Teachers and Teaching

In an excerpt from his posthumously published autobiography, James O. Freedman describes lessons he learned as an undergraduate -- and the professors who inspired him to be an educator.

March 27, 2007

During the summer months before I entered Harvard in the fall of 1953, I read The Education of Henry Adams  (1918). His sardonic, world-weary recollection of his undergraduate years at Harvard from 1854 to 1858 was not reassuring. Harvard “taught little, and that little ill,” Adams wrote, and “the entire work of the four years could have been easily put into the work of any four months in after life.” The best he could say was that Harvard “left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile.” In reflecting on his classmates, Adams dourly observed, “If any one of us had an ambition higher than that of making money; a motive better than that of expediency; a faith warmer than that of reasoning; a love purer than that of self; he has been slow to express it; still slower to urge it.” He had even fewer good words to bestow upon his teachers.

My own experience as an undergraduate 100 years later was quite different. It was indelibly marked by a number of teachers and writers who changed my life utterly and forever. They were models of the life of the mind in action. They made me want to be, if I could, precisely what they were: teachers and scholars.

Virtually from the day I entered Harvard, I wanted to be a professor. I found books intellectually exhilarating. Nothing gave me greater satisfaction than achieving a sense of mastery of the life and works of particular authors and thinkers -- not simply the sort that earns an outstanding grade on an exam but the kind that yields a rounded, nuanced appreciation. I came close to reaching this level of knowledge and insight, I thought, with Samuel Johnson, Sigmund Freud, George Bernard Shaw, and T.S. Eliot. I immersed myself in their most significant works, not once but again and again, and I read the leading works of criticism and secondary materials about them. Eventually I came to a fluent familiarity with the texture of their thought. Few intellectual efforts were more satisfying; few brought me closer to sensing the thrill of being a scholar.

My admiration for my teachers -- indeed, my wonder at how much they knew and how compellingly they wrote -- was unbounded. I thought of the words that Oliver Goldsmith used, in “The Deserted Village,” to describe the intellectual capacities of the parson: “And still they gaz’d, and still the wonder grew, / That one small head could carry all he knew.” I gazed in wonder at all that so many of my professors knew: Northrop Frye, seemingly about all literature; Perry Miller, about the New England Mind; Douglas Bush, about John Milton; Walter Jackson Bate, about Samuel Johnson and John Keats; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., about American intellectual history. Harvard, in Nicholas Dawidoff’s phrase, was “a culture that served men who had spent a lifetime accumulating knowledge.” It honored men of learning, scholarship, and wisdom. I wanted dearly to become a part of that culture, wherever it might exist and however I might qualify for entry.

How, I would ask myself, had Harvard chosen its faculty members so well, especially when it had chosen them when they were so young? How did it recognize intellectual promise with such consistent perspicacity? Perhaps there was something about the capacity of Harvard to reinforce a sense of destiny that elevated the achievements of its faculty members as they matured, just as it did of many of its students.

Many histories describe the fifties as years of intellectual passivity, simplistic religiosity, and political meanness, of “the organization man” and “the man in the gray flannel suit.” And yet, because of the craft and character of the best of my teachers, I regard it as a period bursting with decidedly powerful ideas. I am astonished still by the boldness and enduring authority of many books of political and social criticism published during that decade. As undergraduates who were then coming of age intellectually, my friends and I wrestled intensely, often late into the night, with the encompassing claims of those contemporary philosophies to which our teachers introduced us: especially Freudianism, Marxism, Keynesianism, and existentialism.

Each new course was an awakening. I read books that were unconventional and pathbreaking, books with bold and synoptic themes that would change forever how we thought about the world and ourselves -- books like Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society (1950), Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform (1955), F.O. Matthiessen’s The Achievement of T.S. Eliot (1935), Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness (1944), Morton White’s Social Thought in America (1948), and Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940).

As my professors explored in their lectures the rugged intellectual terrain of these challenging books, they taught me the beauty of powerful ideas, as a liberal education should. They gave no slack. I studied the political and historical analyses of such demanding scholars as Joseph Schumpeter, George F. Kennan, Richard Hofstadter, and Louis Hartz. I devoured the works of important modern novelists: Lawrence, Conrad, and Forster, Hemingway and Gide, Malraux and Camus. No contemporary novelist overwhelmed me more than Faulkner, who was an entire universe in himself, as were the very greatest writers, like Balzac and Dickens, who came before him. I struggled with the dense, often difficult poetry of Eliot and Yeats, Stevens and Frost, Auden and cummings. And I embraced the icon-breaking plays of the modern dramatists: Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw, O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Beckett.

As one who was fortunate to be an undergraduate at the time, I cannot accede to the conventional claim that these were years of intellectual and spiritual quiescence. These books and these men (my professors, in fact, were all men) made me want to be, throughout my lifetime, a reader, a learner, a teacher, a scholar.

By their loving immersion in their subjects, by the strenuous demands they made of their students, my teachers inspired me -- an anonymous student sitting in classes typically of several hundred -- to be passionate about the life of the mind. In the words of George Steiner, author of Lessons of the Masters (2003), each represented the ideal “of a true Master.” Steiner rightly adds, “The fortunate among us will have met with true Masters, be they Socrates or Emerson, Nadia Boulanger or Max Perutz.”

I yearned to become a member of their company of scholars. I hungered to write books like those they taught me so to admire. I wanted to partake of their professional way of life. What could be more thrilling or ennobling, I thought -- what could be more worthy or rewarding -- than a career as a teacher and scholar?

