The Idea of a University Revisited

Old Boys, New Boy, Old Boy 1961-2008

I have spent most of my adult life on the faculty of New York University, a sprawling urban corporation that provokes both awe and disdain, occasionally admiration, sometimes rage and almost never love. Mater, si, Alma, no. I was, and still am, I suppose, what is called a professor, and what I professed was some knowledge of that part of the world called the Middle East. It is not a modest profession, this claim to expertise, and particularly when the expertise concerns real estate that has produced not only King Farouk, Ayatollah Khomeini and ISIS, but also, somewhat earlier, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.

Professors do not claim to understand all that, of course; their pretensions are somewhat more modest. One of my colleagues claims to know something about Moses and his followers, for example, and another (somewhat less) about Ataturk, and a third purports to explain—oh yeah?–the intricacies of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. Sit them down by themselves around a table and they’ll profess almost anything, of course; stand them up in front of students and their expertise shrinks; put them in print, and it wobbles on the head of a pin. It’s the modesty called professionalism.

What I originally professed to profess from atop the head of my pin was Islamic philosophy, which is a fairly comfortable subject since it has mostly to do with what other professors thought, most of them in the tenth or eleventh century. Not all of them to be sure, only the bright ones; and not everything they thought, just what they professed in their books and lectures. It is, as I say, a fairly familiar and comfortable terrain for its aficionados, and if those other long dead professors are occasionally obscure or difficult –they were, after all, philosophers– at least we were all speaking the same language, them and me. Aristotle studied what Plato thought and said what he thought of it, and Plotinus did the same to Aristotle, and the Arabs to Plotinus, and Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas to the lot of them, the Arabs included. And so on down to myself, though with ever diminishing returns. All that is required is that you can read some Greek and Latin and Arabic and somehow think like a professor. Nothing to it, really. It always seemed easier than trying to understand what Tutankhamen or the Ayatollah Khomeini were up to.

That was the unpromising load of goods I had to haul into the academic marketplace when they finally constrained me to leave Princeton and get a job. There are probably still some witnesses about who will testify that it wasn’t terribly difficult getting an academic job in those gloriously expansive days in the early Sixties, but I almost succeeded in failing. My banishment to the stacks of the Firestone Library had made me as insubstantial as my professors had intended. Perhaps they concluded that I never really existed or perhaps that I had gotten my degree many years before –“Remember that queer fellow who spoke Latin and was always going on about Transubstantiation? What do you think ever became of him?”– even as the actual me was standing in the shadowy library aisles waiting for one of them to pick up the phone and get me a job at Harvard or UCLA.

But not when you pick up the phone in May, as I finally persuaded one of my putative mentors to do. I had first to reintroduce myself –“Funny, Frank, we were talking about you just the other day in the faculty lounge. Are you back on a sabbatical?”– and convinced him that no, I was not back at Princeton on a sabbatical leave, that I was still his student, and that far from being tenured at Yale, as my mentor had thought, I was in fact looking for my first job. I would even settle for Assistant Professor.

Then the stars moved a trifle and I chanced to run into John Fine, the Chair of the Classics Department that I had deserted four years earlier.

“So, Frank, all set to move on?”

“Well, not exactly. I’m still looking for a job.“

“Really?” said he. All his Ph.D.s were already checking out housing at their new campuses.

“I think maybe someone dropped the ball,” I tried.

“Aha,” Professor Fine said. “Sorry.” Thoughtful pause. “Umm, come with me, won’t you?”

I did, half fearful, half expectant, and I was privileged to witness a delicate operation, no longer much in vogue but one that saved my life on that lovely Spring afternoon: Professor Fine dialed not into the Information Superhighway but its venerable predecessor, the Old Boy Network.

“Jotham, John Fine here.”

It was all so smooth, so clean, so decent: “That position you were looking to fill?…..Splendid young man here….Just the chap…Exactly…Of course….Best to Betsy.”

Well, I was in fact a splendid young man, and I was just the chap –the Old Boys trusted one other to tell the truth– so John did what he had do, and Jotham got what he deserved, and I had a job, as we all knew even before the phone descended back onto its cradle. The trouble was, it was considered very bad form to kiss one of the Old Boys after the deed was done. “Thanks, Mr. Fine,” was all the protocol allowed. I was now keen on learning the protocol on the very mistaken presumption that I would myself one day be an Old Boy.

