Return to My Life

Wesleyan (2) – Teachers

(Continued from College (1) – The Rush)

With the pressing social and cultural issues resolved, I was finally freed to concentrate on academics.  The freshman curriculum was heavy on the humanities:  Great Books and Western Civilization and Psychology, French, and Phys Ed.  It might have been a dreary slog through musty tomes, but we were in the hands of some original and provocative teachers.

Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur, then almost a young man, later the eminent poet, taught us reading.  He was a chainsmoker in a day when you could smoke anywhere, and often our attention in class was mesmerized by the lengthening ash on the cigarette he held motionless in one hand, while he free-associated about a book passage in a soft, dreamy, tentative monologue.  He had an exquisite sensitivity to the nuances of language, and taught us to slow down, read with open minds, and let our feelings be moved like leaves in the wind by the many layers of meaning in a well-crafted  phrase.

Norman O. Brown

Western Civilization was in the hands of Norman O. Brown.  He was a mainline classicist who knew his Greeks and Romans and everything important that derived from them, but he had just published Life Against Death, the Psychoanalytic Meaning of History, a book that threw traditional classicism out the window.  Although “Nobby,” as he was known, tried to keep the class on the conventional track, many of us students were much more fascinated by the provocative theses in his book and repeatedly derailed the class discussion into the psychoanalytical realm.  One of my classmates and friends, Richie Koenigsberg, wrote and published a summary of the book, similar to a Cliff’s Notes, and sold it for two dollars at the campus bookstore.  Nobby was also a presence in my upper division years at Wesleyan, and I eventually had an argument with him that broke his influence over me, [ref]We could not agree on the issue, why did primitive man live in caves?  (a) to return to the womb, or (b) to get out of the rain.[/ref]  but it was a priceless privilege to study with this fearless thinker and stimulating teacher.

We got our introduction to psychology from Stanley Coopersmith, who later became a leading authority on self-esteem and adolescent development.  Coopersmith was a big believer in learning through experience and demonstration, rather than lecture.  Early in the semester, he led us on a field trip to Maine to live on an island with Penobscot Indians to learn about the birth and destruction of cultures.

Stanley Coopersmith

To demonstrate the workings and limits of lie detectors, “Coop” took my friend Richie and me aside into his office before class one day, gave me a one-hole paper punch, and had me try to trim the nails of a lab rat with this inappropriate instrument.  His theory was that my discomfort with the rat, its struggles in my hand, and my failure to complete the assignment would cause me an emotional upset that would later show in the detector.  However, I wasn’t afraid of rats and managed to trim at least one of its long nails without blood.  At the polygraph  demonstration in class later,  it was Richie who demonstrated the larger emotional spike in response to questions about the office incident.  Oh well, Coop declared, this just proves the limits of the technology.  After class, Richie showed me a fancy ballpoint pen he had stolen from Coop’s office desk; hence his emotional spike.  The incident taught me to be skeptical and look behind the scenes of laboratory experiments — a valuable scientific lesson.

The topic of alcoholism came up in Coop’s class in the section on “deviance.”  I went to the library and found a shelf of journals on alcoholism from nearby Yale.  I leafed through it, sampling here and there, picking up main ideas and random points, without ever becoming conscious that the topic had some personal relevance for me.

Not on my all-star list of teachers was the young woman who taught advanced French.  I had taken French in high school and was ready for French at this level.  But the class was at an ungodly early hour of the day, the instructor was boring, and my attendance was spotty.  I deserved the “F” she gave me for the second semester.  This grade — the first  of its kind in my school career — woke me up, and I did better thereafter.

One thing I am not proud of in my Wesleyan career was the streak of larceny I developed in my freshman year.  I discovered that some of my friends were shoplifting books from the campus bookstore, and after a very brief struggle with my conscience, and seeing how easy it was, I joined in.  One of my friends took it to an extreme; he had two tall shelves of books in his room, none of which he had paid for or would likely ever read.  I kept my thievery on a more modest scale, stealing only books I actually intended to read, like a hunter killing only what he intended to eat.  Still, it was wrong, and before I die I should send the college a check.

