Robert Paul Wolff is an unlikely figure to emerge as a public intellectual in the internet age. In his thirties, he left Columbia and the world of the Upper West Side intellectual with his wife to raise their children in the academic wilderness of the University of Massachusetts. He kept writing influential books and devoting himself to his students, however, and as his blog demonstrates, he has emerged as one of the more interesting commentators on philosophy, politics, public life, and education. As Wolff notes, in politics he is an anarchist, in religion he is an atheist, and in economics he is a Marxist. He is also a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a violist. To this we could add that Professor Wolff is one of the better storytellers that we’ve encountered.
Wolff spoke with Philosophy of Education PhD students Timothy Ignaffo and Michael Schapira from his home in North Carolina about the CIA, the golden age of American academia, career doubts, putting family first, and Newt Gingrich’s dissertation.
Ignaffo: We had a chance to meet when you spoke at the Philosophy in Schools conference at Columbia last year, but I also wanted to mention — I did not know this at the time — that one of your former students spoke at one of the afternoon sessions, after you left.
Wolff: If you can tell me exactly what year she was a student of mine, I can open a file and tell you exactly what happened with each paper she wrote.
I have records on every student I have ever taught, going back to 1955.
Schapira: Unbelievable. Have you ever been approached by the CIA as someone with important information?
No, but there was a certain point during my graduate student days when I was uncertain I wanted to go on into a career of academic philosophy, and so I actually interviewed with the CIA — a very strange interview. In the end they decided my eyes weren’t good enough. If they had been just a little better they could get me a Reserve Officers appointment, and then I wouldn’t have had to go into the army. So actually, after I got my PhD I did go into the army, but I’ll never forget that interview, it was so strange. The interview took place in an office in an empty building in downtown Boston, with a guy behind the desk — and I always had the feeling that as I walked out of the office, if I had suddenly and abruptly turned around I would have found that he would not have been there.
Schapira: Like the Spanish prisoner.
Exactly. He would have evaporated.
Ignaffo: Do you ever think about how different your life would have been if you had succeeded in joining the CIA?
God, I have no idea. You have to understand that this was a very interesting time. I was a logic student and this was just the time when the very beginning of computers was coming along. Those that had training in logic were thought to be — and correctly so — candidates for developing computers, as the program for computers was essentially based on mathematical logic. So I was casting about, uncertain of what I wanted to do. The CIA was another wild idea and nothing came of that either. Eventually I finished my dissertation and went into the army for six months, came out, started teaching, and have taught now for fifty years.
Ignaffo: So you did have doubts in graduate school?
Absolutely. I went through a period of uncertainty. I started out as a mathematical logic student, and by the time I was 18 years old I had taken all the graduate math logic taught at Harvard. Then in my senior year I undertook a senior honors thesis on a monograph written by the great logician Alfred Tarski. I worked and worked until I completely understood it. So I went to see my tutor, who was a very brilliant but rather strange and distant man, Hao Wang, and I said, “Well, sir, since I have done Tarski’s monograph, what can I do for a thesis?” And looking in the right-hand corner of the ceiling and not actually meeting my eyes, he said, “Put it through an axiomatization.”
So I went to my room at Harvard and I thought to myself, Okay, put it through an axiomatization. What on earth does that mean? And I was too embarrassed to go back and say, “Excuse me, sir, I don’t have the foggiest idea what you are talking about.” So I kind of stewed for a month or so until I got panicky because I was going through Harvard in three years, which meant that I needed every course in order to graduate. In a panic I went to go see the one sane person in the department, Morton White. He was a very nice man and said, “Well, you just took a course on recent analytic philosophy with me, didn’t you?” I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “We read this new book by Gilbert Ryle, right? Why don’t you go write on Ryle?” So I said, “Yes, sir.” And went home and banged out 55 pages on Ryle and got my degree and got out.
I had been studying ferociously for three years, and in my fourth year I was taking my Masters Degree and preparing for comprehensive exams to pursue a PhD. At this point I had taken just about every course in the department, was chewing through secondary philosophical work preparing, and I began to have doubts. I even remember (and I am still a little embarrassed to admit this, but whatever) I read The Fountain Head and I also read Moby Dick — to give you an idea of range of what I was reaching for.
