Commentary Magazine

Power in the Academy

I do not know what became of the graduate students who sat numb with listening in the years between 1958 and 1968—no doubt, some of them are still waiting for dissertation topics to be approved—but perhaps a memory of them and what they saw will go a way in explaining the confrontation malaise of their heirs. They would not have believed, I think, the picture of Dean Epps hustled down a flight of Harvard stairs by seven grim, be-buttoned types guiding him by the arm and shoulders in classic bouncer fashion. Or the sight of S. I. Hayakawa, standing on top of an automobile in beret, flailing back at hands that raged to topple him. Hayakawa: he was the first principle of graduate school. Language in Action was graduate school, it was the primer for linguistics required of all graduate students in English and one no more thought that that book, nor the exotic personage who authored it, had any more to do with the reality of flesh and blood than the tall not always gentle old scholar who owned early American literature and some part of Henry James in my graduate school, who was accorded a reverential ear, a note-scribbling busyness almost dear to the memory in the light of the revolution now upon us.

That they would not have believed the new reality means only that no one had ever done these things before, and graduate students were committed, if temporarily, to history and precedent and wildly speculative only in matters of literary interpretation—but not too much of that. But if they could not have predicted the future, that does not mean that as things developed, such behavior would not have answered something, however repressed or dimly felt, about their sense of things.

The present abandon on campus, which finds much of its following in graduate students, had its antecedents. One saw the very peculiar psychic tricks graduate students were able to play on themselves for years on end. The scholar who lectured us on early American literature was also head of the English department, a sadistic man whose ordinary performances, if recorded, taped, and played back, would be tossed out as lacking in verisimilitude. His tactics were those of a crude bully, nothing subtle about them. To boot, he was a paranoid man who, quite simply, lied whenever it suited him. Everyone knew. Yet somehow, it was necessary for the generations of English graduate students who went through the fire, to perceive him, not as a weak man, but as a crusty embodiment of the New England conscience, tough and no nonsense, but way down deep—he knew. He knew something about real value; they did not quite catch what it was, but if only he found it in them, they were confirmed in something. Because he was so harsh, he knew something. Because he was so openly destructive—he delighted in bullying men who had spent nine or ten years under him, laughing (quite maniacally) at his power to do so if they showed any evidence of disobeying his wishes; he boasted of having driven a doctoral candidate to suicide, in a moment of musing self-amazement which betrayed not the least remorse—and they thought he knew something. To all the things he did, the graduate students, even the ones he set to vomiting nervously after a session with him, yielded respect: “a real man.” Uncompromising, they found him, and a real man.

Somewhere in The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling notes that to Americans, reality is harsh and unyielding, that which is tough and must be pushed up against. That went some way in explaining to me, at least, the peculiar perversity of these serious men and women, humanistically inclined, who so needed to distort their own visions. What better way to deal with the authority of power flourishing sadism they beheld with their own eyes and ears, than to see it as a marvelous cultural exoticism denied to them—realness, crusty and uncompromising—Billy Budd on the yardarm. They understood Billy Budd's executioner all too well, in ways that would have surprised Melville himself, I think.

But the realness which was not theirs, which they found so admirable in the excesses of the Head, as I shall call him—even when he compared himself, at a large meeting of English graduate faculty and students, with Machiavelli, unsmiling and in dead earnest as he outlined before five hundred people what he did to anyone who tried to deceive him—does not truly explain all their willingness to admire him. It was one thing for graduate students, many of them men with families who devoted years to the pursuit of the degree, to understand the power of the man and to fear it, indeed to knuckle to it if necessary. It was quite another thing to admire, as they so deeply did, the sheer abandon of all limits to social behavior, to call plain cruelty by all the names they called it: good ego, honesty, courage.


It was sad then, and it is sadder now, to understand how decent, sensitive men lusted after the fascistic temperament. Yet it is not hard to connect that not deeply hidden attraction to carefree aggression with the graduate students who today are assenting in the crudest assaults on the dignity, the very persons, of academic authorities, heads, deans—luminaries in whose presence just a few years ago they would have turned themselves inside out with humility, nervous giggles at little bons mots which were not always funny—though many were.

