitalism the old philosophical distinction between Appearance and Reality, a distinction first introduced systematically into philosophy by Plato. Like Plato, Marx faced an extremely complicated expositional problem. He had to begin at the level of appearances, penetrate those appearances to reveal the underlying reality, struggle successfully against the resistance of his readers to giving up their false belief in the appearances, while deploying literary techniques designed to capture this complex structure in a discourse that could speak simultaneously to audiences who had achieved different degrees of insight into reality. All of this, I recognized almost immediately, Marx had achieved brilliantly in the opening 10 chapters or so of Volume One. My job would be to lay this out clearly and analytically, somewhat like a medical student dissecting a corpse to display the complex structure of nerves and blood vessels and bones and organs that in the living body comprised a graceful functioning structure.

 

However, after I had mastered linear algebra sufficiently to be able to read the work of Sraffa, Morishima, Pasinetti, Brody, Abraham-Frois and Berrebi, and the others, I discovered there was a problem neither Marx nor any of his interpreters and disciples had recognized: a way had to be found to integrate the modern mathematical reinterpretation of the classical school with the philosophical, historical, and literary understandings that Marx had achieved. To put the point in a deliberately provocative and seemingly paradoxical fashion, a way had to be found to introduce the literary criticism into the equations. The recognition of this problem and my initial admittedly somewhat elementary efforts to solve it are what sets my reading of Marx off from that of every other commentator I have ever encountered.  This essay is one last effort to make the case, as it were, for my "Midwestern version of causal realism.”

Saturday, March 27, 2021

ABD FINALLY, THE SIXTH

The time is come to complete my memory tour of old Paris with an account of my walk around the sixth arrondissement, but let me respond quickly to comments on earlier accounts. First, I referred to the chorus in the Place des Vosges as the Gay Men’s Chorus because that is how they refer to themselves. Second, Eric’s lovely story about his restaurant experience called to mind an embarrassing visit Susie and I paid to a restaurant recommended by my sister. The restaurant, in the fourth, is called Les Philosophes – clearly I had to try it. To start my dinner I ordered filets d’hareng – herring in short. An entire fairly large crock of herring arrived. I was supposed to take an appropriate amount from the crock, place it on my plate, and eat it. But I thought the whole serving was for me and I certainly was not going to let the restaurant down by leaving some of it uneaten so I set to it. The waiters courteously and tactfully said nothing as I wolfed down the entire crock of herring. They did not even charge me extra! I thought that last was a touch of real class.

 

On to the sixth. You will recall that each arrondissement is larger than the one preceding it and since I live in the fifth I would have to walk a bit even to start my circumnavigation. This was clearly going to be an adventure. I started by walking up to Place Maubert and turning east along Boulevard Saint Germain until I reached the eastern flank of the sixth, Boulevard St. Michel. As I was completing my circumnavigation of the fifth, I walked along the east side of that north – south boulevard but this time I crossed over to the west side and started walking south up the hill. I passed Place de la Sorbonne and the entrance to the Jardin du Luxembourg and kept walking uphill until I finally reached the southernmost tip of the Jardin, where, as you will recall, I saw the Port Royal RER station. Then, turning right I set out on the very long southern flank of the sixth, the famous Boulevard Montparnasse. If you look at the map you can see that this is a really long straight stretch. I knew from having consulted a map that I wanted to turn onto rue de Sèvres, and every time I crossed a big intersection I checked the street signs on the sides of buildings to see whether I had reached it but no luck. At long last I came to rue de Sèvres and turned north – or more precisely northeast because the street angles in, making the southern flank of the sixth much bigger than the northern flank.

 

After passing the tiny Vanneau Metro station and the large discount department store, Bon Marché, where Susie and I bought a pair of little night tables 17 years ago, I came to the big Sèvres-Babylone station, at which point the street bears even further toward the east. Almost immediately I took a left onto a very small street with the lovely name rue des Saints-Pères.  This street would have taken me all the way to the river but once again I cut my circumnavigation short by turning right on Boulevard Saint Germain. Walking now on the southern side of that street I passed through Place de l’Odéon with its three movie complexes and continued on to the corner of Boulevard St. Michel.  Crossing the street, I left the sixth and entered the fifth, walked past Cluny - the Museum of the Middle Ages – and made my way home.

 

My fondest memory of the sixth comes not from this walk but from a restaurant Susie and I went to that is just off the route of the walk. When the long stretch from Boulevard Montparnasse is almost done, I pass the little street called rue du Cherche-Midi.  There you can find a small restaurant with the odd double name Josephine Chez Dumonet.   We went there because the restaurant was reputed to have the best boeuf bourguignon in Paris and it is indeed wonderful (although pride forces me to say not quite as wonderful as the dish I cooked in my little apartment over the course of two days one time.) The portions are so large that the restaurant actually offers you on the menu the option of a half portion, which turned out to be more than enough. When Paris reopens and we are finally able to return one more time before selling our apartment, that is one of the restaurants I plan to revisit.

 

There are actually one or two more walks I have taken but I think this is enough of reminiscences and strolls down memory lane. Tomorrow in a complete change of tone and subject, I plan to launch on a multi-day sequence of posts in which I will attempt to capture once and for all my extremely complex and quite distinctive interpretation of Das Kapital. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

AROUND THE FOURTH

Susie and I very much consider ourselves left bank Parisians but the fourth arrondissement is in an odd way a kind of extension of the left bank even though it lies north of the Seine so one morning I decided to walk around its borders. This turned out to be a very interesting adventure even though the route is the shortest of my various walks. Leaving my building, I turned right and walked to the quays. I crossed over and turned right, walking along the river all away to the point at which Blvd. St. Germain begins. Turning left, I walked across a little bridge to the tip of ïle St. Louis and then further across another little bridge to the right bank. Walking up Boulevard Henri Quatre, I came to the west side of Place de la Bastille.  Across on the other side I could see the big opera house that competes with the main opera house downtown. At this point in the morning traffic is getting heavy so carefully crossing streets I continued north. Looking to my left, I could see a famous restaurant – Bofinger - the site of one of my most embarrassing gustatory goofs.  Bofinger is a fin de siècle restaurant with a famously elaborate ladies’ room (which of course I have never seen). The pièce de résistance is a huge platter of assorted raw shellfish set in a bed of ice. Naturally I ordered it. When it came I looked for the cocktail sauce and when I could not see any I asked for some. The waiter looked at me very oddly and finally brought me a bottle of ketchup, making it quite clear that I was a tasteless, clueless gauche American tourist. It was not a successful outing.

 

Two short blocks north of Place to la Bastille is a little street going off to the left with the odd name “rue du pas de la mule.”  Fairly quickly the street becomes the northern flank of the most famous part of the fourth, Place des Vosges, a fabulously expensive residential site much sought after by the in crowd in Paris. My loveliest memory of Place des Vosges is a visit there during what is called in Paris Fȇte de la Musique.  Held on June 21, the first day of summer, this is a time when all of Paris comes out into the streets to play music and listen to it. Everything is free, even concerts in expensive venues by world-famous groups. In one place you will find competing amateur rock ensembles, around the corner a solitary violinist playing away. On the evening that Susie and I went to the Place des Vosges, there was a string quartet playing Beethoven, a gay men’s chorus singing, and a small rock trio in another corner of the Place. One of the two or three greatest concerts I have ever heard was a free concert by the world-famous Tallis Singers in the Musée d’Orsay.  They performed the Miserere of Alleghri, and I can still hear a solo soprano voice ascending seemingly effortlessly to the heavens as we sat on the stone banquettes far from the chorus. It was a magical moment.

 

When rue du pas de la mule passes Place des Vosges, it becomes rue des Francs Bourgeois, the traditional Jewish section of old Paris where my relatives lived a hundred fifty years ago. After a long walk it turns again into a new street – rue Rambuteau.  All this while I had been walking along the northern boundary of the fourth, and very soon I passed the north flank of the famous Pompideau Museum, which, thanks to the odd imagination of some architect, has the pipes and ducts on the outside rather than on the inside of the museum. Another block and I came to the northwest corner of the fourth and turned left to walk down Boulevard de Sebastopol.  This took me all the way to the river on the right bank. Now I walked for a bit east until it was time to cross the river to the flower market, strangely named for Queen Elizabeth of England. Past the old headquarters of the Paris police (who have apparently since moved to new quarters) and then catty corner across the large open space in front of Notre Dame called the Parvis Notre Dame, from which it was a short walk home.