Luckily at that point I got the Sheldon Traveling [Fellowship] — Harvard had these things — which gave you $24,000 to go and wander around for a year. And so I did . . . I went to Oxford, which I hated. The more English they got, the more American I got. I knew Oxford wasn’t for me. Instead I spent my time doing folk dancing, playing bridge, and reading. Finally, I bought a tiny motorcycle and took off for Rome and wandered around Europe for the remainder of the year. When I finally got home, I recharged my batteries, wrote my dissertation, and was out. I had doubts about being an academic, absolutely, but never about teaching. For me, teaching was always the thing I loved.
Schapira: How were you able to manage your doubts throughout your career?
You have to understand, I was enormously lucky. I just happened to have a career during a time that will be remembered as the golden age for the American academy. Higher education was expanding exponentially; there was an explosion of colleges throughout the United States. There was a point in the ’60s when graduate students were being offered tenure-track jobs before they even passed their certification exams, before they were ABD. Thanks to Sputnik, money was being poured into the universities. It came to be the case that a publisher couldn’t lose money because there would be enough sales from the increasing number of university libraries that at the very least publishers could break even.
Naturally, we thought we were all brilliant — that we were geniuses, that this great success was a consequence of our innate quality. Of course, this was merely a consequence of a very good market situation. It wasn’t until the late ’80s that things started to turn sour. A lot of people went into an academic career because the alternative was Vietnam. Well, by the ’90s it became obvious that these people were not going to start to retire, and a lot of professors made all these extremely rosy predictions that as these people who had flooded to the universities in the ’60s and ’70s began to retire, new jobs would open up and the enormous number of new cohorts of fresh PhDs would step in. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Instead, universities cut back on the humanities and started to use contract employees who got paid by the course, without tenure and without fringe benefits or health care. They closed down departments around the nation, consolidated language departments, and things got bad.
But for me, tenure remained. I was lucky. During my near 50-year career — I got tenure in 1964 at the age of 30 — I had tenure. God knows if many people are going to have a career like that in the future, probably not many. But during the time I was an academic lots of people had careers like that. It was an accident of the post-war economy, the GI Bill, and the economy. It had nothing to do with our own brilliance, but it was a great time to be an academic.
Ignaffo: On your blog you write about this a lot, and you are one of the few people willing to speak out on the systemic changes to the university, about whose prospects you are very honest. What advice do you give to graduate students, or students interested in pursuing graduate degrees?
It is extremely important for graduate students to have a demonstrable teaching record. Allow me to impart a lesson from my own career. The fundamental rule is that when you’re looking for a job, remember you can learn anything between March and September. If they ask you whether you want to teach something that you don’t know anything about, have never studied, and have no interest in, the proper answer is, Oh yeah, I always wanted to teach that, but I’ve never had the chance and I would just love to. And then you go back to your room and you spend four of five months cramming this stuff into you. I mean, I got my first job teaching history, and my last history course had been in high school, so I sat down and I read 20,000 pages of European history. I just started with the Greeks and read right up to Napoleon. And I stayed 100 years ahead of the students, so it all worked out.
Schapira: That’s funny, I had a similar experience recently as a TA for a history course at Barnard. I was always terrified of being exposed for not having taken a history course for a good ten years. But you’re right, as long as you stay a few years ahead you’ll be fine.
As a professor, I feel like I have spent my entire career doing a high-wire act without a net. I think this is a universal experience. I remember trying to explain this to one of my graduate students at Columbia, a guy named Andrew Levine. Of course this was back in the ’60s, and Andrew was very talented and went on to have a very distinguished career, but at the time he had just started teaching his first section and I was trying to give him advice. He said to me, “I’m not going do it like that: the ‘professor’ and the ‘student.’ We’re all going to sit in a circle on the floor and call each other by our first names and we will all be teachers and all be students.” And I said, “Andy, that sounds great, and you can do anything you want, but these students are not stupid and they know that at the end of the semester only one of you is getting paid, and they also know that the person getting paid is the same person putting in a grade.” He said, “No, no, no, it’s not going to be like that at all!”
Of course he came back to me after it didn’t work, very disappointed. I said, “Andy, you are the professor, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So look on the bright side: since you’re a professor, you can get away with anything. I mean, if somebody asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, you say, ‘Why, that’s an extremely interesting question!’ and then you tell them you would like all of them to go home and see whether they can find the answer and we’ll talk about it next time.”
Ignaffo: You have a lot of stories in your autobiography about being a family man in academia. I think you have one story where you actually had your infant son in a carrier while you were teaching a Philosophy of Education class at Columbia during the student protests. You write that you later found out that the students had planned to “seize” the class, but decided against it because of the presence of your son.
