“How does it seem to be an emeritus?”
My own answer, for what it is worth, is that I am enjoying it immensely.
I advise my friends to join me at the first opportunity.
That sounds as if I hadn’t enjoyed my
teaching. But I did. I enjoyed that immensely too, though I don’t think
I ever reached the height of William Lyon Phelps of lying in bed of a
morning and thinking with delight of his first class. With me it was
always a nervous adventure to walk into a Yale classroom. Yale boys
(they were all boys in my time) are a formidable lot to speak to—alert,
intelligent and responsive, but easily bored and intimidatingly
expressive. They are a generous audience, generous with the enthusiasm
of youth, and as ready to applaud heartily a lecture that they consider
good as to hiss a bad joke or laugh derisively over a Freudian slip. I
never felt quite safe until the lecture was over.
Still it was an exhilarating business.
The graduate seminars were in a way more exhilarating still, since
philosophy is the ideal subject to teach by the seminar method.
Philosophy, as Plato said, is a dialogue, sometimes with others,
sometimes with oneself, but always through a zigzag of arguments and
counter-arguments. To improve Swinburne a little:
We’d hunt down truth together,
Pluck out his flying-feather
And teach his feet a measure
And find his mouth a rein.
The give-and-take of discussion with
quick and able minds is an experience in which one can feel oneself
growing. And that, so Spinoza thought, is the best sort of happiness.
Though I enjoyed both lecturing and
discussion, reading student papers was another matter. It is the
grimmest part of a teacher’s life. He can’t avoid it, or at least he
shouldn’t, for writing is an essential part of learning to think or
speak with precision. It is becoming a lost art among students, some of
whom apparently graduate from high school without ever having written an
essay in their lives.
The teacher must make his students
write, and so far as practicable, he must read their writing himself. So
he must be prepared to be a martyr. It isn’t the A papers that give him
trouble; some of them he can even enjoy. Nor is it the papers that fall
flat on their faces with carelessness; he can deal out a swift F and
pass on. What he falls asleep over and must read again are the C+
productions, churned out by able students for credit only, written with
obvious boredom and read with an intenser boredom.
During my 40 years of journeying with a
hamper of papers on my back I resorted to a variety of desperate
stratagems to save time and sanity. I once had a big assortment of
rubber stamps made with such comments as “Elephantiasis” or just the
inarticulate cry of anguish, “Oh, Oh, Oh.” Once I had a pile of green
sheets printed with 40 of the comments that were most often needed—20 on
substance and 20 on form—and I would check the relevant squares, though
always adding a written comment. The method had an unexpected bonus.
When the student’s first essay came back to him with that green sheet
attached, he said, “So this is what the old geezer wants,” and on his
succeeding papers he set out to avoid entanglement with those squares.
That a pile of papers is no longer there on my desk demanding first
attention is one of the joys of being an emeritus.
There are other inevitable questions
that are asked of an emeritus besides “How does it seem?” One of them
is, of course, “What do you think of the younger generation?” My opinion
has small weight here, since I see so little of them now. But once a
week I talk with some of them, and of these I can only say that they
seem far ahead of what I was at their age—ready and alert in talk, wide
in their interests, intelligent, keen and courteous.
But these are seniors, and a
high-powered group. What of the run-of-the-mill undergradu-ates? I know
little about them except their looks, and here I am baffled. I walk into
a college dining room and see a convention of Alaska trappers or Nepal
hippies—unbarbered, coatless, tieless, tousled of hair and beard, decked
out in checked shirts and patched antediluvian jeans, visitors who have
wandered in from worlds unrealized, at least by me.
I had a divided mind about youth in the
years from 1968 to 1972. The students seemed in those years to be
following pied pipers who were slightly mad. Not that civil rights and
anti-war crusades were undeserving of praise, but that the attacks were
so often made at the wrong points. Presidents Perkins and Pusey of
Cornell and Harvard were not all that wicked; and the revolt against
liberal education in favor of “relevant” training for jobs has not
improved the curriculum. And when the pied pipers chose to make hash of
the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 rather than the Republican
one in Miami, the result was a wave of disgust on which a well-known
name rode into the White House by a narrow victory. The name was Nixon.
Was that what the young liberals really wanted?
The fact is that youth in this country,
charming and enviable as it is, is overvalued. In America youth has an
aura around it; if you don’t believe it, look at the cigarette ads,
where young love in green glades confers its daily benediction on
nicotine. The result is that America is an odd place to retire in. It is
a young people’s culture in an increasingly old people’s country. There
are more than 22 million of us who are over 65. At the turn of the
century we were 4 percent of the population; we are now 10 percent. By
the middle of the next century we are expected to be above 25 percent.
These are facts that we have not digested or pro~ vided for. We must
learn how to put to better use the 15 or 20 years that follow 65.
These years, as I said, have to me been
happy years. I have always wanted to read and write, and teaching left
too little time for either. Now I am scribbling delightedly the things I
have long wanted to say. I published a thousand pages last year that my
friends tell me are not unreadable, and am seeding an equal crop for
next year. The academic in retirement is a lucky man. He has been
cultivating interests all his life, and he has no excuse for boredom.
In fact, there is something in the view
that only bores are bored. For one thing, what a challenge the present
combination of inflation and recession offers to anyone who is
economically minded. I have never known much about economics, and
it has been a satisfaction to sit down with a fat book on the subject
and learn that it is a field with clear and intelligible laws whose
exceptions are hardly more baffling than those of French verbs. I love
poetry, too, and am inclined to think, with Sir Richard Livingstone,
that poetry is read with far more understanding in middle and later life
than it is in youth. As Henry Wriston says, “If your mind grows, as it
should, retirement is exciting.”