 

For a long time I thought I had successfully circumnavigated the fourth, but looking at a map one day I discovered that there is a piece of the fourth on the eastern edge that I had missed – a sort of wedge shaped space, the point of which is in Place de la Bastille and the base of which is along the river. Just to keep myself honest, I adjusted my walk to encompass that little piece once but it did not add any charm to the experience so I went back to my original route on subsequent walks around the fourth.

 

Tomorrow I will describe my longest and most adventuresome effort – a circumnavigation of the sixth. There are several more walks that I have done in Paris but I think that will be enough. The truth is that I am no longer capable of taking these walks as I once did but I will miss having them available nonetheless.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

I CONTINUE TO REMINISCE

After taking my standard walk a number of times I decided to try something more adventuresome, and after a look at a map I hit upon a route that would take me around the borders of the fifth arrondissement. I set out the same way, walking down my little street to the quays but then, instead of crossing the street and turning left I simply turned right and set out to the east. When I reached the point at which Boulevard St. Germain begins, I found myself facing the Institute of the Arab World, a large center of all things Arabic that has a lovely rooftop café from which one can see a great deal of old Paris. Continuing on, I passed the branch of the University of Paris devoted to science – the Pierre and Marie Curie campus – and then the rather pathetic zoo that Paris maintains, but this in turn brought me to the magnificent Botanical Garden or Jardin des Plantes where Susie and I have spent many happy hours wandering among the plantings. Susie began life as a botanist and loves to visit the Botanical Garden whenever we are in Paris. One of the truly strange effects of aging on her mind is that even when she can no longer remember the common names of plants, flowers, and trees she seems to have no difficulty remembering their Latin botanical names.

 

At this point on my walk I angle not quite 90° to the right and start up the Boulevard d l’Höpital, which, since it is going away from the river is uphill. Before too long I angle right again onto Boulevard St. Marcel, which forms part of the southern border of the fifth. At this point I am walking roughly southwest, until I reached the intersection with the beginning of Avenue des Gobelins.  One more slight turn to the right and now there is a long stretch of Boulevard du Port Royal, which takes me past a large hospital complex on my right until finally I come to the Port Royal RER station. The RER is a suburban light rail that brings workers into central Paris every day and by the time I reach it men and women are streaming out of the station heading to the hospital and other places to begin the work day. This is the southwest corner of the fifth, and a right turn gets me onto Boulevard St. Michel. As I walk north on the right hand side of the Boulevard, the great Jardin de Luxembourg is on my left. Susie and I have spent countless enjoyable hours in the Luxembourg Gardens having wine at the café or watching children and adults sail their boats in the circular pond in its middle (even, on one occasion, seeing a man sailing a remote-controlled submarine in the pond – I posted the picture I took of that on this blog some years ago.) Years ago I bought a fancy picnic basket and once Susie and I loaded it with tasty cheeses, pates, bread, and pastries, added a bottle of red for me and a bottle of white for her, and had a picnic under the trees in the Jardin.  Truth to tell, it was more fun eating at the café and we did not have Renoir painting a picture of us, but it made a good story.

 

To complete my circumnavigation of the fifth I would have had to walk all the way to the river before turning right and making my way home but on this first and all subsequent occasions when I reached the entrance to the Gardens I decided to turn right on rue Soufflot and walk up the hill to Place du Pantheon.  When I reached the Pantheon I bore around to the left on northern face of it until I reached a little street called rue Valette.  This plunges precipitously downhill, turning into rue des Carmes, before ending at Place Maubert, from which it was a short distance up rue Maitre Albert to our building.

 

The first time I did this walk it took me just about an hour, even though it seemed a great deal longer than that because the scene had changed so many times on its way. I felt that I had accomplished something very daring and immediately began thinking about other circumnavigations that I might attempt. Tomorrow I will tell you about my one venture into Paris across the river – my circumnavigation of the fourth.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

PARIS WALKS PART TWO

Before I continue telling you about my Paris walks, it occurred to me that I should say something about the geographic layout of Paris for those not familiar with the city. Paris is a roughly circular city with the Seine flowing through it from lower right up to the middle and then down again to lower left. It is divided into 20 administrative units called arrondissements, arranged in a spiral. The first arrondissement includes the Louvre and such in the middle of the city and then the other 19 continue in a spiral that turns right to left, each one growing a little bit larger. The second, third, and fourth are laid out to the east of the first on the north side of the river, which is called the right bank because the water flows from East to West toward the ocean. The fifth, sixth, and seventh, each of which is slightly larger than the preceding, are arranged right to left on the left bank.  Then the spiral crosses over again to the right bank and the eighth through twelfth go left to right until once again they come to the river. Back over to the left bank for the thirteenth through fifteenth and then the last five continue on the right bank across the northern flank of Paris. The lower the number the more interesting the city is and generally speaking the higher the prices for apartments. The Paris slums are called banlieus and lie outside the city itself around the northern flank. My walks took me to the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh arrondissements. My tiny apartment – 330 ft.² – is in the fifth, you will recall.

 

My second and third walks are just variations of the first. On several occasions what I have done after setting out is to walk over to the right bank past Notre Dame, turn left and walk all the way to the Place de la Concorde bridge on the right bank in front of the Louvre. Then I would cross over to the left bank and walk home. The other variation, which is really quite interesting, is to walk home along Boulevard St. Germain, rather than along the quays. After some time in the seventh (always looking unsuccessfully for Serena Williams, who has an apartment there) I would come to the two cafés made famous by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the café Flores and the café Deux Magots, on the north side of the Boulevard across the street from Brasserie Lipp.  I have never actually had so much as a coffee at either of those cafés but my heart beats a little bit faster when I see them. Then it is on to Place de L’Odéon, with no fewer than three movie complexes. This part of the walk also takes me past the Cluny – Museum of the Middle Ages.  For a long time there was a small musical group at Cluny that gave mid – day concerts of medieval music, which Susie and I attended as often as we could. The Cluny also has a bookshop where we bought a little reproduction of part of a famous medieval tapestry which for years has served as the tablecloth on our small dining table in our apartment. Then it is back to Place Maubert and home.

 

This is probably a good time to mention a change that took place in the streets of this part of Paris half a century ago. During the French version of the student uprisings of 1968, protesting students tore up the cobblestones of the old streets and used them to make barricades. The Paris administration responded by paving over all the cobblestones, which made the streets more amenable to scooters and bicycles but deprived them of much of their charm. Real old timers can still recall the cobblestone streets in the fifth and sixth.

 

These first walks are pretty tame but tomorrow I will talk about some of the more adventurous walks I have taken around old Paris early in the morning.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS

Well, it is now definite. Susie and I will sell the little Paris apartment that we bought 17 years ago. During the first 13 or 14 of those years, until I was well into my 80s, I would take long early morning walks in the old part of Paris – the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh arrondissements. Leaving at six in the morning or a little bit later, I would walk for an hour or so, watching Paris wake up and start its day. I had seven or eight different walks, and in this and subsequent posts I am going to describe them, one by one, as a way of enjoying them one more time and finally saying goodbye to Paris. These posts have no political significance whatsoever and the usual commentators may therefore wish to take a vacation from the blog and be about their other business but perhaps there is someone out there reading these descriptions for whom they will evoke pleasant memories.

 

The apartment is on the ground floor of a 17th century building in the fifth arrondissement on a little street running from the river to Place Maubert called rue Maître Albert. That was not always its name. When I bought an 18th-century map of Paris to frame and hang in the apartment as decoration, I discovered that the street used to be called rue perdu (the lost street.) The current name, which was given to it as part of Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, is an allusion to the great medieval scholastic philosopher and teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, who is believed to have taught nearby. I have always liked that fact about our little street.

 

My first walk begins by turning right as I exit the building and walk to the quays. I cross the street and turn left, walking west along the river, first past Notre Dame, which is right there almost at the end of the street, then past Shakespeare and Company, the famous English language bookstore where I used to hang out in the spring of 1955, past Place St. Michel, past the Academie Française and – across the river on the right bank – the Louvre, past the Musée d’Orsay, which began its life as a train station, past the row of large batobus parked for the night on the Seine with the two little ones at the end named Jean Gabin and Yves Montand (pictures of which I have posted on this blog) and finally to the Pont de la Concorde, which leads across the river to Place de la Concorde.  At that point I would stop, look left at the National Assembly, turn around and walk home.