My naïveté about the possibility of teaching English at a good liberal arts college was brought home to me one day as I talked with a Radcliffe friend, herself the daughter of a distinguished professor. “I am wary about ever marrying an academic,” she said, “no matter how much I might love him.” I asked why, expecting that she would point perhaps to the modesty of academic salaries. “It might be that the best job he could get would be in Brunswick, Maine,” she replied. “Why would I want to spend the rest of my life in Brunswick, Maine?” She had injected realism into the conversation.

Almost all of my courses were taught in large lectures, typically of 100 to 300 students; occasionally a class would be as large as 400. Most of the professors had mastered the art of projecting to a large audience -- and this was in a period before the regular use of slides and other audiovisual aids. Some professors were accomplished orators or humorists, and some roamed the platform dramatically and with a practiced pace. Some timed their presentations to end in a grand flourish on precisely the stroke of the hour’s end. Many had established a reputation for one or two fabled lectures. Students would annually await the day of their delivery: Crane Brinton, a European historian, on the activities of Parisian prostitutes during the French Revolution; Walter Jackson Bate, a literary critic and biographer, on the death of Samuel Johnson; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a historian, on the embattled presidency of Andrew Jackson; David Owen, a historian of England, on British rule in India, always with the timeworn ditty:

  Briton meets native,
  Bible in hand. Native
  gets Bible. Briton
  gets land.

At the time I majored in English, the department had reached “a high plateau,” in the description of Morton and Phyllis Keller in Making Harvard Modern (2001), and become “the most notable of Harvard’s humanities departments.” Its intellectual leader was Walter Jackson Bate. Its senior professors, all “at or near the top of their games,” included Douglas Bush, Perry Miller, Harry Levin, Alfred Harbage, John V. Kelleher, Howard Mumford Jones, and Albert J. Guerard. And this list did not include such distinguished visiting professors as Northrop Frye and F. W. Dupee, both of whom attracted large student enrollments.

The greatest of all my Harvard teachers was Walter Jackson Bate, a man of immense learning whose humane exemplification of literature as a source of moral teaching shaped me in permanent ways. During a long career at Harvard he published the magisterial biographies Samuel Johnson (1977) and John Keats (1963), both of which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, as well as many books of criticism. Bate taught three principal courses -- The Age of Johnson, Literary Criticism (from Aristotle to Matthew Arnold), and English Literature from 1750 to 1950 -- and I took all three during my sophomore year, when he published The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955).

Bate was a frail, delicate man whose frame, in Nicholas Dawidoff's words, “appeared to be constructed of twigs and mist.” His lectures were conversational but deeply felt, meditations of a sort that were themselves a metaphor for his striving to achieve a perception of life’s tragic truths. He described, in tones of melancholy nostalgia, how he had come to Harvard as a 16-year-old farm boy from Indiana, without a scholarship, and been awakened to the life of the mind by the lectures of Professor Raphael Demos in Philosophy 1. He could be ironic and mischievous. He seemed congenitally sad and weary. He was the most memorable teacher I ever had.

Bate’s most celebrated course was The Age of Johnson. During the weeks of a semester, Bate led us through Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets (1779), The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), Rasselas (1759), and his achievement as a lexicographer in the two-volume Dictionary of the English Language (1755), in which Johnson sought, as he wrote in his preface, to capture “the boundless chaos of a living speech,” as well as generous, incomparable selections from Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Bate argued, again and again, that through his efforts to invest existence with meaning, Johnson had lived a life of allegory, as Keats said of Shakespeare -- “his works are the comments on it.”

Literature, for Bate, was an instrument of moral education and development. “Man was not made for literature,” he often recited, paraphrasing the Bible; “literature was made for man.” A protégé of Alfred North Whitehead, Bate sometimes repeated Whitehead’s premise that “moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.” For Bate, Samuel Johnson was the preeminent example of a life straining toward moral meaning and emancipation from adversity. “Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment,” wrote Johnson. Many of the illustrations that ornamented Bate’s lectures were drawn from Johnson’s tortured efforts to overcome his own idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, irascibility, and sloth. “The great business of his life,” Bate wrote, “was to escape from himself.”

I loved Johnson’s praise of Paradise Lost, with his conclusive reservation “None ever wished it longer,” and his famous observation that a second marriage represented the “triumph of hope over experience.” I admired the angry candor in his condemnation of self-righteous patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel” and his weary observation “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” I took delight in his blunt rebuke of Lord Chesterfield: “Is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind, but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot import it, till I am known and do not want it.”

Bate especially admired the paradoxical reversals that lit up Johnson’s prose. For example, Johnson once dismissed a book as “both good and original, but that which was good in it was not original, and that which was original was not good.” He admired, too, Johnson’s psychological insight. Johnson once wrote, “So few of the hours of life are filled up with objects adequate to the mind of man ... that we are forced to have recourse every moment to the past and future for supplemental satisfactions.”