But I can’t subscribe to Browning’s
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life for which the first
Peace of mind comes from facing the
facts, and the best of life is not in fact the time when your work day
is cut of necessity from ten hours to four, when one can no longer play
tennis or swing through the country on long walks, when you gravitate
more and more to the rocking chair, and when the honing of the scythe
and the swish of the reaper close in more loudly day by day. What is
disquieting is not so much that the reaper is bound to catch up with you
at some point not far distant; you have known that all along. It is the
fact that when your body begins to sink, it may pull your mind and even
your character down with it. As some Frenchman said, “Pour être mort,
malheureusement il faut mourir.” Not even philosophy could halt that
descent in Kant and Nietzsche and Emerson.
Nevertheless I am convinced that
philosophy can do much—not the professional hairsplitting that some of
us have to teach, but the quiet attempt to see things as they are. Let
me set down a few of the things that I think philosophy does teach about
1. “The tragedy of growing old is
remaining young,” said Dean lnge. One does not feel one’s age; one is
the same person and too often tries to do the same things. I once saw
“Lefty” Grove called in by Connie Mack to pitch in a crisis. There were
men on base; no outs, and Ruth, Gehrig and Lazzeri coming to bat. Grove
struck them all out. Many years later I saw him try to pitch
again, and the sight was pitiful. One must know when to go and try to go
gracefully, not to hang forlornly on. Fortunately, the active lifetime
of the philosopher is double that of the athlete. The memory of names,
is the first thing to go, but that is unimportant. I found that I could
think and write about as well at 70 as at 30, and with better judgment;
only I could not keep at it so long.
2. Years ought to bring wisdom.
Americans and Chinese take curiously different views at this point. The
Americans say X is old and probably therefore dotty; the Chinese say X
is old and therefore probably wise. My prejudice has always been with
the Chinese. To be sure, as Bernard Shaw said, “there are cricketeers to
whom age brings golf instead of wisdom.” But experience, if at all
reflected on, should bear fruit. Dr. Jowett, the Master of Balliol, used
to say that the last 10 years of life are the best because then you are
freest from care, freest from illusion, and fullest of experience.
If I wanted wisdom in politics I would
go to Walter Lippmann in his eighties; if I were looking for wisdom in
philosophy, I would want to visit George Santayana, Bertrand Russell and
John Dewey in their nineties. True, there are cynics about all this. It
was Robert Louis Stevenson, I think, who said that the old love to give
good advice because they can no longer give a bad example. And one
remembers the cautionary lines:
King David and King Solomon
Led very merry lives.
With very many lady friends
And very many wives;
But when old age came creeping on
With very many qualms.
King Solomon wrote the Proverbs,
And King David wrote the Psalms.
Yes, one might say to the cynic, but
don’t you wish you could do as well? At any rate, we may balance the
cynic with Sir Thomas Overbury: “The good man feels old age rather by
the strength of his soul than by the weakness of his body.”
3. Even the changes in the body are not
all loss. Think of the rich expressiveness in some of Rembrandt’s older
faces. A Nobel prize-winner in physiology, Alexis Carrel, said:
“Unwittingly our visage progressively models itself on our states of
consciousness. With the advance of age it becomes more and more pregnant
with the feelings, the appetites and the aspirations of the whole
being. The beauty of youth comes from the natural harmony of the
lineaments of the human face. That, so rare, of an old man, from his
A senator once tried to get a
postmaster’s job from Lincoln for one of his aides. ‘‘I’m afraid not,”
said the President. “I don’t like his face.” “Surely you can’t be
serious,” the senator said. “You can’t blame a man for his face.”
“After 40 you can,” Lincoln replied.
Women are perhaps more troubled than
men by the appearance of crows’ feet and wrinkles. So it must have been
startling to many to hear from the best woman preacher I have heard,
Maude Royden: “No woman can be blamed if she is not beautiful at 20, but
every woman must be blamed if she is not beautiful at 50.”
4. But perhaps the most important
counsel that reflection has to after is: keep your interests alive. Not
all the vacant faces that one sees on retirement-home verandas are
physically necessary. The powers may be there, but nothing awakes the
interest of that vacuous stare. One of the purposes of a liberal
education is to provide insurance against that stare. Education is a
process of learning how to learn, and to learning there is no end. For
one who is liberally educated, life is not too long, but far too short.
Catherine Drinker Bowen, in A Yankee
from Olympus, says that Franklin D. Roosevelt, a few days after his
inauguration, went to call on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. “He found
Holmes reading Plato. The question was irresistibly, ‘Why do you read
Plato, Mr. Justice?’ ‘To improve my mind, Mr. President,’ Holmes
replied.” He was then 92.
In my philosophy of value, developed in
my book, Reason and Goodness, the only thing in the world that
has value is consciousness or experience, and the only experience that
has value in itself is one that fulfills a felt need of our nature. If
the felt need, the want, the interest is not there, the mind lacks yeast
and will sag like a lump of dough, even if surrounded with stimuli. The
rich minds are the yeasty ones that never stay put, not even at 70, or
80, or 90. Goethe was an example. “He achieved anyhow the greatest of
all triumphs,” said Lowes Dickinson, ‘‘Which is continuing to live to
the last moment instead of dying prematurely at 40 and then lingering on
as a rather malicious and destructive ghost, as most of us do.” His last
words were “More light!:
My wish for all emeriti is that they
might live like that and die like that.
Posted February 3, 2007
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