Thursday, August 23, 2012


     My last post, on education, got me thinking  about my two wildest years as a professional academician.  From 1964 to 1966 I was a civilian assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, the only military or semi-military service I've ever done.  My stint there resulted from disillusionment with academia and religion at the University of Rochester and led to even more disillusionment with the military at Annapolis.  The entire experience taught me that academia, religion, and the military are all deeply fraudulent.
     I want to make clear at the outset that I'm not a pacifist.  Hobbes was right to describe human existence as a state of war.  The ultimate human appeal isn't to heaven but to armed force, as overt and covert wars throughout human history have proven.  Almost everyone believes that some, albeit often very different, principles are worth fighting and dying for, and wisdom has always dictated being ready to shed one's blood for them if necessary.  Armies and navies are indispensable to personal as well as national survival, a fact no African-American freed from slavery, no Jew freed from Hitler's death camps, and no human being freed from the Cold War has every seriously doubted.
     Yet armies and navies, like religions and academies, are incurably mendacious.  1962 was my first year of full-time college teaching.  I'd chosen the University of Rochester because it was the most prestigious eastern school to offer me an ABD (All But Dissertation) lectureship out of the Ph.d. program at Stanford.  Of my many reasons for not liking Rochester when I got there, none matched the the repugnance I felt for the chase for academic merit badges -- grades, honors, letters of recommendation, publications, etc. -- that had dominated my life since high school.  During 1962-3, it was all I could do to get the dissertation done for a June 1963 Ph.D.
     Which was all Rochester required the first year.  But at the beginning of my second fall semester, I was asked to read a forty-five minute paper from the dissertation to English department.  Finding nothing unreasonable in that, I put together twenty pages from one of its livelier sections and read it to my colleagues over wine and cheese at the faculty club.  Although I dislike reading papers to audiences, a technique I never used as a teacher, I finished this one without mishap and found that it stimulated more interest and discussion than anything like it since I'd been at Rochester.
     One full professor asked me a string of questions, listened to my answers, then suddenly stood up like he was late for something and walked out.  At the time, I barely noticed him because I was too busy fielding other questions.  But a week later, the chairman called me to his office and told me that while my presentation was lively, a senior professor questioned its validity and, consequently, whether I'd get tenure at Rochester.  He demanded I start publishing articles from the dissertation at once.
     Of all the blows I'd so far gotten from academia, this was the worst.  I felt like somebody had walked up and slapped me in the face for no reason.  Somehow I heard the chairman out and muttered thanks for his offer to critique anything I wanted to submit for publication.  From the moment I caught his drift, I saw he too was unhappy with me.  More painful, I understood that the man who had walked out had been trying to publicly insult me and my paper.  Back in my office, fuming, I couldn't believe what had happened.  Why, I asked myself, would a full professor with tons of money (the walk-out man was rich) waste so much petty, melodramatic overkill on a nothing like me?  Even if my paper deserved to be walked out on, which I refused to believe, why couldn't he have told me afterwards, man-to-man and privately?  What did he gain by trying to humiliate an academic insect in front of colleagues?
     Searching for an answer,  I concluded that academicians were more brutal and petty than I realized.  The idea of trying to get tenure from such people seemed nuts.  Hotly resenting this unexpected and, in my view, unwarranted command to hoop-jump, I found myself fantasizing about leaving Rochester as soon as possible.  Though I wasn't really serious about doing such a thing -- I was, after all, in the second year of a three-year contract --,  my doubts about my future there were now so strong that common sense told me to keep all my options open.
     As if all this weren't unsettling enough, I was lecturing in a world lit course that included key parts of the King James Bible.  Back at Stanford, I'd begun speculating that religious revelation might possibly have validity because of the billions of people who believed it.  My thought was that a sentient and intelligent god, if such a god existed, could possibly reveal itself through divine scripture as a rational favor to humanity.  But I'd never read or studied any such scripture closely.
     To prepare myself for the Bible lectures at Rochester, I started reading standard scholarship on the Old and New Testaments and was thunderstruck to learn that nothing in the Old Testament predated 1200 BCE, that most of it was patched together no earlier than 600 BCE, that key parts of it, like Job and the Egyptian erotic poetry known as the Song of Solomon, were borrowed from non-Jewish sources, and that the whole thing was packed with polytheistic myth and superstition.
