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Episodes of alumni concern

From a note originally sent by Prof. Birnbaum to DK, republished here with permission – Ronit

Dear David,

Re the matter of Mr. Moore, I note that the discussion has ebbed somewhat—although of course it is entirely understandable that alumni and parents and friends would be distressed by the news. In my own contacts with persons from higher education, no one has mentioned it—perhaps because everyone is too concerned with difficulties at their home institutions. I ran into the Georgetown Law Dean of Admissions the other day, but he did not inform me that he was subjecting Williams applications to special scrutiny.

In brief, the world goes on……

Of course, there are any number of memories evoked by alumni interest. I recollect a period at a sister institution, when alumni and trustees were convinced that faculty were taking liberties with academic freedom. Amherst’s President at the time, a former faculty member and fine Americanist, Bill Ward, invited some faculty and some alumni and trustees to dinner. The discussion proceeded on familiar lines, until a Trustee said that he thought that the President “ought to run a tight ship.” A faculty member thereupon identified himself as a navy reserve officer, declared that a liberal arts college had to be distinguished from an aircraft carrier, and noted that in any event under the theory and practise of combat command in effect in the Navy, a good deal of decentralization and independent initiative by officers, petty officers and ratings was called for. Bill held no more such dinners that year…..

As for Williams itself, historians could produce any number of episodes of alumni concern. Sometime in early modern history, before internet, a somewhat overwrought young lady attending Williams wrote an article for the monthly Commentary. She objected to unisex dorms, and to feminist ideas in the classroom, since (she explained) she was from an Orthodox Jewish family and offended by these things. No doubt, but she did know about these aspects of Williams life before coming and could have enjoyed the relative tranquillity of the women’s college of Yeshiva (academically excellent, too.) The article attracted the attention of a Washington journalist named John Leo and he wrote a column on ideological oppression at the liberal arts colleges, with Williams in the dock. The fact that Leo did not trouble to visit the campus, or to make any other effort to inform himself of the situation, seemed not to bother any number of alumni who promptly wrote to the Alumni Review—their worst fears having found confirmation…..

In my own time, I was once shown (1946, I think) a letter from an eminent alumnus to President James Phinney Baxter of revered memory. He said that he and others were profoundly worried. Younger graduates were coming to their investment firms apparently convinced that Sir John Maynard Keynes was right about the economic cycle. The US was then about to enter, despite all fears of post-war depression, one of the most sustained and broadest periods of economic growth in our history—not least due to the Keynesianism of the economists advising the government. Given present arguments, one can only say, plus ça change……

Very best regards and thanks for posting my efforts,
and thanks as well to those who took the trouble to comment,

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#1 Comment By frank uible On January 27, 2010 @ 12:50 pm


#2 Comment By Jr. Mom On January 27, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

Professor Birnbaum:

Your wonderful essay got a bit upstaged by a bit of EB noise. I, for one, am grateful for all the dots you managed to connect and highly recommend it. Suffice to say, I will listen to Obama’s address a bit more attentively as a result of having read it.

Will you be able to do a follow-up after tonight’s speech?

#3 Comment By David On January 27, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

She objected to unisex dorms, and to feminist ideas in the classroom, since (she explained) she was from an Orthodox Jewish family and offended by these things.

No doubt this is an honest mistake on Professor Birnbaum’s part, but this was not the argument that Wendy Shalit ’97 made. She objected to unisex bathrooms, not dorms. Moreover, if memory serves, she objected not to unisex bathrooms per se, but to the College’s refusal to allow women who wanted a unisex bathroom to easily/freely express that preference.

For example, why not ask first years, before they arrive what their bathroom preferences are and, if possible, accommodate them. You do not need to be an Orthodox Jew to think that this makes sense.

#4 Comment By kthomas On January 27, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

Ahy, this Wendy! Imagine– if she had gone to the Kibbutz? sharing everything will all sexes, not just he bathroom? ¡She would have argued with G-d!

#5 Comment By Dick Swart On January 27, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

Please, all, this is not meant to be a ‘troll’ as discussed currently in the Blog, but, rather, a carom off of Maynard Keynes, of possible interest to those who have discussed the Bloomsbury Group.

John Maynard Keynes was a member of The Apostles at Cambridge and well acquainted with and a member of the Group. For a time he lived at 26 Fitzroy Square with Duncan Grant and later at 46 Gordon Square.

I won’t try to sketch out his participation in the various sexual arrangements that have characterized the group as “women in love with men who loved their husbands”, but he was an accredited member.

In writing A Sketch of the Past (1942), Virginia Woolf considered using the word ‘erection’. and consulted Keynes:

“He advised her to cut the passage since ‘such revelations have to be in key with their time’, and the ‘erection’ was not yet acceptable in print in that sense. Uncertain whether he was ‘right, or only public school’, Woolf adopted his advise”.

from Virginia Woolf – An Inner Life, Julia Briggs, Harcourt Books, 2005

In a comment on the spirit of Charleston, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Francis Partridge (you remember her, the 4th member of the menage a trois), writes;

“Maynard is delighted with his title and so is (his wife) Lydia. They came to brave the scorn of Charleston. ‘O-ah!’, said Lydia ‘We come to be mocked!’. And no doubt they were, for Charleston cherishes what seems to me a totally irrational prejudice against titles earned by merit”.

From Francis Partridge: Diaries, Edited by Rebecca Wilson, Phoenix Press, 2000

And you thought that being an economist was dull!

#6 Comment By Parent ’12 On January 27, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

@Dick Swart:

Thanks for adding this. I, too, thought of Bloomsbury with Prof. Birnbaum’s reference to Keynes, who made a lot of money in currency trading. He really had an extraordinary life.

As I recall, the Bloomsbeeries were extremely catty toward Keynes’ wife, who was a dancer. Frances Partridge, or one of her descendants wrote a lively memoir, which was published some time in the 80s.

btw, Prof Birnbaum wrote an interesting essay on the history of neo-conservatism, as an in memoriam to Irving Kristol.


#7 Comment By Norman Birnbaum 1946 On January 28, 2010 @ 5:56 am

You can teach an old dog new tricks but he had best not foget the old ones. I recalled the article in Commentary by Ms. Shalit from memory–and memory was inaccurate, It is a good idea to verify one’s sources and I did not. My apologies, and thanks for the reminder.

#8 Comment By nuts On January 28, 2010 @ 6:16 am

@Parent ’12: Brilliant. Thank you for posting that essay.

#9 Comment By David On January 28, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

Professor Birnbaum: No worries! And thanks for taking the time to share these with us.

#10 Comment By Dick Swart On January 28, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

Dear Prof Birnbaum,

Thank you for sharing these insightful views that can only come through a life-time of intellectual engagement. What a treat to read!

Please forgive my distraction on Keynes. I too often take it on myself to add sidebars that contribute little other than an harmonic vibration to the original opus.

And, I may not be the earliest class reader of EphBlog after all!


Dick Swart ’56