There were, of course, some loose ends. The job was as an Assistant Professor of Classics and I had a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, but I knew, and John Fine knew, that no one was going to challenge someone who had eighteen years of Latin and whose docket included a translation of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon into Greek, the Attic stichomythia into flawless iambics, the Doric choruses into lyric meters of almost unfathomable complexity. The other very loose end might well have strangled me, though I was then so naive that I thought nothing of it: the appointment was for one year, to replace a faculty member on sabbatical leave.

Even the Old Boys like to inspect the goods they’ve accepted in trust, so there was a visit to New York later that May. I had little idea where New York University was, though I had spent more than one evening escorting impressionable young ladies around Greenwich Village. No wonder. The university hid itself in those days in a series of dour offices and lofts east and south of Washington Square Park, not the kind of sight you pointed out to dates and, I thought, not exactly the kind of place where you’d want to go to school either.

Jotham Johnson and the splendid young man he had bought were identically dressed in Princeton-issue tweed jacket, chinos, plaid shirt and knit tie, though three decades of a lifetime separated us. Old Boy and New Boy. He had been a field archeologist in Sicily and a navy lieutenant during the war while I was standing idly on Bronx street corners or kneeling in dark chapels attempting to pray. He did not seem to hold it against me; the Ivy apparently erased all differences. He sat back relaxed in his swivel chair, cast his crinkled, blue-eyed smile upon his newest recruit and, seven storeys above Waverly Place, described New York University for me. He made it sound like a small, Protestant, family-run business, an arrangement that I had never actually encountered before, but that now seemed like an exceedingly agreeable way to conduct any enterprise, even the world’s largest private university, and one that in fact had about as many Protestants in its halls as, say, Fordham University. I in turn tried to make my own life sound equally agreeable by a small edit here and there. Finally, we both paused at the same moment. He stood up. “Well, we try to run a trim little ship here.” He extended a friendly hand. “Welcome aboard.”

I love this man more than my father, I recall thinking, I want to stay here for the rest of my life. And, miraculously, I did.

There were a number of details which we hadn’t discussed, like my salary, an omission that amazed my more worldly–and employed–friends, but that I hadn’t even noticed, so pleasant was our chat. Nine years in the cloister doesn’t exactly prepare you for a world in which services are rendered for money, and, as those friends pointedly reminded me, rents are paid by the same medium of exchange. No matter; within a few days there arrived in Princeton what I was to discover was a typical Jotham Johnson letter, warm and chatty and filled with details. In the Fall I would teach four courses aboard his trim little ship, two sections of the Classics Department staple called “Introduction to Classical Civilization.”

But, as I think it was Ennius who said (in the Bährens restoration), “Nullum gratuitum prand[ium]” and so to pay for my lunch I was also assigned to teach “Ancient Civilizations of the Near East,” a subject about which no one in the Classics Department had the slightest knowledge or interest. That included its newest member, but since I had a degree in Islamics, and was, more importantly, the last one in the door and lowest on the department totem pole, it fell to me to untangle the Seven Oriental Monarchies, which I did every morning in the bus on the way to class. I was asked if I could handle second year Greek –”Sure”– and the last course in those dark days of four-course teaching loads was left entirely up to me; anything I might choose to offer the learning-hungry undergraduates would do.

The same letter proffered an invitation: I might, if I wished, pop up to New York and observe one of the faculty teaching a summer section of Classical Civ.So one July afternoon I was sitting in the rear of a non-descript classroom in the Main Building — a charmless edifice somewhat like the Texas Book Depository– and watched Professor Abe Holtz go through his paces on the Greeks and Romans. It was a highly instructive and euphoric experience. I had taught high school and I knew what that was like. Whether in the highly selective and Jesuit-conditioned Canisius High School or the dingbat circumstances of Rhinelander Country Day, it was work, a tough, grinding, eight month long mano a mano to see whether the students would learn something before I resignedly threw in the psychic, but none the less visible to all, towel. It required patience and stamina besides.