 

That was my very first walk and for years it remained my basic go-to walk.  Early in the morning I would see joggers, tourists pulling roller bags and heading for the RER station to take the train to the airport, couples who had been out all night and were now reeling, slightly tipsy, toward their beds, and the occasional Gendarme.

 

By the time I returned home, Susie would be up, we would have breakfast and the day would begin.

Monday, March 22, 2021

A LIFE WELL LIVED

An idle thought sent me looking on YouTube for Pete Seeger's performance of Cumberland Mountain.Bear Chase, and that in turn send me to the Wikipedia page on him.  Seeger was one of the iconic figures of my youth. He died at the age of 94, just seven years old than I am now.  As I read the long entry on him, I thought to myself "a life well lived."

Saturday, March 20, 2021

MORE ON PROBLEMS

Since my relatively brief post about the term “problems” triggered responses that were both extremely animated and I think revelatory of a misunderstanding of what I was trying to say, let me have another go at it in hopes of introducing some clarity into the disagreement.

 

A good deal of ordinary politics concerns the resolution of conflicting interests. Farmers have interests that differ with those of manufacturing workers. Small business owners have interests different from those of office workers. Parents of small children have interests different from those of senior citizens. Lenders, whose loans are paid back in nominal dollars, not in inflation adjusted dollars, have an interest in keeping the rate of inflation low. Borrowers, who pay their loans back in nominal dollars also, have an interest in a higher rate of inflation because it reduces the real cost of their debt. My favorite example of this last conflict is the late 19th century dispute between Eastern banks and Midwestern farmers over the gold standard, which found expression in that great old book The Wizard of Oz.

 

Ordinary conflicts of interest get dealt with politically through negotiations between elected representatives representing those with the conflicting interests, and a good deal of the legislative process, whether at the state or the national level, concerns the relative political strength of the competing legislators, with all the complexity that makes politics interesting, frustrating, and contentious.

 

Some political conflicts concern matters that one or both of the parties to the conflict believe to be essential, not merely ancillary, to their existence. The struggle over slavery was of such a sort. So were the religious wars in Europe in the early modern era. Ordinary politics is most often ineffective in arriving at a compromise of such conflicts.

 

The decision to send human beings to the moon was the outcome of a political conflict over the best use of scarce national resources, but once the decision had been made, those tasked with creating a successful moon landing faced a wide variety of what are properly described as problems. The same was true about the decision to design a successful nuclear weapon. The principal problem faced by the Manhattan Project was whether to try for a fission bomb or a fusion bomb. There was considerable disagreement about this and the German scientists working to create a nuclear weapon opted for the fusion bomb, fortunately for the Allies (because, whereas a fission bomb could be successfully designed using available resources, the fusion bomb actually requires a fission trigger.)

 

In America today, wealthy well-educated urban elites of the sort who characteristically are called upon to discuss political questions on television have an unacknowledged interest in treating political conflicts as problems. In so far as the political conflicts can be misconstrued as problems susceptible of technical solutions, it will seem natural to turn the resolution of those conflicts over to individuals who can be counted on not to challenge the core interests of the wealthy urban well-educated elites who dominate the public life of the nation.

 

It was this fact that I was trying to call attention to, apparently unsuccessfully, in my post.

HELP

I had a very interesting email message from a philosophy student in India but before I could reply to it I must somehow have accidentally deleted it. If you are there and are reading this, could you possibly resend the message? I very much wanted to respond to your question. My apologies.

Friday, March 19, 2021

A REPLY TO SOME COMMENTS

Since the comments on my latest post were actually about the post – something of a novelty lately on this blog – I think I should try to respond.

 

First of all, I quite agree with Joan Robinson, who was merely echoing Marx’s observation that capitalism is the most revolutionary force ever loosed on the world.

 

Second, with regard to Eric’s comment, you must understand that when you reach the age of 87 you search rather desperately for any signs of a positive development in the hope that things may actually get better before you pass from the scene. You must allow me my pathetic efforts to encourage my inner Tigger, even if all the evidence suggests that Eeyore would be a more realistic commenter on the world.

 

Finally, to the screed by John Doe. He is obviously furiously angry and filled with contempt but it is a trifle mysterious why this post evoked those sentiments. I happily admit that I had in elite education, have lived a comfortable and remarkably problem free life, and that I even have a little apartment in Paris (although not for too much longer, I think.) What on earth does that have to do with my observation about the misuse of the word “problem?” Let me make an appeal to whomever it is who is hiding behind the name John Doe: if you can get a grip on yourself long enough to compose a series of thoughtful sentences, you might try to explain what it was about my post that so distressed you. Oh, by the way, I am not quite sure what the term “woke” means. It came into use after I retired, but I am pretty sure that none of my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department would have thought of themselves as woke.

A TERMINOLOGICAL QUIBBLE

In the aftermath of the horrific events at three Georgia spas, there is renewed talk about the “problem” of anti—Asian sentiment in America. This accompanies talk about the “problem” of anti—black racism, the “problem” of economic inequality, the “problem” of obstacles to voting, and so forth. I should like to spend just a moment objecting to this use of the word “problem,” which, I believe, confuses and obscures certain obvious truths about American society.

 

Let us start with economic inequality. The enormous gap between the wealth of the rich and the wealth of the poor (Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos between them have as much wealth as the poorest 120 million people in America) is not a problem of or for capitalism. It is the point of capitalism. As the saying goes in this digital age, economic inequality is a feature, not a bug. Capitalism exists in order to exploit workers and accumulate wealth in the hands of capitalists. That is why it existed in the 19th century, in the 20th century, and now in the 21st century.

 

An analogous observation is true of the other so-called problems mentioned above. The word “problem” suggests a technical or conceptual difficulty that may be overcome by the application of science, technology, or the rational organization and deployment of available resources. Building an affordable car that runs on electricity rather than by means of an internal combustion engine was a problem. Putting human beings on the moon was a problem. Building a nuclear weapon was a problem. Developing and deploying a vaccine for Covid – 19 was a problem. All of these, including the last, turned out to be solvable, fortunately in the case of the vaccine, rather less fortunately in the case of nuclear weapons.

 

Racism, economic inequality, and the suppression of the vote are, or arise out of, conflicts of interest, between whites and nonwhites, between rich and poor, and currently (although not always historically) between Republicans and Democrats. There are no technical solutions to these conflicts, there are only struggles in which some win and some lose.

 

To describe the struggles as “problems” suggests falsely that what is needed is a research grant or government program to “solve” them. This, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s lovely phrase, afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

MOVING ON

Now that the $1.9 trillion recovery act is passed and the checks are going out, all attention is on the filibuster. It is obvious from the commentary on television that an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes negotiation is under weigh (as in “weigh anchor.”) Having no direct access to anyone more important than the building representative in my retirement home, I should like to make a suggestion that I am sure has already occurred to those who do this sort of thing for a living.

 

The problem is to move the three Democratic holdouts, Manchin, Sinema, and Feinstein. It is clear that Manchin is already moving and I think the odds are good that eventually we shall succeed. But in the meantime, here is my idea:

 

Let Biden bring up a very large infrastructure bill, the sort of legislation that is built for bipartisan negotiation. Then let Chuck Schumer propose quietly to the Republicans that the Democrats will bring back earmarks under the right circumstances. If Republican senators are prepared to negotiate honestly on the bill with the understanding that when an agreement is reached they will vote for it, then those who play ball will be permitted to add pet projects for their states. If 10 or more senators play ball, then the bill can be passed without the threat of a filibuster. If the Republicans play this game of proposing earmarked clauses, getting them passed, and then voting against the bill, the Democrats will send the bill back to the House where all of those clauses will be stripped from the bill and it will be passed in the Senate by breaking the filibuster. My guess is that Manchin would agree to such a plan and that Sinema and Feinstein could then be beaten into submission.

Monday, March 15, 2021

A RESPONSE TO JERRY BROWN

In response to my satirical essay, Jerry Brown observes that dermatologists do other things than removing pimples, and of course he is correct. In the discussions that followed my delivery of the paper (at Mount Holyoke College as well as at UNC Chapel Hill) a number of people protested that there is a difference between a professor’s relationship to students and a doctor’s relationship to patients. I agree completely and in order to illustrate the difference I told two stories. The first may well be apocryphal although I would like to believe it is true. The second I can attest to because I was there. Apocrypha first.


