Josef Joffe '65
How did this 18-year-old from Cold War Berlin get to Swarthmore? Cherchez la femme. The femme in this case was Janice, a sophisticated 17-year-old exchange student from Grand Rapids, Mich. "Sophisticated" in those days meant black turtle necks, tweed skirts, and Benson & Hedges cigarettes (the real kind, from Britain). She wrote poetry and played Joan Baez songs on the guitar; in the Midwest of the early 1960s, then still firmly lodged in the '50s, she was the epitome of hip. And she had applied to Swarthmore. "Swarthmore? Never heard of it." She brought me a pack of articles, all of which said pretty much the same things: supercharged academics, bad football, grungy clothes, and left-wing politics.
The kid from Wall Town applied, along with Janice. Of course, she did not get in (her fate was Oberlin), but he did-with an SAT score of 1,240, to boot. The number of applicants from Germany must have been a bit on the low side. So, in the fall of 1962, he was heading for that mythical point "11 miles southwest of Philadelphia," two suitcases and one portable Olivetti (the mechanical precursor of the laptop) in hand. It was the best decision he ever made.
Why? The 1960s surely were the heyday of liberal arts education in America. Though it was left-wing politics outside the Swarthmore classroom, it was the most rigorous kind of education inside. We had middle-of-the-road professors (complete with pipes and patches) who kept us intellectually honest; "commitment," "feeling," or "authenticity" did not pass as a substitute for a stringent argument. They let us take over Chester's city hall for now long-forgotten causes, but jail was no excuse for an unfinished seminar paper. "Say you want a revolution?" as the Beatles would later sing. First, you had to show up for that grueling five-hour seminar on Modern Political Theory, where Marx and Lenin were subjected to "bourgeois" rules of evidence, such as factuality and consistency.
Somehow, those all-nighters that studded a 60-hour study week also left time for writing for The Phoenix, organizing folk festivals and student conferences, acting in the Hamburg Show, pressuring the administration into relaxing "visiting hours," and contributing to worthy social causes off-campus. (Sex was strictly verboten.) The purpose of this romantic tale is not to sentimentalize the days when "giants walked the earth" but to stress a larger point that transcends generational bragging. At its best (and Swarthmore was the best), liberal arts education in America was a wondrous experience that built not only the mind, but also soul and character. Even with political activism on the rise, "relevance" was a term rarely applied to "education," and courses with "interdisciplinary" in front and "studies" in the tail were not yet in vogue. At any rate, Swarthmore beat attending Berlin or Munich U., vast urban universities replete with anonymity, anomie, and aimlessness.
To elucidate the general point, here are three examples.
1. Putting Descartes Before the Course
My first encounter with philosophy occurred in the introductory course given by Richard Brandt. The paper topic was "Compare Descartes and Leibniz on the Mind-Body Problem." Deferentially, I sidled up to the professor with a request for secondary sources. "What for?" "Well, before I write this paper, I need to know what the greats before me had to say." "No, you don't. You are just as good as they are. Stick to the originals, and forget the exegesis."
"You are just as good as they are...." What does an 18-year-old know from the mind-body problem? Not enough. Or just enough for a C-, as the grade would later indicate. But had the good professor, author of a standard work on ethics, steered him wrong? Not really. Because knowledge is a discovery every generation must make on its own; it is an adventure that cannot be experienced secondhand. Education is not regurgitation (as, au fond, in France), nor footnote flaunting (as in Germany). It is "hands on," intellectually speaking, or, more precisely, "brains on." Your own hands and brains.
Only your own brains? This tale offers yet another moral. When I asked what I had done wrong to deserve a C-, Brandt replied laconically: "Nothing. The others were just better." The "others" are another great secret of a Swarthmore education. As they say, and rightly so: "Fifty percent of a good education is the other students." These other "turkeys" ("Swatties," as they are called today) are the lead runners in the long-distance race that is a liberal arts education. They set the pace and the example, making the laggards wheeze, pant, and sweat until the last shall be the first (or, at least, reach the middle of the pack). Such races are not run in the anonymous mass universities of Europe, let alone in such abodes of virtual education as the University of Phoenix. In other words, a slice of my tuition rightfully should have gone to my fellow students.