Yes, he was on my shoulder! But they were really nice kids and knew not to make trouble for a man with a baby on his shoulder.
Ignaffo: Years ago, being a professor seemed to be a career, rather than an all-encompassing way of life, which allowed you to do things like commit yourself to raising a family. I wonder if the current tension between academic and personal priorities has become emblematic of just how much the university has changed; the job has changed.
Absolutely. And let me say — first of all — that being a father and a husband is the most important thing in my life, far more important than being a professor. And I was lucky: as a professor I was never confronted with the necessity of choosing, though my wife faced pressures. However, had I been confronted with that necessity, there is no question I would have chosen being a father and a husband, and I would have done so without hesitation.
It was really a golden age for American higher education at that time, but I can speak to this issue based on my own kind of funny experience. I had tenure at Columbia by thirty and left at thirty-seven. So I was still young, but publishing a great deal and very rapidly getting a reputation. And of course this was New York, a big media market, so I got a couple television appearances and started reviewing for the New York Times Book Review section and was getting speaking invitations around the country — I thought I was hot stuff. But I was also aware that I was living in this god-awful slum apartment that Columbia had given me for next to no money, and I just felt it was a terrible environment to raise a kid. So I had a choice: I was well aware of the fact that if I stayed at Columbia I could become a recognized New York public intellectual. You know, the sort of person who later on would be asked to appear on TV shows, who would be asked to speak around the world, etc., etc. You know how it is. And this was a very attractive possibility — I mean, there’s this world of Upper West Side public intellectuals for whom that public role is a large part of their persona. So I thought a lot about this, and a part of me really wanted to reach for it, but it would mean consigning my family — my children — to what I thought was an inadequate childhood. So I decided I wanted to leave.
Ignaffo: And the risk was that if you left you would not have a career, or the same kind of career, as a public intellectual.
Exactly. And it wasn’t just a risk, it was a reality. So my wife — who was also an academic — and I looked at the University of Massachusetts because it was expanding very rapidly, and Western Massachusetts was a beautiful place to raise children. Now, at the time, the University of Massachusetts was a big, sloppy, second-rate, underfunded university. But I thought to myself, “Now I’m at Columbia, and when people hear that I’m at Columbia they think ‘Wow! Wolff must be pretty good if he’s at Columbia.’ But if I go to UMass people are going to say, ‘Wow! UMass must be pretty good, they get professors from Columbia.’” And I thought that was rather nice. Of course, I later found out UMass didn’t even want me, I was their third choice! But at the time they were expanding so fast that the Dean said, “take all three!”
So I was lucky, but not received in the way I thought I would be, because the other two hires ended up going elsewhere. I was a letdown for much of the faculty. But anyway, we did what the English call “rusticating.” We left the very center of the world, which was New York City, and with it the possibility of the life of a big shot public intellectual behind, but never regretted it. My kids had a wonderful time growing up there.
Schapira: Were there any downsides to the move?
Well, as you know from my autobiography I had a rather difficult time at the UMass philosophy department. And when I left Columbia, of course I had this fear, and it was a founded one, that there was a very distinct possibility that people would forget about me. And of course, that fear was realized — they did forget about me. I stopped getting invitations to speak or invitations to go to conferences, and I worried that nobody would know whether I was alive or dead.
So that happened, and you know what? It wasn’t so bad. I never stopped writing, and my books kept selling, so there was some evidence that people were reading what I was writing. And I had the good sense not to go to the philosophical meetings; I stopped reading the philosophy journals since they bored me silly. So I just kept teaching — and writing, though I absolutely loved teaching. More importantly, I got to spend a lot of time at home, a lot of time with my kids. I mean, if they if they had to go to a doctor or a dentist, I was the one that took them. For three years I was the Cub Scout Master of the Cub Scout pack in Northampton. I taught them how to ride bicycles, I played with them. I led the life of a teacher, a father, and a writer, and it was a lovely life and I never regretted walking away from Columbia. And that seemed to me a much better life then the life of a New York public intellectual. So in a certain sense, I made that choice. Now, it was a much easier choice — I mean, I went from tenure to tenure.
Ignaffo: One reason that you might have so many readers is that the anecdotes are really great. The 50th anniversary at Harvard is one of my favorites, the “money stinks” episode. Could you retell that story?