The first story concerns the great American economist Paul Samuelson who did his doctorate in the Harvard economics department. In those days, apparently, a candidate had to present himself or herself for an oral examination prior to writing the doctoral dissertation and when Samuelson sat for that exam, the committee that tested him was chaired by the great Russian-American economist Wassily Leontief.  The committee grilled Samuelson mercilessly for two hours and then had him leave the room so that they could deliberate about his grade. After Samuelson had closed the door behind him, so the story goes, Leontief looked around the table and then said to the members of the committee, “well, did we pass?” The story captures perfectly the academic professor’s dream of a student who is more a colleague than a pupil.

 

The second story concerns my first wife, who had a small skin problem that took us to see a distinguished plastic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. After the doctor had examined my wife and dealt with her problem, we spent a little time chatting and he told us with evident excitement about the time he spent, pro bono, at the Schriner Burn Center in Boston treating hideously burned children who had suffered second and third degree burns over large parts of their bodies. It was obvious that even though, with his most devoted ministrations, he could not turn a little child at the hospital into a Venus or Adonis, he could give them the possibility of a life. This was a man who made a very large income doing tummy tucks and breast enlargements but his real joy in life was treating those severely burned children.

 

My hope was that once I had jolted my audience out of their comfortable self-confidence by my satirical story, we could have a genuine discussion about the grotesque distortions in the allocation of educational resources in America. I am sorry to say that things did not turn out that way on the two occasions on which I delivered the paper to an academic audience.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

ON A LIGHTER NOTE

I am sure all of you are fully familiar with this and can probably quote it from memory, but for those who have somehow failed to watch it, this is a must. It is the functional equivalent of two semesters' study of Karl Marx and one semester study of the foundations of anarchism.

FOR DAVID PALMETER AND OTHERS

If for some reason you have trouble reading the second Golden Oldie, click on the box.net link at the top the blog and you will find that I have just uploaded it there. I hope that solves the problem.

LAST GOLDEN OLDIE

 

              THE  PIMPLE  ON  ADONIS'  NOSE

 

                                                                            or

 

       Some Thoughts on the Distribution of Educational Resources

 

                                      in The United States Today

 

 

 

 

                                                                            by

 

                                                               Robert Paul Wolff


 

Last summer, having finished the revisions for a new edition of a textbook on Intro­ductory Philosophy and finding myself with enough money in my bank account for a brief overseas vacation, I asked an agent at the local Travel Bureau to find me someplace com­pletely new, untraveled, and out of the way.  He sifted through a dusty pile of brochures shoved to the back of a drawer and came up with the tiny Republic of Invertia, almost ex­actly half way around the world. 

 

An island nation with a population of slightly more than four million, Invertia has no history, art, music, or natural landmarks of any note, and hence has been virtually ignored in the travel boom of the past twenty years.  I agreed forthwith, and told him to book me as inexpensive a round‑trip flight as he could manage, together with reservations at what ap­peared, from the brochure, to be Invertia's sole tourist hotel.  Three days later, I was on my way.

 

We touched down in the capital city of Invertia shortly after nine a.m., local time;  by ten we were through customs, and at ten‑thirty, I had checked into my hotel, and realized that I had four days to fill and no idea what there was to do in Invertia.

 

Fortunately, the National Tourist Bureau, such as it was, occupied the building next to the hotel, so after a quick lunch, I presented myself at the information desk and asked the clerk what Invertia had to offer the interested tourist with several days on his hands.

 

"You must surely visit our national hospital, and also our national university," he said.  "We in Invertia are enormously proud of both institutions, and no visitor to our island should fail to see them.  I will telephone the Ministries of Health and Education and ar­range the entire matter."

 


When I returned to my hotel at dinner time, I found a message from the Travel Agent.  The next day at one in the afternoon, I would be given a tour of the leading hospital of Invertia.  The following day, I would see the university.      

 

As I came down to the lobby of my hotel on my second day in Invertia, promptly at one p.m., I found the Minister of Health herself waiting for me.  Apparently visitors were rare enough to warrant the red carpet treatment no matter how unimportant they might be.  We got into the official limousine at the curb, and set out for the National Invertian Center for Health, or NICH as the Minister referred to it.

 

Approaching the NICH, I was powerfully impressed by the size and elegance of the building, gleaming with marble facade and surrounded by carefully maintained lawns and gardens.  Clearly, the government of Invertia put health care very high on its agenda.  I as­sumed I would be driven to the rather imposing front entrance for an official tour, but in­stead the Minister directed the driver to pull up in front of the Emergency Room.  As she explained to me, the ER was the heart of any hospital, and I would get the best possible idea of how Invertians handled their medical services by observing its activities for a while.

 

Walking through the automatic sliding doors into the Emergency Room of the Inver­tian National Hospital, I was struck immediately by how quiet, clean, and orderly every­thing was.  My own experience of hospital emergency rooms -- not to mention the images from countless movies and television serials ‑ had led me to expect a busy, seemingly chaot­ic swirl of patients, nurses, and Interns, with weary family members slumped in chairs along the wall staring blankly at out‑of‑date magazines.  Instead, I could easily have mistaken the ER for the reception area of a big law office or corporation.

 



For a moment, I simply stood and looked around, trying to adjust my perceptions to my expectations.  Then the sliding doors opened again and two men came into the Emer­gency Room.  The first was a man about my age, shabbily dressed and in obvious distress.  He staggered more than walked into the ER, calling out in pain as he lurched toward the reception desk.  "Please," he said in a gasping, feeble voice, "help me!  I think I am having a heart attack!"  With that he slumped to the ground, clutching his chest.

 

The second man was a tall, handsome youth ‑ a veritable Adonis ‑ who walked with an easy, athletic stride.  He wore an elegant suit and tie, had smoothly tanned features, and appeared to me to be in perfect health.  These impressions, I must admit, are somewhat reconstructed from subsequent reflection, because my attention was entirely seized by the poor man writhing on the floor.

 

As I stood there frozen, watching what seemed to be the last moments of a dying man, the ER erupted into movement.  The attendant behind the reception desk spoke a few quick words into the phone at his elbow, and moments later the swinging doors flew open as an Intern hurried into the room pushing a wheel chair.  I prayed that they would be in time to save the man on the floor, who was now straining for breath with great raking gasps.

 

To my astonishment, the Intern rushed past the stricken man and instead ap­proached the young Adonis, whom he gently guided into the wheel chair.  Then, solicitously settling a blanket about the young man's feet, he made a detour around the body on the floor, glancing at it somewhat irritatedly, and carefully pushed his new patient to the recep­tion desk.  As I watched, too horrified as yet even to speak, the man on the floor gave a last cry, and died.

 

Throughout these events, the Minister of Health stood beside me calm, unperturbed, a satisfied smile on her face as if to say, "Well, that is how things are done here.  Isn't that splendid?"  Meanwhile, the receiving attendant was taking the young man's medical history and inquiring as to his needs.  Mesmerized, I drew closer to listen to the interview. 

 


So far as I could make out, this was the first time he had ever found it necessary to seek medical assistance.  What had brought him to the hospital was a small pimple on his nose, just to the right of center.  He was greatly concerned that the pimple spoiled his oth­erwise exquisite profile, and he wanted to know whether there were specialists in the hospi­tal who could remove it without leaving an unsightly scar.

 

As he said this, the Minister of Health, with a great air of self‑satisfaction, held up her hand, as though to say to me, "Watch this!"  The attendant spoke again into the phone, and immediately a distinguished looking doctor appeared who introduced herself as a plas­tic surgeon.  She assured the young man that every facility of the hospital would be put at his disposal, and she expressed herself as absolutely confident that her team could remove the pimple with no visible scar whatsoever.  She had removed many such pimples, she said, and had never lost a patient.  With that, the Intern rolled him through the swinging doors, and followed by the surgeon, he disappeared.  A short while later, two orderlies brought in a large waste bin, pushed the dead body roughly into it, and exited again.

