The Hunt for Genius, Part 5: Three Elite Schools

15 Oct

I grew up in western Pennsylvania in a suburb of Johnstown, a small steel-making city. My father was from Baltimore and he worked with Bethlehem Mines, the mining subsidiary of the now-defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation. My mother was a native of Johnstown, had been there for the 1937 flood, and was a full-time housewife and mother. That was typical for the time, the 1950s and into the 60s.

Mother loved gardening and she was an excellent cook and seamstress. Father was more intellectual than most engineers. In addition to playing golf, collecting stamps, and woodworking, he liked to read, both fiction and nonfiction. Both parents played the piano a bit and enjoyed playing contract bridge.

I spent many hours happily immersed in books from my father’s library (which contained many books from his father’s library): Arthur Conan Doyle, Rafael Sabatini, Rider Haggard, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain among them. I went to school in Richland Township. The schools were above average, but not special. They did not regularly send students to elite schools.

I’d applied to three Ivies, Harvard and Yale, which turned me down, and Princeton, which wait-listed me. I’d also applied to The Johns Hopkins University, my father’s alma mater. They accepted me. That my father had gone there no doubt weighed in the decision.

A classmate of mine, quarterback of the football team, was accepted to Princeton. I believe he was the first student from the school to go to an Ivy League school. I don’t think he was very happy there.

I can’t say that I was happy at Hopkins either. But then I didn’t go there for happiness. I went there to get an education, which I did.

The Johns Hopkins University

Hopkins is probably the most distinguished of the elite schools I’ve been associated with. I did my undergraduate work there between 1965 and ’69 and then completed a Master’s degree in Humanities between 1969 and ’72 while at the same time working in the Chaplain’s Office as an assistant. This was at the tail end of the Vietnam War era and I was a Conscientious Objector to military service. I thus had to perform civilian service instead of being drafted into the military. That’s why I worked in the Chaplain’s Office.

After a so-so high school outside a small city in western Pennsylvania the intellectual life at Hopkins came as a welcome revelation to me. Ideas seemed important. Well, sorta’.

At the same time it was clear the coursework had its limitations. If a course clicked, then I tended to lose interest in assigned coursework for the last half or third of the semester. Instead, I’d immerse myself in whatever had attracted my interest. If a course didn’t click, well, I managed to stick it out.

What made Hopkins work was finding Dr. Richard A. Macksey, a polymath who taught comparative literature (in English translation for those who couldn’t read French, German, Italian, or Russian) through the interdisciplinary Humanities Center. I took several courses with him, an independent study, and subsequently did my Master’s under him. Other individual faculty were important as well, particularly Mary Ainsworth, Arthur Stinchcombe, Neville Dyson-Hudson, and Earl Wasserman.

But Macksey was the guy. Without him I’d have had a more difficult time graduating from Hopkins. He provided relief from the “system” and he knew that. Other students were attracted to him and studied with him for the same reason. He was particularly important to students interested in film since he taught a film workshop thereby enabling them to get academic credit for their passion. At least two students slightly older than me went on to distinguished careers in Hollywood (Caleb Deschenel and Walter Murch) and there may well have been others as well.

In terms of sheer brilliance I’ve never worked with anyone superior to Macksey and very few his equal. For whatever reason, he chose to work with and develop others rather than develop a large body of his own research. He taught many courses, more than required of him, and always had a group of students whom he worked with independently.

It would be interesting to compare his record as a talent scout with the record of the MacArthur Fellows Program. There would, of course, be a calibration problem. Macksey went at it for six decades or so (he only retired a couple of years ago) whereas the MAP has only been around for just over three decades. On the other hand the MAP has had more resources at its disposal.

Macksey is most-widely known, however, as the long-term editor of the comparative literature issue of MLN (Modern Language Notes) and as one of the organizers of the in/famous structuralism symposium of 1966: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. While Jacques Derrida is perhaps the best-known figure that spoke at the symposium, he was a relative unknown at the time. In fact, he wasn’t even supposed to be there. He was invited as a last-minute replacement for Luc de Heusch. The paper Derrida delivered, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” undercut structuralism as a movement and made him a star.

Though I was on campus at the time I didn’t attend the symposium – it wouldn’t have done me any good as it was delivered in French. But Macksey distributed an English translation of Derrida’s paper in one of his classes and I devoured it. It became one of my central texts for a while, though it didn’t diminish my enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss.

At the time, of course, no one foresaw the consequences of the intellectual currents that organized themselves through that conference. For one thing, the conference was organized as a new beginning, a beginning in the New World, for structuralism as an interdisciplinary mode of investigation. Instead, it functioned as the beginning of the end.

