In Plato's Caveby Alvin Kernan, Alvin B. Kernan
In this candid and delightful memoir, Alvin Kernan recalls his life as a student, professor, provost, and dean during turbulent decades of change in the hallowed halls of Columbia, Williams, Oxford, Yale, and Princeton. His vividly remembered account is a unique personal story and more--it is also a history of what has been won, and lost, in the culture wars of the second half of the twentieth century.
Merle Rubin, Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal
- Yale University Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.46(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.23(d)
Read an Excerpt
Theater and Reality in
Exultant not only to have survived the war but to be on my way at last to a college education, I returned after five long years in the navy to the December snows of Saratoga, Wyoming, population 650. Other young men were straggling back from across the world, and we met in Charley Gould's Rustic Bar, in front of the huge stuffed mountain lions with outstretched tails that covered the wall behind the bar. Here we traded tales of the war, as long as the lions' tails, and sooner or later came around to talk of the future.
"What are you going to do now? Will you use the G.I. Bill?"
"Well, I just might go down to Laramie to the university and take some courses."
"There are lots of jobs around here now. Things have really opened up."
"Don't you want to get out? The government will pay for the tuition and give you sixty-five dollars a month, anywhere. It's a great chance."
"Why leave home? We've been away long enough already, and it's a good place to live, lots better than California, and it sure beats Germany."
"My folks are getting old and there's no one else to work the ranch."
In the end most of them stayed and became the state policeman, the town carpenter, the mayor who ran the trucking company, hired hands, sawmill workers, and ranchers. The pull of familiarity is a psychological force as powerful as gravity, and who is to say that this attraction to the known is wrong? For all its nostalgia, though, the American small town seemed to me Winesburg and Gopher Prairie, places where people in the end wear out, bored with a lifetime of doing the same thing, seeing the same people, thinking the same thoughts.
For me, it was time to go, and Candide departed Westphalia with no more confidence in himself nor higher expectations of the big world. I was one of those who feel that the most satisfactory end in life is knowledge; not money or power or prestige, but an understanding of people and the world they inhabit. I assented to Socrates' view that the unexamined life is not worth living. I had in my innocence developed a view of knowledge that will seem laughable in our skeptical days. Read the right books and listen to the right people, think in the most intense and logical fashion, I believed, totally and without question, and all the darkness of Plato's cave of illusions would burn away in the bright sun of understanding. I did not think that truth remained to be discovered; I believed that in the main it already had been found and that I just had not yet been informed of the results. The true nature of evil and of good, the structure of the cosmos and what existed beyond it, the workings of cause and effect, the laws of history, the nature of the mind, the rules that governed social life, what distinguished good art from bad, these were all, I believed, lying about like golden nuggets on the American campus, just waiting to be picked up.
I bought a decrepit blue 1936 Chrysler at a high price and went to California to see my wartime comrade Dick Boone. Acting was what he wanted, while I wanted knowledge, and New York seemed the place to find both. The huge car was a juggernaut once you got it going down the road, wearing out brake linings like Kleenex, but the valves and rings were shot, so it had no power. Loaded with our baggage it had to be pushed up the steep driveway of the Boones' house above Glendale, and by the time we had crossed the desert and reached Las Vegas, Dick was trying to persuade me to take it to a used car lot, get what I could for it, and go to a casino and put it all on red for one turn of the wheel. He reasoned that if I won I would have enough to buy a newer car, if I lost we would take the bus and be better off anyway. My reasoning was that it was all my money that was involved, not a penny of his, and that I had better hang on to what I had.