Among undergraduates, Bate was especially known for involuntarily losing his composure every year -- some thought he was reduced to tears -- in describing the death of Johnson. He seemed as genuinely moved by Johnson’s death as he would have been by the death of a beloved contemporary. It was one of Harvard’s most famous performances. In another course I took from Bate, he was equally moved in describing John Keats’s deathbed wish that there be no name upon his grave, no epitaph, only the words, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Under Bate’s gentle guidance, I came to love the literature of the 18th century: the periodic prose of Burke, the wit and irony of Gibbon, the rhyming couplets of Pope. I have ever since been able to recite from memory a certain amount of 18th-century poetry, especially those poignant lines from “The Deserted Village” by Goldsmith: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

In a memorial minute adopted after Bate’s death by the Harvard faculty of arts and sciences, his colleagues wrote that he “gave his students what he said Johnson had given so many, the greatest gift that any human can give another, the gift of hope: that human nature can overcome its frailties and follies and, in the face of ignorance and illness, can through courage still carve out something lasting and worthwhile, even something astonishing, something that will act as a support and friend to succeeding generations.”

Another teacher whom I greatly admired was Albert J. Guerard, a professor of English and comparative literature, who taught a brilliant course entitled Forms of the Modern Novel. Three mornings a week he lectured to a class of more than three hundred students on novels from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), Zola’s Germinal (1885), and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) across the first half of the 20th century to Camus’s The Plague (1948) and Faulkner’s Light in August (1932). In between -- it was an all-star list -- he assigned Gide’s The Immoralist (1902), Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Lord Jim (1900), Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), among others. (I do not recall any reference at the time to the argument that Chinua Achebe would later make in “An Image of Africa” (1977); there Achebe denied that “a novel that depersonalizes a portion of the human race” -- he was referring to Heart of Darkness -- “can be called a great work of art.”)

Typically he covered a novel in an hour, always with luminous clarity and insight, as he introduced us to such critical themes as moral ambiguity and latent homosexuality. His great theme was the moral power of literature: “The greatest writers take us beyond our common sense and selective inattention, even to paradoxical sympathy with the lost and the damned -- take us, that is, to the recognition of humanity in its most hidden places.”

Professor Guerard was not only a novelist and critic; he was also a teacher of writing. Many of his students established themselves as novelists. One of whom he was particularly proud was John Hawkes, whose experimental novel The Cannibal (1949) he warmly recommended.

Guerard reveled in the beauty of a novel’s first and last sentences. He loved the way in which first sentences -- like Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” in Moby-Dick (1851) -- can set a tone for a novel’s primary mission. He especially admired opening sentences that invited a sense of intimacy, like “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” in The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Maddox Ford, or suggested a sense of quiet mystery, like “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” in The Go-Between (1953) by L. P. Hartley. (My father loved first lines, too. His favorite was from Scaramouche [1921] by Rafael Sabatini: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” He loved the reckless, romantic sweep of that language. Another favorite was the haunting opening sentence of Rebecca [1938] by Daphne du Maurier: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”)

I recalled from my high school reading the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...,” and that of Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen, which confidently asserts, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” As I became conscious of the tone-setting capacity of opening sentences, I looked in my reading for new examples. One that I admired appears in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” Another appears in The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus: “Mother died today.”

There are, of course, any number of further examples. One of the best in European literature is “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” in Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy. One of the best in American literature is “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter,” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain.

I especially remember a poetic lecture that Professor Guerard delivered on the importance of a novel’s final sentences. Most endings, he said, were melodramatic or tired when they should have conveyed a cadenced finality. Few approached the quiet beauty of the last line of James Joyce’s “The Dead” -- “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” -- or the lyric passion of the soliloquy of Molly Bloom that concludes Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “... and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” Few were as philosophically effective as the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925): “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” One of my favorite endings is that of The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway. “Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.” Jake responds, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

Professor Guerard was especially good at analyzing dialogue. The conversation that appears in fiction, he said, with the experience of one who had published several novels himself, is quite different from the conversation of everyday life. A tape recorder can capture the way most people actually speak -- in false starts, circuitous detours, and garrulous and prolix meanderings, with pointless and irrelevant insertions. But no matter how accurate the transcript, such a rendering will seem stilted in print. Fiction, by contrast, must use dialogue to achieve artificially the illusion of a reality that is more richly authentic and convincing than a tape-recorded transcript could ever be. For a conversation to seem natural to the reader, he said, the author must shape it, omitting the repetitive, relying on the telling phrase and the pivotal word. In the end, “nature requires the sculpting hand of art in order to appear in literature as nature.” The lesson was as true for the ornate, drawing room conversation of Henry James as it was for the terse, telegraphic dialogue of Ernest Hemingway.

Guerard spoke in a measured, husky voice. He was a mesmerizing lecturer, a dignified man of magnetic warmth. When the entire class spontaneously applauded a lecture he delivered early in the term, Guerard expressed his appreciation at the start of the next lecture but asked that we thereafter refrain from applause. He feared that he would think his lecture fell short on all of those more usual occasions when the class did not applaud.

During his lectures on Light in August (1932), Guerard described his only meeting with William Faulkner, a meeting at which Faulkner insisted that he was a self-educated Mississippian who had never finished high school and had little to contribute to a conversation about literature. His only ambition, he had written to Malcolm Cowley, was “to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” Guerard mentioned three books that he regularly taught: Notes from Underground (1864) by Dostoevsky, The Secret Sharer (1912) by Joseph Conrad, and The Plague (1952) by Camus. As it happened, Faulkner had a remarkably exact knowledge of all three. After that response, Guerard did not ask Faulkner about his obvious indebtedness to the cadences of the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare. Faulkner often asserted that he had never read Freud. “Neither did Shakespeare,” he told a Paris Review interviewer in 1956. “I doubt if Melville did either and I’m sure Moby-Dick didn’t.”