Well, what happened was I was invited to come back to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Social Studies program, and I was very delighted, especially since it gave me a chance to see a couple of old friends. All of a sudden this Martin Peretz affair exploded and I was quite torn about whether I wanted to go at all. I finally decided to go, but I was ambivalent about whether to address the controversy or not, and at the last moment I decided that I was going to say something about it, and so I did. One of the things that’s odd about me is that I seem to remember a lot of things randomly. Immediately I thought about that wonderful passage in Das Kapital, the story about the Emperor’s son. The Roman state raised money by taxing public urinals. One day, the Emperor sent his son to collect the taxes, and his son was offended by the task; so when he returned he flung the money at his father’s feet. Vespasian looked down and said “Pecunia non olet.” Or something like, “it’s not the money that stinks.” And so I constructed a little speech around that, but ended by reminding everyone that in this case, it is the money that stinks. I didn’t speak from notes but I knew exactly what I wanted to say.
The response was extremely interesting. E.J. Dionne was a Social Studies graduate and he was part of one of the panels. I met him at the hotel where most of us were staying and he said, “Oh, it’s a great honor to meet you,” which was very flattering — when people made a great fuss over me. But then it turned out that he was one of the people behind the plan to honor Peretz and I was appalled. I began to have again the feeling that I’ve had so often about Harvard — and I’ve had a very checkered relationship with Harvard — that it is a collection of some medieval barons, each one of whom walks through the world and is followed by a cloud of assistant professors docking and touching their forelocks and saying “yes sir” or “no sir.” It’s a funny place; people don’t interact with one another, as I remark at some point in my autobiography. It’s as though they have only gotten as far as the stage that child psychologists call parallel play in little children, where they do their thing next to each other, but they don’t really interact. And moreover, everybody is a very important person and it’s extremely, centrally important, that each person’s importance be acknowledged by everybody else, in return for which they will acknowledge your importance, and after about two or three or four hours of this I really began to get this queasy feeling in my stomach.
Schapira: One of the more popular pieces on the blog, I think, was your piece about Newt Gingrich’s dissertation, where you actually took the time to read it.
Yeah, and believe it or not that got more comments than anything else I’ve ever done.
Ignaffo: Well, you are one of the few men living that has actually read that thing cover to cover, right?
Schapira: What was interesting is that it struck me as sort of a public service that someone in your position could provide — as an active public intellectual, but also as a citizen-journalist. Did you see it as a public service?
Brian Leiter actually said on his blog that I basically took a bullet for the rest of us. But I have to say, all kidding aside, that I didn’t think of myself as performing an enormous public service. I just thought it would be a blast, and when it turned out I could actually access it online without any difficulty, I just muscled through it.
Schapira: You were at Columbia in ‘68, and wrote The Ideal of the University as sort of a reaction to what happened. There has been a recent uptick again in activism at Columbia and elsewhere, for example in California, Chile, and London. Have you been following this closely? And have you been able to draw any significant connections or differences between the current student movements and those you witness in ‘68?
Well, I’ve been following the Occupy Movement more than these other things. I have great hopes for the Occupy Movement. On the one hand, I have seen and written some very pessimistic pieces about the future of socialism and so forth, based on my analysis of the structure of what we used to call late capitalism, back when we were still optimistic. On the other hand I’m a perennial optimist, so I have been astonished by the speed at which the public conversation in the United States has been changed by the Occupy Movement, which when you think about it, really involved a very small fraction of the American population. Yet it somehow caught everyone’s attention and turned the national discourse. It doesn’t translate into a political program, but I think that’s the right approach. The problems that they’re talking about and pointing to are so structurally embedded in the American economy that no political program will pass at the level of legislation.
So I don’t know where it’s going to go, and at the age of 78 I don’t know whether I’m going to be around if and when anything really changes. But I’ve been encouraged by it. You have to remember that the events in ‘68 were fundamentally triggered by the fact that young men in college campuses were subject to the draft. And the army knew exactly what it was doing. The army almost got destroyed by the Vietnam War, and so they quite correctly and intelligently recognized that the only way they could survive was to substitute a professional army for a citizen army, and that’s what they did. As a consequence, America now can fight wars in which large numbers of Americans get killed without that having any very profound impact on American politics. Now the present job crisis is beginning to trigger the same sorts of reactions — as the economy improves, some of the pressure will be relieved. And of course, among college-educated people the unemployment rate is something like four and a half percent. Remember that only 30% of American adults 23 and over have a college degree; so there is a real fundamental divide which expresses itself in employment rates and lifetime earnings and all sorts of other ways. But what the long-term consequence will be of a revival in student protests, I don’t know. I can keep my fingers crossed, but it’s a little hard to judge.
