Reflections on Formative Influence
by Robbie McClintock
A work in progress. Started Spring 2011 as a series of lectures at Teachers College, Columbia University.
José Ortega y Gasset What is Philosophy? and other works
Ortega as educator
Here is the opening to the "Preface" to my book on José Ortega y Gasset, published in 1971, looking back at my first encounter with his ideas through his recently published book on What Is Philosophy?
What Is Philosophy?—with its concern for the ego living in the world, for the person thinking, choosing, doing—is a work well calculated to move a young man in his last year of college as he begins to face seriously the question of what he would do with his life. Ortega offered no substantive answers to this perplexity, for answers depend on the unique actualities of each separate self and its particular circumstances, but he greatly reinforced my developing sense of the importance, the continual importance, of deciding on one's future. We live, not for a final answer, but by endlessly asking the question, what am I going to make of the coming instant? By constantly asking this question, one shapes a continual present according to the vision of the future and the comprehension of the past that are commands at each successive instant. Such thoughts, which had already been germinating in me, were brought to life by Ortega's prose; hence from the very start, he convinced me that he was part of the past that I should seek to comprehend should I want to shape my present according to a vision of a future.
In quick order, thereafter, I read Man and People ,The Modern Theme , and The Revolt of the Masses . Here I encountered Ortega's public relevance, a relevance that has grown as the prospect of public affairs has become monotonously more bleak. At the time of my first encounter, the Kennedy-Nixon campaign was moving towards its denouement, and the contrast between the noble man and the mass man that Ortega so sharply drew seemed to resonate perfectly with the contrast between Kennedy's apparent style of aspiration and Nixon's self-satisfaction. Thus, despite his own pessimism about the politics of any nation, Ortega at first seemed to explain the why and the wherefore of the political hope dawning within me. After all, I had learned from others to think that America was special, exempt from the foibles of the European nations.
Events soon shattered these first hopes and relentless retrospect has made me doubt their reality. Being American for me has ceased to be sufficient, no more significant in itself than my being from New York and you perhaps from Milan or somewhere else. During the last decade, events and Ortega have made me into a European: I pledge my allegiance to that chancy, uncertain, but constructive process of transcending the nation, transcending the state, and transcending coercion in the conduct of public affairs in the post-industrial West. And much of what I have to say about Ortega is intended—in keeping with his own example—as a small but serious contribution to the creative effort of devising a future for the West.
Man and His Circumstances: Ortega as Educator by Robert McClintock (New York, Teachers College Press, 1971) pp. xiii-xiv.
Now—so quickly!—another forty years have passed, and the sense of discovery that I had on first encountering Ortega is still fresh for me. My book was about Ortega as educator, an educator of the public—Spaniards self-reforming, Europeans self-organizing. Here instead, I will reflect on Ortega as my educator. To be sure, I never signed up to take a course with him. He was not, my teacher, but much more properly, my educator . I use educator in a sense defined beautifully by Nietzsche, in a powerful passage early in his extraordinary essay,Schopenhauer as Educator . Nietzsche spoke to aspiring youth in a moving anticipation of the Overman in each, later a key idea in his thought. And he did so with astonishing reverberations of Rousseau's appreciation and care for the natural person embodied in each. I translate loosely—
You can find a reasonable translation of Schopenhauer as Educator by Friedrich Nietzsche, in Nietzsche,Unfashionable Observations (Richard T. Gray, trans., Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995),pp. 174-5, or an even better one by R. J. Hollingdale in Untimely Meditations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 129-30.