Somewhere, one knew, that nervous giggle would have its underside—but never this dark coin of vengeance, in accordance with the most elementary principles of the passive-aggressive phenomenon in the psychoanalytic casebook. At times, one had hoped for an underside; still, one remembered all the kind, amusing men who taught graduate classes, taught me well, if remotely. Intimacy was not necessary. But that they were never quite accorded the principled adulation that fell to the Head was perversity itself. There were a few people who did see. These knew the simplest of all principles, understood the dynamics of such men: while they could not bear opposition and would punish it any way possible, they were infinitely crueler to those who seemed to love their tyranny, to those who accepted with endless passivity. Those people set off the excesses of sadism in the man, while those who taunted him were rewarded with a strange blindness. He did not see, he did not hear. One said outrageous things to him, and he responded with flattery and pleasantry.

It is not in the least comforting to understand this phenomenon in the light of the passivity, the endless yielding of intelligence on campus to the most extravagant demands of the student rioters. What was clear in graduate school was that one day, perhaps, those who incorporated the strange values one saw them sniffing after in the Head, would either be destroyed in the system which rewarded such men—or would come to be such men. That was only a few years ago and that man was no accident; he was the product and the perpetrator of a system which rewarded just such men with power and longevity in office. It was the reward for aggression, as every schoolboy I knew knew—in a discipline, a calling which was otherwise (so it seemed) low in the virile-activist scale. It was no secret, indeed, that the man was such a bad scholar that satires were written, if elliptically, on the errors in his published scholarship. As everyone cheerfully admitted, he was a dreadful teacher. No matter. It was precisely that he said to them, nakedly, simply: this chosen profession is full of the powerless and the emotionally disenfranchised, an uninhibited aggression will take one far. They learned that it was clever to call the Ph.D. the meal ticket, to admire a flashy nihilism, that “publish or perish” meant just that. He appealed to their envy, their passivity, and their strange sense of realness, and (to them) all the frequently humane and intelligent men around him were less than he.

The people now yielding to student riots, joining them, are products of those graduate-school worlds in which the Heads prospered. Only, those calling the shots are students who, like the Head, are incited most by extremes of passivity. Hayakawa said, on a recent television interview, that a good part of the disorders came from “confused” people teaching the students, a kindly phrase offered with some irony, which could be taken to mean that teachers actively incited, or were really confused about what they were supposed to be doing in a riot of revolution.

The last possibility seems more likely, with an amplifying comment. One remembers that whole generations of teachers—the very ones offering tacit, if nervous, approval to the depredations of SDS, when they are not seeking admission to their flying wedge formations, who, if they were to be called Brother at a black student meeting, that would be this year's kingdom of heaven—were helped along to their present state of tremulous consistency by the graduate schools. Qualifications for responsible leadership—I am not sure why scholars and teachers should have credentials for political leadership—were severely impaired in those who were ground down, and sent out to jobs, by years of respectful awe for power which was never theirs. It is not too much to say that these now yearn after the same ruthless “character,” the realpolitik of the student rioters, which they and their counterparts found themselves forced to admire in the self-willed Head. Why else would they refuse, so pitifully many of them, to defend their positions—at least their hapless libraries? Alas, they do not believe in their authority, because they have learned that real authority is tough and savage and gives no quarter—and that, at least, is far more the result of the reality malaise Trilling noted than the occasional tyrant of the graduate school. After all, there were probably not many Heads like the one I knew, but I do not doubt that if his kingdom extended to include every graduate student in the country, a frightful cross-section of the graduate population would admire his realness.

It is the same cross-section all over the country in every university where something has happened—and everywhere, something has; every-where they are taking heady swallows of realness, the clenched fist, and getting stupid drunk, exactly what happens when one drinks, unaccustomed, on an empty stomach. Something has happened at last to those who suspected that nothing ever might; not surely, if one spent one's days in a university, always with the suspicion that there was something not quite real about this calling, not of the world—even not quite man's work. The campus revolution happened and the teachers joined.

