Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Thursday, June 1, 2017

COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

I think I have mentioned that my big sister, Barbara, and I are at the very same time selling our apartments and moving to Continuing Care Retirement Communities, she in Southern California and I here in North Carolina.  I am the unofficial family archivist, so as she sorts through her accumulated belongings and surfaces papers and letters from long ago, she sends them to me.  I receive them with the same eager excitement that a medievalist historian might experience who stumbles on a previously unknown document from the later thirteenth century.  Today, a rich trove of documents arrived, and right on top was a copy of a letter sent to me by the Dean of Admissions of Swarthmore College, dated May 16, 1950 [decisions were made later back then.]  The essence of the letter is that Swarthmore has decided I would do better at Harvard, and so is turning me down.  One sentence in particular caught my attention.  I was then in twice a week psychotherapy with a young Manhattan analyst, Bertram Schaffner, who it seems had been at Swarthmore as an undergraduate.

Here is the relevant sentence.  “Dr. Schaffner, whom I knew very well as an undergraduate and whose judgment I greatly respect has sent us a letter about you which recommends you and states his belief that you could complete college without danger of any breakdown or serious difficulty.” 


And so it was that the following September, I signed up as a first semester freshman for a course on Symbolic Logic with Willard Van Orman Quine.  At the time, I was quite disappointed with Swarthmore’s decision, inasmuch as Harvard required its undergraduates to wear a tie and jacket to every meal, including breakfast, but with the wisdom that sixty-seven more years has conferred on me, I can say, reluctantly but honestly, that Dean Hunt was right to send me on to Harvard.  I am pleased to report that I lived up to Dr. Schaffner’s belief in me and completed my undergraduate degree without a breakdown.

29 comments:

Michael said...

This is fascinating, if only because such a letter would never be written now. Not only are there far too many applicants to schools like Swarthmore and Harvard for any Dean to send personalized letters, but I suspect one that mentioned a therapist (even positively) would be seen as opening up the possibility for litigation. Things have changed.

Speaking of which, Paul Sweezy's syllabus and final exam for a course on the Economics of Socialism appeared online a little while ago: www.irwincollier.com/harvard-final-examination-paul-sweezys-economics-socialism-1940/

Matt said...

The Sweezy exam and syllabus are interesting. I'm mildly surprised to see so much Lenin included. I have the "Imperialism" book but have not got around to reading it. I'm interested in it because I have a long interest in Russian/Soviet history and thought, but I'm curious if anyone knows if it's given any real weight these days as to the content.

(I'd hoped to find the very nice scene from the great movie _Breaking Away_ where the various guys get college letters - one getting in and the others not. I can't find it, but the trailer is still nice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HL3U44It_No - the way old trailers work is also fun to see now. In the movie, they get the letters just before graduation.)

Jim said...

This is a response to Matt:

Actually, Slavoj Zizek places a great deal of weight in Lenin. In part due to Zizek's "popularity," Lenin has been revisited a bit. In 2002, Zizek published a collection of Lenin's writings from 1917 entitled "Revolution at the Gates." A quick search has revealed that Zizek will be publishing another Lenin anthology focusing on his later writings entitled "Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through." Regardless of what you think of either Lenin or Zizek, I think it is important that people continue to read Lenin both for historical and theoretical benefit.

-- Jim

Matt said...

Thanks, Jim - I'd forgotten about Zizek. (I'd like to be able to completely forget about him, I must admit - I don't find his "contributions" very valuable.) Lenin is obviously at least of historical importance, but what really interests me is whether anyone with any significant economic skill (like Sweezy but unlike Zizek) would consider teaching Lenin in anything other than a purely historical way these days.

Tom Cathcart said...

There are many mysteries in this letter from Swarthmore, which, as Michael says, could not be written today. Did Dr. Schaffner take it upon himself to write this letter? That would be weird. Or did you or your family ask him to? That would be odd too, given the stigma on therapy in those days. Or did you ask him to write as a Swarthmore alumnus, never dreaming that he would write as your doctor? Also strange. I came upon a letter to the college from my father, which they had apparently asked for. Also, very weird.

s. wallerstein said...

Matt,

You might teach Lenin's "What is to be done" on revolutionary strategy today, if you're one of those who believes that a socialist revolution is possible and desirable.

I think that Lenin makes a good case (which could be debated of course) that in order to carry out a socialist revolution you need a vanguard party of trained revolutionaries, that you cannot depend on the spontaneity of the masses.

I myself don't see a socialist revolutionary as possible and I'm agnostic on whether it would be desirable, but the question seems worthy of discussion.

Jerry Fresia said...

Very funny!