 

I was so appalled by what I had witnessed that I had trouble finding the words with which to give voice to my thoughts.  During my first few hours in Invertia, I had felt quite comfortable and at home.  The people all spoke English, and the manners, the facial ex­pressions, even the body language of the men and women I had met seemed so much like those of my own home town of Amherst, Massachusetts that I had begun to believe that I understood the Invertians quite well indeed.  Yet the utter incongruity of the reactions in the Emergency Room to the two men who had presented themselves as patients made me vertiginous.

 

Most mysterious of all was the obvious satisfaction with which the Minister of Health had observed the events.  Her pride at the treatment of the young man's pimple, and her utter unconcern for the dead man, bespoke an attitude, a moral framework, a world view, so different from mine that I could scarcely imagine where to begin my questions.

 


"Well," she said, breaking into my troubled stream of thoughts, "now you have seen us at our very best.  What do you think of the Invertian health care system? How does it compare with that of your own country?"

 

Very quietly, with great self‑control [for, truly, I feared that I had somehow stum­bled into a madhouse, and could not anticipate what those around me might do next], I undertook to discover some explanation for what I had witnessed.  "Let me start," I said, "with the man who died of a heart attack on the floor before us.  Why did no one try to help him?  Why wasn't he immediately taken into an examination room, given emergency treat­ment, put on oxygen, given drugs?  Is your hospital not equipped to handle such cases?"

 

"Oh, we are more than adequately equipped to handle a heart attack, but what would have been the point?  He was clearly close to death when he came through the doors of the ER."

 

"But with quick action, you might have saved him!  He died at our feet!"

 

"Exactly," she said, as though I had proved her point.  "Over a period of years, we have kept quite careful records of patients admitted while suffering massive heart attacks, and our experience shows that such patients have a very poor prognosis for recovery.  A considerable number ‑ almost half, I believe ‑ actually die during our efforts to save them or shortly thereafter, and a majority of those who do live through the first days or weeks of treatment emerge from the hospital in something less than perfect health.  Many need fur­ther medical treatment, a number have subsequent heart attacks, and taking all in all, the prospects of heart attack patients for full recovery and healthy, happy post‑attack lives are quite poor.  So you see, it makes very little sense to devote our splendid medical resources here at NICH to treating what can only be considered marginal patients."

 


In order to grasp the utter callousness of this speech, you must understand that it was delivered not apologetically, or hesitantly, or with an embarrassed awareness of the inade­quacies in the Invertian health system thereby revealed, but with a sort of self‑satisfied as­surance, not to say smugness.  The Minister of Health clearly was a woman supremely pleased with the performance of those under her command, and confident that I would share her pleasure once I understood the marvelous efficiency of NICH.

 

"Do you never treat anyone suffering from a heart attack?" I asked.

 

"Of course we do," she replied, "but only when we determine that the patient has a very good chance of complete recovery.  Before we will admit a heart attack patient, we require an extensive physical examination, a complete medical history, and letters from the patient's previous physicians explaining why they believe that the patient's heart condition is not an accurate indication of his or her general health.  If, in light of the entire medical dossier, we decide that the patient can reasonably be expected to recover from the heart condition quickly and live a long, healthy, productive life without further medical interven­tion, then we are quite prepared to make an exception.  Indeed, our admitting attendants are specifically instructed to keep an eye out for promising patients who might in the ordi­nary course of events be overlooked because of apparently contra‑indicated previous con­ditions."  This entire speech, you understand, delivered in that patronizing tone so often used by experts, especially medical experts, when explaining things to lay people who can­not be expected to grasp the most elementary matters.

 

"And the handsome young man with the pimple on his nose?" I asked.  "He does not seem to have gone through an elaborate background check or a series of admissions tests."

 


"Quite true," she replied. "Ordinarily, any patient seeking admission to the hospital must go through the entire procedure of medical evaluation, but every so often, we see a patient who is obviously bursting with good health ‑ fit, vigorous, strikingly attractive.  When such a patient comes along, needing only the very slightest medical adjustment to emerge in perfect condition, a patient with whom our chance of success is virtually 100%, we are prepared to waive the normal procedures and speed the admission process.  That young man was one of the most promising patients I have ever seen.  Our Cosmetic Surgery Department's success with superficial pimples is close to perfect.  As soon as I saw him, I was sure he deserved admission to the hospital.  When he is released, he will be an out­standing specimen of Invertian youth.  I would hazard the guess that he will never need medical attention again."

 

I was struggling to find my bearings in what seemed more and more to be a Kafka‑esque hall of mirrors.  "Let me be absolutely sure I understand what you are saying," I said, in one last effort to make sense out of this nightmare.  "You operate this hospital on the general principle that patients will be admitted only if they have relatively minor ailments which you can be virtually sure of curing.  When someone is desperately in need of medical attention, such as the man who died here only a few minutes ago, you deny it on the grounds that such people have a poor chance of being totally and completely cured.  But when young Adonises or Venuses present themselves to have a pimple removed, a hang nail trimmed, or a slight headache treated symptomatically ‑ in short, when patients appear who do not need medical care in order to survive, but merely want it so as to become even healthier and more attractive than they already are, then you lavish the full resources of this magnificent modern hospital on them.  Do I have that right?"

 

"Just so," she said.  "I think you are now beginning to understand how the Invertian medical system works."

 

"But men and women are dying every day, some of whom could be saved by your hospital.  And in return, all you get is the satisfaction of knowing that your healthiest, most attractive young men and women are pimple and hang nail free!  How can you possibly jus­tify devoting all your medical resources to such frivolous ends?"

 


Oh, dear," she replied, obviously distressed that I understood so little of what she had been saying.  "I am afraid you have things quite upside down.  If we were to do as you suggest, and admit to our hospital patients with heart attacks, cancer, internal injuries from automobile accidents, and heaven knows what else, we should be swamped!  We might manage to handle a few, though it would mean turning away thoroughly qualified patients like that young man who was just admitted.  But to let them all in would be impossible!

 

"Indeed," she went on, "we couldn't do it even if we wanted to.  Our medical staff is not trained to deal with life‑threatening ailments, save for a handful of specialists in the Trauma Center.  What would all our supremely well‑trained Plastic Surgeons, Podiatrists, and Dermatologists do to keep busy?  Besides, we haven't the physical facilities to treat such patients.  In this hospital, there are four entire wards of Plastic Surgery, each com­pletely staffed and outfitted, including a Nasal Reconstruction center.  But there are only two physicians with any experience of major heart ailments, and neither of them has the capacity to treat more than three or four patients at a time.

 

"All that is entirely secondary, however, for what is at stake here is a matter of fun­damental principle.  Invertian society has need of an elite core of superbly healthy men and women whose every last imperfection or blemish has been meticulously removed by the most modern techniques of medical science.  In an ideal world, where there are infinite resources, we could, I suppose, build endless hospitals to treat those suffering from heart disease, cancer, severe internal injuries, and other life‑threatening physical problems.  But resources very definitely are not infinite, and as I am sure you will recognize, it takes much more in the way of those resources to treat each dying patient than it does to correct the minor imperfections of healthy patients.  When you consider that many of the really sick patients simply die despite our best efforts, you will concede that it would be utterly quixot­ic of us to turn our entire medical system upside down, all for the purpose of trying to save the lives of men and women who, even if they do live, will never play a set of competitive tennis, run a respectable marathon, or grace our city with their good looks."

 


I am a philosopher by profession, and argument is my stock in trade, but the image of that poor man dying in agony at my feet blotted out all thought of logical by‑play.  I lis­tened to the Minister's arguments with a heavier and heavier heart.  When she had finished, I asked meekly whether we could leave, and without seeing anything more of the NICH, I returned to my hotel.  The next day, I was slated to visit the university.  I could not even imagine what I would find there.  Nazi‑style experimentation on human subjects, perhaps.  Lock‑step courses in Invertian ideology.  A Department of Astrology and Dianetics.

 

I spent a troubled night.

 

The next afternoon, it was the Minister of Education who appeared at my hotel to conduct me on a tour of the Invertian National University.  The Minister was a short, fat, energetic man who perspired freely in the warm midday sun.  My mind was still filled with the images of that poor man, dying on the floor of the ER, utterly ignored by Doctors, Or­derlies, and the Minister of Health herself.  I am afraid I was only half listening as the Min­ister of Education poured out statistics on the way to the University.  I did manage to gather that the University had a full complement of departments in the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences, as well as small but well‑staffed Law, Medical, Engineering, and Business Schools.  Even before we arrived at the university, I began to feel more at home.

