Jul/Aug 2009 Nonfiction

Venturing West: America Beckons

by Julia Braun Kessler

It was in those heady post-war years, the middle forties, when New York City was once more abuzz with innovation, that my sisters were Hunter College girls. Back then, this meant something! You could truly call the institution elite. In fact, it was rare to find a free tuition school admitting a woman at all. But Hunter, situated in humming Manhattan: that was the place for your super smart New York City gal. Hunter College was class.

New York's colleges were then still one-sexed. But a mere few years after my sisters' college years, by the time I was set for entry, I had noticed a breakthrough, a hint of possibility. The City College of New York, or CCNY as we called it, up on the West Side of Mid-Manhattan, which had been stocked exclusively by the male of the species, began showing a chink in their fortress walls. One or two departments opened their doors and finally permitted women to join them.

The first, of course, was in their Department of Education. Girls had for many years been recognized as potential material to make good school marms. It was one of the few professions open to them during the Depression. But the other change up there seemed dramatic to me. It was in a discipline altogether new, one not even mentioned in high school. A big enough word it was, too—Psychology! Immediately, my imagination was fired by the very notion of studying how we function inside of our heads.

Not that I had the vaguest conception of what "psychology" was, what theories it purported to study, or what its practitioners aimed to achieve. No matter. It gleamed like the Emerald City of Oz before me, and I knew it was for me to try it. Before long, I had convinced myself (if not my skeptical parents) of my perfect suitability for such study—instead of that alternative of pounding a typewriter in some back office downtown. So off I went to C.C.N.Y. to collect my books, surprised to have been promptly accepted there—and that, with no resistance from the admissions officers.

It was a campus teeming with young men—boys all eager, busy, and surprisingly concentrated on learning something. A new world for me, after a mediocre high school education in the Bronx. It seemed like a prayer answered. And, best of all, it fed a persistent need in me to go my own way, to find a path independent of my two imposing Hunter sisters, whose brilliance was the talk of our neighbors.

Among the appealing teachers available at the time was a professor (or perhaps he was then a lecturer only) named Kenneth Clark. An attractive, young, New York-bred black scholar, he could engage his students both in the basics of the social sciences he taught as well as the extraordinary ways in which his discipline could actively serve in our uncertain post-war society. He was an inspiration, everything a young person could ask for in a professor. Nor was there any question that he was then an enormous hit with all his students, male and female.

Indeed, Kenneth Clark's subsequent achievements in the outside world were formidable. He not only played a crucial role in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling to outlaw school segregation, but he managed to become the very first African American to achieve full professorship at Columbia University. He worked hand-in-hand with other black intellectuals of that period, such distinguished statesmen as Ralphe Bunche, who was himself later to become a Nobel Prize winner. Most stimulating of all for us was his prescient belief in his country's integrity, his certainty that segregation in our nation was doomed and must disappear within our times.

For some two whole years, I continued in my excitement. I was convinced that I, too, had found my calling. I would study, learn, and then serve Professor Clark in his dramatic efforts to alter the structures that bound America to old social habits, to make us emerge as a fully functioning democracy. In the wish to impress my "brainy" mentor, I worked steadily.

Undergraduate I was, however, so I needed to study as well in the various other disciplines. Much of which came as wholly new. I was a blank canvas, and suddenly I found before me the great unknowns of history and literature. But for the scattered readings I had done in my early adolescence, mostly at the random suggestions of the local branch librarians, I'd had had little exposure. Neither was there any acquaintance with the discipline of the stricter sciences, those more exacting studies like biology and chemistry.

Curiously, however, it was those encounters which proved a revelation. When one is wholly ignorant, receptiveness reigns in every experience. Learning is like discovering some exotic food, then devouring it whole and in one portion! Later, such exposures, be it in history, literature, or even science, are immeasurably diminished. While still powerful, they never manage that same delight as in those earlier moments.

I worked hard at all of it. Mostly, I worked at making myself into a "social psychologist," dreaming of change in the world as we then contemplated it!

Even so, trouble came soon enough to spoil that vision. That was when I discovered myself spending more thought, more energy, and more time reading literature and history. It was there that my imagination engaged—far more than with psychology. The intricacy of poetry and those stories wrought by great English and American writers, most often from eras which had come long before my own, took hold, arousing and entangling me. I could no longer deny it.