College teaching, I could see in an instant, was very different. Professor Holtz, a thoroughly affable gent with no visible attainments, stood before his thirty charges and narrated, sometimes cheerfully, always carefully, how things stood with Homer and Augustus. And the students listened, some of them, while others stared vacantly at him or each other. Their disinterest was–how can I say it?–polite. Jeez, I thought, this is going to be easy, and possibly fun. I could scarcely wait until September.

In 1961 NYU was a commuter school of no great distinction; Sidney Hook was the sole resident luminary. The students were all New Yorkers — Jews and Italians predominated in the college demographic –who portaged in to Washington Square from the outer boroughs, sat through their classes and then took the F or the A train back home. Many of them were part time; some took only evening classes. Nor did it much look like a university, not at least to a guy who had just gotten off a bus from a college groaning under a blanket of ivy. It was housed in what appeared to be anonymous office buildings –today there are flags hung outside that announce that this really is a university– arranged rather randomly around Washington Square.

There was one new building, Weinstein Hall, a no-frills dormitory on University Place, This was a bold new venture. It was the university’s first tentative step in outreach, an attempt to lure in a random student from New Jersey or upstate. That one day there might be students from China, India or Iran in its classrooms, and that there would be as many NYU dorms as Duane Reades in NYC was beyond the imagining.

On the south side of the Square stood an empty lot, the future site of a real library. Or so it was promised. The then current one was housed in the basement of the classroom building and was a scandal of the first order in a university that had graduate research programs. Undergraduates could be asked to buy their own paperback texts, but the graduate students survived only because the city had, in the New York Public, a superb library open to all.
The college classrooms themselves were large plain rooms with trestle tables for desks, with small aluminum foil ashtrays on them. Yes, Virginia, the students smoked during class, and there was even a mid-session smoke break so the professor, whose mouth was too busy talking, could get his fill of nicotine as well. Some maps in poor condition were hung up on rollers over the blackboards. There were rumors you could order a slide projector but no one really believed it.

I loved the teaching. “Classical Civ” as it was inevitably referred to, was a Classicist’s playground where Assistant Professors were free to swing, like frolicsome adolescent baboons, from Athenian olive to Roman pine without the constraint of either a lesson plan or a standardized final exam. Some in fact were rumored to have skipped entirely the political longeurs of the Roman Republic and to have bounded directly from Alexander the Great to Cleopatra. Classical Civ was High Anecdotage, a course constituted of engaging and entertaining set pieces –my own jewel in the crown was a highly polished gem I called “The Nutcracker Suite: The Decipherment of Linear B”— stories that converted pre-med students to Classics majors overnight.

Classical Civ was a romp; second year Greek, Plato’s Apology in the Fall, Homer in the Spring, was more like a private party. I had six students, all of them into Greek, I into them and they into me. About two weeks into Homer I had them all memorizing a new line of the Iliad for each session, and they then recited the entire growing accumulation at each new class. They were delighted at the ease of it. I taught them how to diagram Greek sentences –thank you, Sister Brigit O.P.—which for most of them was their introduction into the occult.

There was soon more: I taught undergraduate courses in Classical Mythology and Greek Tragedy, which were already on the department’s books, and soon courses of my own devising: Greek Thinkers (which eventually produced “Greek Philosophical Terms”) and The Near East from Alexander to Muhammad (this the father of “The Harvest of Hellenism”). In this latter a student stood and applauded at one point in the lecture. Why, I wanted to know. “It’s the first time I ever heard anyone say ‘Neoplatonic transcendentalism’ out loud,” To the graduate students I offered seminars in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Plotinus’ Enneads and, OK, pushing it a bit, Proclus’ Platonic Theology. I was well aware of what I was up to: I was educating myself.

It was clear to me that at NYU I had reached the point toward which my Jesuit life had been unconsciously tending, a little more and a little less. I was a secular professor, and though it was not at Catholic Fordham but at a very profane New York University, I was teaching subjects with more religious matter in them than I would likely have as a Jesuit. As a Jesuit at Fordham I would probably have given instruction in Plato and Aristotle with some kind of spiritual intent; at the very secular NYU, this particular professor started with Homer but eventually ended up teaching the New Testament and Sufism, though with no intent other than that of a historian. But I have reason to think the two teachers, the cleric I intended to be and the lay historian I now was, would have sounded pretty much the same. Credit that flash to one Mr. Jeffrey Spitzer, late of Forest Hills, New York and then, in 1961, an undergraduate committed to my care at NYU.

“Professor, sir?”

“Don’t call me ‘sir,’ Spitzer.” A true democrat, I, willing to waive my superfluous title. “What’s on your mind?”

Spitzer stood tensely erect in the hallway. He had an “idea,” I knew. Not the craven “I’m going to miss the exam” kind of idea or the shyly proud “I need a letter of recommendation to graduate school” idea. This was something more cerebral, by the look in his shining eyes.

“Do you know, Professor, there are two kinds of teaching…”

Aha, I thought, that kind of idea. A flash.

“…the Talmud way and the Aristotle way.”

“Go on, Spitzer.”

“In the Talmud way the rabbi puts the book in front of you and then you and he push the words around, look over them, under them, behind them. When the class is over you put the book away until next time, when you take it out and start all over again. You’ve been nowhere, but you’ve learned something, more than you think.”

“It’s called ‘noodling,’ Spitzer; you ‘noodle’ the text.”

“Right,” agreed Spitzer. “The spiral kind.”

“The spiral kind of what?”

“Of noodle. You know, twists. But the Aristotle way always goes from point A to point B, then next time from B to C. It comes out line by line, block by block, always going somewhere. The train doesn’t stop and you can’t get off until the end of the line.”

“And you learn less than you think, is that it, Spitzer?”

“Right.”

“And I teach like a rabbi, is that what you’re trying to say?”

“You teach like a Jesuit, sir. Pure Aristotle. Bang. Bang.”

Bang, bang was right.

“And how do you know from Jesuits, Spitzer?”

“I went to John Carroll for two semesters before I transferred to NYU. Did you go to a Jesuit university, sir?”

“I told you, Spitzer, don’t call me ‘sir’. And they’re called fusilli.”

“Who?”

“The noodles.”

Spitzer was right. It was unlikely that I would have changed my routine a great deal after twenty years of polishing. The delivery, timing, nuance were all as fixed in stone as the Decalogue, as timeless as the grim and grimy Doric facade of Regis High School where I had first learned my lines from master thespians. No, the lines were all intact; it was the audience that had changed. New York University was not Canisius High School, and Jeffrey Spitzer, for all his flashy insights, could not play Mr. Jesuit Student to engage in ironic dialogue with his Jesuit instructor. Willy-nilly I had descended from high Jesuitical dialectic to the barefaced monologue where Mr. Spitzer had discovered and unfrocked me. In this new world I was reduced to playing with myself.

The new Assistant Professor stood before those cheerful children of the New York bourgeoisie for a number of years and explained how things really were among the Greeks and the Romans, and later how the Jews got down and the Christians got up and what the Prophet of Allah had wrought in distant Arabia. They heard me out with extremely courteous attention, if not always with perfect comprehension. I thought it almost a miracle, the students’ acceptance of our joint venture in learning.

They had all been through it before, as I myself had, in elementary and high schools, but there was something very special about a college classroom that struck me the first time I ever stood in one as a teacher. There was a kind of seriousness about it, though without solemnity, and a great blossoming of ideals and aspiration. We were both redolently fresh, the students and their professor, it would not always be so.

We were disposed, all seven of us faculty defenders of the Classical Tradition, in a large open room in the East Building. The professors’ desks were neatly arranged in rows facing the door and behind us sat Jotham Johnson, my already revered chairman, his back to the large windows looking out on Washington Place six storeys below. It was right out of Dickens, with Greek travel posters, save there was no porridge served. You had to go downstairs to Chock Full O’Nuts with your spoon and get your own.

Like everyone else, I had my very own metal desk with a formica top and a metal swivel chair with a formica seat. Next to the desk was a straight backed metal chair for whoever might be ill advised enough to join me. Princeton it was not, nor was there, except for Jotham Johnson, any wisps of ivy clinging to the faculty. My first impression was of moderately successful insurance salesmen. They all wore their dark weekday suits with white shirts and ties that had taken a vow of anonymity. No bow ties here. No sartorial statements. Yet in no more than six or seven years faculty and students alike would be shedding these workday clothes, piece by traditional piece, and clothing themselves in the rainbow.