* * * * *

And then there is Chester Wickwire. When I entered Hopkins he was the Executive Secretary of the Levering Hall YMCA. The YMCA subsequently decided to withdraw from the campus, at which time the University took over the building and Wickwire became University Chaplain.

Wickwire was an activist. He was central to both the civil rights and anti-war movements in Baltimore, which activities made him suspect among the more conservative folks at Hopkins. In the spring of 1966 he brought Bayard Rustin to campus, which inspired the Ku Klux Klan to burn a cross on the campus. He also ran a tutorial program in which inner city (aka ghetto) kids were brought to campus on Saturday mornings where Hopkins undergraduates helped them with schoolwork.

I volunteered at the coffee shop Wickwire ran in Levering Hall, The Room at the Top, and in two film series he ran, one for classic American films and the other for foreign films. Dick Macksey advised Wickwire on films for both series and often held late-night discussions of the films at his house after the evening showing.

One summer Wickwire decided to book some films into the main campus auditorium, Shriver Hall, to raise some money. Chet was forever raising money, because, well, his programs needed it. We picked films that we thought would fill a 1000+ seat auditorium for two shows.

One of those films was John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. This was in the early 1970s before Waters had development much of a national reputation, but he was well-known in the Baltimore area. As Pink Flamingos had never before been shown in Maryland it had to go before the Maryland Board of Censors for approval – the only such state-level board in the nation. One scene in particular was in notorious bad taste, even by Waters’s standards: a small dog defecates in front of Divine, the film’s transvestite star, and she scoops the feces up so as to deliver a ****-eating grin.

In order to provide a bit of intellectual cover for this cheapest of cheap tricks, we – I forget just who – decided that Macksey should sign a brief but edifying essay about the film. Without ever having seen the film, I drafted the essay, Macksey OKed it, and we included it in the package that went before the censors. They approved the showing and the film played to a packed house. Chet made his money and we all had some fun.

* * * * *

Finally, I should mention Lincoln Gordon. A former United States Ambassador to Brazil, he succeeded Milton Eisenhower (Ike’s brother) as university president in 1967. He introduced coeducation to the undergraduate program in 1970 and was forced out of office by the faculty in 1971. The Wikipedia says that financial problems forced him to cut budgets and that displeased the faculty. No doubt. What I remember is that for some reason the faculty thought him arrogant. Whatever.

The point is simply that faculty displeasure did force him to resign. Universities are like that, at least some of them.

Faculties are by and large intellectually conservative. Academic research and scholarship are not “boldly go where no man has gone before” kinds of business. Library stacks are finite in length and someone has always been over every inch of them at one time or another. Thus I’m pretty sure that intellectual life at Johns Hopkins is still dominated by the walls between departments that Macksey found so troublesome.

At the same time faculty members tend to be prickly and independent minded. The faculty at Hopkins forced Lincoln Gordon out; years later the faculty at Harvard would force Lawrence Summers out.

There is a certain looseness about such institutions that allows interesting people to survive here and there in little nooks and crannies. Some of them may well be geniuses, but that’s not by institutional design. It’s merely accidental.

The English Department at SUNY Buffalo

Not so long before I’d arrived there in the fall of 1973 the State University of New York at Buffalo had been a private university, the University of Buffalo, and it was still known by those initials, “UB”. The State University of New York (SUNY) system had acquired it with the intention of transforming it into a Berkeley of the East. Student riots in the early 1970s, however, scared the local gentry and they put the breaks on any massive upgrading.

But not before the Department of English had been turned into the finest experimental program in the nation and not before David Hays was able to establish an eclectic Department of Linguistics. I did most of my coursework in English, as that was the department in which I was enrolled but. However, as I’ve explained elsewhere (e.g. in this essay on computational linguistics and literary study), I got my real education with David Hays. The English Department was fully aware of that and had no problems with it.

It was an extraordinary intellectual environment, as Bruce Jackson has explained in this essay:

For at least a decade, the UB English department was the most interesting English department in the country. Other universities had the best English departments for history or criticism or philology or whatever. But UB was the only place where it all went on at once: hot-center and cutting-edge scholarship and creative writing, literary and film criticism, poem and play and novel writing, deep history and magazine journalism. There was a constant flow of fabulous visitors, some here for a day or week, some for a semester or year. The department was like a small college: 75 full-time faculty teaching literature and philosophy and film and art and folklore, writing about stuff and making stuff. Looking back on it from the end of the century, knowing what I now know about other English departments in other universities in those years, I can say there was not a better place to be.

I have no reason to contradict that judgment.

