Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I just noticed...
that Judith Shklar's wonderful autobiographical essay, "A Life of Learning," is available online. I'd completely forgotten that Shklar spent her teen years in pre-Quiet Revolution Montreal, and that she attended McGill:

When my father was at last able to settle his financial affairs, we finally went to Montreal. It was not a city one could easily like. It was politically held together by an equilibrium of ethnic and religious resentments and distrust. And in retrospect, it is not surprising that this political edifice eventually collapsed with extraordinary speed. The girls’ school that I attended there for some three years was dreadful. In all that time I was taught as much Latin as one can pick up in less than a term at college. I also learned some geometry, and one English teacher taught us how to compose prĂ©cis, which is a very useful skill. The rest of the teachers just stood in front of us and read the textbook out loud. What I really learned was the meaning of boredom, and I learned that so well that I have never been bored since then. I report without comment that this was thought to be an excellent school. I dare say that there were better ones around, but I remain unconvinced by those who respond with vast nostalgia to the manifest inadequacies of high-school education today.

I do not look back fondly to my college days at McGill University either. That may have something to do with the then-prevailing entrance rules: 750 points for Jews and 600 for everyone else. Nor was it an intellectually exciting institution, but at least when I arrived there, just before my 17th birthday, I was lucky to be in the same class as many ex-servicemen, whose presence made for an unusually mature and serious student body. And compared to school it was heaven. Moreover, it all worked out surprisingly well for me. I met my future husband and was married at the end of my junior year, by far the smartest thing I ever did. And I found my vocation.

Originally I had planned to major in a mixture of philosophy and economics, the rigor of which attracted me instantly. But when I was required to take a course in money and banking it became absolutely obvious to me that I was not going to be a professional economist. Philosophy was, moreover, mainly taught by a dim gentleman who took to it because he had lost his religious faith. I have known many confused people since I encountered this poor man, but nobody quite as utterly unfit to teach Plato or Descartes. Fortunately for me I was also obliged to take a course in the history of political theory taught by an American, Frederick Watkins. After two weeks of listening to this truly gifted teacher I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. If there was any way of making sense of my experiences and that of my particular world, this was it.

Watkins was a remarkable man, as the many students whom he was to teach at Yale can testify. He was an exceptionally versatile and cultivated man and a more than talented teacher. He not only made the history of ideas fascinating in his lectures, but he also somehow conveyed the sense that nothing could be more important. I also found him very reassuring. For in many ways, direct and indirect, he let me know that the things I had been brought up to care for, classical music, pictures, literature, were indeed worthwhile, and not my personal eccentricities. His example, more than anything overtly said, gave me a great deal of self-confidence, and I would have remembered him gratefully, even if he had not encouraged me to go on to graduate school, to apply to Harvard, and then to continue to take a friendly interest in my education and career. It is a great stroke of luck to discover one’s calling in one’s late teens, and not everyone has the good fortune to meet the right teacher at the right time in her life, but I did, and I have continued to be thankful for the education that he offered me so many years ago.

Well, Montreal's much easier to like these days, and I think students now tend to be rather fonder of their time at McGill. But I'm still fascinated-- and now interested to go look up Frederick Watkins. And the thought that there might be a young Judith Shklar waiting to be inspired in class is an exciting and daunting one.

Update: So I google Watkins... and one of the first pages to come up is the ASPLP page that I put up myself, because Watkins was president right after Lon Fuller.

Watkins was a Rousseau scholar who later went to Yale. Given the timing of his years here, I'll bet that he had something to do with the creation of the McGill Library's Rousseau collection.

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