I sat behind my metal desk and looked expectantly at the door. Students didn’t much consult their professors, then or now, but the word must have flashed out around the student grapevine that there was this guy in the East Building waiting to talk to students. Or else sixty young souls heard the word “menstruation” uttered for the first time in public in a classroom and decided to check out just what kind of strange foul-mouthed beast had been washed up on their new academic shore.

So they came and sat on my metal seat and talked, about everything and anything: Vivaldi, the New York Knicks, whether Yom Kippur was more sacred than the Sabbath, the morality of locking your air raid shelter against your neighbor, how you dealt with a homosexual husband. I didn’t even know that last problem existed, but I didn’t think the student was asking for practical advice in any event. At least I hoped not.

I was promoted to tenure. It was a simpler, and easier, process in those days. Publications were less important than classroom performance, thank God, since I hadn’t yet learned how simultaneously to teach and write. I was a popular teacher and, I hope, a good one. I think the reason might have been my own enthusiasm for the subject, which I was still teaching in my high school style, relaxed, colloquial but informed and with a large dash of Jesuit irony. And there was also the reality that I was reviving a field, Classics, that I had ignored during the the four or five years I was attempting to become specialist in Islam. I was discovering an old love.

A transformation took place when in 1967 the university, which was slowly awakening from its slumber, decided to add the field, my field, of Middle Eastern Studies to its offerings invited my former Princeton teacher, Bayly Winder, to shed the comforting Ivy and serve as the Founding Chair of a new Department of Near Easter Languages and Literatures. Which he did, and more. At first the department made its home in a drafty corridor off the Main building –one college was housed in a porcelain office, a half-converted men’s room. But Winder was a born academic entrepreneur and before long the department was housed in its own spanking pink granite building on the corner of Sullivan Street, courtesy of a generous foundation. No more Dickensian quarters, and for the Chair there was a splendid corner office with a panoramic view of all the drug transactions in Washington Square Park. And the Chair was me.

By 1967 I was the Chair of Classics; Jotham Johnson, who was not given to dramatic gestures, died of a heart attack at a Chairs’ meeting, and on the very next day I found myself sitting, more than a little spooked, behind the desk of the man who had hired me a scant five years earlier. But the Near East called and my lofty Greco-Roman cathedra didn’t seem to matter much to the Dean and so for a couple of years I attempted to sit, like Proctus, the dual-butted brother of the two-faced Janus, on two Chairs, one in Classics and the other in the Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, as it was originally called.

It was a grave misnomer. Instruction was offered in Arabic, Persian and Turkish on the premises, but for the faculty (initially, Winder, me and three full-time others to cover Iran, Turkey and Arabic literature) and for the students, “Near East” meant politics and religion, and eventually the title was changed to Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. But it was more than a change in a name. From the outset Winder understood “Near East” to include the study of both Jews and Muslims –as a Quaker he tended to overlook Christianity, but I soon persuaded him otherwise— Israel as well as Syria and Egypt, a place where students could study the Bible, the Gospels and the Quran in their original languages and, it was hoped, objectively. His next two hires were a Bible scholar and a Rabbinics specialist.

It was a glorious enterprise for as long as it lasted. Eventually, however, the “pillars” of the university were seized of the notion –a quite correct notion, as everyone knew– that it would be far easier to raise funds for Jewish Studies if separated from its academic association with the Arabs, A divorce was arranged, amical but sad beyond the telling for most of us who lived through it. There were henceforward two distinct entities, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, which kept the building, and, right next door, a new Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. Both thrived financially in the new arrangement, but something very precious had been lost, a true intellectual collegiality that had illuminated and enlivened us all.

I was deeply and personally affected by this most recent parting of the ways. That company, and the mixed body of students it attracted shaped both my teaching and, more profoundly, my own intellectual development. From those contacts emerged what turned out to by my life’s work, the comparative study of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Almost everything I’ve written owes something, at times a considerable something, to the work, the example and even mere conversations with my Jewish colleagues. Shalom alaykum, amici.

