High School Writing: The Return of the Repressed

In my most recent blog, I reflected on my decidedly incomplete memories of my early life. In particular, I had believed that my intellectual life had in essence begun when, in the fall of 1961 at the age of 18, I had become a freshman at Harvard College. But in going through recently discovered old papers, I found that, as editor of my high school newspaper, I had already written about many topics that were to engage me decades later. These included the reforms of secondary school recommended in a 1959 book by James Bryant Conant, The American High School Today; three decades later, I became active in high school reform in the United States. And these themes extended to the value of liberal arts; five decades later, I am leading a major study of the liberal arts and sciences at the college level.

So much for repression—not psychodynamic but scholarly.

I had also believed that, until college, my writing had been quite uncritical—simply reviewing readings and encyclopedia articles and feeding back, in grammatical form, what I had gleaned from these readings. I had appreciated the value of a high school “senior seminar on American history and literature”; but mostly because of the wide reading and discussion, and not for the quality or penetration of my weekly writing assignments.

But in the same treasure trove where I located 60 old newspapers, I also found four papers that I had written for the senior seminar. And in re-reading those papers from literally 60 years ago, I found definite, unmistakable traces and anticipations of my later thinking and writing.

To begin with, the papers are all reasonably well-written (in re-reading, I restrained myself from editing, or, more properly, sub-editing individual sentences). The papers each put forth an argument and defend it reasonably. Of course, I can’t tell in retrospect how much of the argument came from classroom discussions or from assigned readings, but they certainly are restated in my own words—sentences, paragraphs, pages. Noting that on each paper, I signed the school honor pledge, the papers seem to deserve the positive comments that they received. I think that my three years of editing on the school newspaper probably contributed to these well-presented papers, though I certainly would credit my teachers—Jack Betterly and Frank Light—as well.

Two of the papers come from the humanistic-artistic facet of the senior seminar. One of them is on Emerson’s essays—as I posit in the first paragraph, “Emerson emphasized that man could understand himself only by applying the lessons of Nature and facts to his own life.” The second paper compares the sea journey of Ishmael (in Moby Dick) to Huck Finn’s journey down the Great River (the Mississippi). In re-reading these ancient papers, I was struck by the focus on symbolism. As I say in the Emerson paper, “In discussing Emerson’s doctrine, I will consider two symbolic correspondences of the universe—that of Nature study by analogy and (of) fact consideration by spiritual interpretation. Symbolic correspondences are the relationship of forces as understood by a person intuitively.” Similarly, in the Melville-Twain paper, I argue that “the two unifying forces, the River and the quest of the whale, had symbolic meanings… both the River and the Whale were god-like powers, seemingly possessing their own minds and wills; they also represented an unerring truth, rather than a concept of right or good.”

Now it is scarcely surprising that a high school student should write about symbolism in major literary works—and I am confident that the notion of “symbol” was part of the curriculum of the senior seminar.

But what comes as a shock to me is that the most important book I read as a college freshman was philosopher Susanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key; and the most important philosophical experience of my life was working with philosopher Nelson Goodman, who developed a theory of symbolism (in Languages of Art and other writings). Both of these authors—who knew of one another’s works—used the term “symbol” in a broader way than did I as a high school senior; and in particular, both developed taxonomies of symbols that helped to explain key differences between artistic and scientific forms of knowledge.

But I now realize that the young Howie was in no way a blank slate; he had already become interested in and written extensively about symbolism. And then I—the somewhat older Howard—proceeded to study the development and breakdown of symbol use for several decades. And for extra credit, he was already contrasting truth and goodness, the topic of a 2011 book.

I did not continue formal literary or humanistic studies, though I have been immersed in the arts since early childhood. The other two papers that I discovered recently are far closer to my later scholarly work.

In a very well argued paper—though it is probably not very original in content—I describe “Abraham Lincoln—Commander in Chief.” Here’s the first paragraph:

“In most non-military aspects of his presidency, such as his relation to the Cabinet, Congress, foreign powers, and varying public and political opinion, it was necessary for Abraham Lincoln to act as a restraining force. Yet as Commander-in-Chief of the Union force, Lincoln undertook to define his role, and, when considering Lincoln as a military leader, the usual concept of ‘The Great Moderator’ is inadequate. It is the purpose of this paper to analyze what Lincoln considered his role to be and to evaluate whether such an interpretation of the position helped (win) the Civil War.”

The paper then proceeds, quite deftly, to develop Lincoln’s initial and emerging conception of his military role and the ways in which it changed, complexified and deepened in the ensuing four years. Of course, the material treated is well known and did not require extensive research—not possible, in any case, for a weekly assignment in one of several courses! But I am impressed by the apt intermingling of expected and less expected examples, such as “the narrow averting of international war after the Trent incident,” “(Lincoln) soon demonstrated Clausewitz’s dictum, that the qualification of war direction is not acquaintance with military affairs but rather a superior mind.” And the weighing of evidence seems judicious: “The eventual victory of the North is the best proof that Lincoln’s strategy (strategic leadership from him, finding competent and trustworthy officers) was correct. However, when he attempted to carry out both his own and subordinate duties, the North lagged. Such a task was too great for any man.”

The final paper is by far the most surprising. If you had asked me if I’d ever read Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of the Scientific Philosophy, I would have given you a blank stare. Yet not only did I read this intimidating volume; I even reviewed it in a paper. Relying on Howie (because Howard has not read or, more properly, re-read the book), “Reichenbach’s purpose is to show that the study of philosophy has proceeded from that of a speculative pursuit to that of a scientific one. He first analyzes most of the prominent philosophies of years past, and shows how, because they have tended to deal in generalizations and look for absolute truths, these philosophies have failed. Then as a scientific philosopher, he discusses several problems which philosophers have always dealt with, such as time, Nature, and Ethics. The excellent chapters on logic and probability (Reichenbach’s specialities) are also included in this section. Finally, Reichenbach concludes with a brief essay, comparing the old and new philosophies.”

So far, so good. Without consulting the original publication, I can infer the book’s ambition.

But what impressed me in this review by Howie is that it is quite critical. First of all, Howie points out that a philosopher would be able to critique certain arguments, but that laymen, unaware of certain prejudices in Reichenbach’s treatment, would accept his arguments uncritically. As examples, Howie points out that each prior philosophy is ridiculed because of some incongruities and some biases. But “by dealing with complex structures as if they were weather reports, he (Reichenbach) avoids indicating the strengths of the different philosophies.” Then, critiquing the final chapter, the so-called “closing argument,” Howie takes issue with the claim that the the scientific philosopher can understand life better than others. As he puts it: “In proving this, however, (Reichenbach) relies heavily on mathematical logic, which cannot explain all of philosophy. The author’s other errors include the following: Reichenbach arbitrarily divides all previous knowledge into either poetry or pseudo-explanation; he fails to point out the differences among the scientific philosophers, on the nature of causality, inductive reasoning, and ethics; he fails to state his own biases, after carefully analyzing those of previous philosophers; he shows a lack of historical perspective in stating that the present is superior in judging life.”

In the final paragraph, Howie puts forth what Howard would likely write today: “Reichenbach seems to feel that the scientific philosophy is the ultimate answer to the puzzles of life. What he fails to realize is, however, that every philosopher, in every age, has thought that he was dealing with life’s problems scientifically. Perhaps a realization of this fact would have enabled Reichenbach to write a more objective and less prejudiced book. For as he himself states in his chapter about atoms: ‘Data of scientific interpretation can be described in various languages…and there is no question of one’s being the true language.’”

I can’t help but be a bit proud of 17 year old Howie. Even if, as I suspect, Howie read some critical reviews of the Reichenbach book, he certainly speaks with his own voice, one that I still recognize today. Even when it comes to scholarly exposition and interpretation, the child is in significant ways father to the man.

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6 Comments on “High School Writing: The Return of the Repressed”

  1. María Victoria Muñoz June 12, 2018 at 6:33 pm #

    Sir, my greatest respect for a brilliant mind in academia, both to the young Howie (I would have never been able to write so masterfully at 17, or even now!) and to renowned professor Gardner! Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
    Victoria, from Argentina

  2. Howard Gardner June 12, 2018 at 8:02 pm #

    you are very kind. Note that I had no memory of what I wrote like at age 17; perhaps you would be pleasantly surprised. Best wishes howard

    • María Victoria Muñoz June 12, 2018 at 8:29 pm #

      Sir, what an honor to get a reply from you! Right now, I’m about to move to the US to pursue my PhD and reading your interview at The Harvard Gazette has been a great inspiration. Thank you!
      With my deepest respect,

  3. etabrunellieta brunelli June 28, 2018 at 6:58 am #

    Your reading is a source of inspiration to transcend me. Real pleasure, thanks!

  4. Margaret (Peg) Smith December 28, 2018 at 9:49 pm #

    Howard, do you recall the subject of the oration you delivered in ’61 @ Wyo Sem?
    Peg Smith ’63

    • Howard Gardner January 8, 2019 at 9:31 pm #

      Hi Peg,

      Thanks for your note. In truth, I don’t recall the oration that I gave at “Sem,” if I did give one. But I engaged in a debate with Asher Levitsky about the cessation of nuclear armament and nuclear tests, and he received an award as the best debater. Do you have any other recollections?

      With best wishes,

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