 

The Central Administration Building was a large, nondescript, functional structure ‑ the sort of building one could see on any of a thousand American campuses.  After parking in a place especially reserved for the Minister's car, we entered and went first to the Stu­dent Admission Office.  The Minister explained that this was the best place to get a feel for how the University operated. 

 


The Admissions Office looked just like any college admissions office in America.  There were wall racks with copies of application forms, class schedules, literature promot­ing one or another of the various degrees offered at the university.  A bulletin board had sprouted with the usual hand‑printed notices of rooms to share, typing services, furniture for sale,  secondhand textbooks.  There were several Admissions Officers waiting to greet prospective students.  All rather familiar and comforting, I thought to myself, especially after the disorienting visit to the hospital.

 

As I stood there with the Minister and his aide, looking about the large room, the door opened behind us and two young people walked in.  First through the door was a neat­ly dressed young woman whose face and manner bespoke a quite attractive intelligence and self‑confidence.  As she approached the desk of one of the Admissions Officers, I edged closer in order to overhear their conversation.

 


She introduced herself forthrightly, in a cultivated voice, and said that she wished to enter the university to pursue a degree in Mathematical Physics.  She explained that she had a straight‑A grade record at her secondary school, had achieved perfect scores on the Invertian equivalent of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and in fact had already published sev­eral original papers on a rather recondite branch of Mathematical Physics in Invertian and foreign journals.  She was, she added, a champion swimmer and tennis player, and also had given public concerts as a pianist.  In her spare time, she said, she worked with learning‑dis­abled children, and took inner‑city girls on nature walks.  Needless to say, I was tremen­dously impressed.  This was just the sort of outstanding student I had encountered at Har­vard, Yale, Princeton, Swarthmore, and the other top colleges and universities in America.  She had that pulled‑together look of someone who knows her own abilities, has worked hard to develop them, and has acquired thereby a justifiably high sense of self‑worth.

 

As she spoke, the Admissions Officer grew visibly more impatient, fidgeting with his pencil and rather ostentatiously leafing through some paperwork on his desk.  When the young woman had finished, he looked up.  "Well," he said, in a perfunctory tone of voice, "take an application form and fill it out.  We will contact you if we can find room for you."  With that, he dismissed her and turned his attention to the second applicant.

 

My first thought was that the young woman had stumbled on a small‑minded bu­reaucrat who resented young people manifestly more talented and accomplished than he.  I had known a few such in America, even, I reflected, among the senior professoriate.  Then too, it occurred to me that because there could be no question about her being admitted, he might simply have sent her off so that he could attend to more difficult cases.  But as I stood there, wondering what might happen next in this topsy‑turvy country, I heard the young woman saying to an older couple who were apparently her parents, "I knew I wouldn't get in."  The looks on their faces confirmed that she had would be denied admission to the university.

 

The Minister of Education had observed all this with apparent approval.  Didn't he care that so supremely well‑qualified an applicant had been summarily turned away from the National University without so much as an interview?  How on earth could he explain to the faculty of the university that the very best students were being denied admission?  At that moment, the second potential student stepped up to the Admissions Officer's desk, and the Minister, with much the same gesture that his colleague had used the day before, mo­tioned to me to watch how this applicant was treated.

 


Standing before the desk was a young man who, in every conceivable way, contrast­ed totally with the young woman who had just been so unaccountably sent packing.  He was carelessly dressed, slouched rather than stood, and seemed bewildered by his surroundings, as though a university were entirely terra incognita to him.  Well, I thought, they shan't waste too much time on him.

 

Even before the young man started to speak, the Admissions Officer's manner changed completely.  He put down his pencil and visibly gave the applicant his complete attention.  "How may I help you?" he asked solicitously, his voice friendly and inviting.

 

"I wanna go to school here," the young man said, in a manner both belligerent and insecure.  "I don't have no high school diploma.  I flunked out of 12th grade."

 

"Can you read?" the Admissions officer asked.

 

"Sure I can.  Not books and stuff like that, but I can read the sports pages well enough to know which team's ahead."

 

"And how about writing.  Have you ever written an essay of, say, three pages in length?"

 

The young man looked about suspiciously.  "Say, what's the idea of the Third De­gree?  I just said I wanted to go to school here.  I didn't say I wanted to be one of the teach­ers."

 

"Of course, of course," the Admissions Officer answered in a tone intended to calm the young man's anxieties.  "We quite well understand.  Would you wait just one moment?"

 

With that, he picked up the phone and said a few words too softly for the young man, or me, to hear.  Almost at once, a door at the rear of the reception room opened, and a group of distinguished‑looking men and women entered, wearing full academic regalia, as though on their way to a Commencement.  They gathered around the young man, took him gently in tow, and led him off through the rear door.

 


"What is going on?" I asked the Minister, who throughout these events had been tee­tering back and forth on his heels, hands in pockets, with a broad smile across his face.  "Were those senior members of the faculty?  What are they doing here in the Admissions Office?  Where are they taking that young man?  And why on earth was that extraordinary young woman denied admission to your university?"

 

The Minister was somewhat taken aback by this rush of questions, but he motioned me to a chair, and undertook to explain what I had just witnessed.  He sat down in a chair opposite me and gave a tug at his vest, as though to settle himself for a lengthy discourse. 

 

"Let us take your questions in reverse order," he began, "inasmuch as the young lady's case was dealt with before that of the young man.  The young lady was denied admis­sion to our university because she is highly intelligent, superbly well‑trained, already quite accomplished, and powerfully motivated to continue her studies."

 

At about this time, I began to wonder whether the Invertians really were speaking English.  It certainly sounded as though they were speaking English.  But perhaps, I thought, this is some curious dialect, derivative from English, in which certain of the key logical con­nectives have had their meaning reversed.  Could this be an obscure linguistic rebellion against their former colonial rulers?  The problem here was with the Minister's use of the word "because."  The young lady had been denied admission to the university because she was intelligent, accomplished, and highly motivated.  Did "because" in Invertian mean "in spite of?"  Did "denied admission" perhaps mean "granted admission?"  Or were the old sailor's yarns true about everything at the antipodes standing on its head.  I decided to try a bit of dialectical give‑and‑take in an effort to get my bearings.

 

"You denied her admission because she is intelligent, accomplished, and highly moti­vated.  But surely she is an absolutely certainty to do well at university.  I would imagine the probability that she will graduate, indeed graduate with honors, is just about 100%."

 


"I'm glad you saw that," he replied, apparently pleased that I was catching on.  "I thought perhaps, this being a somewhat unfamiliar setting, that you might not have recog­nized it as soon as we who are more practiced at the ins and outs of admissions.  I was half‑sure before she even opened her mouth, and as soon as she said she had published original papers in Mathematical Physics, I knew there was no point in letting her in."

 

"But think how much she can profit from a university education," I protested, feeling as I did so that I was rapidly losing my grip on reality.  "With her background and prepara­tion, a university education will bring her to the very pitch of intellectual perfection.  By the time she leaves, she will be virtually at the same level as your most senior faculty.  And think what a delight it would be to them to have such a student in their courses.  Why, they could present the very latest results of their own research for her consideration and cri­tique, instead of plodding through the elements of basic Physics and Mathematics."

 

"Well," the Minister answered, "you have just made the case for rejecting her ‑ as good a case as I could have made myself.  That young woman is already so well developed intellectually that she does not need what a university can offer.  With or without our uni­versity resources, she will do well in life.  Indeed, she is already capable of securing a posi­tion in one of our nuclear power plants, and with a bit of on‑the‑job training, she will be a productive and successful member of society.  To spend our scarce education funds on her would be wasteful and inefficient."

"And that young man," I said, rather more belligerently than I intended, for I was growing very frustrated indeed.  "You have admitted him to the university despite the fact that he can barely read and write.  Judging from that flock of professors who shepherded him out of here, he will be getting the most expensive education Invertia has to offer.  Yet I will bet my airfare home that he won't make it through four years of university education.  Everything is against him!  He needs remedial reading, remedial writing, no doubt remedial math as well.  Out of every hundred such students you admit, you probably won't see more than fifteen of them on Commencement Day."