I had been changing in other ways as well. Classics is pretty much a closet enterprise; you can master a large swathe of the Classical tradition without ever leaving the library. Not so Middle Eastern Studies which is, in effect, Area Studies. And so I had to leave the stacks, not entirely happily, board a plane and head east. And not just once: from the early ‘70s on I travelled every summer to some place in the Islamic world that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan.

The effect was immediate and palpable. I can still recall my stunned amazement when I first stood before the Dura synagogue frescos in the Damascus National Museum, close enough to touch them, or gazing at that enormous mysterious rock under the Dome in Jerusalem. And was that me no more than ten feet away from the Prophet’s tomb in the Grand Mosque of Medina or Ali’s in Iraqi Najaf? I had a new sense of place and, I don’t know how else to put it, a different understanding of the reality of the past. And it had its effect in the classroom. My classes became both more concrete and more illustrated. I distributed syllabi bloated with my new found learning and my lectures acquired a hard, almost German edge to them. My Powerpoints belonged in the Hermitage. I was less giddy, and so were the students.

Forty-seven years is a long stretch to be doing something. I changed professionally over the course of them and so did the university and its students. Hanging isn’t the only thing that marvelously concentrates the mind; an imminent bankruptcy will do it as well for a university. NYU sold off its Bronx campus, tightened its financial belt, gathered up its skirts, and over the course of a decade morphed from a commuter school with a student demographic that looked like the Staten Island phonebook to a sprawling corporate mega-university with campuses even on remote coral atolls (“Cultural Studies in a Pacific Paradise”) and in Antarctica (“Looking for a Cool School? Try NYU Deep South”) and more Vice Provosts than I had students in my original classes.

And while everyone was looking in the other direction, the fog of Postmodernism crept into the university on little frog feet, chiefly it appeared, through the porous membranes of the English department and -–O Tristes Topiques!— Anthropology. The cry of Nil nisi bonum de alienis rang through the halls of Main, and Middle Eastern Studies, the most egregious sinner in the matter, was awash in postcolonial hegemonic remorse. How dare you white guys pronounce on other people’s culture and religion? The faint of heart pivoted quickly from the study of the Muslim Brotherhood to that of Egyptian labor unions or dug an escape tranche from the “so-called” Shi‘at Ali –West 4th Street was littered with discarded ironic air-quotes— to an investigation of the wild flowers of the Zagros. I, the unreconstructed Orientalist, just ignored the nouvelle cuisine minceur and continued to pronounce, and at length, on other people’s religion.

My last classes in the first decade of the 21st century were very different from my first in the dawning 60s. Economics, the star system and a greatly enlarged undergraduate student body dictated that I now taught classes of 200 to 250 students in a converted movie theater on Eighth Street. I had help, of course: I was assigned seven graduate assistants to conduct discussion sessions as follow ups to the lectures and to grade exams. I showed up twice a week, stood on a stage for an hour and fifteen minutes and explained everything there was to know about Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Jewish students knew better, of course, the Christians didn’t seem to care and the Muslims went home and told their fathers what I had said.

It was easy work, far too easy in fact, and exceedingly unrewarding. I had turned into a kind of academic Dean Martin minus the tux and the tan. I entered onstage left, leaned on the piano and, styrofoam coffee container in hand, did an hour and fifteen of deep thoughts and sly bits cast out among the students in their plushy seats. It was good stuff, serious, interesting and entertaining, honed to the edge of perfection. My judgment, of course, not the students’.

It’s not as if that flash mob of undergraduates was indifferent or uncaring, The new NYU student was an ambitious overachiever, and if he or she didn’t have much interest in the Council of Florence or Hidden Imams, grades were a subject of great interest, No one of the 150 pre-med students sitting out there in the dark intended going to medical school at the University of Chihuahua at Mesquite . And they were as clever as they were ambitious. They quickly figured out that if they were going to game “Judaism, Christianity and Islam” it would be through the graduate assistants who graded the exams and not the guy up on the stage who composed them. The results were predictable: I lost all contact with the students; I had become in fact merely a performer.

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