What strikes me is that you had access to therapy as a young man in 1950 and in - can we call it? - a middle class
family. How common was that?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jerry, it was uncommon in several different ways. Schaffner had just come out of the army and was starting a practice. He wanted to try something new -- using adult psychoanalytic techniques with a teenager. My mother was an office worker with a Manhattan organization called Child Study Association, and Schaffner came to them. He gave my mother a special reduced price for treating me, making it possible. Schaffner was, it turns out, a closeted gay man who lived and practiced well into his nineties. I have wondered whether the ease with which I took a supportive stance when my son came out to me had, in some obscure way, to do with that fact.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tom, I am not sure, but I think the sequence was: (1) I told swarthmore that I was in therapy (2) they expressed reservations about admitting me (3) I, or my parents, solicited a letter from Schaffner (4) the Dean wrote that letter, and when Harvard admitted me, Swarthmore rejected me, telling me they thought I would be better off at Harvard [they were right!]

LFC said...

I graduated from high school in the mid-1970s and was admitted to both Swarthmore and Harvard (note: to a virtual 100% certainty, I could not get into Harvard today given the competition and the tiny percentage admitted; for that matter, I'm not sure I could get into Swarthmore today either).

I went to Harvard, which was probably the wrong decision. I think I would have been better off at Swarthmore. I also, in retrospect, shouldn't have limited myself to the East Coast. But, as the cliché has it, that's all water under the bridge, as is every other (bad or good) decision.

Whoa, I don't usually like to get quite this autobiographical in comments! If I'm not careful, pretty soon the threadbare scraps of quasi-anonymity derived from posting under initials, rather than full name, are going to be in complete tatters.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

LFC, anonymity is not all it is cracked up to be. :) I calculate that makes you ~60 years old, so your best years are ahead of you. What did you major in? I suppose it is too much to hope that it was Social Studies.

LFC said...

I suppose it is too much to hope that it was Social Studies.


Yes, it was Social Studies.

s. wallerstein said...

I applied to college in 1964 and while I was also in therapy, I never told any college that I applied to about that. It was shameful back then, and I didn't tell anyone, except family and a few very close friends.

I am the one who was rejected by Harvard. I've always blamed that on having gotten into a heated argument about Zionism with my Harvard interviewer (he in favor, I against), but maybe I just wasn't up to Harvard's level.

I went to Columbia, I took one introductory philosophy course with Arthur Danto and found it over my head. I also had expected something else of philosophy, that we'd discuss Sartre and Nietzsche and Marx and instead we discussed the ontological argument for the existence of God. Danto defended it, and no one in the class could refute it. I was aware that Danto didn't really believe in the ontological argument either, but what I perceived as sophism on his part did not endear philosophy to me.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

This really is a family gathering! LFC, it seems you are one of my intellectual children! I am sure you know that I was the first Head Tutor of Social Studies. And S. Wallerstein, you were at Columbia when I was a senior professor there in Philosophy! Good grief, I feel we ought to arrange a reunion.

s. wallerstein said...

It's interesting how ethical values, intellectual tastes and artistic preferences formed or learned consciously during the transition to adulthood, at the end of high school and during the university years, stay with you your whole life and form the basis of personal affinities (those found in this blog, for example), unlike, in my case at least, values, tastes and preferences learned during early childhood from my parents, which I've generally no longer have. Of course, there is a huge unconscious heritage of my parents, which I do not deny at all.

Jerry Fresia said...

s. wallerstein,

If I may ask - and as an ex-pat myself just about your age - what motivated you to leave the US?

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

You ask what motivated me to leave the US. My motives and reasons will appear contradictory and confused, but here's more or less what went through my head at the time, 40 years ago.

1. It was 1977 and I realized that the 60's were definitively over. I was a 60's person, with 60's values and my life project increasingly seemed "out of it". I've learned that all the best projects are "out of it", but that took time to learn.

2. I wanted to become cosmopolitan, to shed my Americanity. I felt ashamed (more than guilty) about being American, after Viet Nam and so many other atrocities. For a time, I told people I was Canadian.

3. I imagined that others would see it as cool. I imagined myself Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca ("I came for the waters").

How about you? What led you to leave the U.S.?

Jerry Fresia said...

s. wallerstein

My motives were quite different than yours although I can certainly identify with you, especially around Vietnam. While I never made it to Vietnam, my strategy at the time for avoiding the war was to "fly a desk." So I ended up being an intel office for the Air Force, mostly in Korea. Bad enough.