 


"Oh, I agree with everything you say," the Minister replied.  "But what would you have us do?  You saw him when he entered.  Educationally speaking, if I may put it this way, he was in extremis when he walked in. If we had turned him away, I am absolutely confident that he would have died intellectually before too long.  At this very moment, our team of professors is working with him, starting the painful, difficult process of developing his intellect, challenging his mind, helping him through the shame and self‑doubt of semi‑literacy.  As you say, we lose quite a few young men and women like him, but we save quite a few too.  Imagine the thrill we all feel when one of those young people, whose mind had all but ceased to function, begins to read, to write, to think, to argue, to question a world that has, until then, been closed to him or her."

 

I have to admit that I was beginning to feel just a trifle less sure of myself, but I de­cided to press on nevertheless. 

 

"Look," I said, trying hard to find some common ground on which the Minister and I could achieve a meeting of the minds.  "Your motives are no doubt admirable.  I sympathize entirely with what you are trying to accomplish.  But how on earth can you use a university faculty to do the most basic remedial education?  Where do you find students able to take your advanced courses in literature, philosophy, physics, or chemistry?  How can students like that young man even begin to handle the sophisticated intellectual materials presented in advanced seminars?"

 


"Our faculty are capable of helping the educationally most wounded of our students ‑ if I may put it that way ‑ because we have for some time now been recruiting faculty spe­cifically for that purpose.  We require that professors in every department be trained in what I might call educational emergency procedures.  The handful of advanced courses we offer are quite adequately enrolled, but we take care to offer few enough of them so that there is no problem.  All our facilities are designed to serve the needs of the educationally disadvantaged.  We have even devised a system of icons to guide our poorer readers about in the library.

 

"As for the drop‑outs, of whom, as you suggest, there are many, you must not sup­pose that our efforts with them are wasted.  Not every student who enters our university completes a degree or goes on to advanced study, but even those who are with us for only a semester or two have clearly benefited from the experience.  Some who could barely read leave able, for the first time, really to enjoy a daily newspaper.  Others have acquired nu­merical skills that will earn them more challenging and rewarding jobs. Most, I think, ac­quire some sense, however incomplete, of the life of the mind.  And those with whom we completely fail ‑ whose minds die before we can save them ‑ well, they are the price we must pay for the chance to help so many others.

 

"We could restrict our university to that young lady and her sort.  There aren't many quite that promising, but Invertia has its share of gifted young men and women.  What would we accomplish, were we to do so?  Our population would consist of a small number of superbly educated people whose already magnificent talents and abilities had been brought to the pitch of perfection by an expensive and exclusive education, and a large population of inadequately educated men and women whose lives are stunted, whose per­spectives are narrowed, whose capacity for intelligent self‑government diminished, because we denied them admission to our university."

 

I was by now thoroughly confused.  I felt an overwhelming need to make sense out of the experiences of the past two days, to place my visits to the NICH and to the Invertian National University into some sort of coherent framework.  Somewhat desperately, I pro­posed a meeting at which the Ministers of Health and Education and I could talk informal­ly.  The Minister of Education immediately agreed, and assured me that it would be no trouble setting up such a meeting for the following day, which was to be my last in Invertia.  With that, we returned to my hotel, and he left me until the next afternoon.

 


On my last day in Invertia, I met as promised with the Minister of Health, the Minis­ter of Education, and members of their staffs.  We sat on the porch of my hotel, in the late summer sun, and talked for more than three hours. 

 

I spoke at length about my puzzlement and distress at what I had witnessed, both at NICH and at the university.  I told them I was appalled by the callous disregard of the man who had died in the ER of the hospital.  Invertians, I said, seemed to be friendly, sensitive, caring people, and yet the staff of the hospital exhibited no anger at what had happened.  I went on to talk about the mystifying events at the university, and confessed myself utterly unable to understand why the brilliant young student of Mathematical Physics had been summarily turned away while a barely literate young man, manifestly unready for universi­ty work, had been so solicitously received and admitted.

 

When I had finished, both Ministers sat quietly for a while, stunned, I think, by the vehemence of my remarks.  Finally, the Minister of Education made a gesture deferring to his colleague, and she began their reply.

 

She started with a question.

 

"Tell me," she said, "since you clearly find our Invertian medical policies so alien, how such things are managed in the United States.  Had we visited the Emergency Room of an American hospital, what would we have seen?"

 

" In the emergency room of any American hospital, "I replied, “the response to that desperately ill man who staggered into the ER of the NICH would be the same.  He would be given immediate emergency medical attention, and every effort would be made to keep him alive. Specialists would be called to the ER;  if necessary the patient would be hurried into an operating room;  the entire medical team ‑ specialists, residents, interns, nurses, technicians ‑ would work together to arrest the heart attack, stabilize the patient, and give him the best possible chance for survival. 

 


"If, at the same time, a healthy young man were to present himself with a pimple and ask for treatment, he would be told to wait until someone could see him.  In all likelihood, he would be sent packing with a warning not to waste the time of the ER with cosmetic problems and some sardonic advice about over‑the‑counter skin creams.  Were the doctors in the ER actually to examine him, they would quickly conclude that he was not in need of medical care, and he would be advised to go home.

 

"And how do these meticulously cared‑for patients fare?" the Minister of Health asked me.  "Do they all recover and go on to lead long healthy productive lives?"

 

"Of course not," I replied.  "Many of them die despite the best efforts of the hospital, and even those who do recover are required to follow a careful regimen of diet, exercise, and periodic check‑ups.  The point is that the American medical profession considers its job to be the saving and prolonging of life, not the cosmetic improvement of those who already enjoy excellent health." 

 

"And your educational system?" the Minister of Education asked, breaking into the discussion.  "Does it operate on these same principles?  Are the neediest attended to first, as in our Invertian university?  I was, I confess, very puzzled by your reaction to our admis­sions procedures, in light of the reports I had heard of your concern about the operation of our National Hospital."   At this point, I became aware of a certain uneasiness.  In retrospect, I realized it had been growing in a corner of my mind since my visit to the university the previous day, and my conversation there with the Minister of Education.  As I answered his question about the American higher educational system, I began to feel more and more that there was some sort of incompatibility between my reactions on the first and second days of my visit.  But all of this, as I say, became clear to me only in retrospect.  When the Minister asked me about American higher education, I plunged into my reply with great self‑confidence.

 


"To begin," I said, "I must explain that higher education in the United States is not under the unified control of the central government, as it is in so many European, Asian, and African nations, and as it appears to be here in Invertia.  There are, taking all in all, almost four  thousand institutions of higher education in America, including private universities and liberal arts colleges, state universities and colleges, community colleges, junior colleges, and so forth.  These institutions vary dramatically in size, in quality, in cost, in level of funding, and in mission.  Some are vocationally oriented; some were founded, and are still run, by religious sects;  some are devoted as much to research as to teaching; and others are entirely teaching institutions.

 

"The very best colleges and universities have many times as many applicants as they have room for.  Their admissions policies are highly selective; such institutions spend hun­dreds of thousands of dollars a year processing applications, interviewing applicants, and making sure that they select the most qualified young men and women who wish to enter.  But there are also a considerable number of colleges that have trouble filling their class­rooms, and they, despite their best efforts to be selective, may be forced to admit students who are not a great deal more qualified than the young man we saw yesterday. 

 

"The system has serious defects, needless to say ‑ defects of which I am a harsh critic. Nevertheless, I really think it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of professors, admissions personnel, and academic administrators genuinely seek to select, for their insti­tutions, applicants who are well‑prepared for higher education and capable of benefiting from the faculty assembled there. 

 

"Every one of those colleges and universities would be simply delighted to receive an application from that young woman whom your university rejected.  Indeed, if you will give me her name and address, I think I can guarantee to ar­range a full scholarship for her at any one of scores of outstanding institutions in the United States."

 


"So," said the Minister of Education, not as impressed as I might have hoped by this rather effulgent speech, "your answer is, no.  The American university system does not op­erate on the same principles as does our Invertian system.  If I may venture an observation, it would appear that you run your universities in just about exactly the manner that the Minister of Health here runs our hospitals."

 

"What on earth are you talking about?" I said, astonished by his remark, and stung by it as well.  "With all due respect to the Minister, who is, I recognize, a dedicated public  servant, your hospitals do cosmetic surgery on fundamentally healthy young men and wom­en while allowing heart attack victims to die on the floor of the Emergency Room.  What possible connection is there between that bizarre distortion of medical values and the way in which the American system of higher education operates?"

