Marshall Wexler's Brilliant Career
In 1963 I was twenty-eight years old, a newly-minted Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, and spending the year as a visiting assistant professor at Harvard. Harvard was having a look at me for a tenure-track appointment in the department of government, and I was having a close look at Harvard, and was rather amazed at what I saw. I had passed my entire educational life in Chicago, in Hyde Park between 57th and 59th Streets, going as a kid to the University’s Lab School, thence to the College, and then on to graduate school in the philosophy department. Intellectually, the University of Chicago was competitive and international—peppered with German refugee scholars and, as I would only later realize, not quite first-class Englishmen—but socially it didn’t exist. So I was surprised at what I discovered at Harvard, where the social element, or so it seemed to me, was quite strong if not absolutely central.
This was evident throughout the university, but nowhere more so than among undergraduates, those little demons of sophistication. How different they seemed from the earnest, often rather dour, usually somewhat neurotic undergraduates at Chicago, their heavily underlined Modern Library copies of Plato and Aristotle under their arms, always ready for yet another discussion of what constitutes the Good Life. At Harvard, it struck me, undergraduates did not need to discuss the Good Life because, without anyone having to tell them about it, they knew they were already living it. What went on in the classrooms at Harvard, at least in non-scientific subjects like my own, seemed of less than primary interest to the students. At Harvard a teacher was expected to be brilliant, but above all to be fresh and entertaining, rather like a bright, charming movie. The main point is that what went on in the classroom could not have held much importance, because the most important thing in these students’ lives had already happened—namely, they had been accepted at Harvard.
About the Author
Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.