Though one has to assume, for sanity's sake, that the Head, as I knew him, was unusual in the length and extravagance of his operations, the sheer numbers of his colleagues who excused and made him possible suggest a certain proportion of his brothers elsewhere. Academic novels never did him or his types justice, because academic novelists, perhaps wisely, realized that the pathology of the weak was far more believable and rewarding than the pathology of the powerfully corrupt. The peculiar talents of Bernard Malamud (A New Life) and Philip Roth (Letting Go)—very different talents, one hastens to say—did not lend themselves to such reality; both were committed, nonetheless, to the obverse of the reality principle Trilling defined: reality is what is weak, what trembles and threatens to disappear altogether when you push up against it.

One would like to conjecture about what the Pauls and the Gabes of Roth's graduate student world would do on campus now, but it seems frivolous; one has the newspapers and one sees what all their depression has come to. The hall adjacent to the New York University library was fire-bombed, with damages estimated at $250,000 and its millions of books saved by moments, which might have pained Malamud's hero Levin, if he had happened East—but we don't really know about that. A new life is a new life, and the revolution has in some way promised to those headed after graduate school to invisible lives in the classroom, lifetime crawls to promotion—activity. Somehow, in the explosion of riot and confrontation, when the smoke cleared and the debris settled, somehow they would land near the top. By accident, even.


When the president of Harvard called the police, after the deans had been carried out, Harvard faculty members were outraged. Hayakawa said in yet another interview (he would appear to be the only president ready to take on a university in addition to his own, whose subsided troubles do not appear to have made him gratefully silent) that these were “distorted psychological reflexes,” that this was the cultural snobbery of faculty, that they “have to defend the students to find out reasons why they [the faculty] have got problems and grievances too.”

Their own problems and grievances? Would that they were so healthy. One grants Dr. Hayakawa mostly the distorted psychological reflexes. Faculties are angry and alarmed when police are called, not alone because the campus has been traditionally off-limits to the civil authorities, but, one prefers to think, because so many heads are invariably bloodied in a police action. At Cornell, black students had guns and emerged from the Student Union building bedecked with cartridges, to the clenched-fist salutes of the SDS members stationed outside swooning approval. The black students have long understood the SDS mentality and acted on the principle of absolute rejection, offering the mailed fist for the hand of fellowship, and they were quite right; they are pursued by lovers heated by rejection, pressed by favors in response to their disdain and purity as in the most consummately medieval courtly tradition. In an imperfect but increasingly competent way, the SDS understands about the liberal faculty exactly what the black students understand about SDS, and they act accordingly.

One can but wonder when the faculties and other institution types will understand. They do not want police: how long will it be before guns are used, before anti-insurgent students and takeover students clash, with fatal results? In the medieval university the decani were the heads of university troops, whose real function was to keep peace among warring student orders. But the decani of yesterday who were the mainstay of the tradition that civil authority belonged not on the campus, are not the deans of today. These are being carried downstairs and exiting through windows, and the wars are not private. Bloodied heads may yet be dead bodies before the tradition is yielded up. The lovers of the real in the academy have too often, as I understood them, not loved the real, which is painful, which asks the hard nerve of thought and the sacrifice of image. That sense of reality will come only after some irreversible tragedy, a student confrontation which will end in a few deaths. It is not necessary to add that it will be too late then for the civil authorities, for the realization that yielding the no-police-on-campus principle, and the roughing up of students which follows, is far less tragic. One likes to think, anyway, that it is not necessary to add that. If yielding to the strongarm absolute temper on campus answers something deep in those who teach there, if standing by, all unsurprised as wild concessions are made, is a psychic habit, one need add nothing. One may, of course, understand.