In Utah snow was falling and the road was covered with ice. The car gulped so much gas that it had to be driven in overdrive to get from one station to the next, but it had to be taken out of overdrive to get some control on the slippery road. The overdrive lever was sticky, and one of us had to crawl underneath the car with a hammer, while the other braced both feet on the dash. When the Übermensch shouted "Now!" and pulled with all his might, the Untermensch hit the connection sharply with the hammer. This continued all the way across the country in dreadful weather "How far to Joliet?" "Never heard of it" "until seven days later we thundered down the Pulaski Skyway into New York, nearly a century after the first train had made it across the country in six. I began to get some sense of how much larger the world was than I had thought when I took a cashier's check for a thousand dollars into the Corn Exchange Bank (it looked very sound) to open a checking account and was told, very politely, that the minimum balance was ten thousand, and that they couldn't cash the check anyway because they didn't really know ignorance of this kind seemed unbelievable to me if the Saratoga, Wyoming, State Bank existed. It took two weeks to get the check validated, and in the meantime we were broke, dependent for food on an old writer, Jimmy Hopper, still writing stories about the Philippine Insurrection, and his young wife, Elaine, whom Dick had known in Carmel before the war.
In time we ended up in one room in Greenwich Village, on Fourth Street. A partition at the back separated a filthy bath from a filthier kitchen and supported a small sleeping loft above. Some cheap water paint made it look better, and two iron cots with pallet mattresses made up the furniture. It was very like the navy, but free of navy discipline! Dick went off to the Neighborhood Playhouse, which was happy to accept veterans with the G.I. Bill, and I made my way up to Morningside Heights, where Columbia had set up an extension school for returning veterans. No doubt they made a little money on it, but they ran it well, staffing it with regular faculty and giving fine courses. All this was possible only because of the G.I. Bill, and here is probably the place to say something about this first step in the postwar democratization of higher education.
The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, more generally known as the G.I. Bill, was passed by Congress not so much to reward the 15.5 million people in the services at that time as to ward off dangers that might appear when at the end of the war huge numbers of soldiers and sailors were dumped into the economy. Eleanor Roosevelt had gone overseas to talk to the troops and had been greeted with raucous shouts of "Take it off," which so unnerved her that she told the press that war had brutalized the men so much that they should be held for a time after the war in camps where they could be recivilized for entrance into society. Congress was more worried, however, about what millions of jobless veterans might mean economically, remembering uneasily the Great Depression of the 1930s, the bonus marches, and the revolutions led by disaffected veterans in Europe after World War I.
With these concerns in mind, they set up a postwar plan for veterans that would pay unemployment insurance the famous 52/20 club, $20 a week for a year help with job placement, provide loans to build homes, give everyone mustering-out pay of $300, and pay a monthly stipend of $65, later $75, plus up to $500 a year for tuition, books, and equipment for anyone attending an accredited college. The $65 a month would pay for food, and the maximum of $500 a year would cover tuition at even the most expensive college in the country, Harvard, if you could get admitted. Married students got slightly more. Any veteran could attend for at least one year any college that admitted him or her, and an additional year of eligibility was provided for each year of service, up to a maximum of four.
About 15 million veterans used one or another of the various programs run by the Veterans Administration, but only about two and one-quarter million attended college from 1944 to 1956 on the G.I. Bill. It was estimated that of this group only 20 percent, of whom I was certainly not one, would have gone to college without government assistance. The program was most attractive to those who had served during the actual war, and the peak enrollment years of veterans were 1946-1950, after which it tailed off fairly rapidly until the program ended in 1956. By then there was a Korean War bill in place, but it was not nearly so popular as the G.I. Bill.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about the G.I. Bill. The old elitist views died hard. Robert M. Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago and one of the most prominent voices in American education, predicted in "The Threat to American Education" that as a result of the G.I. Bill "colleges and universities will find themselves converted into educational hobo jungles" (Colliers, December 30, 1944). The president of Harvard, the distinguished James Conant, in his annual report called the bill "distressing" because it did not "distinguish between those who can profit most by advanced education and those who cannot" (Harvard Alumni Bulletin, January 1944 and February 1945).