Here is the full passage in German, reproduced from the Schopenhauer als Erzieher [ GoTo ] on the Zeno.org site, a fine full-text site for German literature and thought supported by unobtrusive advertising. "Die junge Seele sehe auf das Leben zurück mit der Frage: was hast du bis jetzt wahrhaft geliebt, was hat deine Seele hinangezogen, was hat sie beherrscht und zugleich beglückt? Stelle dir die Reihe dieser verehrten Gegenstände vor dir auf, und vielleicht ergeben sie dir, durch ihr Wesen und ihre Folge, ein Gesetz, das Grundgesetz deines eigentlichen Selbst. Vergleiche diese Gegenstände, sieh, wie einer den andern ergänzt, erweitert, überbietet, verklärt, wie sie eine Stufenleiter bilden, auf welcher du bis jetzt zu dir selbst hingeklettert bist; denn dein wahres Wesen liegt nicht tief verborgen in dir, sondern unermeßlich hoch über dir, oder wenigstens über dem, was du gewöhnlich als dein Ich nimmst. Deine wahren Erzieher und Bildner verraten dir, was der wahre Ursinn und Grundstoff deines Wesens ist, etwas durchaus Unerziehbares und Unbildbares, aber jedenfalls schwer Zugängliches, Gebundenes, Gelähmtes: deine Erzieher vermögen nichts zu sein als deine Befreier. Und das ist das Geheimnis aller Bildung: sie verleiht nicht künstliche Gliedmaßen, wächserne Nasen, bebrillte Augen – vielmehr ist das, was diese Gaben zu geben vermöchte, nur das Afterbild der Erziehung. Sondern Befreiung ist sie, Wegräumung alles Unkrauts, Schuttwerks, Gewürms, das die zarten Keime der Pflanzen antasten will, Ausströmung von Licht und Wärme, liebevolles Niederrauschen nächtlichen Regens, sie ist Nachahmung und Anbetung der Natur, wo diese mütterlich und barmherzig gesinnt ist, sie ist Vollendung der Natur, wenn sie ihren grausamen und unbarmherzigen Anfällen vorbeugt und sie zum Guten wendet, wenn sie über die Äußerungen ihrer stiefmütterlichen Gesinnung und ihres traurigen Unverstandes einen Schleier deckt.
Gewiß, es gibt wohl andre Mittel, sich zu finden, aus der Betäubung, in welcher man gewöhnlich wie in einer trüben Wolke webt, zu sich zu kommen, aber ich weiß kein besseres, als sich auf seine Erzieher und Bildner zu besinnen. Und so will ich denn heute des einen Lehrers und Zuchtmeisters, dessen ich mich zu rühmen habe, eingedenk sein, Arthur Schopenhauers – um später anderer zu gedenken."
Of course, what Nietzsche described does not happen all at once. The liberation of which he spoke is not a sudden breaking of chains—the opportunity for it develops slowly, it becomes evident unexpectedly, and then it carries through its sustained work over an extended time. An educator works, rung by rung, over time, at first seeming to be just another momentary fixing—here-this—in the flux of a person's attention—a fixing, perhaps, on one among the many books on a table full of new non-fiction releases.What Is Philosophy? Interesting title. . . . Ortega had been dead six years when I picked the book up, and when I picked it up, I had no inkling who Ortega was. The title simply posed a question that had been in the back of my mind, for I had entered Princeton with the fancy that I would study physics, for which I thought I had a knack, combining it with philosophy, whatever that was. But I quickly tabled the philosophy part of that intent, checking out the courses in it that I might take. The philosophy being taught was not what I had in mind, and other courses sufficiently caught my attention. But the question Ortega asked remained in the back of my mind. Seeing the title, I picked up the book, sampled it for a few minutes, as was my want, and then bought it. And here is the important part, for I have always been good at acquiring unread books: my initial interest was strong enough that I returned to my dorm, sat down, and actually read the book.
In retrospect, this first encounter through What Is Philosophy?, was for me the start of a liberation, in the sense that Nietzsche illuminated. Ortega did not communicate some big idea to me. My markings in the text were restrained: in the first chapter, his recurring remarks about history caught my interest, and then I simply read through until the last three chapters, which really engaged me, primarily noting what Ortega had to say about the self and its relation to the world, to its circumstances. In these, I was not signaling some sort of discovery, but rather commenting on something in the text as if it was deeply familiar to me. Ortega started to work as a liberator. He helped me see myself. He helped clear away confusions, expectations passively received. By helping me disentangle myself, Ortega became my educator, my liberator.
Liberating What? Or the Problem of Knowing Thyself
My start at Princeton had been an academic disaster. I went there with a strong record from a good school, early acceptance, and an ambition to major in both physics and philosophy. My career as physicist suffered one of those accidents in initial advisement that I did not really understand until it was too late for physics, almost too late to stay in college.
I had nearly been a math-science whiz at Deerfield Academy, a top boarding school not far from Amherst. A mathematician on the Amherst faculty had the idea that high school students might effectively study set theory and combinatorics. He arranged with the Deerfield math department to test the idea, recruiting a few of us to take his course, instead of the intensive version of calculus, which normally we would have taken our senior year. The school judged that its normal calculus course would be redundant with the more intensive one we would naturally get freshman year in college, and as math students we were strong enough to do well in that without taking a high-school warm-up in it. And I thought the special course was a great opportunity, excited by what we would do and oblivious to what we would not. A year later, at Princeton, my adviser was impressed by my having done set theory and combinatorics with a college professor, and I found myself the lone freshman in a course for junior and senior math majors, taught by someone whose pedagogy consisted of filling a large blackboard twice weekly with arcane notations that would of course speak with self-evident clarity to us all.
This F, I was more or less able to explain. The other one, in freshman physics, was more insidious. Neither I nor anyone else at Princeton was much aware that the year before at Deerfield I had been exempted from acquiring certain skills, while playing with sets and graphs, that were useful in solving problems about concepts I thought I understood sufficiently well. My fiasco in advanced math did nothing to help remediate my deficiency, the fact that I had never taken calculus. My being in the advanced course, no matter how thoroughly I flunked it, masked what I lacked: if I had not gone through the standard progression, or so it seemed, I would never have been in such an advanced course, my failure in it notwithstanding. But as the year wore on my deficient knowledge of the calculus became increasingly acute and my performance in physics, and then other subjects in tow, accelerated downward. That shook my confidence: instead of seeking help, I tuned out. At the end of the year, I ranked one above the flunk-out line, and my father vividly described my future pumping gas should I slip one further down.
Even during my freshman nadir, I would read a lot, serious stuff largely of my own choosing, responding to a free-floating intellectual interest. Among friends, I caused a certain stir of wonder by reading The Brothers Karamazov closely in one 72-hour sitting, sending them out for quantities of coffee, coke, and sandwiches. It was an extremely intense, personal experience, quite independent and disruptive of normal academic work. I would not come away from such an experience with much to say about the work—I'm not really sure what such total engagement in reading a powerful work does for or to me, but from time to time I pick up a complex novel and become completely involved in it to the exclusion of all other claims on my attention until I have finished it. The binge over, I slowly withdraw, having perhaps expanded my sphere of experience, but having little to say about what has been sucked into that inward world about which one does not consciously think or speak. A cautious man, I instinctively ration such experience and nurture my interests, not to the exclusion of literary works, but far more readily with works of serious reflection, theory, and criticism.
Sophomore year, I worked, not grimly, for it was well within my capacity, but firmly, to ensure academic survival. I chose courses a little more wisely, working with diligence on most, although not doing all that well in those, while getting strong grades in two or three even though I was not particularly disciplined in keeping up with the assignments in these. I regained enough confidence to begin toying with the thought that there was an inverse correlation between how closely I followed a course syllabus and how good a grade I received at the end of the course. This tactic applied within that safe range where the bell curve was high, encompassing most of us with academic respectability, the proverbial gentleman's C, rising on occasion to the status of a B (this all being BGI, before grade inflation).
As a sophomore and junior, it did not occur to me to aspire to the upper ranks of academic performance and I used my rule of inverse correlation to pursue a self-organized pursuit of independent reading. My course selection was quite eclectic—humanities, 20th-century theater, 19th-century French literature, introductory economics followed by international economics, international relations, symbolic logic, political theory, Chinese intellectual history, 20th-century Europe, several courses in American history, "From Humanism to Existentialism." These classes stimulated me with all sorts of ideas, as did my reading in the context of them, and day-to-day, I felt engaged.