On campus today, at Berkeley, at San Francisco, at Rutgers, at Los Angeles, are my colleagues of the graduate school. It was always nearly impossible to get a job in the big New York universities and colleges, Ph.D. or not. Those held out for the good, publishing, non-New York scholar, for a variety of reasons. And so, men who needed jobs went away with their Ph.D.'s and their families, or alone, to teach at Los Angeles State, Alaska, too—but California was the big state, with its complex of universities and expanding faculty needs. They were lonely out there, they often said, in the strange communities far from New York. But they are part of the faculty on campus now, out there, and some of the lucky ones were settled in the New York City University system, by order of special merit.


After a particularly raw encounter at one of the New York city colleges recently, one of them explained soberly to me that he had joined the strike to oust the white head of the SEEK program—a pity, because he was a fine man who had devoted himself to the program and done an excellent job—but, he nodded reflectively, heads would roll inevitably to accommodate the black revolution. One supported it. He explained the difficulty they had, however, in finding a black teacher on campus who could take the job so precipitously open. Finally, they found someone in Romance Languages, a Puerto Rican. Thank heavens, he exclaimed with some wryness, they had one around. What was to happen to the man who had devoted himself specifically to the SEEK program these past years; did no one care that the program was in indifferent hands? You don't understand, I was told, that yielding to the demands, helping them win power, was as important as any real activity of the SEEK program: it was the revolution itself.

One understood that. Rather, one understood how he understood it so well. One expects that there are men on campus who know that the black revolution is best served by critical involvement rather than by parochial obedience, who act accordingly; but the higher visibility belongs to those teachers who have merely exchanged one authority for another. Eight years ago in these pages, Theodore Solotaroff explored the graduate student in profile and discovered, underlying the whole graduate-student process, the “deep desperation of the students' private life.”1 A lot of that, he decided, was plain penury, but at the end of the article, he concluded:

However rebellious he may have been at the outset, the man who emerges from graduate school . . . has moved in the direction of accepting the scholarly image. Exploited by a research or teaching job . . . subjected, disarmed by the genteel authoritarianism of the academic will . . . he has become habituated to the feeling that the deeper questions of personal purpose are not worth asking and that the risks of intellectual freedom, passion, and non-conformity are not worth taking. . . . He has become more narrow, diligent and cautious in his ideas, more respectable in his style of thinking . . . more politic in his behavior . . . whether he will still possess a capacity for breadth, inwardness, and risk taking . . . whether he will be fit for the intellectual community . . . all of this is another question.

That Mr. Solotaroff questioned in 1961 and it is still a question; it is odd that it should be so in the midst of a revolution when purpose, and deeper questions, risks, appear to be the consuming passions on campus. The campus has moved to a far more concrete confrontation on the question of fitness in the intellectual community than existed in 1961. Now the risk-taking has to do not with scholarship politics but with a real acting-out of the expulsion fantasy of graduate school, real fears with real results. One can be jeered off campus and out of the classroom for risking an unrespectable inwardness—crossing picket lines, refusing to have one's classroom liberated. One can, if not diligent and cautious in the ways of the revolution, be punched in the mouth. For assertions of intellectual non-conformity, like saying that something lacks in the demand that all black and Puerto Rican students be admitted to colleges on request—something lacks in intelligence—one can be punished with the racist label, and all kinds of social disapproval from students, which can be powerful indeed. Perhaps worse than all of that, the teacher need just be called fink by his students and that hurts, not strangely; it hurts the young and the old instructor, perhaps even more than the graduate teacher who found his scholarship “not quite sound.” Still, both are saying the same thing to him: “Go—you are not one of us.” To the rejectee of authoritarianism, the threat of loneliness and the call of envy do not change in their power to distort vision; only the authoritarian fashion changes. Which is why the questions of 1961 are still with us, appearances notwithstanding.