The veterans themselves had no doubts. Nearly half the students in college after the war were veterans. They were extremely discriminating, choosing only the best universities and liberal arts colleges, which were crammed to discomfort levels for lack of classrooms, dormitories, and married students' housing, while the poorer state and private colleges had empty places. The average veteran was twenty-five on entrance, with 56 percent below twenty-five and 17 percent over thirty. Half the veterans were married. Over the years the total cost was $5.5 billion for a college program that educated a generation of professionals lawyers, doctors, professors, engineers and began the full democratization of American higher education.
Selecting my courses at Columbia was a real pleasure. Modern philosophy, from René Descartes's rationalism to William James's pragmatism, seemed just the thing for someone keen to break into the realm of truth in a hurry. Political science, the history of political systems, would teach me the truths of government; creative writing would hone my literary skills; and math would reveal the bare bones of reality. What a delight the books were to buy, even with their cheap bindings and wartime austerity paper that seemed to be made of pressed oatmeal already yellowing and flaking. I have some of the books still: the slim ivory copy of The Discourse on Method; the blue cardboard of David Hume's Enquiry; the Modern Library short stories of Ernest Hemingway; a big, blue, and very expensive text describing all the forms of Western government, from Greek oligarchy to bicameral legislatures. Books have mana in Gutenberg society, and in many ways it is not necessary to read them but only to own the physical objects, to put them on your shelf where you can look at the titles, to absorb their sacred energies, which is really why scholars build personal libraries. But at that time I wanted to read them through and understand them as well, so at night I would sit in our room in the Village reading by the dim bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling about getting to the one solid thing that can be asserted without doubt and on which a world can be built "Cogito ergo sum" or, in a somewhat different vein, about Mrs. Macomber putting a bullet through the head of her husband instead of the charging buffalo. "Why ever would she want to do that?"
At least I read there for a time. Dick was soon recognized as a coming actor at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and he brought back to our room at night a number of other aspiring actors, many of whom, such as Kevin McCarthy, became well known in time. It turned out that actors learn their trade by an activity called improvising.
"Let's be a group of gangsters who have decided to kill Dick and Jane."
"Okay, but we get into a fight with you and escape. We try to stop cars to get a ride, and run up to people asking for help."
"Right, and we follow you, accusing people of helping you. After a while you get back to the room and we corner you here and have it out."
Then the roughhouse would begin, the prisoners would be lightly knocked about, clothing searched. Then the escape and hullabaloo in the streets where astounded citizens would be confronted by a wildlooking man and an attractive girl with her dress pulled off her shoulder. It was all a children's game, of course, good exercise, an exciting evening épatering the bourgeoisie, and it always ended back in the room and on the beds. As the springs creaked and new passion gasped, I retired to the gray-green toilet, strings of old paint hanging down the walls, pondering by the dim bulb Hume's argument that the mind is totally dependent on experience, that mental activity cannot discover the slightest thing about reality on its own. And so while I reflected on le bon Davy's billiard balls and whether one could know a priori what would happen if you hit one with another, pretense created pleasure in the grimy room just beyond the partition, until the exhausted lover-actors made their way off to some party and I could sleep in my rumpled bed. I had no sense at the time that we were enacting in that little apartment an epistemological drama between objectivity and subjectivity, trying to get at the truth and making it up, that would recur throughout my academic life.
In Greenwich Village things did not look so good for philosophy or for me, but I was slightly contemptuous, while at the same time envious, of people who had no interest in reality and had such a good time with make-believe. But there were attractive intellectual games as well, it turned out. My creative writing teacher, a very attractive young woman, always wore a red cloche hat while teaching something she associated with Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin literary round table. She put us to various exercises, sketches of action, scenes of indolence, nature descriptions, and so on. All veterans, we drew on the war for material, and she was surprised to discover that when a patrol whispered "Vehicles!" it was not a learned word unlikely to be used by soldiers but the standard warning when you didn't know what the hell was coming down the road, wheelbarrows, trucks, motorcycles, or tanks.
