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Wesleyan (4) – Real-World Learning

(Continued from College (3) – Paris)

During our spring semester in Paris in 1961, the Algerian war of independence  had been in its final stages.  We American students mostly kept our noses in our books.  Still, it was impossible not to become aware of the great agitation in the city and the country.  On many nights one heard the ‘boom’ of explosions in one or another part of town.  Some said it was the FLN (the Front de Libération Nationale of Algeria); others said it was the right-wing colonels and pieds-noirs (French colonial residents of Algeria).  Now and then, police with automatic weapons ringed a building, and sirens intruded on the drone of our teachers in the lecture halls.  We stood by on the Boul-Mich as columns of French students marched along shouting anti-war slogans, and we ducked into a side street when police opened up on the marchers with water cannons.

Reading the French press was part of our required study.  By this time, we knew enough French to read Le Monde Diplomatique, and the more ambitious among us tackled Le Canard Enchainé, full of slang and inside jokes. In the lingo of the day, our consciousness was raised.  We had glimpses of another perspective on world affairs. We became aware of a widespread anti-colonialist movement. We heard about the battle of Dien Bien Phu, seven years earlier, as an inspiring victory.  The revolution in Cuba, very fresh and new then, excited young people all over Europe.  We heard the name Mao Tse-Tung and the theory of people’s war.  We became aware, if we had not been before, of the American war in Vietnam, and of the civil rights movement in our own country.  At the time, much of this was just another interesting and colorful aspect of the Paris kaleidoscope, left behind as soon as our Icelandic Airlines turboprop lifted off the tarmac at Orly, but some of it stuck with me.

If memory serves, the first demonstration I walked on was an anti-nuclear protest on the main street in Middletown, organized, I believe, by the Quakers.  In those days, the two nuclear superpowers aimed enough ordnance at one another to create Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  It felt a bit intimidating but also liberating to be walking on the street with a sign.  There might have been ten of us in the event.  Afterward I felt that we had made a good statement of conscience but we had no leverage for change on this issue, and I didn’t repeat.

One of many Jim Crow signs

At some time in my junior year (1961-62), a speaker came to the John Wesley Club to announce the formation of the Northern Student Movement (NSM) and to ask for help organizing a sit-in in the Washington D.C. area.  The speaker may have been NSM founder Peter Countryman, but I don’t positively remember.  At this time, the U.S. was facing worldwide embarrassment and condemnation because the diplomatic representatives of newly independent countries of Africa, stationed in the nation’s capital, faced discrimination under the Jim Crow laws of the Southern states.  Restaurants would not serve them, hotels would not admit them.  The American proclamations of liberty to the rest of the world rang hollow and hypocritical.

I volunteered, along with several other Wesleyan students.  We carpooled first to nearby New Haven where other students joined us.  We stayed at someone’s professorial-looking house near the Yale campus.  Then came a long drive south to the campus of Howard University in the capital.  In a chapel there we heard background lectures on civil rights from African-American and white speakers.  We were instructed in nonviolence, and we play-acted possible provocative situations and how to handle them.  We northern white students learned to sing We Shall Overcome and other civil rights anthems; the Howard students knew them already.

The next morning we were organized in teams, two black students with two white students, and were given a territory to integrate.  Our team went to Glen Burnie, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, about 35 miles northeast of D.C., near the airport, where some of the recent diplomatic embarrassments had occurred. We entered a Woolworth’s lunch counter and sat down.  A waitress came over and told us we would not be served.  We waited for a quarter of an hour and moved on to the next place, a diner.  There, we were served coffee with salt in it.  We made notes and moved to the next.  They saw us coming and locked the door.

We joined another team and the eight of us set up a circular picket line in front of the movie theater, where blacks had to enter from the side and sit in the balcony.  By this time, word was getting around.  White men in suits and ties, and others in jeans and coveralls, began to form a ring around us.  One and then two sheriff’s cars arrived.  The officers got out, leaned against the fenders, and watched.  Dixie flags appeared.  Someone threw Lincoln pennies on the ground in front of us.  The word “copperheads!” flew, with spit and cigar butts.  The crowd grew thicker and uglier.  I started to measure my life expectancy in minutes.

Just then, a dark cloud that had been forming in the sky opened up.  Rain poured down in buckets.  The mob were fair-weather bullies.  They pulled their jackets over their heads and scattered.  Needless to say, so did we.   I thought for a moment maybe there was a God.

This experience vividly illustrated and brought home to me some of the things I had only learned from books.  It was an educational privilege to be able to participate in these actions.  This was the best kind of learning:  getting to understand reality by biting into it and taking risks to change it.  We had heard about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which said that you cannot know reality because by observing it you change it.  We now understood that the converse was also true:  you cannot obtain a true observation of reality unless and until you intervene to change it.

My mother had meanwhile left Kansas City and taken a job as recruiter for a small college in Missouri.  She was assigned the Illinois-Wisconsin territory, where she traveled to high schools on college days and talked to graduating seniors about the school she represented.  She had bought a house in Fontana, in southeastern Wisconsin, on the edge of Lake Geneva.

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I worked on Lake Geneva as a lineman on the tourist boats that circled the lake.  My job at each stop was to step off the boat as it came in to the dock, cinch a rope to an iron cleat, move the gangplank into position, help the passengers on and off, and then stow the gangplank, release the rope, and step back on the boat as it took off.