The purist passion which the graduate students exhibited had nothing to do with politics. It was the integrity of literature they were defending; the heresies were interpretational, the magic circle to which they begged admission a community of traditional scholars. At first glance, it seems not such a poor aspiration; there are many worse choices to be made in the world. The one I saw was memorable and moving, in a way, because one knows it helped them as little to incorporate the passions of the scholar-ego as it does now to incorporate the ego, the passions, the prohibitions of the Movement. Then as now, parochialism did something to the intellectual function, not the least of which was the loss of objectivity. Then as now, just as ironically, years of pledging to the order brought no admission to its ranks, nor did heated activities of devotion bestow authority or grace. Then as now, graduate students, instructors, refused to learn that authority—not alone the Heads—does not wish to share or to bestow power, that it lives off the servile. That is how it got to be authority, and it has no intention of offering peerdom.

Imitators of the master teacher, whether in the classroom or in the revolution, have always managed to muck up even the good parts. Disciples in the graduate school were full of a fervor that, I daresay, surprised the most hidebound of teachers occasionally for its sheer, unregenerate hatred of the enemy. The enemy (one remembers wistfully again, it was only literary criticism) to the graduate student of my day was the Freudian analysis of literature. Sometimes it was the New Critics, but nobody got sick over them, at least not as much.


I well remember the strange class lectures by an eminent scholar of Emily Dickinson—a rather attractive, rationalistically tempered man in his early fifties, whose lectures were always a model of urbanity and ease, with modest wit. At the end of his bibliographical introductions to the recent scholarship on Dickinson, his face began to harden, a blush came, a subtle red which was to get deeper, his voice lower with intensity as he recited certain recent assertions about the life of Emily Dickinson: she wore a white dress always; she refused to see people and she lived like a recluse, unwilling to open her door; she did lower a basket from her window, on occasion, to receive tokens. To this list, he added one after another piece of biographical data, each more strangely descriptive than the last, ending finally with a tribute to the depth of her impassioned love affair with the Reverend, which lasted for so many years by mail and whom, the lecturer added quietly, she had met once. And for that and other things he said, icily, shaking his head, certain scholars have seen fit to bestow upon her a set of clinical neurotic symptoms, rather than to see her for what she was: “a poet, a woman, living very much the typical life of the young woman of her time. There was nothing unusual in her life habits for her time, let the Freudians build what they may.”

Having discharged the matter thus, he went on calm, all passion spent, to discuss the works of Miss Dickinson. But for the very large class in American literature which heard those curious assertions of Emily Dickinson's health—her depression, her isolation, her preoccupation with death—the war had only just begun. Resentments smoldered and the scholar had builded better than he knew. Perhaps that is unfair, upon reflection; so many of the graduate students entering the scholarly world came already passionate in their defense of the past, the wholeness of tradition against the barbarian new. The paranoia of the liberal arts, as one was wont to call it, was a powerful stimulant, the equivalent of militant community pride in the library stacks. The enemy was all around us, the flower destroyed by an inimical new science.

That class in which Emily Dickinson was taught went giddy with approval, nods and smiles, which had nothing to do with currying favor; for the assault on psychoanalytic interpretation met with a deep psychological accord in people who believed that virtue resided with tradition, that authority resided with a virtuous defense of tradition—and, strangest of all, that tradition derived its strength from simplicity.

If Emily Dickinson was curious, it is almost painful to remember classes in Walt Whitman. One scholar taught a course in Melville and Whitman which he began by announcing his own Freudian analytic bias. It seemed strange that one should do that, but as the weeks went on, the gesture seemed not the least bit superfluous. It had been, in effect, a warning that some might wish to leave. Some few did, but a very great many stayed to fight, and with an astonishing passion. Week after week the course met, the often fanciful interpretations, both Jungian and Freudian, tossed bravely out to smoldering faces in the lecture hall. One woman turned herself inside out with rage weekly, and when finally it was asserted that the poems of Whitman really had a homosexual component, she could no longer content herself with mere disagreements and don't-you-think-that's. She uncoiled herself from the seat and sprang, trembling, to assert that the class was a travesty, the lecturer unfit to teach literature in a university. They had not come to hear trash. She sat down to a round of applause which, if not contributed by everyone, was nonetheless impassioned. She had not been alone, as, indeed, all semester long, students had risen with enraged hands waving aggressions, breaking the usual polite tradition of listening one had seen in their other classes. One watched, and wondered at whom they were so angry, and why. One woman responded to a clinical reading of Whitman's poem celebrating young men bathing by slamming shut her book and walking out, a look on her face as though someone had just reflected on the legitimacy of her birth. At the end of the stormy term, the instructor, to my surprise, admitted to me that he was indeed astonished by the ferocious personal assaults—one was not used to admissions of anything that was painfully there—and he could not account for it.