Distant times which had produced such genius as John Donne's or John Keats' poetry, driven story tellers like Fielding, Richardson, George Eliot, and mad satirists like Jonathan Swift—all brought thrilling excitement. Nights found me reading, reading some more. There was little help for it. As much as I wanted to please my favorite professor, to excel in his social sciences, my heart was no longer there.

Not surprisingly then came a complete disillusion with social psychology and its techniques for "changing the world." I'd come to understand my real passions, and what I could myself most aptly hope to achieve. I was not suited to activist discipline. Much of the time, in truth, I had secretly been asking that very question, "What was all this rabble rousing, this rousting about in the chaotic outside world?" Hardly what I had pictured as the "thoughtful" life when I arrived at college. Was I seriously believing that I might change opinion, alter conditions, make lives better?

My realization: learning was what I craved, not action. At least not yet, not now. So I turned away, trying to find strengths in new directions, mostly by readings into the past, devouring the history of human beings, searching out their creations, their experiments, those many, many literary masterpieces from the Ancients, and so forth, over the years, all the way up to 18th and 19th and 20th centuries.

At that crucial moment, I heard of a thriving school of thought which represented a new way of study! A method as yet unknown to me, while it had prospered half-way across the country in distant Chicago. A group of scholars there had come up with a system of educating the young with study that soon came to be called, The Hundred Great Books. They had pioneered an elite program at the University of Chicago with a score of educational ideas: to admit and teach a select group of students, those who could qualify to their exacting standards. In these they saw potentials for leadership, the material for the future of our nation's democracy.

Everything about their technique was antithetical to the more traditional four-year college. They didn't even give degrees in the same manner. As for their teaching methods, they too deviated sharply. Students needn't attend lectures. They could chose to study on their own if they preferred.

A great many did this with varying results. At the same time, when the innovators of the program, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, lectured in front of the student body, most of their students assembled willingly and en masse. As for us Easterners, there was considerable excitement among us when we heard of these theories for the acquisition of knowledge, and even more for their comprehension of ideas.

Hutchins had taken over at the University of Chicago to become its President in 1929 after completing his law degree at Yale. Yet, as he served during those Depression years that followed, he gradually grew more and more skeptical of the ability of empirical research in the social sciences alone to solve our country's paralysis. And his subsequent contacts with Mortimer Adler, as well as many other distinguished thinkers and scholars who came willingly to join in, convinced him that there were profound solutions to be uncovered through earlier ideas, concepts that flourished during the height of such ancient societies as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, among those ancient cultures.

Meanwhile, their very unorthodoxy, their deviations from trodden university routes, attracted the finest in the academic game—thinkers in every aspect of literature, philosophy, criticism, as well as talent from all the creative disciplines—to found their way and offered themselves to the program.

My own good fortune was to find the best of such writers and intellectuals there. One was the classicist, David Grene. He was among the founders of the legendary Committee on Social Thought (a group that included figures like Saul Bellow, and later Harold Bloom and Harold Rosenberg, among others). Grene was an Irishman who had already been thoroughly schooled in Latin and Greek by his 10th year! His own translations of Herodotus were subsequently cited as giving new life to Greek ways of thought. And when he taught early history, it became vivid—a human story—alive as never before.

Another remarkably independent scholar at the University in my time was Cleanth Brooks. Very much the Southern gentleman, he was among the innovators of a revolutionary technique for reading poetry, a group that was soon to be dubbed "The New Critics." Among their arguments was that poetry itself serves no didactic purposes, nor even tries to. Instead, it moves "through irony, paradox, ambiguity and other rhetorical devices... to favor conflicting facets of theme and pattern." In short, they made clear that the common tendency to reduce a poem to a single narrative, or look at it merely for its historical or biographical message, was faulty, a narrow way to interpret it.

Such colleagues as Robert Penn Warren, I.A. Richards, and others offered another kind of precision to those seeking meaning within it. Brooks and Warren's revolutionary book, Understanding Poetry, contended that explication should pay heed to a poem's own harmony and unity, its own aesthetics. Their work opened a new door to its comprehension for me.