When the term ended, I sent a letter of appreciation to Professor Guerard, explaining that I intended to become a professor of English. I was thrilled to receive a reply. “There are many rewards to teaching,” he wrote, “but receiving such letters [as yours] is certainly one of the most satisfying. I’m a poor giver of advice, but would be glad to talk with you if you think I could be of any help.”

Several years later, in 1961, Guerard decamped for Stanford in a move that shocked Harvard: no one ever left Harvard. By the time of his death, he had published nine novels, six books of literary criticism, and a memoir. Among the subjects of his critical books were Conrad, Hardy, Gide, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner.

Forty years after my graduation, when The New York Times reported my impending retirement as president of Dartmouth, Guerard sent me a beautiful letter. “It was a pleasure to see your beaming, youthful face,” he wrote. “You seem much too young to retire. On the other hand I think you can look forward to the reading of many books and perhaps writing one or two. At 83 I’m still at it.” And then, recalling a conversation that we had more than 10 years earlier when he had been my guest for dinner at the President’s House at the University of Iowa, he added, “I have had many fine and famous people in my classes but you were the only one able to recite the reading list years after taking my course.” Few letters have ever gratified me more.

Even as I admired Harvard professors like Guerard, I was intimidated by the prospect of emulating them. I shuddered at the lifelong burden of reading that a career choice to become a professor of English would entail. I thought of the frustration of Eugene Gant, Thomas Wolfe’s protagonist in Of Time and the River (1935), who as a college student “would prowl the stacks of the library at night, pulling books out of a thousand shelves and reading them like a madman. The thought of those vast stacks of books would drive him mad: the more he read, the less he seemed to know -- the greater the number of books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never read would seem to be.”

“How,” I asked my father, “does Professor Guerard find the time to reread each year the novels that he is teaching, keep up with the scholarly literature, and read all of the new novels published in this country and Europe?”

“Don’t you suppose he enjoys it?” my father replied.

I also admired Northrop Frye, a compact, bespectacled man with a booming voice, who was a visiting professor from the University of Toronto. He had made his critical reputation a decade earlier with a book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947). He lectured with a strong assurance and an unusual clarity. As an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, he commanded both the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. Now he was about to publish one of his masterworks, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), which presented a complete worldview -- a coherent framework, comprising tragedy, comedy, and romance, in which all novels, poems, and plays had interconnected places. “Poetry can only be made out of other poems,” he wrote, “novels out of other novels.” His theory took the Bible as the mythological substructure of Western culture. All human thought, Frye argued, was shaped by that substructure. Anatomy was an elucidation of how an archetypal and mythological reading could illuminate all of literature. When I bought Anatomy at the Mandrake Book Store, the proprietor, comparing Frye’s volume to a current national best-seller, said, “This is our Auntie Mame.

The qualities that most distinguished Frye were the breadth of his learning and the Euclidean clarity of his lectures. He seemed to be familiar with the whole of literary output; he was the furthest from a period specialist that one could be. Frye pushed creative imagination to the limits. He admired the ways in which certain lines encapsulated thoughts with a near-perfect economy of words. Shakespeare, of course, was more adept at achieving this masterful concision of thought than any other writer. His plays abound with pertinent examples, of which the most supreme is “To be or not to be.”

Frye could be devastating on literary trendiness. “The literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange is pseudo-criticism,” he wrote in Anatomy of Criticism. “That wealthy investor Mr. Eliot, after dumping Milton on the market, is now buying him again; Donne has probably reached his peak and will begin to taper off; Tennyson may be in for a slight flutter but the Shelley stocks are still bearish.”

Still another impressive professor was the American historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. He was simply a wunderkind -- a brilliant intellect, a compelling writer, a scholar of breathtaking learning. The son of a distinguished Harvard historian, Schlesinger had had a meteoric career. The honors thesis that he had written as a senior had been published a year later as Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress (1939), and his work as a junior fellow at Harvard had resulted in The Age of Jackson (1945), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for history at the age of 28. Shortly thereafter, Schlesinger was appointed an associate professor of history with tenure, to the surprise of some historians who believed that he had drawn forced historical parallels between the politics of Jackson’s administration and that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Only later did I read the seminal work on that tendency, The Whig Interpretation of History [1931] by Herbert Butterfield.) Schlesinger had a near-adulatory admiration for Roosevelt who, he believed, had preserved capitalism from itself by introducing governmental regulation of its harshest features. During the term that I took Schlesinger’s course, he was completing The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919–1933 (1957), the first volume of his history The Age of Roosevelt.

Schlesinger was not only exceptionally skilled in dismantling the theories of others; he also was richly imaginative in building theories of his own. Many of Harvard’s courses in American history sought to define a national identity by emphasizing a narrative of accommodation and progress: consensus over conflict, the absence of a landed aristocracy, the liberating presence of the frontier, the opportunities for upward mobility, and the constant presence of renewal and rebirth. For Schlesinger, American history had been a series of conflicts between the forces of wealth and privilege and those of the poor and underprivileged -- what George Bancroft had called “the house of Have and the house of Want.” In an important passage in The Age of Jackson, Schlesinger wrote:

American history has been marked by recurrent conservatism and liberalism. During the periods of inaction, unsolved social problems pile up till the demand for reform becomes overwhelming. Then a liberal government comes to power, the dam breaks and a flood of change sweeps away a great deal in a short time. After 15 or 20 years the liberal impulse is exhausted, the day of consolidation and inaction arrives, and conservatism once again expresses the mood of the country, but generally in the terms of the liberalism it displaces.

Schlesinger was an admirer of Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909), which argued for a strong central government to address the problem of growing inequality. In Schlesinger’s reading, American history had been an “enduring struggle between the business community and the rest of society.” That struggle, in turn, was “the guarantee of freedom in a liberal capitalist state.” The goal of a pragmatic liberalism, perhaps ironically, was to prevent the capitalists from destroying capitalism. For that reason, he championed what he called “the vital center” where compromise and experimentation could devise practical solutions to democratic problems.

One of Schlesinger’s central domestic themes was that the New Deal had solved the problems of quantitative liberalism, and that the next decades -- starting with the sixties -- would be dominated politically and socially by issues of qualitative liberalism. In contrasting the old “quantitative liberalism” with the new “qualitative liberalism,” Schlesinger wrote: “Today we dwell in the economy of abundance -- and our spiritual malaise seems greater than before. As a nation, the richer we grow, the more tense, insecure, and unhappy we seem to become. Yet too much of our liberal thought is still mired in the issues, the attitudes, and the rallying cries of the 1930’s.” The concern of liberalism in the next decades, he believed, should be “the quality of civilization to which our nation aspires in an age of ever-increasing abundance and leisure.”

The new liberalism that Schlesinger envisioned presumably would emphasize such quality-of-life issues as civil rights, racial justice, employment discrimination, capital punishment, the availability of health care, religious toleration, gender equity, fair housing, educational opportunity, and environmental protection. Ironically, some of the qualitative issues -- perhaps they are best called cultural issues -- that came to the fore in the next several decades, such as abortion, gun control, school prayer, and welfare reform, had a distinctively conservative tenor. They cast doubt on the consensus theory of American development and illustrated Pieter Geyl’s observation that “history is argument without end.”

Schlesinger was fascinated by the American presidency. Following in the footsteps of his father, he organized polls of historians to rank the presidents. In the poll conducted during my student days, six presidents were adjudged to be great: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perhaps gratifying to Schlesinger, Truman was ranked near great, in the company of Polk, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt. The ranking complemented Schlesinger’s thesis that periods of liberal and conservative ascendancy alternated in 30-year cycles.

At the podium, Schlesinger, always sporting a bow tie and often a bold-striped shirt, was an impressive presence. His mind was both agile and deep. His lectures were incisive, meticulously prepared, and polished. Never was a word out of place, a sentence left uncompleted. His course on American intellectual history was riveting -- the largest in the History Department (and that was a department that included Samuel Eliot Morison, John K. Fairbank, Frederick Merk, Crane Brinton, Charles H. Taylor, Myron Gilmore, David Owen, and Edwin Reischauer). He was as penetrating in discussing the sociology of William Graham Sumner and Walter Rauschenbusch as he was shrewd in analyzing the political machinations of Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Because of his aplomb as a lecturer, I was surprised to read in the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century (2000), that Schlesinger felt great trepidation at the lectern:

I never quite escaped the imposter complex, the fear that I would one day be found out. My knowledge was by some standards considerable, but it was outweighed by my awareness of my ignorance. I always saw myself skating over thin ice. The imposter complex had its value. It created a great reluctance, for example, to impose my views on students.

Few professorial examples of intellectual humility impressed me as much as that of a colleague of Schlesinger’s, Professor Frederick Merk, a compelling lecturer who traced, with an unsurpassed skill, the westward movement, the role of the frontier, and the spirit of manifest destiny in American history. His lectures were clear, crisp, and witty. Students had affectionately named his most popular course “Wagon Wheels.” Near the end of the first term in his survey course on American history, Professor Merk announced that he did not know enough about the causes of the Civil War to lecture on it and that he had therefore asked Schlesinger to substitute for him in delivering the next four lectures. How many professors ever set their standards of intellectual humility so high?

My tutor during my junior and senior years was Professor John V. Kelleher, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Irish literature and culture, especially of the twentieth century. He held a chair in Celtic studies established by a Boston Brahmin expressly to promote understanding between the Yankee and Irish-American cultures.

Once a week I would thread my path through the Widener Library stacks for my tutorial hour with him. During the course of the two years, we read our way diligently through much of the poetry of Edmund Spenser (especially The Faerie Queene [1590] and “Epithalamion”) and John Donne. But the true lessons of these tutorial sessions lay not in the poetry itself, but in the conversations we had about the poetry. When Professor Kelleher read a poem aloud, my understanding of it grew. He taught me how to discover more and still more in the coded arrangement of words in poetic lines and stanzas. I was in awe of him.

Kelleher was a shy and modest man and a dedicated scholar. Crowned with a great shock of pure-white hair, he came from a blue-collar family in the mill city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he began his academic career as a junior fellow at Harvard and was appointed to the faculty without a Ph.D. Although he spoke with a severe stammer, he read poetry aloud in a deep and sonorous voice and with a lilting fluency, without any trace of a speech impediment. When he recited Spenser, his Irish accent captured the sound of Elizabethan English, he told me. He charmed me with his self-deprecating manner -- he was one of the most modest men I have ever known -- and his vivid recollections of many of the great Irish figures he had met: Maud Gonne, Jack B. Yeats, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, and Samuel Beckett.