One afternoon after class she asked me if I could stop by her office to discuss a problem. One of the older and surer members of the class was making suggestive remarks to her and cornering her in ways that made her nervous. She wanted my advice, she said, about whether he was dangerous and how she should handle him. Would it be safe to walk home alone in the dark evenings? Flattered to be asked about intimate matters by so sophisticated a creature as this girl in her bright lipstick, dark hair, and red hat, I told her that I thought it was just a standard G.I. attempt to try to make any good-looking woman, and that there was no danger in it. Perhaps I was right, but would I mind walking home with her just the same I might even come in for a bit to talk about writing. Her nipples, it turned out, were the same shade of red as her hat, which she removed, despite my pleas, for thrashings and turnings on the bed of pleasure. Her marriage had failed from too much Hamletian brooding and a consequent impotence, but my own appetites were at this time almost entirely without complication, as were hers, and without thinking too much about it we managed to have a very good time on those dark winter afternoons after the writing class.
Back in the Village below Washington Square, Dick Boone and I, who had been such good friends in the navy, increasingly irritated each other. We still quoted our favorite poet, e. e. cummings, and laughed at the way he skewered "the brass" of an earlier war "straightway the silver bird looked grave, departed hurriedly to shave" but peace was too much for us. Theater and philosophy acted out their antagonism, Pretense bold and loud claiming the space for his own, while Reason, quiet but stubborn, insisted on certain rights. In the end Pretense was the stronger, and Reason moved out, finding an even grimier and smaller room in which to finish out the term. New York was not for me: I hated the crowds, the noise of the subways, dirty slush in the streets, and the constant edge of unfriendliness, if not downright hostility, that was the native manner. It was time for a country boy to move.
On an early spring day in 1946 I got the old blue juggernaut out of the corner of a lot where it had been stored, brushed off the dirty snow, charged the battery that I had kept in the corner of my room, and roared off without a map to drive around New England looking for the college. Not just a college, but the college. I was completely ignorant of the entire New England college ethos, the social status, the ranking order, the elitism, the admissions difficulty, but I had drunk deep of the myth of ivy-covered buildings, spartan living, transcendentalism and bold thinking, Concord and Walden Pond, and I knew that if I drove long and far enough I would find a place where deep study and wise mentors would resolve the troubling conflict between theater and reality, between Descartes's rationalism and Hume's skepticism, that my months in New York had revealed.
I came in time to Williamstown, Massachusetts, and there in that bowl in the Berkshires, The College suddenly spread out before me. The white Congregational church with its tall spire stood out against the purple mountains surrounding the town and the campus. Bells ringing in the evening, the Civil War monument to the graduates who died at Antietam and Cold Harbor, Georgian brick buildings and nineteenth-century Gothic stone, the long row of elm-shaded fraternity houses. I bought it all instantly, Colonel Ephraim Williams and Lord Jeffrey Amherst, Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other, Stetson Library with its niches for the busts of the great Shakespeare, Goethe, Montaigne the tiny old stone observatory. Even the beer bottles cooling on the sills outside the dorm windows spoke of evenings of easygoing, deep talk among students, as well as sophisticated laissez-faire on the part of college authorities.
Ignorance is not without its benefits, and when I presented myself at the admissions office without an appointment, without the faintest idea of the elitist reputation of Williams College, the admissions director was amused enough to sit down and have a long talk with me, mostly about the recent war and our experiences. He too had been in the navy, and we had been in many of the same places and battles. I enjoyed the talk immensely and would have carried on all day, but after a while it clearly was time to go. I thought it would help if I told the director frankly that I would like to go to Williams but that I needed to know whether they would admit me at least I knew there was a chance they might not and when, so that I could make my plans. He remained grave, puffed the pipe that was required in those days, and said he would if my Columbia grades and SATs were all right. They were, and I was duly admitted.
What People are saying about this
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >