LETTER TO THE ALUMNI
by Richard Gilman
by John Hersey Knopf, $4.50
Several years ago I was a melancholy participant in one of those symposia which provide writers and thinkers with the opportunity to justify their activity. This one was called “The Future of Intellectual Institutions,” which very quickly came to mean colleges and universities. The thing that struck me most about the proceedings was that most of the professors in attendance were really much more concerned with their own futures than with that of learning, although they paid enough lip service to that. Natural enough, one might say; we’re all territorialists of one kind or another, anxious about sheer survival, and going on to defend things beyond ourselves only when we feel our bases are secure.
The irony, of course, is that to protect oneself at the expense of new reality often turns out to be no protection at all. Revolutions succeed in precisely such atmospheres. Or the hollowest victories are achieved: material preservation with all the lights out; a stabilized but deracinated environment; traditions reigning over emptiness. Such a future, if there is to be any at all, is what is likely to come about on our campuses if powerful entrenched segments of faculties and administrations go on putting physical continuity and sanctified modes of procedure before any true purpose and rationale of education. And the university, in this regard, can be taken as the microcosmic image of our entire American society.
This is the real, if only marginally stated, theme of John Hersey’s important and in some ways remarkable new book. Hersey, who has just finished a five-year stint as master of Pierson, one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges, has made a practice of writing an annual report to the house’s alumni, and this year he has manifestly had the most extensive, violent, and complex kinds of material to work with. Culminating in Mayday on New Haven Green, the last few months of the academic year at Yale were filled with wayward, confusing, depressing, and exhilarating events of enormous significance, which it’s Hersey’s purpose here to describe and analyze for a far wider audience than the book’s ostensible one.
For anyone who, like myself, was engaged to any degree in these events, what happened is badly in need of being sorted out, clarified, de-mystified, and placed in perspective. How much more pressing is this need for all those to whom the occurrences were made known in the clouds of rumor and the distortions of secondand third-hand witness? This past spring at Yale was badly reported, and one intention of Hersey, who was strategically placed near the center of the entire crisis, is to set the factual record straight. He does this swiftly and cleanly, being free then to move on to his main business, an impassioned and sometimes eloquent plea for understanding of the dissident and fired-up students at Yale and elsewhere, and a defense, turning into a eulogy, of the role of Yale president Kingman Brewster, to whom the book is dedicated.
Hersey begins with the flat declaration that “at the instant I set this down [Yale is] quite simply the best private university in the country and . . . this is so at least partly because Kingman Brewster Jr. is the best university president in the country.” (A statement like this isn’t one I’d feel comfortable making, but I don’t mind saying that Brewster is nearly as good a university president as I can imagine.) To jump on Brewster for his failure to “crack down” on dissidence and for his now famous expression of skepticism about the possibilities of a fair trial for black activists in America seems to Hersey the height of absurd wrong-headedness, just as he sees “the ecstasies of vituperation into which some [of the alumni] were thrown” as standing for “one side of a terrifying rift in our country.”
Everything that happened during Yale’s radical season was bound up with the occasion for Brewster’s remark: the impending trials for murder of Lonnie McLucas and other Black Panthers, including the national chairman, Bobby Seale. That McLucas’ trial, which did not actually begin until the summer, has resulted in a verdict which nearly everyone does consider fair ought not to be allowed to invalidate retroactively the atmosphere of crisis and alarm of those spring days; it may in fact be, as Hersey implies, that the atmosphere itself put pressure on the judge and jury to move beyond the bias which is so widely present in America.
In any case, Hersey outlines—with entire accuracy, I think—the constituents of the crisis, finding the main ones to be the aftermath in student consciousness of the Chicago conspiracy trial, the nationwide police attacks on the Panthers, and the increased tension between Yale and New Haven’s black community, which had been asking harder and harder questions about the university’s responsibility for the quality of the life around it. The scheduling of the trial in a courthouse a few hundred yards from the edge of Yale was the catalyst that set everything in motion.
When, in the pretrial proceedings, two Black Panthers, not defendants, were sentenced to six months for a minor courtroom ruckus, Yale found the immediate occasion from which to launch its diffuse and complicated radicalization. At a meeting in Ingalls Rink (Hersey’s description of which as “the hairiest [and most influential] instance of action theatre I have ever witnessed” I fully endorse), some 4000 students and several hundred (mostly junior) faculty members were subjected to violent harangues by Panthers and their supporters. The evening was the most inextricable fusion of truth, myth, exploitation of white guilt, and aggrandizement of black aspirations, and it resulted in a desire for action which can only be baffling or repellent to those for whom social existence requires nothing more than mere continuity. The great majority of those present felt now that their vague liberal desire to “do something” had finally converged with the opportunity and, in fact, the hard obligation to do it.
