|[a] Mingled hope, confusion RF|
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I had a vision, and wanted to be a part of a genuine intellectual conversation—really an overlapping, complex web of conversations through history and across cultures—that had been going on since Homer, or the Duke of Zhou, or Herodotus, or Sima Qian, or Plato, or Xunzi. I hungered for something beyond even the excellent teaching I had found all around me in the snowy southlands of Minnesota. I wanted something along the lines of education as a calling—something that thought of the 3Rs as worthwhile foundations, but nowhere near why we spend our lives teaching ourselves and others. Something drove me that cannot be accounted for in potential for employment or lifetime salary possibilities. That meant little. I wanted to “talk” to writers and thinkers from all over the world and across the centuries—in their own languages and idioms.
That is why I had traveled to Taiwan with a stack of great Western classics. It was why I studied classical Chinese philosophy and literature every day, even as I scoured the back alleys and marketplaces to understand a lively, growing, and changing culture. When I carefully packed my bags for my two-year trip to Taiwan, I made sure that I balanced peanut butter and narrow lined notebooks with Herodotus, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. I was going to do history and anthropology and philosophy and literature and everything else—heaven (天) help me. I hated academic boundaries with a passion that has eased a bit over time but of which I remain powerfully wary. I had a plan, and it was (after living and learning in Taiwan) to be in Chicago in a few years. I had heard great things about the place.
The Committee on Social Thought? The what on what? The name itself posed questions I still have not thoroughly disentangled, even today.
Just a few years earlier, as a junior at Carleton College, I had made my way to a third floor office in Laird Hall, where I had expected to have a conversation about South Asian history with a visiting professor from the University of Chicago. A.K. Ramanujan taught at Carleton College for winter term that year, and he told me of the pipeline of students every autumn going from Carleton to Chicago, from their undergraduate work to specialized studies leading toward the doctoral degree. “Not everyone is specialized, though—at least not in the usual sense.” He accentuated the last phrase. He went on to describe a strange and intellectually vibrant body of scholars founded by a group of pioneering thinkers in the 1940s that included an economist, an anthropologist, and the president of the University. Some of the most interesting intellectuals (he used the word in a neutral sense that my egalitarian Midwestern ear could not then interpret) in the last half-century had taught there.
T.S. Eliot and Marc Chagall had been there in the early years. Right now (this was 1981) the faculty included the historian of religions Mircea Eliade, the Greek historian Arnoldo Momigliano, the novelist Saul Bellow, and the scholar who had produced the definitive translation (we still talked that way back then) of Plato’s Republic, Allan Bloom. By chance, I knew a little something of most of these people in my history, literature, and anthropology courses. Eliot? Check. Chagall? Check, check. Eliade and Momigliano? Good teaching had acquainted me. Bellow had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years before. I was old enough to remember…vaguely.
Bloom? Definitive translation? Huh? I had heard of Plato and The Republic, although I had not read much of the first or any of the latter. Bloom? Who was that?
In the course of the next hour, Ramanujan went on to describe this “Committee on Social Thought,” and to tell me of a seminar he had recently taught on the beginnings of great works of literature, as well as the larger concept of “beginnings” in historical, philosophical, and literary discourse. He explained that it was a place where students and professors embraced the ideals of liberal education, where they lived it through a steady stream of reading groups, seminars, lectures, and tutorials. Just a month before, he had finished ten weeks carefully reading Titus and Andronicus with half a dozen students, and he was looking forward to another small group studying Plato’s Theatetus in the spring. He described the Committee on Social Thought as a kind of liberal education for the graduate student, a place where aspiring doctoral students studied great works from the Western tradition, even as they pursued the particular scholarly paths that would lead to a place in academia.
This was it—what I had hoped existed even though I never could have articulated it for myself before that time. From that moment, I wanted to be nowhere else, and I was consumed by my desire to pursue my graduate studies in Chicago, in that peculiar and exhilarating program. I had been studying history, anthropology, and Chinese studies for several years by then, and was oblivious to the polite questions from my professors about the feasibility of combining the study of Western classics with Chinese culture. One of my anthropology professors, who had gotten his doctorate at the University of Chicago, said “You certainly are quixotic, Rob…isn’t that the place where people never finish?” I heard a great deal of that over the next few months, but I didn’t care. I knew that some people finished. The number was not hefty over forty years, I learned, but some did finish, including that strange figure named “Bloom,” who wrote a dissertation on Isocrates in 1955. People finished and started working. I wanted to be a part of the mix.
And “mixing” disciplines and readings in ways that “traditional” academia frowned upon was precisely what I desired. In the course of a patchwork education—the holes of which I was beginning to feel painfully the more I studied—I had managed to avoid almost every serious book that had bonded readers together in earlier eras. I was aware that some people bemoaned this condition, and had just read a book review noting that “fifty years ago, the publication of the revised Cambridge Ancient History would have been greeted by a wide and enthusiastic readership.” Now it was only specialists who cared. I had heard a bit of this kind of complaint because it was vaguely “in the water,” running like a small stream through my classes and my discussions with professors.
Until that day, I was mostly oblivious to it. I had “discovered” first the idea that I could learn anything at all at a reasonable level of accomplishment. No sooner had that sunk in than I found Africa, then China, in the course of my double major in history and anthropology. I had just enough acquaintance with what some called “the great books” to know that I knew absolutely nothing, and that most of my compatriots in Asian Studies and my other fields were not terribly interested in them. I knew just enough of my own ignorance to be enchanted, and to want to fill the prodigious gaps in my education. I had already begun this with great seriousness by initiating a program of memorization focusing on Western poetry. I started with T.S. Eliot and “The Wasteland” as my initial text. That done, and—for better or worse—coursing through my consciousness since that time, I went on to the Selected Poems, the Four Quartets, and, eventually to other writers and even other genres and languages. It was a clumsy but ever-so-serious attempt to begin repairing the dike of my ignorance. Just several years before, I had no idea that it was even a problem.
Leaving Professor Ramanujan’s office that day was freeing. I now had a plan to go with the memory work I had begun. Combining specialized study of Chinese culture with Western classics was precisely what I desired. I was a student from a Western country, and was beginning to see myself even then as part of a long and alternately problematic and illustrious Western tradition—from Herodotus studying the Persians onward—that took seriously the study of phenomena beyond cultural and political borders. I was going to get my doctoral degree from the Committee on Social Thought—a place I never even thought possible an hour earlier.
This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Opening Mind and Letter
Hoping, planning, and crafting.