Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Friday, July 29, 2011

In Paris, the City of Pigeons

Paris is a famous city in France. It is well known for its old churches, chic shops, cafes and museums, and world-class piles of pigeon droppings.

While there are now very few actual Parisians who live in the city – the entire metropolis having been overrun by tourists -- those who remain are no longer as irredeemably arrogant as they once were.

Apparently the city’s habitués got the memo that unless they actually showed the occasional willingness to give street directions to someone who did not attend the Sorbonne, the rest of the world would accord Parisians the status of sheer irrelevance that they have long deserved.

France itself is famous not only for croissants but also for freedom fries and losing every war it has ever fought.

In a bid to erase both France's irrelevance and its long military losing streak, President Nicolas Sarkozy recently talked the Western powers into attacking Libya.

This was perhaps the best thing that has ever happened to Col. Muammar Gaddafi. His continued hold on power is now assured, thanks to the combined ineptitude of Libyan rebels, the European military and half-hearted American air power -- not to mention the French distaste for victory.

But I digress.

We were in Paris recently for a week, in a largely successful effort to empty our American bank accounts by changing dollars for euros.

The alleged purpose of the trip, as it is for so many such trips to Paris, was to savor the open-air markets and cafes, and to see famous sites such as the Left Bank of the Seine.

I refer to the “alleged purpose” of the trip, in regard to outdoor sites, because in actuality we spent large parts of each day beneath the city and safely removed from any sunshine or oxygen, riding the Paris Metro to and from the sites.

One day, however, we were able to emerge from the metro long enough to see the famous Left Bank .

The Left Bank,of course, was a favorite hangout of Jean Paul Sartre and his sometime Main Squeeze, Simone de Beauvoir -- who together became famous for inventing an indefinable philosophy and providing the early raw material for Rush Limbaugh's rants against feminism. There, too, they smoked and drank themselves to an existentially superb, albeit cancer-ridden, death.

While on the Left Bank I made a point of having a (pricey) glass of wine at the cafe where Simone and Jean Paul hung out. It's called Les Deux Magots -- a name that has led many an American tourist to ponder why anyone would name a cafe after a couple of maggots.

But again, I digress. Blame it on the French wine, which I have to say is decidely inferior -- at least at a price I can afford -- to the Italian wine we drank later in the trip.

Among the other sites we saw in Paris was Montmartre. I'm told the famous French habit of smoking oneself to death originated in this neighborhood among starving, tubercular artists such as Modigliani.

These days Montmartre is overrun with tourists who have paid thousands of dollars to come to Paris for a whiff of the bohemian life. But they could have stayed home and gotten a whiff of the same thing, from their neighbor who struggles to sell her paintings while making ends meet as a massage therapist.

Another neighborhood we visited is called the Marais. While it is famous for its gay residents, you will see more same-sex couples holding hands on a five-minute walk across the Middlebury College campus than you will in the Marais in all of July.

We also visited Notre Dame, a very large church.

I was told -- but wasn't able to verify because I don't speak French -- that this church is used as a sort of home-away-from home for students and alumni of the Fighting Irish.

Indeed, the church is large enough to provide practice space for the Notre Dame football team, should it need indoor facilities the next time it's in town.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Legacy of Middlebury College Professors

(First published in May 2011)

Ten days from now, several hundred Middlebury College students will take those fateful steps across the commencement stage to receive their degrees, and then bound off into the world.

For many of us Middlebury College alums who have taken that same walk, this is a nostalgic time of year. We can't help but recall our own college experience, and the poignant days as it came to a close.

At an institution where the list price of a degree exceeds $200,000, personal relationships with professors are one of the college's strongest selling points. That was true when the cost of a Middlebury education was $24,000 (the figure when I graduated in 1974), and it's even more true now.

As English Prof. Jay Parini wrote, the end of the school year brings "the many losses that inevitably attend that event, marked so vividly by the graduation ceremony, when half a dozen kids I had really come to like, even love, wave to me from the platform as they proceed into their adult life, diplomas in hand." He knows he will never see some of those students again.

But, he added, "Each year a number of them will return on alumni weekends and look me up … I'm aware that one or two from each class will remain friends forever.
Professors make indelible marks. And this time of year has me thinking of the marks that three professors made on my contemporaries and me.