Through most of my four years as an undergraduate, however, I had little sense of direction. The initial ambition to be the genial philosopher-physicist had succumbed quickly. In its place, I had no sense of prospective vocation and did not feel a terribly strong need for one. I liked reading and thinking about things that caught my interest, but my rule of inverse correlation meant that the connection between the formal curriculum and my thoughts and interests would be an ad hoc improvisation. I derived little sense of validation from what successes I seemed to have, for these seemed less to be signs of incipient efficacy than further evidence that I could game the system sufficiently to stay safely within the main parts of the bell curve. I had discovered how to avoid the lower extreme, but I had acquired no sense of significant capacity that might be of value in the world, no sense of meaningful agency, and had no sense that I might enter the upper extreme.
From the "Indenture," as translated by Thomas Carlyle, at the end of Book 8 in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.
Neither a career in medicine nor in law ever attracted me—I am not sure why. I had a couple friends who wanted to be writers—one became an insurance salesman in St. Louis and the other a successful novelist. It was the style, particularly strong among those of us from prep schools, to take the idea of a liberal education seriously, doing it for its own sake. We exemplified a quality Goethe put memorably in a document I later learned to love—"The boy stands astonished, his impressions guide him: he learns sportfully, seriousness comes on him by surprise." But seriousness had yet to surprise many of us, certainly me. With respect to the future, I was most aware of learning, bit by bit, what I did not want to do. The corporate world had no allure. In popular culture, a variety of films like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit depicted the corporate life as a sterile sell-out. Lots of serious sociology buttressed this impression.The Organization Man by William H. Whyte had substantial influence on campus as a compendium of reasons to avoid becoming a company man. A thickish, Doubleday Anchor Book, it was ubiquitous, depicting the corporate cocoon and its upscale, suburban subdivisions. An influence on me, and others, but less widely so,The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, tame now by the standards of extraordinary rendition and the outsourcing of imperial unpleasantries to corporate mercenaries, nevertheless made the idea of foreign service repulsive.
At the end of the 1950s, on the heels of what had been billed "the silent generation", we came onto a campus on which tremors of an "unsilent generation" faintly reverberated. We were not yet far enough to the left to be reading C. Wright Mills, although the sections on education in The Power Elite fit us like a glove, and Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd was more about the high-school years and a bit too lower-middle class to directly mobilize our experience. Through our childhood and youth, we had been initiated into an ethos loudly proclaiming itself to be the bastion of the free world, founded on universal principles of human dignity, the rule of law, and a productive respect for human intelligence and initiative. Yet it was evident to anyone modestly informed about civil rights, income distribution, and obsessions with subversion that adult actualities fell far short of their pretenses. Many of us, I think, felt subliminally if not consciously, that we did not really want to spend our lives doing the things we probably could do well, and it was hard to envision a future we could both affirm and excel at. For me, at any rate, a sense of direction seemed hard to generate.
Carlyle's Complete Works: The Sterling Edition (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, n.d.),p. 14, [Book I, Chapter 3].
Late our sophomore year, in its time-honored fashion, we had to choose a major. I was not at all sure what to choose. Years later I would take great pleasure in reading Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh by Thomas Carlyle, in which Teufelsdröckh held the enviable status as Professor of Things in General. Although a professorship was not within my horizon as I contemplated becoming an upperclassman, a major in things in general seemed highly attractive. Since that was not among the possibilities, however, I sought admission to Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, which took a limited number of undergraduates each year into a rather interdisciplinary program. By my record alone, I am sure I would not have been accepted into it, but the application process included an interview, which I must have brought off well. Formal academic weaknesses aside, I had read and traveled widely and could present myself as a young man who was informed and thoughtful. Many things were possibilities, but at that time, neither I nor others would have judged an academic career to have been a likely prospect for me.
A problem of youth is to find and recognize appropriate feedback about themselves and their prospects. This involves a difficult problem of judgment that each must exercise. I think an important book from the time,The Lonely Crowd by David Reisman, is helpful with its contrast of inner direction and outer direction in understanding the problem, but insufficient insofar as those characteristics are perceived as outward characterizations. A real sense of direction depends on a subtle conjunction between the inner and the other becoming operative and evident for the person. This was difficult to attain, with my rule of inverse correlation. I would attend to classes regularly and use course reading lists as a spring board, not a prescription. I would participate actively in precept discussions, which I would use, not as an opportunity to display what I had learned from the reading, but as a challenge to think actively about the topic at hand. This worked well enough as a personal rule of thumb, but a young person has a strong sense of absurdity because they know their knacks and skills as idiosyncrasies and need some experiences that show how they fit into larger schemes of things.