Of course, one could account for it, though it hardly helped matters. Who did not know that when one incorporated as one's own the ego and the identity of a powerful authority, the dictates of that authority would assume the excesses of any other emotional tyranny? What had it, after all, to do with an exchange of ideas? What had it to do with ideas at all? It was identification, it was absolute belief, and if the absolutes were interchangeable one ought not be too surprised if the defense of poetry yielded, when they left to teach, to the defense of New Left purism. The fellowship in both cases is warm with rightness. If smug, if it borders occasionally on downright intolerance, now on approval of totalitarian commitment, the revolution at all costs, any heads, one need only remember what is being defended, how attractive the scholarly club seemed in graduate school, what emotional needs it answered, what the revolution-clubbiness answers now.

Perhaps a final parable detail: an eminent scholar in 17th-century literature dealt quietly but firmly with William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity. One student, taking arms, submitted a triumphant paper dwelling much on Rosamund Tuve's rebuttal of that critic, a charming demolition job called A Reading of George Herbert. The student, of course, citing Miss Tuve as authority, had gone her one better. He called Empson a liar, a plagiarist, a fool, in the paper, which was returned to him with several curt conjectures on the state of the student's mental health, his honor, his capacity for scholarship, his ability to read. Also appended was a small note on some of the merits of Empson's contributions which he, the graduate student, would do well to understand.

It was an unusual performance for the graduate faculty, one of the few expressions of shock and impatience with the zealot personality. The student, understandably, was even more shocked, confused beyond comfort. Had he not taken the right side? Had the enemy been accepted, for all his sins, as a contributor to scholarship? It was a deep surprise, and, one hoped, a kind of enlightenment—but there is no proof that it was.


To return to the revolution: now, this September, nine graduate students paraded outside New York University's Graduate School of Social Work. They were the graduate students in defense of John Hatchett, whose contributions to the life of the mind are by now well known. When his anti-Semitic rant finally drew blood, he was assisted out of the university, his contract terminated. A mourning band carried placards; five of the nine graduate students were Jewish, as they hastened to assure me. Across the street, in front of the main building of New York University was a noisy band of SDS, Youth Against War and Fascism, and assorted progressive undergraduates cheering them on. The vast number of New York University undergraduates refused to honor the picket line of one hundred, but between the graduate-student marchers and their young cheerleaders, a lonely fellowship trickled, a wave and a salute. One of the graduate supporters of Hatchett, arriving late, exchanged his books for a picket sign, raising a warm cheer from the striking undergraduates.

Here it may be suspected by some that I impugn the motives of the graduate students, and I hasten to assure them they are right. I impugn their motives, never mind their wisdom, question their purity and their integrity. There is no better thing to impugn in an activity—Jewish support of a Jew-baiting racist—the stupidity of which is beyond question. They want love and approval from the revolution: they will get the mailed fist.

Now the Cornell dean of faculty resigned, temporarily, because the faculty finally took umbrage at his concessions. Guns were the last straw, the faculty was angered, it was all finally too much for Clinton Rossiter and the faculty which, to everyone's surprise, rejected the dean's amnesty promises. He told the faculty that if they did not support his pledge to the black students he would be forced to resign; he had promised them. They did not support him, at first ballot at least, and he did resign. It is the nicest kind of purism which imposes its dictates on one's own activity alone, directs only one's own fate. It seemed a pity that he should have to go.

As it turned out, the faculty at Cornell reversed itself a day later, as black students promised Cornell had but three hours to live, and a real bloodbath seemed imminent. Ithaca police and sheriff's deputies mobilized, students asserted that they were ready to die, faculty members and their families were threatened. For these and other reasons, the faculty chose to yield on the discipline of five black students—an altogether understandable choice when violence promised to be so bad. All purist stances have the same attendant dangers, and it seemed the decision of thoughtful men that they should have backed off from this one (though a number of faculty called it abject surrender and a few resigned). What was neither thoughtful nor understandable was President Perkins's pronouncement that this was “the greatest progressive step forward in Cornell history . . . a victory.”

A true victory in the spirit of the Arab military bulletin. It is among the oldest disguises of helplessness; but worse, a growing capacity for self-deception among academic heads which alarms considerably more than any yielding of principle. If yet one more proof were needed of the effects of endless placating of the jackboot temper, one need only consider Dr. Perkins's reception by the militant leaders after he had conceded: “Then Dr. Perkins was kept waiting, red-faced and discomforted while Eric Evans, a leader of the Afro-American Society, mocked him. ‘You know what just happened up there?’ Mr. Evans told the crowd with a laugh. ‘He put a grandfatherly arm around my shoulder and then said: “Sit down, I want to talk.” ‘President Perkins was kept waiting while Mr. Evans finished his speech. . . .” (New York Times, April 24.)

On the same day, Dr. Buell Gallagher of New York's City College met Negro and Puerto Rican students, agreeing to their demands thus: “I trust I will be permitted to sleep in my house tonight,” he smiled. “I agree wholeheartedly with all your demands. I put my job on the line.” That seems right. Jobs are being put on the line left and right in an orgy of sincerity; one hopes that the college heads will not soon begin denouncing each other—or themselves—for counterrevolutionary activity. The excess of piety in which they swim seems right, so long as it is their own jobs they yield up. When Dr. Gallagher agrees wholeheartedly to a quota system which reflects the black and Puerto Rican population in the city high schools, he is swearing by his own career to affect the careers and the lives of non-black, non-Puerto Rican students who happen to have legitimately high averages, to whom the free city college is still the only way to college. Such displays of personal honor, such self sacrifice, have always claimed large scores of victims, and it promises to be no different here and now.

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,” said Milton in another context. But what if that is all the virtue there is, in the noisy assent to the revolution? Better fugitive than none at all, better cloistered than blinded by the tyranny of new light: two and two is five, losing is really winning, day is night, quota systems are now just. It is as virtuous to stand up for the new wave—it takes as much courage to call for the repudiation of ROTC2 as it did to call for the repudiation of Joe McCarthy before the assembled ADA. Far stronger, it seems, to hold to a fugitive virtue, and considerably more dangerous, as faculty will testify who did not lend themselves to the teachers' strike at San Francisco State.


At San Francisco State, a red arm-banded professor of English who had marched on the picket lines the length of the strike explained himself touchingly—describing a set of symptoms which were nonetheless chilling for being understandable: “I was a good boy in the academy, a graduate of Harvard, I even wrote three books, always a good academic boy. One day, the Hayakawa loudspeakers were blaring that this was an illegal strike and two big black boys hoisted me up on their shoulders, and I spoke. You know the feeling, the adrenalin pours into you, the beautiful feeling. I addressed the crowd and did very well. Then I went to a faculty senate meeting and they were just talking and I left that . . . I walked to the stacks to look for a book and I just started to cry. I remembered the times when the part of me that I admired—I am some part a private man, things I liked about myself, the quiet hours of lonely writing. I cried for that part. . . . I know only that if I had refused to join the strike, I would have no right to teach in the classroom . . . it seems strange to say this, but I like my students better than my colleagues. This is life. I say those who did not join, who didn't partake, actually chose a kind of death.” (NBC, April 22.)

