The Rift Between the Finest Minds & The Limp Academics Now in Power
September 1998By Robert Greer Cohn
Robert Greer Cohn is Professor Emeritus of French at Stanford University. He is Jewish by birth, and considers himself a Judeo-Christian.
Sidney Hook, the dead white male philosopher, once told me over dinner how during his impoverished boyhood in Brooklyn he threw himself in the path of a streetcar to shake down the company for damage money.
Grim necessity defined that epoch: Our immigrant ancestors were driven by potato famines and pogroms to come to America and struggle, as Sidney did, for dignity, along with a certain "competency." Grim necessity followed them not only onto farms and into factories, but into the teaching profession, where still in my early days, around World War II, I taught huge loads for miserable pay.
Almost all institutions reflected this austerity: Home discipline and the schools were far stricter and more demanding than they are today. But there was more joy, too, as old-timers vividly recall.
It was such necessity that helped keep most families together over lifetimes, along with affection, and made communities warmly close. Those communities maintained sustaining customs -- the corner drugstore for decorous juvenile meeting between the sexes and village-square boxing matches for healthy male bonding. Normal folks -- I mean those outside the academy -- often wax nostalgic about all that, and I only rehearse these familiar facts to point up the dramatic contrast to post-Second World War America. No people in history have been so spoiled as Americans since the mid-1940s.
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