 

"Well," the Minister replied, in a patient, measured tone, as though explaining things to a child, "our medical system selects only the healthiest patients, on the basis of the prob­ability that they will respond positively to treatment and leave our hospital as close to phys­ical perfection as nature and medical science combined can make them.  We reject patients who are too sick, too weak, whose general physical condition is too poor, to make them promising candidates for treatment."

 


"Your university system selects students, by your own account, in exactly the same manner.  The closer a student is to being in perfect educational health, if I may speak in that fashion, the more eagerly your colleges and universities compete to enroll that student in their entering class.  You yourself told us that the young Invertian woman with the ex­traordinary preparation in theoretical physics and the arts could, without difficulty, secure a scholarship at any of your very best colleges or universities.  The young man we saw yester­day, on the other hand, was, educationally speaking, the equivalent of the heart attack vic­tim at the hospital.  He was desperately in need of immediate educational help if his mind was to have the slightest chance to survive.  So our most senior professors rushed to his side, and took him into the university, where they are already beginning the long process of remediation and development from which he may, I say may, emerge a reasonably well‑educated, independent, literate, thoughtful citizen.  Your colleges and universities, if I un­derstand you correctly, would shrink from such an applicant, admitting him only if forced to by a shortage of, as you put it, 'better qualified' candidates.

 

"Your colleges and universities are engaged, educationally speaking, in the removal of pimples from the faces of intellectually beautiful young people.  The only visible differ­ence between those young men and women on their first and last days of college, I would imagine, is a slightly higher sheen, a bit more of a glow of perfection.  Judging by what I have read of your most distinguished universities ‑ for, you see, we here in Invertia are aware of the rest of the world ‑ many of the young people who enter those ivied walls are so far advanced in their study of science, the arts, or society that they are better thought of as junior colleagues than as students.

 

"Is it not the proudest boast of such institutions that virtually all who enter their Freshman classes graduate with distinguished records, and go on to achieve great success in later years?  How does that differ from my colleague's claim that the Invertian medical sys­tem has produced a small but select cadre of beautiful people who are free of every blem­ish and in perfect physical health?  You are disturbed that this island of perfection is pur­chased at the price of a sea of physical neglect.  Your educational system accomplishes the very same result.  Your Harvards and Yales and Amhersts graduate perfect educational Adonises and Venuses, while all about them the minds of countless men and women are dying for lack of educational care."

 


 "You cannot expect Princeton or Chicago to admit students who cannot properly read or write," I protested.  "That is not their function.  They do not have the resources for the enormous task of remediation such an admissions policy would impose on them.  To set scholars of Renaissance poetry or Quantum Physics the task of teaching remedial writing or math would be an unconscionable waste of the extraordinary talent gathered in those cen­ters of learning.  Their job is to take the most promising, the brightest, the most talented young people in America, regardless of race, creed, gender, or national origin, and bring them to a pitch of intellectual excellence at which they will be able to extend the scholar­ship, the exploration of nature, the cherishing and elaboration of the arts beyond what previous generations have achieved."

 

"As for the absence, at your best institutions, of appropriate resources for remedia­tion," the Minister responded, "that is precisely, as I understand it, the point made by my colleague here with regard to the NICH.  The medical policies of Invertia being what they are, the NICH has over the years built up a world‑class cosmetic surgery department, while neglecting its coronary, oncology, and trauma departments.  Naturally, the NICH is not now well‑suited to treat heart attack victims.  If the policy were to be changed, it would no doubt take some time and even a good deal of money to convert the NICH into something resem­bling your Massachusetts General Hospital. 

 

"In exactly the same way, Harvard, having for more than a century labored hard to make itself the very model of a modern German university, would be ill‑prepared indeed to deal with an influx of genuinely needy students whose lack of skills and preparation de­mand immediate, high‑quality remediation.  No doubt, it would cost Harvard some time, and some money, to retool.  But just as you seem unwilling to accept such considerations as an excuse for allowing that poor man to die in the ER, so, in all consistency, you can hardly accept the existing structure of your institutions of higher education as an excuse for allow­ing potential students like that young man in our admissions office yesterday to die, educa­tionally speaking, outside the walls of your most distinguished colleges and universities."

 


"You are completely ignoring the enormous social benefits that flow from the grad­uates of our very best colleges and universities," I argued.  "It doesn't do Invertia as a whole any particular good to remove pimples from the faces of otherwise beautiful young people.  But that young woman, were she to receive the benefits of an advanced university educa­tion, could do more than merely hold down a job.  She might make discoveries that would lift all of Invertian society to a new height of material or intellectual well‑being."

 

"Let me consider the supposed benefits of a system of education designed to serve the least needy, or, as you would prefer to put it, the best prepared, applicants," the Minis­ter responded.  "Despite what I believe to be a vast exaggeration of the effects of elite uni­versity education on students who are already superbly well‑prepared, I am quite willing to grant that lavishing the most expensive resources on those who need them least results in some significant benefits that might otherwise fail to materialize.  But that hardly settles the question, for we must still ask, as your economists like to do, what the opportunity costs are of that educational policy.  What is foregone, what is lost, when scarce resources are con­centrated on the least needy, rather than being allocated to the neediest?

 

"Are you quite prepared to insist that the total well‑being of American society would diminish if some portion of the wealth devoted to the education of the best‑prepared stu­dents were redirected into programs for remedial help to the educationally neediest?  If the students gathered at Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, or Chicago were forced to attend the Univer­sity of Massachusetts, Dade County Community College, or Chico State, would the social loss thereby inflicted on American really be greater than the benefit resulting from bringing along to a higher level of educational accomplishment all those young men and women who are now simply excluded from the entire higher educational system?

 


"Perhaps you will say yes.  I don't know.  But has the thought ever crossed your mind?  Has it even occurred to the educational establishment in America to attempt a seri­ous confrontation with the question?  Would the president of Harvard consider such a question even relevant to his effort to actualize the biblical injunction that to those that hath shall it be given?"

 

"This is simply pointless," I burst out.  "You seem to have an answer ready to hand for every objection I raise.  Let us stop arguing.  You have been more than patient with a newcomer to your land, and this is, after all, my vacation!  Yet there is one final question I must ask."

 

"By all means," the Minister of Education replied, not at all put out by my excitable temperament.

 

"I will not quarrel with your educational policy," I said, " for all that it contradicts everything to which I have devoted my adult life.  But surely you can see, can you not, that there is an extraordinary difference between Invertia's method of allocating its educational budget and its method of allocating its medical budget. In the one case, you treat the healthiest and let the neediest fall by the wayside.  In the other, you lavish attention on the neediest, and force the ablest, best prepared to take whatever is left over.  And yet neither you, nor your colleague here, seems to feel the least sense of inconsistency, to experience the slightest mental cramp at this manifest contradiction.  How on earth do you explain this strange Invertian insensitivity?"

 


"Ah," the Minister responded with a smile, "that is a question you are as well equipped to answer as I, for in your country, exactly the same contradiction exists, for all that the incompatible policies are reversed.  If you can explain why, in five decades of university teaching, you have never felt the slightest discomfort at your country's settled practice of devoting lavish resources to the education of those least in need of them, while at the same time taking it for granted that your country's medical resources should be con­centrated on saving the lives of your least healthy fellow Americans, then perhaps you will be able to understand how we here in Invertia can live comfortably with the selfsame irra­tionality."

 

And with that, he and his colleague rose, shook my hand, and departed, leaving me, as you will imagine, sorely troubled.

 

In the first few hours after this last conversation, I began to think that our way of doing things in the United States was as utterly mad as the Invertian way.  I even spent some restless hours that night framing proposals for the reform of American higher educa­tion.

 

But the next day was bright and sunny, and I was eager to return home. I paid my hotel bill, thanked the man in the Travel Bureau for his help, and began the long trip home.  The closer the airplane brought me to the coast of North America, the less reasonable my feverish schemes for reform appeared to me, and the more I recovered my old sense of the essential rightness of the American way.  By the time I had landed at Logan Airport in Bos­ton, there to be greeted by my wife, I had entirely regained my senses, and was ready to treat my Invertian vacation as nothing more than a good story.

 

Which, I hope you will agree, I have done.