It certainly did well by me. And by that I mean to imply more than the latitude afforded by the nature of the program. Most doctoral programs in English required competence in foreign languages, generally two, but sometimes three (with one of them being classical Greek or Latin). The requirements generally weren’t very stringent – you didn’t have to be able to write or converse fluently ¬– but they were real and they took time. Recognizing the importance of interdisciplinary work, the SUNY department allowed you to substitute competence in some other (relevant) discipline for the standard foreign language requirement. The department itself housed three such programs, literature and philosophy, literature and psychology (mostly psychoanalysis), and literature and society (e.g. Frankfurt school Marxism). I offered psycholinguistics, which I studied under David Hays, in linguistics.

Hays did both his undergraduate and graduate work at Harvard and took a job at the RAND Corporation where he ran their project on machine translation. He left RAND for UB in 1969 to become the founding chair of the Department of Linguistics. I began working with him in the spring of 1974 and joined his informal research group that fall.

For all practical purposes he guided my graduate education, though he had no formal affiliation with the English Department. Much of my dissertation, “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory” (1978), was a technical exercise in knowledge representation. As such it was opaque to my English Department readers, but apparently they trusted Hays’s judgment.

And they trusted me. No one said as much explicitly, but they awarded me the Ph. D. with only the mildest of reprimands for stretching the department’s loose requirements beyond the accustomed limits.

That department, as an institution, had a deep and abiding faith in the human mind and in the life of the mind. It was a place where knowledge and its advancement mattered. And, yes, post-modern ideas had taken deep root in that department, but contrary to popular stereotypes about deconstruction and postmodernism, they didn’t get in the way of a search for the truth. The SUNY English Department knew that truth and the mind could not be identified with nor hemmed in by institutional rules.

Thus they awarded my degree.

* * * * *

One spring the English Department faculty decided, on the spur of the moment, to throw a party. I believe it was the spring of 1977, after the terrible snow that winter. At that time the English Department was housed in two long narrow buildings with corrugated roofs. They’d been built as temporary structures, but they were cozy enough.

So the faculty opened a bar on the lawn outside one of the buildings. The party was on. There may have been some music playing somewhere, but mostly there were people talking and drinking and talking. Talking with people they’d never talked with before. Some people were pleasantly drunk; I was no more than mildly tipsy.

There was an ease and lightness about that was really quite wonderful. I’m sure I’ve experienced such scenes before and since, but not often – only two other occasions come to mind, one before (at Hopkins) and one after (at RPI). If I were to insert this party into a work of fiction I’d also mention the children that had been conceived after the party, for the party had an air of fruitfulness and spontaneity that defied lasciviousness.

It was fun.

I took my degree in the winter of 1978 and assumed a faculty job at the Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in the fall of that year. Two years later Hays decided that he’d had enough of academic life, that there was no intellectual adventure to be had in the academy. No one was boldly going anywhere no matter how much they yammered about it.

He decamped for the big city (New York) in 1980. I remained in touch with him until his death in 1995. We worked on a variety of projects and coauthored some papers (which you will find on the web HERE). He found his alma mater, Harvard, so disappointing that he stopped making contributions. But he loved the ballet and spent hours and hours over a course of years not only attending performances of the New York City Ballet (Balanchine’s company) but observing classes and talking with teachers and dancers to learn how the dance worked its magic on the human spirit.

Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute

Finally we have the Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where I had my first and only full-time faculty appointment. RPI was at that time and, as far as I know still is, a second-tier technical and scientific school, with MIT, Caltech, and Carnegie-Mellon being in the first-tier. I was in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication (LL&C) in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&SS).

RPI had just embarked on a plan to move up in the academic world and I was hired in that spirit. My background in the cognitive sciences made me particularly attractive to a technical school. The offer the Dean made me at the very end of my day of interviews had been sweetened by several hundred dollars ($500?) what the department chair had offered me.

I was excited to take the offer. I tried hard, they tried had, but it didn’t work out. I failed to get tenure and simply dropped out of the academic world in the mid-1980s.

Just why things didn’t work out, that’s not so clear. My major priority was to continue the research program I’d developed at SUNY Buffalo, cognitive science and literature and whatever else made sense. But there was little opportunity to teach those ideas at either the graduate or undergraduate level. So my research life was separate from my teaching life, and it was my teaching life that paid the bills, though I had to pump out the research as well.

But that was only part of the problem. There was a deeper problem. I never had the sense that RPI, as an institution, appreciated and respected the life of the mind. Johns Hopkins had, and so had the English and linguistics departments at SUNY Buffalo (I can’t speak for the school I general). But RPI felt different. And that, as much as anything, is what did me in.