2. The Seminar Syndrome
One year later, despite his so-so performance in philosophy, this student was allowed to join the Honors Program. "Classic Honors," as configured then, was ungraded and lectureless. It consisted of two afternoon-filling seminars plus one paper per week-until that Judgment Day two years later when outside examiners took the intellectual measure of Swarthmore's would-be laureates.
Two long years and one 8-to-10-page paper per week. One day, this philosophy acolyte showed up in his Aesthetics seminar (run by the legendary Monroe Beardsley, he of the "intentional fallacy") without his paper in hand. The applause for this act of insouciance was a bit weak because his essay was to be the core of the seminar-for each participant to read and scrutinize. But the only object of scrutiny was this squirming reprobate. Nobody carped or complained. His fellow students just looked disappointed. It was as if a soldier had shown up in the trench without his rifle-virtually a form of intellectual treason.
Needless to say, this happened only once in my Swarthmore career. On that afternoon, I understood that education is not an academic variant of consumerism, let alone a lifestyle choice for that hiatus between childhood and adulthood known as "I don't know what I'm gonna do." On that day, the full meaning of the ancient university communitas, the community of teachers and learners, was quietly driven home. Such a pedagogical wake-up call is rare in America's huge state universities and even more so in their European counterparts, where a "seminar" can easily run to 50 or 60 students. Whence it follows that a Swarthmore education is a sheer privilege, and not the kind of parking lot between high school and unemployment that so many European mass universities have become. Shall we do away with this grueling privilege in the name of equality? A look at the Sorbonne or at the Universities of Hamburg and Rome, where admission is open and tuition nil, unequivocally says "No!"
3. Quakers and Citizens
Like many American colleges, Swarthmore's roots are denominational. Though the College is now thoroughly secular, the Quaker spirit was still very much present in the 1960s. One practical emanation was the principle of "friendly persuasion," as the title of a Gary Cooper movie had it. And the moral of this tale has to do with "character building."
Once a week, on Thursdays, all students had to gather in pseudo-Gothic Clothier Memorial Hall for an hour of spiritual improvement (not necessarily of the religious kind) called Collection. The assembly was scheduled for 10 o'clock in the morning, which was not a good time after yet another night at the typewriter. But it was a good occasion for making value choices-the first step in a moral education.
Being practical folks who understood that human existence always teeters between crass self-interest and more lofty impulses, Swarthmore's Quaker-minded administration had decreed four "freebies" per semester: no retribution for resisting early-morning edification on four Thursdays of your choice. But if you chose self-indulgence (i.e., an additional hour of blissful sleep, for the fifth or nth time) "friendly persuasion" would set in. The wayward were not dragged from their dreams (as they might be by loud bells in a Jesuit college) but were given a choice: Pick one hour's worth of immediate gratification now, and pay with two hours of community work (in the garden or the library) at the end of the semester.
Economists call such a trade-off "present gains vs. future costs." Moralists use other terms: "choice among competing values," or "short-term vs. long-term interest," or "self vs. community." The point of this tale is not a crude utilitarian calculus, let alone goodness by imposition, but freedom tempered by rules freely accepted, if also with a little Quaker touch. Is there a better way to teach autonomous judgment to the young who have just escaped from the strictures of their parents?
To return to the beginning: For this escapee from Cold War Berlin, Swarthmore was a wondrous bildungsroman-less haphazard than Sterne's Tristam Shandy but more fun than Goethe's Wilhelm Meister-that recorded the growth of mind, soul, and character. (Or thus he believes after almost 40 years of fondest-memory mongering.) Since then, he has studied and taught at various European universities, faceless institutions that share only a faint family resemblance with the centers of distinction that Gttingen, Bologna, or Prague's Charles University once were. This experience has left him with a modest wish: May the liberal arts college, which never sank roots in continental Europe, flourish and endure. And may Swarthmore live on as its most excellent exemplar in an age when America's great research universities keep taking an ever-larger bite out of the world's intellectual and educational resources. But even at relentlessly expanding Harvard, where this student received a Ph.D., they know about excellence when they see it. They call Swarthmore "None"-as in: "Harvard Is Second to None."
Josef Joffe is the publisher and editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit (Hamburg, Germany) and an associate of Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies.