Thursday, August 28, 2014

Talkin' (and talkin' and talkin') 'bout my generation: Tony Judt on the 1960s (plus a bit of Michael Gilbert)

(Detail of a giant revolving sign at Hard Rock
Cafe, Philadelphia. Hard Rock Cafe International,
founded in London in 1971. Photo by Peter 
Rozovsky, your humble blogkeeper)
This could turn into a Tony Judt Postwar blog if I'm not careful. For now, though, I'll restrict myself to a few favorite bits from Judt's chapters about the 1960s:
"Moments of great cultural significance are often appreciated only in retrospect. The Sixties were different: the transcendent importance contemporaries attached to their own times — and their own selves — was one of the special features of the age."
And here's Judt's delicious account of the end of possibly the most self-regarding episode of the age, the events of May 1968 in France:
"In the ensuing parliamentary elections, the ruling Gaullist parties won a crushing victory, increasing their vote by more than a fifth and securing an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. The workers returned to work. The students went on vacation."
Finally, Judt's discussion of Western European students' complaints about their universities, overburdened and unprepared for the postwar flood of young people seeking places, makes excellent reading alongside the British crime writer Michael Gilbert's story "The Decline and Fall of Mr. Behrens" (in the collection Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens). Now that I've read Judt, the surprising ending to Gilbert's story makes even better sense as a piece of social observation, not bad from a writer who insisted his job was to entertain readers.

(See also "Rock and roll is here to pay.")

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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21 Comments:

Blogger Philip Amos said...

Gods and little fishes, Judt has this business nailed! I was 'there', as was he, and this calls for a disclosure: I was on the other side of the barricades, real or proverbial, and active. Indeed, I, a Red Tory then, when it was still mainstream, and at heart a Red Tory now, though in political practice there are no Tories, let alone Red ones, and the movement of the spectrum to the Right quite correctly puts me in the position of a leftish social democrat, was the subject of a weekly cartoon in the SDU News that depicted me in a Nazi uniform.

So little was there constructive in the SDU and SDS rantings, that I suspected them of a nihilistic caste of mind. What was so very striking about them, and what obviously struck Tony Judt, my contemporary, was their arrogance, their literal sneering, their smugness, their self-righteousness. It astonished me then and it still astonishes some 45 years later.

Once it was over, they may well have taken a vacation. Once rested, they then proceeded to continue their studies, pursue their professional goals, and move steadily to the Right, most definitely to the right of me then and the right of me now. I haven't budged. As Al Capp said at that time, I'm still aiming in the same direction, it's the targets that move.

This has made me very curious as to what Judt's own view of the goings-on was at that time. Very much to the fore of my mind was that, even had there been any merit in the stance of the radicals, or anything at all in the minds of most, their behaviour had no place in the University. The leaders I'm sure fancied themselves as intellectuals, their followers mostly mindless, but everything about them and their actions was nothing if not anti-intellectual. This was too the position of Michael Oakeshott, who as holder of the chair of Political Science was de facto head of the LSE, and also of Jacques Barzun (even now gone, doyen of historians of ideas, then Provost of Columbia, later recipient of the Legion d'Honneur, Presidential Medal of Freedom -- and an Edgar Award. I was determined to get crime fiction into this somehow).

Indeed, Barzun felt so strongly about the matter that he took his argument on a tour of universities, giving a lecture and then inviting debate. As Carolyn Heilbrun (aka Amanda Cross -- got it in again!), his student and later colleague at Columbia, noted in a book of memoirs, he was gentlemanly in manner to a degree almost forbidding, but an almost Gallic courtesy is quite compatible with intellectual ferocity, and I'm sure there were those more soft-hearted than I who rather pitied anyone daft enough to respond.

Ah, those were NOT the days.

A postscript merely. I'm not sure about this post-War flooding of the universities. The was inevitably a measure of that immediately after the War, as those whose studies had been forestalled or interrupted returned to Civvy Street, but I have to say that I saw no evidence of such in the late 60s, and certainly no reflection of it in the demands of the SDU. But perhaps Judt speaks only of France? The question of numbers in universities would surely surely have varied from state to state. In France, I cannot say. In Britain, I think not. In the US, perhaps, for it had already started to lower standards in education as a move in the Cold War. It was just a numbers game, though a game that has led to disastrous consequences. The lower the standards in high schools, the more go to university. The lower at the undergraduate level, the more go to graduate school. The more go to graduate school, the more idiots with doctorates. As the great Physics Nobelist Richard Feynman memorably noted, there were as many idiots among his colleagues as there were pro rata in the general population. If that was/is true in Physics, you can imagine how much truer it may be in...well, I don't want to be invidious here. Well, I don't need to be. Have you ever listened to an interview with a School Superintendent in possession of a D.Ed.? Were you scared? You should have been.

August 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Red Tory, indeed. I am now reading Judt's section on Margaret Thatcher, including an unaccountable observation attributed to Francois Mitterand that Thatcher had the eyes of Caligula but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.

August 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Judt's observations about universities may have been confined to France. Certainly the bulk of them were about that country, because of the events of 1968. You ought to look for the Michael Gilbert story I mentioned, I'd be curious to know what you think of its observations about English university life.

As for flooding of universities, I think Judt meant the arrival of early baby boomers to university. He quotes all kinds of startling statistics about university enrollment in the early 1950s, if I remember my dates right, and the vastly increased enrollment in the mid and late 1960s.

I'll say what you dare not about education. I recall mention of a survey, perhaps confined to Boston University, that said the incoming freshmen in the School of Education had the lowest SAT scores of any school in the university.