One of my professor “friends forever” is David Rosenberg. As a young Middlebury teacher he introduced us to a new way of learning, setting aside the lectern and having us do role-playing. Playing out our roles as the representatives of different nations, I got a feel for the diversity of international relations that no lecture could convey.

When I stayed in Middlebury after graduation and helped launch a newspaper, David and his wife Jean took an encouragingly proprietary interest in the shaky beginnings of my journalism career. After I moved away and often returned on vacation, having dinner at their lovely old brick house was always a highlight of the trip. Over 35 years of conversation, David’s perspective on international relations has reminded me that it’s a big world out there, and it doesn’t necessarily revolve around America.

The classes taught by David, Russ Leng and others brought a badly needed relevance to the college's political science curriculum in the early 1970s. By contrast, professors Murray Dry and Paul Nelson, both products of the University of Chicago, staked out more philosophical territory.

"Poli sci with Murray P. Dry” – PS 101 and 102 -- was in those days a rite of passage for a huge percentage of my class.

Given the tumult of that time, these apparently archaic introductory classes were a form of exquisite torture. The nation was engaged in a massive, immoral land war in Asia; every male in our class was looking at the prospect of being drafted after college; and the Nixon Administration was increasingly understood to be conducting its nefarious business in secret and illegal fashion.

So in the face of these events, how did the college have us embark upon our study of politics? With a compulsory semester of material devoted to the 2300-year-old works of Aristotle and Plato.

We chafed against this seeming irrelevance. But Murray Dry and discussion-section leaders like Paul Nelson were committed to showing us the bigger and deeper picture. And damned if they didn’t succeed.

We came away from the semester knowing little more about what was going on in the contemporary world. But we had been given an analytical and philosophical framework with which to understand it, which lasts to this day.

It must be said that it wasn't always an easy process to endure. The reading load was intimidating. Murray called on anyone at any time in class, so you had to be sure you had done the reading, and I mean all of the reading.

My brother, who was two years behind me at the college and is today the most successful lawyer I know, was one of many who took one course from Murray -- and spent the rest of his college career avoiding him in fear.

Murray’s second-semester course was also largely consumed by the centuries-old writing of political philosophers, among them Hobbes, Locke and Rouseau. We finally arrived in the 20th century during the last two weeks of the semester, concluding with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s powerful justification for civil disobedience, "Letter from Birmingham City Jail."

At the end of my final-exam essay on King's letter, I uncharacteristically added a personal note to Mr. Dry.

Two weeks before the exam, I told him, I had journeyed to Washington DC to take part in a massive peace demonstration and participate in an act of civil disobedience challenging the Vietnam War. (I'd been arrested in front of the White House with a couple hundred others, in an arrest that was later challenged in court and found to be illegal.)

Machiavelli and Hobbes and all the other we’d been studying didn't really speak to the passion and action of our own times, I assured Mr. Dry in my arrogantly freshman fashion. Nor did they speak to the moral questions that the war raised, I said. Even Dr. King hadn't touched on the full depth of it.

I'm sure I would cringe with embarrassment if I read that note today. Yet Murray took what I had to say quite seriously. I don't recall the details of his thoughtful reply.

But I do remember that he took the time to write one.

In the rest of my student years I was most drawn to Paul Nelson’s classes. I couldn't get enough of them. He even made Max Weber's theory of bureaucracy seem compelling.
His passionate love for the material was contagious. I've never encountered someone so warmly devoted to his studies and so good at conveying a sense that some seemingly random section -- this paragraph, this little parenthetical remark from John Locke, J.S. Mill or Leo Strauss -- was worth our attention.

Though Paul will continue in his longtime role as director of the college’s prestigious Performing Arts Series, the coming fall semester will mark the end of his teaching career. He’ll go out in a blaze of glory, teaching one course titled “Politics and the Study of Politics” and a seminar on – what else? – the works of Aristotle, Plato, and his beloved 20th century political philosophers, Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott.

Forty years later, I've pretty much forgotten what all those political philosophers had to say. But almost every day, I draw inspiration from three teachers who, for decades of Middlebury College students, have enobled the study of politics.