The Child as Father to the Man

As I have sought to embody the name of this blog, I’ve focused on my own learning that has taken place this year: through recent reading (e.g. my two posts on the von Humboldt brothers); ongoing research (our study of higher education in the United States); and current teaching (what readings to assign to my current students).

At the same time, I have been writing a memoir—at present longer than an article but shorter than the book. Some of its content is rehearsed in a lengthy interview that I recently gave to the Harvard Gazette. In the memoir, I mention that my high school, college, and graduate school papers were thrown away. And so I have had to rely on my memory—good for facts, but very poor for experiences. (My wife quips that I am repressed—and, perhaps, she is right!) Accordingly, when I have reflected on my youth, I have tended to downplay my childhood and early adolescence. Indeed, I’ve suggested that my intellectual and scholarly life really began when, at age 18, I arrived at Harvard College, and my mind was opened to the lifelong pursuit of knowledge.

While doing this autobiographical reconstruction, I was aware that I had been the co-editor of my higher school newspaper and also that I had taken a stimulating “senior seminar” in high school. But I had scant memories of those years and had never bothered to look at three years of newspapers which occupied a few shelves in our basement—unexamined, indeed unopened!—for almost 60 years.

After completing a first draft of the memoir, I decided to dust off the sixty or so copies of The Opinator—sometimes complete with graffiti—and see what I had actually written. In doing so, as a bonus, I discovered four papers that I had written in my high school senior seminar. And what I discovered was astonishing to me—quite different from what I had been able to reconstruct about my literary past with my admittedly feeble memory.

Let’s start with the newspaper. I had always liked to write, and as early as elementary school, I had put together short newspapers. Accordingly, as soon as I arrived as a sophomore at Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, Pennsylvania, I joined the staff of The Opinator. It was a very unusual publication—appearing each week, it covered the waterfront of topics, featured engravings, and was supported by advertising (it looks like The New Yorker, not like The New York Times).

In “comping” for the paper, I had a choice of news, sports, or literary beat, and for whatever reason, I joined the literary board. As a junior, I became the junior editor, and then, with friend and classmate Barry Yoselson, I co-edited The Opinator from the spring of 1960 to the spring of 1961 (as it happened, the period when John F. Kennedy ran for and was elected president).

My first surprise was how prolific I was. Almost from the start, I was a regular contributor to The Opinator—often writing something every week. The second thing I discovered was that I wrote about almost everything. I wrote short stories—typically about elderly people reflecting on their lifespan (was I anticipating the memoir on which I am currently working?). I reviewed books—for example, a comparison of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with George Orwell’s 1984. I reviewed plays and concerts—and while the reviews of the plays were unremarkable, one review of a concert was quite acute. That’s probably because the performer was a pianist and I, as a reasonably good pianist, knew the pieces (both from recordings and from my own performances of them). I also wrote about topical topics—like the craze over hula-hoops and the most recent television season.

Since middle childhood, I have been a news junkie. And so it is not surprising that I wrote about what was happening in the world—summits of world leaders, nuclear weapons, population explosion. But what came as a complete surprise is how interested I was in education. Indeed, one could almost say that I had the “education beat.” I wrote about getting into college, about honor codes, about grading—admittedly topics of interest to college-aspiring high school students. But I was also aware of contemporary educational debates—for example, the just-published report on the American High School written by former Harvard President James Conant. And in a set of pieces that were amazingly anticipatory, I (and my colleagues) wrote about testing—standardized tests, in particular—with criticism of intelligence tests. I even had a column on liberal arts education—the topic with which I have been obsessed for the last five years—and we featured a wood cut cover that read “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness,” the virtues about which I’ve been obsessed for over a decade.

For the most part, the news and editorial coverage was what you’d expect from a high school student living during the Eisenhower years. But in retrospect, I am struck by two features of this news-oriented coverage.

First of all, I was extremely patriotic – note this phrase: “Let us balance our cherished ideals of freedom and equality with the presence of intelligent discipline so that America can remain a stronghold of freedom.”

Second, and relatedly, I was a full-fledged Cold Warrior—entirely against the Soviet Union, worried about the fate of the divided city of Berlin, and even frightened of China. As a somewhat redeeming feature, The Opinator did call for the recognition of “Red China”—a full twenty years before that actually happened.

I now cringe when I read some of these more incendiary passages:  “It is horrifying to realize that if China were to wage war on us, we could kill one billion Chinese and still have several hundred million Chinese left alive.”

Nowadays I am definitely a globalist, a pacifist, and a Gandhian. I suspect that my views changed in part because of changes in the world situation (the fall of the Iron Curtain, the shocks of the Vietnam War and Watergate) and partly because I had moved from a very conservative part of the Northeast (a former coal mining region of Pennsylvania where Donald Trump won the popular vote) to what was often called the People’s Republic of Cambridge.

As a result of this “remembrance of things past,” I now realize that much of my intellectual agenda of more recent decades actually began before college. In that sense, the child really was father to the man. And what of my actual writing? Did I simply report “the facts” and “conventional opinions,” or was it at all critical? I’ll discuss that in the next blog.

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  1. High School Writing: The Return of the Repressed | Howard Gardner - June 12, 2018

    […] my most recent blog, I reflected on my decidedly incomplete memories of my early life. In particular, I had believed […]

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