Early in my senior year in a course on 20th-century American history, I experienced an initial confirmation that my style of study might have an arena of application beyond my personal need for academic survival. I was in a precept group led by an excellent historian, David Donald, then about 40, already well-known, with his first prominent success,Lincoln Reconsidered , having been published in 1956. Early in the semester, Donald led the group through discussion of a reading—Richard Hofstadter's first chapter on "The Agrarian Myth and Commercial Realities" in The Age of Reform.
See Eric F. Goldman,Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1952, 2001), David Herbert Donald,Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (New York: Vintage Books, 1956, 2001); and Richard Hofstadter,The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Vintage Books, 1955).
Growing impatient with our tendency to repeat what Hofstadter said without our adding any intelligent commentary, Donald suddenly asked what a conservative historian would say about the agrarian myth and the rise of commerce. One of us replied that the only reading assigned was by Hofstadter, a liberal interpreter. How could he, Donald, expect us to respond? At that Donald, normally a quiet man with thick glasses and a timid look, launched into a vehement discourse, asserting passionately that historians must always use their intelligence and imagination. Given any view on the spectrum of thought, we should be able to infer the full range of possible positions as if we had read them all, ready to speak about them with conviction. With that, perhaps discomfited by his own impatience, or perhaps sensing that he had seized the teachable moment well, he scornfully dismissed us early. Several friends thought Donald had unreasonable expectations—I quietly basked in a glow of recognition, and with it a gathering flow of confidence, for I realized that what I had been practicing with my inverse correlation exemplified precisely what Donald had commended.
Hearing another, someone with some authority in the world, articulate a thought that you know you have thought for yourself, on your own, is an important step in self-recognition. It discloses that intrinsic self of which Nietzsche spoke, that constitution of your being "immeasurably high above you", towards which you can constantly aspire, living thereby a life of meaning. I was approaching self-recognition.
Besides reading a lot, I kept a journal, now almost completely lost. At first, I kept it haphazardly. In my junior year, it became more systematic. I liked to read in my dorm room, where I could sit for hours as others came and went, or in a corner of a cafeteria on campus near Firestone Library, now a map indicates with the fancy name, the Chancellor Green Café—gentrification strikes in the oddest places. Then I regularly had a small table off in a corner where I would read or write in my journal or work on a paper. Mid-morning friends would come up from the depths of Firestone and gather at a larger table for talk and coffee and I would join them until we all went back to our respective nooks (places not tablets). I had read a small set of books and interacted with them in my journal, developing my own ideas in dialogue with the authors—Frederick Lewis Allen, Albert Camus, James Conant, John Dewey, Albert Einstein, John Kenneth Galbraith, Oscar Handlin, Robert Heilbroner, Gilbert Highet, Karl Jaspers, Jacques Maritain, John Stuart Mill, Michel de Montaigne, Friedrich Schiller, Albert Schweitzer, Alfred North Whitehead, and more. In many ways, the list lacked intellectual or academic pretension, for it did not include any really substantial or difficult works. But it did show a certain unselfconscious seriousness of purpose, and I was using it less as a source of ideas than as a stimulus to my own reflections.
By late in my junior year, these had begun to build up in my journal and they started to take on a certain form. They centered on two themes, one having to do with the direction that my aspiration might take and the other what I recognized the temporal situation of a person to be as he was thinking and acting in the world. My ideas were deeply private in the way that a young person, and a not so young person for that matter, holds big thoughts in a tentative, embarrassed grip, astonished that he should have them at all, afraid to expose them to view, sure they would be dismissed as puerile.