Ignaffo: Where would you like it to go?
Oh dear . . . well, I don’t think anything resembling what I would call socialism is in the future. But I do think it’s possible to return to something more like social democracy — a less unequal distribution of wealth and income, as well as a more robust collection of public programs and discourse. In Paris they allocate their money in totally different ways, with the consequence that the public space feels very different. They allocate much more to the public life of the community. I mean people in Paris live in very small apartments, but when they go outdoors on every corner there’s a café that’s actually pleasant to sit in, the streets are fun to walk around in. There are more public festivals. This is a typical European thing to do and I can’t imagine it happening here. My wife and I very often remark that even though we live in a place that is designed to be a kind of village community with shops, cafes, restaurants on the first floor of the building that the condos are in, and so forth, there’s no place you can go to just sit in a café and have a glass of wine outdoors and watch the world go by. It is just not the same, and results from a series of choices about public spaces. Now, I don’t want to overly romanticize France, as they have stifled their immigrant population. But one of the fascinating differences is that in American cities, the inner city is the ghetto and everybody’s moved out into the suburbs. In Paris, the inner city is the place to be because the public life is in the inner city, even though the apartments are so small. It’s rich and rewarding, and the immigrant population — the underclass — has been shoved out into great big ugly apartment buildings on the periphery of Paris.
I would like to see us develop public life in a way that would be quintessentially American, not a copy of some other country. I would like ours to come out of a vision of society in which people think of themselves as bound together and responsible for one another in sharing a public life. Now, everything in this country has been going in the opposite direction for the last 30 years, so it’s not something you can do overnight — and whether it can happen at all, I genuinely don’t know.
Ignaffo: Speaking of public space, I think this is a nice segue to return to the subject of universities. You’ve written about “the ideal of the university” and you’ve also written about the current and negative trends in higher education, such as tuition going up and funding getting gutted. Now we finally see a movement of students organizing openly, resisting these trends. In a way, I think that almost enacts what universities could be — the fact that people are finally organizing and focusing a discourse on these issues and on the responsibilities and expectations of public education. I was wondering if you wanted to respond to this trend?
I quite agree. You know, in the old days when students first started occupying buildings, I was always amused by the hysterical reaction from the administration. And I said, “Look, they’re occupying the administration building. What that says is they think it’s the most important space on the campus. What you have to worry about is not when they occupy you, but when they turn around and walk away and are no longer interested in you. Because when that happens, you cease to exist.” And that’s true of all public institutions. So as long as students treat the university space as their space and contest, abuse, occupy the space; and demand that it serves their interests, it means they are at least still invested in the university, and that’s a good thing. It’s not a problem when people attempt to occupy their university, it becomes a problem when they just quietly walk away and say “the hell with it.”
Schapira: I have one last question. You’ve said writing comes easily to you and you’ve written on a wide range of topics, really taking full advantage of the blog medium to continue to do so. We’ve had professors here tell graduate students that the movement online and the proliferation of blogging, all of it, it’s all simply a distraction and even a hindrance to our studies as graduate students. But it sounds like your experience demonstrates the opposite case, where it seems to help you to focus your thoughts, to organize communities of mutual interest.
Well, for me it’s been extremely positive, literally — that is to say, people now know that I’m still alive. You know, it was a big deal, historically, when movable type came along. And I am old enough to remember when the first Xerox machines became popular. And now nobody bothers to really even send letters, because they can connect with people all over the world instantaneously with just a few clicks. I view that sort of thing as completely positive, historically. Now, there are a lot of threats, a lot of silliness, and a lot of banality. But you know what? There have always been a lot of threats, and silliness, and banality. People tend to forget that along with the great music of Mozart, there was a lot of schlock being written. We forget about it because we don’t listen to it anymore. I think what really interests me politically about the internet is that it turns out if you read the Daily Kos or something like that, that in a country of 330 million people, there are a huge number of people capable of writing an interesting, informed, intelligent discussion on some topic or other and they were simply drowned out by a monopoly of the talking heads on television and radio. Now they have a voice, and it’s a welcome change, because many of the things that are said by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people on the internet are as fully informed and fully intelligent as the things said by the handful of people who happen to be commentators on Fox News or CNN or MSNBC. I find this new reality very comfortingg and very liberating, and the result is, I think, a tremendous enrichment of what’s available.