I have read and very much enjoyed some of Amanda Cross' stories. I especially enjoyed one in which three working women (one a secretary, another a cleaner) take savage revenge on a feminist professor who treats them like dirt--whose empathy for women is entirely theoretical. I also remember another story's observation about a Shakespearian--if anyone still teaches Shakespeare in these days of open admissions.

August 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In Judt's account, the real nihilistic minds--along with the deaths and the explosions--were in Germany.

August 29, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Very interesting discussion you all are having here which I can't add to other than to say that I am a big fan of both Barzun and Heilbrun.

As to the underqualified getting higher education, it makes an ironic counterpoint to a piece I read just yesterday about a study done by the authors of The Long Shadow, which studied a group of children over a long period of time, somewhat in the vein of the British 7 Up movies, and showed even more convincingly that where you begin is where you're likely to stay, with only 4% of their 'urbanely disadvantaged' Baltimore students completing college. So I don't know how that fits in with it being so easy to get a college degree, because it obviously isn't easy for certain neighborhoods.

The article is here if you are interested.

August 30, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I could have saved the people who paid for that study some money. They did not have to plunk down to cash to figure out what seems obvious to me. Or rather, I should say that I was always puzzled by the idea of transitional and remedial programs in college.

If people are unprepared for college, shouldn't any money spent on the problem go toward preparing them better, rather than sticking them in college and teaching them what they should have learned in high school?

August 30, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I don't know. I think to you and me, it may seem obvious, but the current political climate makes it clear to me that a lot of people think they have raised themselves up by their own bootstraps instead of being just extremely lucky that I am not sure it can be overstated.

My problem with such studies is different. I always wonder about just studying people, rather than feeling any responsibility to help them toward a better life.

August 30, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Something new for me this morning. I've had to obey Mr. Blogger and edit comments before, but I'm an old academic editor, so that was never a great problem. But the comment I wrote this morning apparently needed reduction to such a degree that I reached the point at which any more editing would have left it barely coherent. So I ditched it. T'would be nice if Mr. Blogger were to tell one just how many characters one is over the limit, for I've written longer with no hitch at all. Ninety minutes more of my shortening life wasted.

Anyway, I'm not doing it again. I'll just say that I take the comments of you both, Seana and Peter, very well. I think Peter is right on the mark re teaching students in university what they should have learnt in high school.

And I agree with Seana that these studies are a waste of money. They are assumed to be a way of stimulating changes. But the only changes ever made are the ones that the corporations and governments want made. For them, the present education system works very nicely, thank you. I wrote in an earlier post of the knowing reduction in education standards in the US during the Cold War. Going to 'college', whatever that may mean (in the US, 'college' and 'university' are used interchangeably) is at bottom just a way, though a far from reliable one, of ensuring that the future members of the underclass can read and write. Thus it is that it is always assumed that anyone graduating with a half-decent degree from an actual University will go to graduate school. The corporations need a few of the latter, but they need the former in droves, just as they need illegal immigrants.

That's part of my original comment as it might be rewritten by Dr. Bowdler on PCP. Shame I couldn't post that original, for it would have shocked the h--k (Bowdler's back) out of some people.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I have had that feeling about such programs, perhaps even before the bootstraps delusion took hold to the extent that it has. My questions sidestep the issue of whether people need a leg up. I simply suggest that the leg up probably ought to be given earlier than later.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

**** Dr. Bowdler! Interesting you should mention "the knowing reduction in education standards in the US during the Cold War." I read (and wrote about) Masscult and Midcult recently. Dwight Macdonald, of course, noted the unprecedented diffusion of "high" culture during those same postwar years.

He had great misgivings about this, poking special fun at the Great Books. Even more interesting, he noted the proliferation of symphony orchestras in postwar America, but added ruefully that most played a standard, conservative repertoire--no Elliott Carter.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

It's funny, but I've just been reading the part in The Most Dangerous Book, the new one about censorship and Ulysses, and it gives a neat little history of the Modern Library and Great Books and all that. Played right to the pocket books of self-improving Americans, but Modern Library was in the beginning more of an advertising gimmick.

I don't know what to say about any of that, because I like the idea of people extending their repertoire, however belatedly. And I don't really like the idea of saying "too late" when it comes to education. And in fact, a lot of people seem to discover the joy of reading in prison. Provided they've actually learned how to read, which is another question.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you ought to take a look at Macdonald's essay. It's available in a New York Review edition of the same name, so you could make it a part of that challenge you were doing.

I will say that Macdonald never suggests that the Great Books got people to learn "too late." Rather, he criticized the way they were put together and some of the choices. And, he pokes some fun at the organizers' grandiosity. Read the essay. You will find much of interest, I think.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

An edition that takes its title from that of its first essay, that is: "Masscult and Midcult."

August 31, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I have some familiarity with the Great Books project. I can remember the impressive looking leatherbound volumes sitting untouched in my high school library. And my mom was in a Great Books club for years and years, which read somewhat less imposing editions. She enjoyed it, but it never really took with me.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I think my mother had a Great Books index volume lying around. I know that one of Macdonald's beefs is that some, even many, of the works collected (and not always with the wisest and most discriminating eye, he says) could be had more cheaply in standard editions.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, to be fair, the volumes they made available as paperbacks for the book group discussions were very reasonable.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should add that I've never heard pr read a negative word about Modern Library (or Everyman's Library, for that matter). I can't for the life of me figure out why Modern Library went from those attractive dust jackets to the plain brown wrappers.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Me neither. It's legit, but it started as a gimmick.

August 31, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a shame, because I liked the volumes with the colored dust jackets. I had assumed the reason for going to the brown jackets was to save a few cents on the cost of color printing.

September 01, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Funny--my own recognition of them is of volumes with no jacket at all.

September 01, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have just discovered that Modern Library jackets were so celebrated that someone published a catalogue of them. The plain brown jackets look like this.

September 01, 2014  

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