Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Robert Paul Wolff's memoirs

Via Brian Leiter, the political philosopher Robert Paul Wolff is blogging his memoirs, and it's amazingly entertaining stuff. Three excerpts (but read the whole thing):
first installment:

It was also Arno [Mayer] who unintentionally taught me a pedagogical lesson that has stood me in good stead for forty-five years. His first lecture dealt with the waves of invasions by Germanic tribes that brought the Roman Empire to its knees. Arno had the brilliant idea of relating these invasions to the major battles that had been fought by Germany and the Allies in World War II. The terrain was of course the same, and inasmuch as the rivers and valleys had not moved in the intervening fifteen hundred years, the two made a lovely fit. The five of us sat in the last row of the lecture hall and marveled at the brilliance of Arno's presentation. But when we next met our individual classes, we discovered to our dismay that the students had been massively underwhelmed. The problem was simple. It was nineteen fifty-eight, and our students were eighteen years old, which meant that they had been four when most of those battles were fought. The Second World War was ancient history to them, something their parents did. They had never heard of the Battle of the Bulge.
Sad to say, this experience has been repeated endlessly over the decades. The Freshmen I now encounter were born during the Clinton Administration and probably came to some degree of awareness of the larger world during George W. Bush's second term. Anything before that might as well be ancient Rome. For many years, I compensated for this absence of historical memory by extracting my philosophical examples from Star Trek, but even that draws blank stares now, and as I do not get HBO, I cannot substitute The Sopranos. There is nothing that makes you feel older faster than teaching undergraduates.

second installment:
The next summer, my advisee invited me to dinner at his apartment, where he had taken up light housekeeping with a lovely Radcliffe girl. Saul [Kripke] was there as well. Saul's father was a Conservative Rabbi, and Saul had had a serious Jewish upbringing. As he talked, he davaned, which is to say he rocked back and forth vigorously. As he talked and davaned he ate, gesturing spastically, and as he talked and davaned and ate and gestured, his food scattered all over the table, as if to illustrate the law of entropy. With gentle understanding, the young Radcliffe student patiently swept the peas up from the table top and put them back on Saul's plate, where they stayed for a bit before being restrewn.
I have often wondered whether Saul, brilliant though he undoubtedly was, ever understood how much slack everyone was cutting him, from Quine on down. Somehow, I think not.

Followed immediately by:

For the most part, I went my own way in the department. Harvard professors don't really advance much beyond what is called in child development books "parallel play." No one attends anyone else's lectures, of course, and there is precious little socializing. When they encounter one another on campus, they resemble the dukes and counts at the medieval court of Burgundy, glorious and richly appointed and very formal. Each full professor proceeds in stately fashion, preceded like Cyrano's nose by his vita, and trailing in his wake several Assistant Professors who exhibit the appropriate submissive body language.

This story is the crowning achievement of the memoirs so far, but it demands to be read not excerpted-- go have a look.

Update: The posts are still coming, one a day. See here for the birth of Social Studies and for life with "Barry" (!) Moore and "Herbie" (!!!) Marcuse.