Wallace Fowlie was yet another wonder I found there. He acquainted me with an important discipline I had never even conceived. A sometime professor at Bennington College and other universities, his interest was in French literature and its vast influence upon other cultures, as yet little recognized. He championed the works of such as Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and of course, Marcel Proust, Albert Camus, and Andre Gide. He talked of thinkers like Enid Starkie, Rene Char, Max Jacobs. How admirably he explained for us the impact of such on modern popular culture worldwide. Fowlie's remarkable approach to students, his friendliness and concern for their welfare, was key, unforgettable. He even had students to his house of an evening in pure cordiality.

In the midst of such imported, revolutionary modernists, Hutchins and Adler kept firm to their notions of our world's dependence upon geniuses from the past, insisting upon their prime importance to human history. For them, such contributions to our intelligence were foremost, the clue to our progress and well-being.

There were even those among such contemporary philosophers maintaining that all ideas had been disclosed, written or spoken at some time in some form or other. In short, they attached new reality to that old chestnut about nothing being new under the sun. Their claims for the brilliance of mankind went unchecked. Man had already conceived of every aspect of the universe—its strengths as well as with its weaknesses. Thus, it followed: study of former speculations alone must prove key to more contemporary innovations.

Persistent notions of the importance of early genius soon became ingrained upon the young minds around them in Chicago during those times. And not always to best effect. How well I remember it myself, a newly arrived student desperately trying in my enthusiasm to offer up ideas, systems, diversions to show myself thoughtful and innovative! And, just how quickly I was reminded of the "unoriginality" of such ideas! Those dismissals cut deep! Constantly, such declarations came at us—there were no such thoughts left unearthed by the past genius of mankind!

The didactic effect was hardly encouraging. Despite everything, any number of us fought harder and harder for our thoughts to be heard. It might have frustrated, but I did take a good lesson from it. I learned to hold my tongue, to read, study, and listen instead. Upon reflection, I think that this alone might have been well worth the process.

My experience had not been an exception, however, and other students, facing such rebuffs when asking a question or offering a comment were truly damaged by them. The technique disheartened and dismayed. The campus riled with rebellious types. Some demanded a hearing, some simply stayed away from all classes altogether, and some went further still by quitting school, depressed altogether, even to the point of suicide. The South Side of Chicago was certainly a chaotic scene in those post-war times.

Yet, what at this late stage strikes me, is just how right and wrong such pedagogical theorists really were. Besotted by their innovations, they had themselves become mired in their logical system. Even today, when contemplating the marvels of their teaching, I find that blindness to the effects of their more fanatic techniques staggering! How odd that they could not themselves comprehend what limitations they had imposed upon the all-too sensitive, aspiring young!

Above everything, when one considers the incredible developments that have arisen since these educators' time, miracles of invention and creation that they could have in no way conceived of in their pedagogical universe, one remains entirely bemused.

What might they have made, for example, of such wonders as virtual reality, or potential disasters such as global warming, and, for that matter of ongoing terrorist warfare, as we have now come to experience them? All of such vast entanglements now engross our own world, though they may have been inconceivable in their times.

While Herodotus' Histories might still speak to us in contemporary tones, Euclid even now supplies us foundations upon which our whole mathematical structure rests, Descartes' empowerment of modern man provides an ingenuity to dissociate himself from other animals, and, while Shakespeare yet commands total clarity for us in depicting our humanity, demonstrating for us what "fools we mortals be," we can hardly be dismissive of what these philosophers and poets have contributed! And little doubt that despite all their own stubborn rejection of other schools of thought, and of what might be termed the future possibilities, they brought a new light to the past in its relevance to human achievement.

For myself, I left the University of Chicago to seek my fortune as a more informed and better read person—if degree-less and profession-less (because of that stubborn unwillingness to conform to the national University degree system). Alas, there I was, once more, right back home in New York City, having to face my father's wrath about being "more impractical than ever" and worse, now "clearly unmarriageable" in his European view, which designated "over-education," as a disaster for any young female.

My only course was to get myself that missing degree wherever I could find one, and when Columbia University agreed to accept my unorthodox Chicago qualifications, and allowed me to continue with them to become a graduate student, I grabbed the opportunity to chase on for the certificate. It seemed like a way towards freedom, a means of setting out into the world once more—toward everything I could hope for at that time.


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