On rainy days there was usually work at the boatyard of the Wrigley family, the chewing gum people and owners of the Chicago Cubs.  Working kids could get a few dollars scraping crud and sanding old red paint off the hull of the splendid Wrigley Cigarette speedboat.  The Wrigleys were among the last holdouts of the glittering Chicago society set whose extravagant mansions, by then mostly abandoned, ringed the northern and eastern end of the lake.

Two summers later, needing more serious money, I found a job at the Admiral TV plant in Harvard, Illinois.  This was only 10 miles away, across the state line.  I worked the swing shift, which meant the temperature in the plant was tolerable.  It was my first introduction to assembly-line production.  The place was loud with the whine of air tools, and chaotic.  Overhead trolley belts carried dangling cathode ray tubes, and from time to time there would be a snag and they would drop to the cement and implode, sending all nearby ducking for cover.  The chassis line sometimes moved smoothly, at other times backed up, causing chassis to mount one another like dogs in heat, and come clattering to the floor.  Control over workers, however, was airtight. I had to go to the tool crib at the far end of the plant and sign a paper each night to obtain a simple pair of needle-nose pliers for pulling staples out of cartons.  My job was to unbox wooden TV cabinets sent by suppliers, inspect them, and if they were good, put them on the line; otherwise write them up and set them aside.  One night my foreman told me to find something wrong and reject every cabinet that came in.  These were the largest, heaviest models for top-of-the-line TV-hifi console sets.  I did as instructed.  Production of that model came to a halt, and I was patted on the back.  Later in the summer I read in the company newsletter that the supplier of that model of cabinet had had financial difficulties and Admiral had bought them out.  Aha, I thought; so that’s how the game is played.

I wrote my senior honors thesis on the evolution of Bertolt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo.  The Bertolt-Brecht Archive in (then) East Berlin, in answer to my request, kindly sent me a photocopy of Brecht’s handwritten original draft of the play, done in 1938, with permission to cite from it in my study.  This draft was then unseen in the West, so that I had a scholarly scoop.  Quite apart from that, I found Brecht’s Galileo captivating.  This Galileo is a sensualist, even hedonist, but his sensuality is not separate from and opposed to his scientific work.  On the contrary, his passion for scientific discovery is part and parcel of his sensualism.  He lusts for knowledge; a new planet is as delicious as a ripe fig.  He delights in — he craves — the joy of truth.  This is his strength, but also his weakness.  It’s a classical tragedy.  I’ve posted a PDF copy of my thesis here.

Me at Wesleyan 1963

My Wesleyan BA

I was a hardworking young scholar, well on my way toward the B.A. with High Honors in General Scholarship and High Distinction in Letters with election to Phi Beta Kappa that came at the end, but I was not a monk.  I spent every available weekend visiting the womens’ colleges, pursuing the delights for which the initiation with my German Rose had whetted my appetite.  In those dark days Wesleyan and the other “small ivies” (Williams, Amherst) were all men, and schools like Wellesley, Smith and Mt. Holyoke were all women, so that one had to travel.  The favorite among my College of Letters friends was without question Bennington College in Vermont, then a women-only school at the undergraduate level.  It was a long drive but we took it whenever possible.  The Bennington women were not shopping for husbands, as often seemed to be the case at the women’s ivy schools.  They were there for the education, and so were we, and we spent many delightful hours educating one another.

I do not mean this entirely in jest.  Sex, like literature, is a form of cognition; it is a way of getting to know one another.  The Biblical phrase, to have knowledge of a woman, gets it right.  Of course, sex is knowledge of the flesh, but it’s much more.  Through sex one may get to know, sometimes very quickly, the entire makeup of a person, the expanse of their mind and the recesses of their soul.  Through sex, you can not only relieve temporary stresses and feel good for the moment. You can sometimes help a person to change in deep ways, and you can be changed yourself.  Sex is also a body of knowledge in its own right, about which I was deplorably ignorant, and I would be ungrateful if I failed to thank, at least anonymously, the women who over the years expanded my horizons beyond the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’m model and introduced me to sex as an erotic way of knowing and being.  They taught me to take time and linger, to try different things, to abandon myself, to be honest, always to get consent, to be generous, to use protection, to avoid routine, not to worry if something went wrong, and to accept that there were times for sex and times for no sex.

My career goal at that time was to become a college teacher, and with that in mind, I applied for and won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, a grant for graduate study for prospective professors.  I chose Brandeis University’s graduate department in the History of Ideas because its head at that time was Herbert Marcuse.  Marcuse was one of the many major intellects who would have been bright stars in the culture of his native Germany but for the rise of Nazism, and so Germany’s loss became America’s gain.  I had read and been deeply impressed by Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution (1941), a study of the connections between the German idealist philosopher G.W. Hegel and the “dialectical materialism” of Karl Marx.  I had read the first volume of Hegel’s great Logic in German, and of course I had read a bit of Marx by then, and this was an area of great intellectual interest to me.

But first, there was a much more direct, concrete, and vivid opportunity for the pursuit of this interest.  We had caught some of the excitement of the 1959 Cuban revolution during the semester in Paris, and the American press was full of it.  Then, in February 1963, the U.S. government imposed a ban on travel to and commerce with Cuba.  The ban erected a wall of prohibition between the U.S. and the island.  So, of course, I had to go.

(Continued: Cuba)

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