At RPI research is simply what the faculty did in order to pull in grant money and earn reputation points for the school. Institutionally the money and the reputation points were more important than the knowledge gained and created. Knowledge (and education) was simply a means to an institutional end rather than the institution existing to serve knowledge. That didn’t seem to be the case at Hopkins or.

That, alas, is rather vague. But it’s the best that I can do.

An illustration might help. The School of H&SS was the weakest of the schools at RPI (engineering, science, business, and architecture being the other schools). Under the old regime H&SS had provided services to the rest of the school, a “liberal” component to the education and instruction in writing, languages, speaking and, shall we say, ‘civics’. As such research and publication was neither expected nor required of the faculty. Not so under the new regime.

So, to prove that H&SS was moving up in the world the Dean required the faculty to submit a list of accomplishments at the end of each month. These were then compiled across the school and forwarded to the Provost. This seemed reasonable enough to me, though it was a bit annoying. But then I learned that H&SS was the only school that did this. And that made the activity self-defeating. No matter what accomplishments appeared on the list, by simply producing that list H&SS said “we are not worthy”.

Well, the whole school seemed like that. I felt as though RPI would allow itself to strive for first-tier status only so long as there was no danger of actually getting there. Striving was easy. But getting there – well, then what’s there to strive for? Actual intellectual excellence? What’s that?

* * * * *

There was more to RPI than the faculty and students. When I joined the faculty in the fall of 1978 Eddie “Ade” Knowles was director of minority affairs. He was also a percussionist who’d been a founding member of Gil Scott-Heron’s Magic Band, and had recorded and performed extensively with Scott-Heron and with other ensembles. I don’t remember just when I hooked up with him, probably around 1980 or so, but we started playing together (me on trumpet and flugelhorn), initially to provide music for African dance classes conducted by Druis, his fiancé and then his wife.

The three of us then formed a group that performed as the Afro-Eurasian Connection and then as the New African Music Collective. We were artists-in-residence with a Schnectady middle school, performed various gigs in upstate New York, and even opened for Dizzy Gillespie in 1989, several years after I’d left the faculty at RPI. By the time I’d moved from upstate New York to Jersey City Ade had become Vice President for Student Life at RPI. He resigned from that position in 2011 and became a full-time Professor of Practice in the Arts at RPI where he teaches percussion and leads Ensemble Congeros.

* * * * *

MapInfo was founded in 1986 by four RPI students, Laszlo Bardos, Andrew Dressel, John Haller, and Sean O’Sullivan. Their initial financing came by and with the help of Michael Marvin, who was a manager in RPI’s Center for Manufacturing Productivity. After a year Marvin left RPI and joined MapInfo full-time. I spent two years with MapInfo in the early 1990s as a technical writer, reporting initially to O’Sullivan, who was then President.

O’Sullivan left MapInfo after, I believe, seven years, a bit before MapInfo went public. He’d burned himself out working 365 days a year at the company. He formed a rock band, Janet Speaks French, and then went off to film school at the University of Southern California. He went to Iraq to shoot documentary footage and stayed there as founder and head of JumpStart International, a “leading humanitarian engineering organization based in Baghdad and operating throughout Iraq during the post-war period of 2003-2006. He spent a few years running JumpStart, which for a time had a staff of over 3000 [Iraqi citizens], running up to 80 projects at a time in Fallujah, Najaf and the Baghdad region.”

He got married and left Iraq for Ireland (I’m not sure of the order) where he now lives. He does philanthropic work through the O’Sullivan Foundation and entrepreneurial work through SOSVentures. We exchange emails every two or three years.

And So? Break the Rules

If the MacArthur Foundation ran its Fellowship program in the spirit of the English Department at SUNY Buffalo, then perhaps it might deserve its reputation. Nothing I’ve read about the program, however, suggests that the staff and board have even half a clue about that kind of spirit. And that department only held that spirit for a decade or so.

The people who run the MacArthur Fellows Program have to be very good. But then so are the people who run The Johns Hopkins University, SUNY Buffalo, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I’ve met some extraordinary people at those places – many whom I’ve not mentioned. But they’re exceptions to the rules that govern those institutions. When the institution is large enough, various enough, and a bit loose here and there, exceptions will always come through. Always.

It’s the way of the world.

But how do you engineer an organization that finds only the exceptions? How to you make exceptions the rule?

I don’t know. And the MacArthur Foundation certainly doesn’t know either. But if they were to stop awarding fellowships to people on staff at elite institutions, they might catch a few more of those exceptions in their net. They need to focus on the people who move through those institutions. Those who stick around don’t need their help.

* * * * *

Earlier in this series:


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