To the deeply earnest man who said this, a little wistful (“I'm forty years old . . . maybe I should have gone after my first ambition to be another Ted Williams . . . my students don't want to hear about T. S. Eliot”), one knew there were no visible alternatives. The life he perceived, the real he saw, the hard activism of crowd purpose, came to nourish the person starved by the invisible life, the private writing man. One understands how men are driven from inwardness to the company of the revolution—and one can only regret the tyranny of that aimlessness and loneliness which presses a thoughtful man to the belief that real life is standing out there on the students' shoulders—and that death comes to those whose inwardness dictates some withholding from the rages which pass for real life. It is strange, but old, not archaic; Forster's lesson will always seem necessary, the Schlegel sisters will be around on every campus to learn over and over again that the world of telegrams and anger is no more the real life than were the books and the music which disappointed them with insufficiency. The insufficiencies of the professor's life—he is not alone—the disappointments, are understandable, the perverse new vision of the real, distressing—as all revenge upon one's own experience is; for that revenge is the source of the vision.

One's career was not sufficient for the whole needs of life; one's private, cherished values were lonely ones; therefore, none of it was good, nor the academic birthplace, and one should have been Ted Williams (not a strange choice, that strong private man who needed no fans). Fortunately, there is the revolution. One has no doubt that the professor really means that there is a kind of death, psychological death, if one refuses the apparent life of the revolution. When one has felt at last that adrenalin, that community one has never had, one is being offered a chance, and it is perceived as the last chance of all—to live, real.

Unfortunately, the graduate schools did not teach, along with everything else, the proposition that a lifetime career in a university might not answer the whole needs of life (what career does?)—if it did answer some very special part of one; that one might find oneself with a degree and three books written, lonely, and in quest of a reality which was really real. But, as everyone knows, people have always gone to school, clung to institutions for things the institution could not possibly provide. That is true of teachers as well as students, it is true of revolutions as well as institutions.

If there is a lost generation it is not the very young, but the vast numbers of academics exiting from graduate schools in quest of a new reality, a new authority—and those, alas, will always be available. Like no other occupation, the life of the university teacher is burdened with expectations, promises of grace which will not be met, prestige which will not nourish, a special career arrangement of work and the beautiful, which often seems neither to be beautiful nor to be work. Perhaps more than any other calling, it is capable of disappointing deeply.


There are something short of 400,000 graduate students now, in 281 graduate schools in the country; it will be a large generation, subject to pressures from stranger sources than ever have come to the campus, stranger than their own necessities. It is everyone's new morality. When Secretary Finch of Health, Education, and Welfare joins in with his new consciousness, the latest rallier to progressivism: “The universities brought unrest upon themselves . . . attempting to serve many masters”—“a splendid statement, a really splendid analysis,” said Frank Thompson, Democrat of New Jersey. “Perceptive,” echoed William Steiger, Republican of New Jersey. One knows how many years they must have waited, only for the appropriate time to discharge their wisdom on this matter.

The lashings of newborn consciousness are familiar, their targets predictable. Now, out-reforming the academic reformers, Finch says the universities are “perhaps the least responsive to changes in American society . . . the faculty with tenure one of the most privileged classes in the world.” Indeed, I had always thought those particular honors went to the permanent heads of House committees. One might at least consider that people who have won tenure have in some way contributed to the sum of the world's knowledge. What the chairmen who adorn, apparently for life, the Senate and the House have contributed to the world's knowledge is best left unknown; one suspects the world's knowledge would be immeasurably enriched by its subtraction.

There was, as Marianne Moore says, never a war which was not inward. The academy has its old real enemies within and without, the darkness and the self-deception, the totalitarian impulse crusading as light. Those have always been available, as real as any enemy has ever been. But if the graduate students and the professors are looking for external confrontation in quest of the real, they should do well to form their own cadres and dislodge their own enemies—and they are not lurking around student barricades, nor are they up against that fabulous wall.


1 “The Graduate Student: A Profile,” December 1961.

2 For this writer's money they can have ROTC and academic credit for it, so long as they are giving academic credit for volley ball and marching around in gym suits. Both contribute not heavily to higher education.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.