The things people do with their lives: One week back, in the Sunday New York Times, James Atlas mentioned a college classmate of ours—a classmate who didn’t think much of his Harvard so-called education.
If memory serves, we didn’t know this classmate from the street-fighting Class of 69. That said, we definitely recognized his complaint:
ATLAS (3/24/13): Lately I've been hearing about a new trend—think of it as extreme adult education. I get a call out of the blue from a college friend whom I haven't heard from in more than 40 years. Richard Hyland, now a distinguished professor at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, N.J., had been a radical at Harvard in the '60s, when the university was shut down twice by student protests against the war in Vietnam; now he's interviewing contemporaries for a book about those years.We’re not sure what Hyland expected to learn from Auden at such an early hour, but we're with him on the larger point. There is no doubt that the late 1960s were dominated by Vietnam, especially for folk who were draft eligible.
Richard arrived at Harvard in a state of excitement, thrilled by the courses listed in the catalog and the legendary professors who taught them. But the charged political atmosphere distracted him from his studies. ''I got no education,'' he recalled. ''My entire four years were unhappy, unfulfilling. No one ever talked about anything but Vietnam.'' Even breakfast with W. H. Auden ''got hijacked'' by an argument about politics: ''He thought the demonstrators were 'storm troopers.' ''
To what extent was Hyland a student radical? We have no idea; the characterization belongs to Atlas. That said, we were struck by Hyland's account of where his life went from there:
ATLAS (continuing directly): Over the years, as Richard made his way through law school, teaching at Rutgers, writing a 730-page book about, as he put it, ''how the law governs gift-giving in Western societies,'' his wasted college experience continued to fester: ''I had spent 40 years of intense hatred of Harvard'' (an ordeal not to be wished on anyone).For ourselves, we can’t imagine what kept Hyland (or anyone else) from getting an education in the past 44 years, unless it's the time spent writing a 730-page book about how the law governs gift-giving in Western societies. If that sounds snarky, we have an advantage; we have read Hyland’s account of his book’s general worthlessness in the book which was prepared at the time of our class’ fortieth reunion.
One day he pulled down from the shelf a copy of ''Identity and the Life Cycle,'' the classic work on the development of personality by Erik Erikson, who was a professor at Harvard. ''I read the first five pages,'' in which Erikson lays out the concept of identity, the interrelationship between society and the individual, ''and realized there must have been some great professors there.''
So he formulated a plan. He flew to Cambridge, Mass., photocopied old reading lists on file at the library, and embarked on the education he'd never had. A surprisingly large number of professors from that long-ago time were still alive, and he spent hours in their offices interviewing them. They were happy to talk.
Richard's do-over—predictably—hasn't turned out the way he expected. ''The problem was you couldn't get an education this way,'' he reported when I called up to see how he was doing. ''You have to write the papers, take the exams, meet with the instructors. You cannot do it by yourself.''
(Some people present accounts of what they've been doing. Other people don't.)
Like Hyland, we were struck by the general worthlessness of our undergraduate years, although a tiny percentage of that may have come from us. We didn’t know that reading lists from that era were available at the library. But we’ve long wished that we could see tapes of the lectures in our freshman philosophy class, the Problems in Philosophy—a course which may have been designed to make sure that no one majored in philosophy.
We eager freshmen may not have known what academic philosophy is like. If memory serves, we were introduced to six of philisophy’s greatest problems, only two of which we can recall, several of which inspired an obvious question:
Who are these “problems in philosophy” actually problems for?
One of the problems we tackled was this: How you do know that 7 plus 5 equals 12? For ourselves, Miss Cummings had told us in second grade. Many of the other students had similar stories to tell.
“No, no, students,” our teaching assistant scolded. "How do you know that 7 plus 5 equals 12?" Sensing that a different answer was being sought, we recall performing a clumsier version of what we would do today in this same circumstance:
Today, we’d change the question to “1 plus 1,” then explain how we know that that equals 2. But if memory serves, many youngsters became disenchanted during that long, amazingly boring first semester.
We’d love to see what those lectures were like, now that we are so much wiser and so much better prepared.
According to Atlas, Hyland wasn’t happy with his undergraduate schooling either. (Maybe if he had stopped shutting down classes, the flow of ideas woukd have made better sense!) Kidding aside, this was our question after reading the profile by Atlas: Did Rutgers know about this fractured personality when their professor was hired?
ATLAS (continuing directly): Last fall, he enrolled in a poetry course at Rutgers. His classmates were largely Asian, Indian, black. ''The discussions we had in that class were infinitely more interesting than any course I had at Harvard. I had a precise understanding of what I wanted to learn. No one had ever explained to me what poetry was about.''Geez! But did we note that that wasn’t a very good time to be eligible for the draft?
His book is coming along and he intends to complete it in time for his 50-year reunion, six years from now. ''The boy who wanted that education so badly couldn't get it, so I had to leave him behind,'' he says. ''I told myself, 'I've got to get married, have kids, lead a productive life.' The person getting an education now is that boy. I've waited 40 years. I remember saying to him when I left, 'You stay here. I'll come back for you.' '' And he did. (Never mind that the boy ended up at Rutgers instead of Harvard: it's probably good for his character.)
(We love it when Joy-Ann Reid expresses scorn on the One True Channel for those who didn’t serve in Nam! When she expresses this pet peeve to Chris Matthews, does she know that the Peace Corps, in which Matthews served, also served as a draft deferment?)
Where do you go to get your past back? Next weekend, we’ll pay tribute to the best-lived life we know about from that era, although there have surely been many others, including Hyland’s life, which he tends to denigrate. The life in question has been led by a woman, a lifelong friend, who managed to get herself kicked out of Harvard during those shutdown-the-campus protests.
She ended up in the Boston schools. Without inventing any Rhee-like stories about her own astonishing brilliance, she stayed there forty years! Next weekend, we'll tell you some of what we saw during some of those forty years.
As of two weeks ago, the New York Times still didn’t seem to have heard that students in the Boston schools are predominantly black and Hispanic now. Time passes slowly up there in the mountains where the nation's deeply important upper-class work is composed.