     I also learned that the New Testament was based on savior-sun-vegetable gods found in many Mediterranean and Near East religions at the time Christianity was beginning.  Like Jesus, these gods were reborn at the winter solstice and restored life and the world at the vernal equinox.  I learned too that the authors of none of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) was born till many decades after the crucifixion; that the earliest of these gospels was written after 90 CE; that the latest, Luke, was a clumsy conflation of Mark and Matthew revealing much about post-100 CE Christian dogma but nothing about the historical Jesus; and that Revelations was part of an old Jewish literary genre.  Especially suspicious was the lack of reliable documentation before 60 CE, when the earliest part of the New Testament, Paul's epistles, were written.  All the miraculous trappings of Jesus' life and death resembled religious fable the world over.  In short, there was no divine revelation.  All so-called holy scriptures, including the Bible, were human fictions like the poems, plays, and novels I'd been reading all my life.
     A few weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated.  My shock at his murder, heightened by his being the first president I was old enough to vote for, transmuted during the week of televised ceremonies that followed into a patriotism that rushed into the vacuum left by my disillusionments with academia and revealed religion.  What moved me most were the military rituals honoring the dead commander-in-chief:  the honor guard in the Capitol rotunda, the empty saddle with reversed stirrups, the massed troops at slow march behind the caisson.  Those rows of disciplined, expressionless, anonymous faces stirred more grief and love of country in me than all the crying and poetry.  To me, they embodied the nation.  The United States is not like other countries, I told myself.  It's stronger and better.  Just as at Stanford I'd identified myself with American literature, I now identified myself with American citizenship.
     This new love of fatherland also affirmed my long-standing assumption that human life was precious.  My upbringing in the vaguely Judeo-Christian culture of American democracy had instilled in me a gaseous love of my own species.  Individual human beings were immensely valuable.  Everyone had to develop his or her potential to the fullest.  Everyone was so important that protecting his or her rights was the first duty of government.  And if individuals were priceless, humanity en masse was even more priceless.  Everyone ought to see everyone else as invaluable.  After Kennedy's assassination, American benevolism became my Holy Grail and Mecca.
     Though I'd always seen publishing, reading papers, getting on editorial and governing boards, winning awards and grant, and the like as nothing but academic scut work, I now also began questioning what to me had been the only meaningful thing I did as an academician: -- teaching.  Teaching literature had begun to seem like little more than imposing my own interpretations on my students.  Although I used published scholarship and criticism to ease into unfamiliar material, ninety-nine percent of my class preparation consisted of interpreting literary texts for myself.  Mostly I disagreed with the published criticism.  What was the point of promulgating my own interpretation of a poem, play, or novel?  It was just one more opinion; there was no right answer.  Often irritated by students who disagreed with me, I recalled my own scorn for most of what my own teachers had said in class.
     The December following the assassination was horribly depressing.  I was grinding away on an article to satisfy academicians who'd questioned my essential worth.  The weather was cloudy, cold, and snowy the whole month.  Near the end of Christmas break, I dropped by the English department office to check the mail and noticed a letter tacked to the bulletin board with the words, "Information for Candidates to the Civilian Faculty," across the top.  Curious, I discovered it was from the Naval Academy in Annapolis.  Normally I paid no attention to posted job announcements because I knew the kind of job I'd want if I were looking wouldn't be advertised like this.  But Annapolis?  I didn't know they had a civilian faculty.  The letter was from a Navy captain who was head of the English, History, and Government (EH&G) department.  It said the department wanted experienced civilian teachers with doctorates in English, history, economics, and political science to help overhaul its academic programs.  Qualified candidates were urged to apply.
     By the time I finished, my pulse was racing.  Everything about the idea appealed to me.  Like most American men born in the 1930s, I romanticized World War II, remembering the radio reports from the front, the boys in uniform, the salvage drives, the ration coupons, the gold stars in front windows.  Though after the war I myself had always gotten student deferment, Kennedy's murder had reawakened my boyhood longings to serve.  Knowing nothing about them, I'd always glamorized West Point and Annapolis.  My most heroic images of the war were of the naval battles in the Pacific.  One of my aunts had married an Annapolis graduate, as had her daughter and granddaughter, giving me a sense of family tie to the place.