My first theme, the question of aspiration, took shape at a high level of generality, leaving it rather useless with respect to the question of a vocation. It was influenced, I'm sure, by the sense that the high-minded pretenses of free-world leadership were not evident in real-world practice. I liked critiques of public purpose and aspiration, much of it like The Waist-High Culture by Thomas Griffith, appropriately forgotten. Other examples, particularly,The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith, had lasting importance for me and fed an ongoing quest. I felt myself drawn to find a worthy sense of aspiration, personal and collective. This quest went beyond a search for an end-in-view; rather it motivated me to begin characterizing what living a life purposefully consisted in and entailed. Through these reflections, I came up with a sort of motto, the type of statement that one hesitates to utter in public, for it easily sounds priggish. But I did not mean it for general consumption, and we can note in retrospect some interesting characteristics in it—In this world of abundance, we should seek perfection, for it is perfection we most sorely lack. Had this motto, quite hidden in the privacy of my journal, been seen by someone knowledgeable, he might have recognized in it a sign that perhaps I had some talent for serious thinking.
Looking back on it now what strikes me is not its stilted language, but rather the deeply Platonic character of the motto—the object of aspiration is not some positive quality that will cause greatness in we who attain it, but its negative quality, the sore lack, our deepest deficiency, and what indicates that deficiency is some intimated fulfillment, which I might just as well called, not perfection, but Plato's Idea of the Good. This motto was not something I lifted from some chance passage I had read, but something I worked out interacting with critiques like that by Galbraith or Karl Jasper's Future of Mankind . A couple years later, when pushed to really study Plato, his dialogues were to me wholly fresh, for I had not studied them before. The Platonism of this motto was my Platonism, not Plato;s. The closest I might then have come to a study of Plato was in a course on major political thinkers with William Ebenstein, an émigré from the Hitler era, but in that course we concentrated on modern political thinkers. I certainly was not going to show my motto to Ebenstein, nor to anyone else. And there was the rub. However much it served to orient me then, it did not trigger any sense of self-recognition about what I could or should do as a set of worldly commitments. I simply saw it as something I had worked out in my journal with no sense of context into which I might see it fit.
In addition to critiques of public purpose, I liked to read reflections on time and on history, for instance Post-Historic Man: An Inquiry by Roderick Seidenberg,The Origin and Goal of History and Man in the Modern Age by Karl Jaspers, and the rather difficult Time and Western Man by Wyndham Lewis. I even have a copy of Time's Arrow and Evolution by Harold F. Blum, which I read in, with little comprehension beyond its gist. In interaction with such works, over a period of time, I worked up a speculative essay in my journal about the lived experience of time, what I called the continual or eternal present, and about the way living persons acted in that continual present. It was very existential. I speculated that the only form in which time existed was present time and that present time has a directional flux that allows us as living beings, inhabiting present time, to postulate constructs of future and past. These constructs postulated imaginary present states: a future conjured up a present that did not yet exist and a past signified a present that had ceased to exist, orienting both according to the directional flux of present time. These constructs made feasible, within the ever-fleeting duration of a living present, a domain of lived intentionality, the locus of life and the lives of each of us. Recognizing the temporality of life in this way accentuated and more reasonably oriented the intentionality of experiential life, I thought.
My hold on this existential experience of temporality was tenuous, as it still is, and its consequences, if consequences is the proper term, or its implications, are far from fully worked out, or clear. All the same, I did, and still do, struggle towards those consequences in a way and I find that they allow me to see limitations in other ways of experiencing time, of seeing past, present, and future as denoting states that each partake in a similar, underlying reality. I think we need to make place in our lives and our culture for things like this question of temporality that are hard to grasp—from those difficult, obscure questions come religion, art, literature, science, even hope and expectation.
My tenuous recognition of a continual present has led to two forms of reinforcement significant for me. The first arises within my own sphere of awareness and activity: I still have my transcription of the pages I wrote 50 years ago and after drafting Educational Emergence this past fall, I happened to go back to those earlier speculations out of curiosity in preparation for this course, and there is a striking continuity of thought, albeit glimmers of a surer style and expression, along with, perhaps, a fuller and more confident comprehension now. For the story at hand, a more forward looking reinforcement had immense importance to me. My first inchoate effort to develop a concept of the continual present, and the existential state of inhabiting it, enabled me to experience Ortega, not merely as a book in my hands, but far more importantly, as that Nietzschean educator, my liberator, someone who cleared away doubts and helped me to find and grow into myself.
One of the great sources of positive reinforcement in the life of the mind is the recognition that another, saying what he has to say in his own way, which may be very different from your own way, is nevertheless addressing the same problem, with ideas and convictions that are the very ones that you yourself have achieved. Most of the time in active study, we work with negative feedback, entering a marginal dissent here and a call for clarification there. Sometimes, however, we need to recognize ourselves in the other, to see someone else trying to say what one is trying to say in a way that is not one's own but with the same sense and import. That happened to me with the last three chapters of What Is Philosophy? It was tremendously important for me, crucially empowering. Ideas that I was struggling to form were ideas that Ortega was struggling to form and I could see both sides of the equation coming together, meeting as peers, working together. This was important for me; I could see it for myself; I did not need a grade or any third party to validate it for me. It clarified my sense of purpose—I wanted to exercise my powers of thinking about the human capacity for self-formation through the flux of lived experience. And it gave me confidence—no longer someone who had almost flunked out, I could recognize myself as someone who had been thinking well enough to function as the peer of a thinker of substantial stature.
With this purpose and confidence, a lot snapped into place.
First, a senior thesis. At Princeton all seniors, no matter how mired in the middle, had to write a thesis. Emboldened, I threw myself into mine, which I had previously decided to do on a somewhat ho-hum, idiosyncratic topic—secondary education for American kids living in Europe, a topic I knew something about owing to my summer job at an American school in Switzerland. I did my homework and mobilized a lot of basic information about the high schools on military bases, posh boarding schools for elite children, and international day-schools in the major urban centers of diplomacy and business. I went far beyond that, drawing on all my reading and putting together a theory of education based on cultural experiences that were foreign, difficult, and challenging. Then I dissected the failure of all the different American schools in Europe to offer anything approximating such an education, even though extraordinary opportunities for it surrounded them. Then I turned my idea of secondary education for Americans in Europe into a means for criticizing the convention-bound mediocrity of American schooling as a whole. My advisers thought I conveyed a lot with real force in limited space and awarded my thesis a 1, a straight A, my first at Princeton, and the thesis counted a full third of our final GPA. Perhaps my prospective horizon was wider than I thought.
Next up GREs. My uncertainty about my future went away because I perceived my purpose. I would try to go to graduate school and pursue an academic career as an intellectual historian. In the course of working on my senior thesis, I had studied and seriously criticized the destructive effects of the Educational Testing Service on secondary education, for the whole college entrance process reifyed a lamed curriculum through an imperious standardization that served nothing but bureaucratic convenience. In the process, I studied and seriously criticized the pretensions associated with the college board tests and the GREs. In 1960, ETS was still claiming that students could not prepare for their tests, and they were even convincing most this claim was sound. It seemed bogus to me, and I believed there was an art to acing the test. It consisted partly of a state of mind and partly of a willingness to rely on a ready wit, more than on sure knowledge, but to do so in a controlled way, not using so much ready wit that you got tied up in subtleties, loosing too much time or responding with an obscure possibility. I went in, relaxed and confidant, and came out with a 790 on the quantitative and 760 on the qualitative, the former giving me special pleasure as a counterweight to my freshman failures. And for getting into graduate school, these scores rendered my freshman travails irrelevant.
On to comprehensives. There were four days of tests late in our senior year, four hours each day, all essay questions broadly covering each student's major. I do not remember much about specific questions or my responses to them, except that I had resolved to read each question, to mobilize in response what I had to say and those elements of my knowledge that would support my saying it, and to present my thoughts in a legibly written answer. When results were announced, I had again received a 1, another straight A, my second at Princeton, with comprehensives counting another full third of our final GPA. Two As and a course average that had tended upward to a B-/B gave me enough standing to receive my degree with high honors, and given my freshman rank of one above the flunk-out line, I had a lock on the Gale F. Johnson Prize for the student in our class who had improved the most.
Graduation was hot, and a bore—but father looked serene with the thought that his son was not going to grow old pumping gas, and mother sighed with the hope that perhaps he would wise up and join the diplomatic core. I quietly toasted Ortega, my educator—"You've got to smile, man.Shit happens!"