From then on the drama quickly unfolded, full of bad or inept scenes, without a clear plot, ugly in some respects (the pressure toward radical conformity, the threats and small instances of violence), but ultimately, and in its deepest reality, inspiriting and, as Hersey says, characterized by a besieged but authentic love. The strikes and “re-evaluations” of normal academic procedures, the movement of the students toward the city in an attempt to plead the Panthers’ case, the opening up of true communication between the students and some of the faculty, all this was on the side of the angels, whatever demons also had their pitchforks into things.
Mayday was the climax. Fears among all of us that some incalculable disaster was likely turned out to be unreal; the day passed with a minimum of violence and in group action that displayed, as Hersey argues, the possibilities of peaceful, and useful, protest. He sees the elements of this unexpectedly benign outcome as the responsible leadership of the Panthers in holding their more hot-headed supporters in check, the presence of an enlightened police chief, James Ahern of New Haven, and the frequently magnificent work of the Yale marshals—faculty members and students clearer than ever about the necessity for action but with their backs to, at least temporarily, the seductions of violence.
Turning back to the situation on campus, Hersey concedes that the Mayday unity may be misleading. Some of the faculty, especially its senior members, experienced feelings for the students ranging from “distaste to loathing,” which Hersey sees as stemming from the threat to their “professional convictions and comfortable habits.” He recounts an incident in which, after the emergency faculty committee appointed by Brewster at the height of the pre-Mayday action had met with aggressive and unaccommodating student representatives, an older professor confessed that he “felt emasculated . . . noting what had happened to the ‘authority’ of the older generation.” But the man, Hersey goes on, had offered “an obsolete formulation. He and Brewster and the rest of us had not been castrated; we had been taught.”
The education gained there and throughout the spring had to do with matters that are troubling the best and most open students:
If one were to try to isolate what students hate most these days, I think one would have to settle on bureaucracy.
Much of what makes university education seem irrelevant to students stems from the way disciplines and “subjects” are defined. The baronial castles of the academic departments stand firm against thoroughgoing efforts to rethink the structure of knowledge.
Students want more courses that open windows to feeling—more film, more music, more writing, more photography, more doing, more helping. A pressing question for our universities, which had better start at least thinking about feeling before they are engulfed by anti-intellectualism coming at them from two sides—from their own students and from the pbilistines.
Universities have the double task of defending scholarship and opening up new forms.
If none of this is new, what makes it important is, first, that it comes from a man like Hersey, a traditionalist in his own writing, a genteel, wholly respectable humanist; and, then, that it comes with the force of experience and not as the rhetoric of an ideologue. More than this, Hersey’s book is remarkably free of both self-righteousness and condescension, the rarest phenomenon in these days of the manipulation of causes by egos. And finally, more than any other writing on the subject that I know of, Hersey’s book concerns itself with the inner, nonpolitical conflicts and sufferings of the young without using them to exonerate the political order.
If I say now that my admiration for Letter to the Alumni recedes a little as Hersey turns at the end from analysis to prescription, it may simply be that convincing prescription for such maladies as ours is even rarer than unself-righteousness about them. At any rate I find Hersey’s argument that “the two essential elements of a tolerable future will be an atmosphere of trust and decentralization of power” not very useful, and his reiterated plea for “decency” not very profound.
When he writes that “this decency is a scared-ass1 hard-learned clearheaded integrity, a surprised realization that the self is not all bad, so other selves may be the same, may be approachable,” I hear the note of earnest, quasireligious, almost naïve willingness that has always characterized American impulses of reform and that is not made any tougher or more sophisticated by wishing that it be “hard-learned” or “clear-headed.” I think we’re going to need something more painful, difficult, and even sacrificial than that. But at least—and it’s more than a little, as I hope I’ve made clear—Hersey has given us an exemplary statement of consciousness in regard to what we’re going to have to be sacrificial about.
- Throughout the book Hersey employs a good deal of hip or nitty-gritty language, along with his loftier diction; it strikes me as a somewhat awkward but honorable attempt to fuse two disparate environments, the hemispheres of our sundered society.↩