He loved to talk, too, about the gradual transformation that was occurring in Irish-American society -- a subject I had observed at an ethnic distance but that he knew at first hand. He saw the transformation, as he later wrote in an essay on his friend Edwin O’Connor, as a “rapid demise” characterized by “the rise of the funeral home and the destruction of the wake; the death of the old people, the last links with that vanished mid-nineteenth-century Ireland from which we were all originally recruited; the disappearance of the genial, uncomplimentary nicknames; and finally, the lack of any continuing force, like discrimination, or afterward the resentment of remembered discrimination, strong enough to hold the society together from without or within. Whatever happened, there came a time when nobody felt very Irish anymore, or had much reason to. By the late 1940s that society was practically all gone.”

Professor Kelleher probably understood the works of James Joyce (and Yeats, too) as deeply as anyone in the world. His copies of Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) were extensively annotated and interlined with his comments on those often-baffling texts; they obviously constituted documents of exceptional critical brilliance. His favorite work of Joyce, however, was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). In an essay he gave me to read in typescript -- it later appeared as “The Perceptions of James Joyce” in the Atlantic Monthly (March 1958) -- he wrote, “I remember that when I first encountered Stephen Dedalus, I was twenty and wondered how Joyce could have known so much about me.”

One afternoon, as I was planning my course schedule for the next year, Professor Kelleher surprised me by saying that it probably did not make sense to take a course in Shakespeare. “No one can truly teach Shakespeare,” he said. “If you want to appreciate Shakespeare, you simply have to sit down and read him yourself, over and over again.”

Once I graduated from Harvard, I did not see Professor Kelleher again for thirty-two years, until he attended his 50th class reunion at Dartmouth in 1989. I was in the midst of my speech to his reunion luncheon -- at least 400 members of the class and their wives were packed into the room -- when I spotted him standing alone at a rear corner. His full head of pure-white hair was still a beacon. As soon as the lunch was over, I wove my way through the crowd, excited to greet him. “President Freedman,” he exclaimed, as we laughed in joyous reunion. For the first and only time, I corrected him: it was still okay to call me Jim.

One of Harvard’s most notable professors in the fifties was Perry Miller, who had returned from the war in 1946 as one of the university’s first professors of American literature. His wartime exploits as an OSS officer were well known; according to local legend, he had kept an Irish mistress, announced his intention to kill as many Nazis as he could, and accompanied the French war hero General Jacques Philippe Leclerc when the Free French forces liberated Alsace. Who knew whether any of this was true?

Upon his return, Miller began to offer his famous course, Romanticism in American Literature, concentrating on Cooper, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau. A year later, Miller offered one of the first courses in the new General Education program, Classics of the Christian Tradition. Miller went on to become an important intellectual and cultural historian, a leading exponent of Puritan thought, a gifted and exhaustive scholar with an unquenchable interest in theology, philosophy, and the history of ideas. He sought to capture what he referred to in Errand into the Wilderness (1956) as the “massive narrative of the movement of European culture into the vacant wilderness of America.” His work on the theological progression from seventeenth-century Puritanism to nineteenth-century Unitarianism was penetrating and original.

The two-volume The New England Mind (1939, 1953) that made his reputation had been published by the time I entered Harvard. So had his biography Jonathan Edwards (1949), with its evocation of the Great Awakening and its striking analysis of the role that Newton’s physics and Locke’s psychology had played in the formation of Edwards’s thought, and his anthology The Transcendentalists (1950). Miller published several other volumes while I was an undergraduate, including Errand into the Wilderness and The Raven and the Whale (1956), a study of Poe and Melville.

I took Miller’s survey course in American literature, which covered ground from Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor to John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Miller’s teaching style was compelling. He was a man of physical gusto and intellectual enthusiasm. When he read from Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he fairly bellowed the preacher’s theme of eternal damnation in a fire of wrath.

In his book Exemplary Elders (1990), David Levin, a Harvard student in the years immediately after the war, recollected Miller’s teaching authority: “Miller’s great skill as a teacher was exemplary rather than sympathetically imaginative. He had a brilliantly intuitive mind, an extraordinary ability to find the heart of a seventeenth-, eighteenth-, or nineteenth-century text. That gift, and the art of dramatizing intellectual history so that young students who had virtually no knowledge of theology would see both the passion and the intellectual complexity in the debates of narrow Puritans or corpse-cold Unitarians, made him a priceless teacher.”

Once, when our teaching fellow was ill, Miller conducted our section of 15 students. Shifting uneasily in his chair, he told us that this was the first time in his entire career that he had ever taught a section of undergraduates. He virtually implored us to participate voluntarily so that he could get through the experience. Miller died much too early -- in 1963, at the age of 58.

Douglas Bush was another professor whom I greatly admired. He was a quiet man, modest and understated, but his vast knowledge of literature and his deferential demeanor made a deep impression on me. I took his course on Milton and have always regretted that I did not take his course on the Victorian novel. Bush had made his reputation with a magisterial book, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600–1660 (1952). He went on to display his critical virtuosity in more than a dozen other books, including studies of Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, and John Keats.

(Nothing better illustrated his catholicity of taste than his unsuccessful efforts in nominating Edmund Wilson and Robert Frost for the Nobel Prize in Literature.)

Professor Bush’s method of teaching of Milton was to read the poetry to the class, quietly, patiently, line by line, pausing every several lines to comment on their meaning, historical allusions, classical references or echoes, and events in Milton’s life. Often it appeared that he was reciting from memory, rather than reading. Once, when the classroom lights suddenly went out, he immediately recited an apt passage from Paradise Lost: “More safe I sing with mortal voice . . . / In darkness, and with dangers compass’d round.”