I had dropped out of academia to become a painter when I was 40 and after a decade or more of organizing artists to present their work in public, earn a 100 % of their sales, and raise the quality of outdoor shows (see https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=o6u_TiLTTxQ) I achieved a good deal of success only to be stabbed in the back by San Francisco art elites. I decided then I wanted out. So my wife, cat, and I moved to Italy not knowing the language, with no legal way of earning an income, and not knowing anyone. So it was a bit of an escape and a bit of an adventure.

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

When I click on your link, it says "no videos were found".

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jerry, that is vastly braver of you than anything I have ever done! Good for you [and a big loss for us here.]

Matt said...

In a few days I'll be leaving to live outside the US for the second time - moving to Australia for work. That's not so adventurous really, especially with a generous (but not completely adequate) moving expenses stipend, but still difficult - needing to find housing, a bank, credit cards, get a driver's license, learn to drive on the left, buy a car, navigate a new health care system, etc. are all things that I'm not looking forward to. (The US's tax system is also difficult to deal with when living abroad, if you make any money.) I'll be glad to get away from Trump, though John Quiggin, the economist who posts on Crooked Timber, suggests that Australia is full of semi-trumps and would-be Trumps, though at least they won't be "my problem" in the same way. (This fits, I think, with Bob's "shame" post. It's how I felt when I lived in Russia, under the rise of Putin, too - sadness and disgust at what was happening, but not shame.)

The last time I lived abroad for a long period was in Russia, now a fairly long time ago. (I go back a lot, but haven't lived there for more than two months or a bit more at a time since the original time.) That was in the Peace Corps. In some ways that was actually less stressful than my current move because, while there were many things to get used to (including being illiterate and not being able to speak to anyone - I knew essentially no Russian when I went and learned it all there) most basic things were taken care of either by the Peace Corps or the people I worked for/with in Russia. And, I had colleagues all over Russia and so could travel all over the country with places to stay. And, my girlfriend (now wife) was Russian, so she could help me out with things. So in that way, it was easier - a time to sort of float above the world, watch, try to learn something and try to do some helpful things. This time, it's work and more serious, and whether there is a path home isn't clear, so the stakes are higher for making it go well. We'll see.

Jerry Fresia said...

s. wallerstein - if you wish to see the video, go to YouTube and search for "Red Umbrellas: Slow Art".......and thank you Professor; less brave than a bit naive.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good luck, Matt. It sounds like a major wrench. I have only visited Australia once, for a weekend, to watch my son play a chess game. I did actually see a kangaroo. :)

Matt said...

Thanks, Bob - I hope that it will just be a slog for the first few weeks and then get easier. We'll see. I'll be teaching fairly unfamiliar material but then, I've done that a lot over the last few years, too. I just hope the university bureaucracy will be semi-competent and not too hard to deal with. One thing I've learned while teaching a large number of temporary jobs is that it makes a huge difference to have a competent and friendly support staff.

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

You organized the red umbrellas event?

Jerry Fresia said...

S. wallerstein, I organized the series (4 successive Saturdays), the funding, the chairs, the performers, the publicity, etc. etc. (not to mention about 80 other exhibitions for the year, the red umbrella/red carpet look, maneuvering to get our sculptor in there -
- the steel heart and wishbone - against city wishes), and I filmed the events, edited and produced the video. This concept was 10 years in the making. The city then told me they wanted me to "curate" outdoor events in the newly renovated Union Square and asked that I present plans for future events. I did, replete with drawings and specs on every possible aspect. They took all that info and then got rid of me, saying that I was too controversial a figure to work with art groups in the city (given that I had had to push back against some art groups, over a 10 year period, who resisted moving in the direction I had in mind). It was then that I felt I had reached a dead end in the city. The artists themselves were reluctant to take the next step and resist (our show schedule had been cut back drastically after the series) and so I left the country in search of new opportunities.

Jerry Fresia said...

S. wallerstein.....I should add that through the funding, our group made money which went into the group's kitty and this in addition to other innovative exhibitions that put money into the kitty so that participating artists paid zero in fees and kept 100% of all sales; and in one other program I was able to use fees that would normally go to a consultant to actually pay the artists for exhibiting. Nearly all the participating artists made a living through the group. The next step was to fund health insurance and that is when the city pulled the rug out from under me. I might also had that the artist themselves never saw the outdoor shows as an independent force with which to challenge art elites while at the same time developing a direct and better relationshipto thepublic. Instead they saw outdoor shows as the lowest rung on the ladder and like so many, dreamed of making the big time so to be honest, they weren't terribly interested in moving in the direction I had envisioned.

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

What can I say?

They screwed you and no one, not even the artists, backed you up.

It's typical that something as seemingly uncontroversial as funding health insurance turned the authorities against you as a dangerous subversive terrorist.

It's a shame...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is indeed a shame, but also it is evidence of the power of art! Well done, Jerry, well done.