After my freshman year, I enrolled in Wesleyan’s College of Letters.  This was an independent study program on the English model.  For the next three years there would be no assigned classes, no quizzes, and no grades.  There would be a series of seminars and colloquia, ready access to selected faculty, a thesis and a monster comprehensive exam at the end, all focused on Western literature (“Letters”).  There was a similar program in the political sciences, but it was populated by chubby preppy types who wore ties and blazers and sat around in leather chairs on Oriental carpets listening to Wagner operas.  In the College of Letters we wore jeans with t-shirts or blue work shirts bought for $2.37 at the local Navy surplus store, and we lay on a beige carpet listening to Glenn Gould or Wanda Landowska playing Bach.

I loved the College of Letters and thrived in it.  I spent hours in the library reading voraciously on all kinds of things, including a bit of Western literature now and then.  I read Freud and Reich and Jung and Marx and Lenin and DuBois and lots of others I’ve forgotten.  What a gift, to be in a good library and to have the time to let the mind wander wherever it wanted to go!   After hours, we might take a trip to Friendly’s for a patty melt and a milkshake, then stay up all night reading and arguing, troop down to the town at 6 a.m. for breakfast when the diner at the end of Main Street opened, and then to our rooms to bed.

Norman Rudich

Another gift was the job I landed, reading out loud to Prof. Norman Rudich.   Rudich was legally blind.  He could tell light and dark sufficiently to navigate the campus on foot, and could make out a printed word by holding the page within an inch or so of his eye.  I was a useful reader for him because I had good speed and diction in English and could also read German fluently and French tolerably.  Rudich was an avowed Marxist.  What this meant, as far as I could tell from my work for him, was that he believed that literature was a way of getting to know the world (a form of cognition or gnosis).  Having formed a large part of my picture of reality by reading novels and viewing films, I thought (and still think) that this is obviously true.  Rudich had me read a great deal of academic Marxist writing in German, and generously answered my questions.  In his College of Letters seminars, Rudich introduced our class to the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment: Diderot, d’Holbach, Montesquieu, Voltaire and others, who were a major fount of inspiration for the founders of the American republic.

Hannah Arendt

In my senior year I had the honor of being invited into a seminar at the Wesleyan Honors College led by visiting scholar Hannah Arendt.  Arendt was then well established for her Origins of Totalitarianism and had recently published The Human Condition.  What remains in my mind from this encounter is not any particular political or philosophical lesson, but an insight into the nature of serious writing.  She told us that she and her husband, in writing Totalitarianism, had held a day job, slept a few hours, got up in the middle of the night, worked on the book till almost dawn, slept a couple more hours, and then went to the day job; and kept this up for many months.  She said that on the average it took seven drafts before a text was ready for publication.

Arendt was also personally generous to me.  Learning of my family’s anti-Nazi history, she organized a small monetary grant for me from a private foundation, which allowed me to spend the summer after graduation without working.

On reviewing my paperwork from this period, I see that apparently I won the “Wilbur Snow Trophy for Intramural Debate,” the “Wise Prize for Best Essay in Ethics,” and the “Parker Prize for Excellence in Public Speaking,” and that I worked on WESU, the Wesleyan radio station, and was an associate editor of the campus literary magazine, but (apart from some flashes from the WESU studio) I have no memory of these experiences.

Beginning with the sophomore year, I lived in the John Wesley Club, a university-owned dormitory for upperclassmen.  My roommates at different times included  John Coatsworth, later the distinguished Latin America scholar and dean at Harvard and Columbia, and E.C. Smith, later the author of a series of enormously popular home gardening books.  Among my housemates and friends were Robert Grant, the classical violinist who was one of the two African-American students in my class; and Richie Koenigsberg, who continued in the Norman Brown tradition as a psychoanalyst of history.  The orientation speaker my freshman year was quite right; there were no “practicing homosexuals” in the house, at least to my knowledge.  There was a gay subculture in some of the fraternities, but I only knew of it from gossip.

(Continued in College (3) Paris)

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