Under the tutelage of Professor Bush, I came to admire the power and beauty of Milton. I reveled in the lyrical reach of his metered lines. I loved “Lycidas” (“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil”) and the sonnets, especially “On His Blindness,” with its canonical line “They also serve who only stand and wait,” which John Berryman called “the greatest sonnet in the language.” I also admired Milton’s prose, especially Areopagitica, his argument against censorship, with its stirring rhetorical assertion “Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Each year Bush asked his students to memorize 20 lines from Milton for the final exam. I took an easy path, choosing the opening passage of the short poem “L’Allegro,” a poem that Helen Vendler counts as “Milton’s first triumph,” and to this day I can recite that energetic passage on command: “Haste thee, Nymph and bring with thee / Jest, and youthful Jollity....”

During my undergraduate years, I had many opportunities to hear poets and novelists read their work. The occasion I remember most indelibly was related to Professor Bush -- a reading on May 29, 1955, by T. S. Eliot, who appeared in Sanders Theatre under the auspices of the Advocate, Harvard’s undergraduate literary magazine. Eliot had written for the Advocate as an undergraduate and now was helping the magazine to raise money. Because I had competed unsuccessfully for membership on the Advocate, I felt a special sense of yearning that evening, a desire to identify with this Harvard graduate who was perhaps the most significant living poet and critic.

After being introduced by Archibald MacLeish, poet, playwright, and Harvard professor, Eliot rose to speak. “I don’t think most people know or realize how important an undergraduate literary magazine can be at so critical a time in a young writer’s development,” he said. “It meant not only encouragement and companionship, but very salutary discouragement and criticism.” He went on to say that he wished that he had intended all the obscure classical references and complex layers of symbolism that scholars and teachers were “discovering” in his work and attributing to his scholarship.

And then he added a word of homage to Professor Bush. In a number of early essays, Eliot had downgraded Milton’s stature as an English poet. “While it must be admitted that Milton is a very great poet indeed,” he wrote in 1936, “it is something of a puzzle to decide in what his greatness consists. On analysis, the marks against him appear both more numerous and more significant than the marks to his credit.” In his celebrated rejection of Paradise Lost, Eliot wrote, “So far as I perceive anything, it is a glimpse of a theology that I find in large part repellent, expressed through a mythology that would have been better left in the Book of Genesis, upon which Milton has not improved.”

Now, Eliot announced, Professor Bush had since persuaded him that Milton must indeed be ranked among the great English poets. I was stunned by the significance of that statement. It was, of course, a tribute to Professor Bush. But even more important, it was a confession of a critical mistake. Eliot’s confession of error was an epiphany; it brought the audience into the intimacy of a writer secure enough, generous enough, to admit his fallibility.

Professor Bush was an indomitable proponent of the humanities. He thought them more essential to a liberal education than the social sciences or the natural sciences; they were, he said, “the most basic of the three great bodies of knowledge and thought.”

With firm conviction as well as a fearful pessimism, Bush once wrote, “We may indeed reach a point in our new Dark Age -- at moments one may wonder if we have not reached it already -- where the literary creations of saner and nobler ages can no longer be assimilated or even dimly apprehended, where man has fulfilled his destiny as a mindless, heartless, will-less node. Meanwhile, no scientific problem is anywhere near so urgent as the preservation of individual man and his humane faculties and heritage.” I have always cherished the passion of his conviction.

When I took Economics 1 with Professor Seymour Harris during my sophomore year, the subject had not yet become a mathematical, model-building discipline. The basic textbook -- an early edition of the classic work by Paul Samuelson -- emphasized macroeconomic activity: the role of government in fostering aggregate demand and stabilizing the economy, managing the business cycle, correcting misallocations and market failures, and providing public goods. It covered basic neo-Keynsian topics of the mid–20th century, like supply and demand, business cycles, patterns of saving and spending, the pump-priming role of government, and the indeterminate influence of the imponderables that constitute consumer behavior.

It was in this course that I was introduced to one of the most engaging books about economists ever written, The Worldly Philosophers (1953) by Robert L. Heilbroner. The course’s intellectual heroes were Joseph Schumpeter, who highlighted the “perennial gale of creative destruction” at the heart of competitive markets, and John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the century, whose emphasis on government spending to stimulate the economy animated the New Deal. Schumpeter, who taught at Harvard from 1932 until his death in 1950, emphasized the disruptive role of innovation and technological change in a competitive economy. His most famous book, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), was essential reading.

When it came time to write a term paper, I asked my section man if I might write on The Road to Serfdom (1944) by Friedrich A. Hayek, the Austrian economist who had studied with Ludwig von Mises and was perhaps the leading intellectual opponent of Keynesian orthodoxy. Although Hayek was a classical liberal, his book argued the conservative theme that the logic of the European welfare state implied the erosion of personal freedoms. He feared the results of central planning and social engineering; he admired individualism and the economic outcomes of unfettered markets. “Hayek?” my section man responded quizzically. “He is completely out of step with current thinking.” He expressed his disdain for Hayek’s so-called inevitability thesis: that if a nation experiments with intervention in the economy, it will eventually end up as a totalitarian state. He concluded, “I don’t see that there’s much you can do with that book.” And so I renewed the search for a paper topic. (Twenty years later, in 1974, Hayek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science.)