     I took the letter home to my wife.  Six months pregnant as a result of an experiment with the rhythm method, she'd been trapped by snow and ice in the apartment with our two-year-old daughter for weeks and found the thought of leaving Rochester irresistible.  She too was drawn to the glitter of Annapolis after her year and a half of Rochester frowsiness and was sure that people outside of academia saw the Naval Academy as a far better school than Rochester.
     A week later I wrote the Captain a letter presenting myself as an assistant professor worth roughly $8000 a year -- a big promotion from my current rank of lecturer and a gigantic raise from the $6500 I was now earning.  By return mail the Captain invited me to join the EH&G faculty, not a year and a half from now but the coming fall.  He asked me to visit the Academy immediately for the obligatory on-campus interviews, during which specifics of my appointment would be discussed.
     Late in January I caught a 6 a.m. flight to Washington National (now Reagan National), rented a car, and headed east through the misty, soft browns and greens of rural Maryland, which, after Rochester's grim grays and whites, seemed exquisitely beautiful.  I reached the Academy's main gate just as the midshipmen were changing class and found myself in a sea of young men (there were no female midshipmen in 1964) buttoned to the throat in identical blue-black, brass-buttoned greatcoats and topped with identical, black-visored, white caps.  They exuded a rugged, clean-cut virility unknown at Rochester.  The Yard, with its granite buildings roofed in weather-greened copper, seemed to express the stoic strength I'd always associated with a naval career.  As I stepped out of the car and looked down tree-lined walkways towards Bancroft Hall, the huge dormitory brooding fortress-like in the mist, I knew I wanted to come here.
     Everything went well.  Several civilian full professors had good Ph.Ds and publications.  Some were witty.  The civilian staff I met was friendly and pleasant.  A civilian dean had just been appointed to revise the Academy's curriculum, and a few midshipmen were already being allowed to major.  Soon all of them would have enough elective slots in their schedules to concentrate in math, science, history, or even literature.  Especially appealing was everyone's telling me how important teaching was here.  These young men deserved the best  America could offer.
     The officers seemed extremely capable.  The Captain had been a Naval Academy Rhodes Scholar in the forties, and virtually all the ensigns and lieutenants teaching in EH&G as a tour of duty had master's degrees.  By culling these ROTC and OCS (Officer Candidate School) graduates from the fleet to staff the Academy, the Navy had assembled an amazingly well-qualified group of officers to help teach the required courses in plebe (freshman) and first class (senior) English.  The only drawbacks I saw were a lack of office space (everyone shared a large room called the Bullpen) and my own ignorance of military life.
     By the end of February the formalities were done and the Academy superintendent, an admiral, had offered me an assistant professorship at $8040 a year.  The day the offer reached me in Rochester, I took it to the chairman, handed it to him wordlessly, and watched his face cloud as he read.  Two weeks earlier, I'd given him the dissertation article he'd demanded, which he'd liked enough to advise me to submit without reservation to American Quarterly, a top journal.  "Well," he said, laying the Academy offer on his desk, "in terms of rank it's certainly attractive."
     "Yes it is," I said. "Will Rochester match it?"
     The bluntness jolted him. "Ah -- ah, I don't think -- no, no, I'm sure the rank won't be a problem.  Yes, I can assure you right now you'll be an assistant professor next fall."
     That was easy, I said to myself cynically.  But after a year and a half of personal experience and conversations with colleagues, I knew how miserly Rochester was.  "And the salary?"
     He squirmed, rocked his chair, rubbed his face, fiddled with a pencil.  "Um, that could be a problem.  Ah, a salary at that level would be more than all but a couple of our non-tenured people earn.  Um, I doubt that can be arranged.  Conceivably seventy-two fifty, but eight seems out of the --"
     Looking for any reason to quit, I stood up.  "I see.  Thank you."  Speechless with surprise, he watched me leave.  Not another word passed between us.
     Three weeks later my wife gave birth to nine pounds of flawless masculinity, and we had the same sense of excitement and fresh beginnings we'd had when our daughter was born at Stanford before the move to Rochester.  At the end of spring semester we took a house-hunting trip to Annapolis.  As though fate were smiling, we immediately found a three-bedroom brick rambler with two hundred feet of waterfront on the South River five miles from Annapolis, at a rent not much more than we were paying for the Rochester apartment.  Its front porch had a spectacular view of sky and water.  We took the place at once and went wading on our new beach, enthralled by its tidal, salty smell.