Having enjoyed Economics 1, I ventured into an advanced course in economics and political thought, taught by O.H. Taylor, a sad, shy man who led the seminar-size class with great gentleness through the work of the important theorists of the state and economic activity: Smith, Ricardo, Locke, Hume, Marx, Weber, and Veblen. Of all these thinkers, I was most intrigued by Weber and his argument, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), that Calvinist religious beliefs provided the economic basis of capitalism. Perhaps Taylor knew already that the place of this philosophical course in the economics curriculum would soon be doomed, at Harvard and elsewhere, by the increasingly econometric and empirical tendencies of the discipline.

Robert G. McCloskey, a political scientist, was a distinguished expert and fluent lecturer on the Supreme Court. His course was a stimulating review of the Court’s jurisprudence, emphasizing the historical forces that shaped the direction of the decisions of the Court. From him I first glimpsed something of the grandeur of public law. He especially emphasized the political alertness of the Court and the way in which it had historically tended to follow or confirm public opinion rather than challenge it. “[P]ublic concurrence sets an outer boundary for judicial policy making,” McCloskey wrote. “[J]udicial ideas of the good society can never be too far removed from the popular ideas.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Supreme Court occasionally challenged public opinion, often to its chagrin (as in the cases finding New Deal legislation unconstitutional), sometimes to its glory (as in Brown v. Board of Education, holding segregated public schools unconstitutional). Indeed, McCloskey emphasized the value to the Court as a deliberative institution in having one or more former elected officials (governors and senators) among its members.

During my sophomore year I took Edwin Honig’s course in creative writing, English C. I learned, to my grim disappointment, that I was not meant to be a writer of fiction. Honig was a poet, and he gave each of his 15 students detailed personal attention. He was a calming influence on his often tense, anxious students, never seeming to tire of reading endless manuscripts on the familiar subjects of first love, sexual initiation, and generational conflict. Honig appreciated that a teacher cannot teach students to write, but that he could, by wise and gentle criticism, teach them to improve their writing.

I wrote a number of short stories for the course, all of them wooden and unimaginative, obvious and predictable in their plotting. As was Honig’s practice weekly, he read one of my stories anonymously to the class for criticism; I squirmed in the hope that my classmates would not recognize it as mine, even though it was the best of the impoverished lot that I wrote for the course.

I admired Honig -- he was a humane man, tall, craggy, shy in demeanor, halting in speech -- and I read most of his books of poetry as well as his critical book on the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. From him, I learned that a writer must not only have a versatile command of language, he must also have something to say. Novels must have themes and make points; the best writers are thinkers. As a fledgling writer, I had a thin imagination and was bereft of striking ideas. I had no conception of what I wanted to say. I concluded that I did not have the creative qualities of a writer....

For all my admiration for my Harvard teachers, as a student I never met or had a conversation with any of them, with the exception of Professor Kelleher. After completing a lecture, most professors hurried from the podium as quickly as they could, well before any student could come forward to ask a question. The Harvard system of undergraduate education was not conducive to faculty-student interaction. Professors did not hold office hours for undergraduates, and they rarely took meals or attended social events at Lowell House. They were apparently too busy or important to spend time with students. The system was designed to ensure that students’ moments of personal discourse were with the teaching fellows who taught our sections, not with members of the faculty.

A few professors, inevitably, were terrible lecturers, and I wondered why the quality of their teaching was not better. The issue usually was not substance but style. James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s former president, once quoted Edward Gibbon on Greek scholars in the 10th century: “[The teachers of the day] held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony.”

Many professors didn’t seem to care about the organization or fluency of their presentations. Occasionally some seemed unprepared. Lecturing to a large audience was, I believed, an art that could be improved by instruction and practice -- wasn’t that what Dale Carnegie purported to do? -- and I assumed that professors themselves would find satisfaction in perfecting their lecturing styles.

Every faculty undoubtedly has its share of opinionated, self-centered teachers like Miss Jean Brodie, whose unorthodox prime is chronicled in Muriel Spark’s novel. For all her fervent dedication to her students, Miss Jean Brodie was a self-deluded admirer of fascist regimes who abused her position of authority. But my worst professors were not especially opinionated or self-centered -- merely dull. Were all of my teachers models of intellectual power and pedagogical clarity, let alone of moral stature and common sense? Surely, they were not, although I was probably too inexperienced -- or too dazzled by Harvard’s reputation -- to appreciate that.

Despite these limitations, I admired beyond measure the wisest, most learned members of the faculty and have been forever grateful for the models of the life of the mind that they provided me. From them I learned, as George Steiner wrote in Lessons of the Masters (2003), “There is no craft more privileged.... To awaken in another human being powers, dreams beyond one’s own; to induce in others a love for that which one loves; to make of one’s inward present their future: this is a three-fold adventure like no other.”


This essay is an excerpt from Finding the Words, an autobiography by James O. Freedman of the first 27 years of his life. Freedman served as president of Dartmouth College and the University of Iowa and was the author of Idealism and Liberal Education (University of Michigan Press) and Liberal Education and the Public Interest (University of Iowa Press). Freedman died of cancer last year, weeks before Finding the Words was to move into production at Princeton University Press. The press -- working with two of Freedman's friends, Stanley N. Katz of Princeton University and Howard Gardner of Harvard University -- finished the book, which has just been released. This excerpt is printed with permission of the Princeton University Press.


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