Tuesday, November 1, 2011
I believe that most of my students are younger than I am. Ordinarily that observation would be of a banality so oppressive as to forbid it entry even to a blog post, a tolerant genre usually welcoming even to the huddled masses and teeming refuse of one’s most aimless thoughts. But the circumstances are special. For the last several weeks Wednesdays, which I had come to think of as “blog days”, have also been “teaching days”. I have been teaching in an eight-week course, with a two-hour seminar each Wednesday morning, in a local “adult education” program called The Evergreen Forum.
Education for the “older student,” “continuing education” or “life-long learning” has become a vast enterprise in this country. There can be few communities of any size in America that are without some kind of Adult School, Senior Center Seminar, or local Elderhostel. In a college town like mine there are at any moment probably half a dozen such academies offering to “non-traditional students”—a bizarre circumlocution for various categories of post-adolescents--poetry workshops, master classes in sushi preparation, introductions to quantum mechanics, Civil War history, Contemporary Chinese politics, or the novels of Virginia Woolf. By request I have built my own seminar around historical and cultural questions raised in my recent book entitled The Anti-Communist Manifestos.
I have for several decades occasionally taught in such venues. I have frequently given talks in lecture series sponsored by groups with names like “The Old Guard” and “Fifty-Five Plus”. In fact I once taught a course on Dante’s Divine Comedy in this same Evergreen Forum. And I have always enjoyed what I light-heartedly call geriatric education because of the fascinating people one meets. Furthermore there is a considerable relief in being able to assume a shared general knowledge of such matters as the principal adversaries in the Second World War, and the broad outcome of their struggles. (Unfortunately, I’m not quite kidding.) Still, it is a bit of a shock to me to realize that I myself am older than many of these folks. I have become a “non-traditional teacher”.
New York, 1953
In my current seminar there are a couple of people who were at City College not too long after the War, when memories of the Red Decade were still vibrant. They were there to see the street demonstrations to “save the Rosenbergs”. There is a mathematician, a Russian émigré, in his youth forced—and this well after the Stalinist period—to join the Komsomol if he entertained any hope of educational advancement. The capacity of such students to bring living memories of their real life experience to our topics of study is priceless, and affords one kind of mental exhilaration simply unavailable in an Ivy League graduate seminar.
This is the up-side of the fact that lots of people are living longer than the actuaries of the 1930s thought they ought to—a situation know to our politicians and pundits as “the Medicare Crisis.” Many of them are not in fact on ventilators, and they spend more time at the computerized card catalogue than in the catscan machine.
Most of education, and practically all of humanistic education, is about remembering. Our enemy is ignorance, especially that form of voluntary ignorance that is cultural amnesia. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts is the title of a book (2007) by Clive James, a brilliant work first drawn to my attention shortly after its publication by my old friend Dick Schrader. I immediately bought a second-hand copy. Then about a year ago a young alumnus friend actually gave me a brand-new copy of it. I didn’t tell him I already owned it—there is no such thing as a surfeit of great books—especially as I had by then no idea where my first copy was. (It turned out to be on loan--which I could now make permanent loan.)
At the Evergreen Forum the focus of this week’s meeting is Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom (1946), a book now long forgotten, but in its day a powerful thunderbolt of literary anti-Communism and a grievous insult to the fantasies of American and French leftists in the immediate post-war period. Kravchenko was a Soviet industrial engineer, an expert in pipe-rolling, who in 1944 seized the opportunity of an assignment to the Lend-Lease mission in Washington to defect and seek political asylum in America. He was born in 1905, so that his autobiography was in effect a personal history of the entire period of Bolshevik power. Its version of Soviet realities was rather different from that to be found in the pages of such intellectually prestigious American organs of opinion of that day as the Nation and The New Republic, let alone those mandarin journals published in Paris by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Kravchenko had personal connections with only one among the high and mighty of the Soviet state: his boss, the Georgian Grigory Ordzhonikidze, who became Commissar for Heavy Industry in 1932 and committed suicide (with Stalin’s encouragement and possible help) in 1937. Only as I was thinking about this week’s seminar did I remember (discover?) that Clive James has a brilliant little essay on Ordzhonikidze, who is in fact the only “O” in his alphabetically organized book.
Since being murdered by Stalin has for certain historians been enough to forgive the likes of Bukharin and Zinoviev for their own enthusiastic participation in a state founded on mass murder, James calmly challenges the nascent belief that Ordzhonikidze “might have been some sort of proto-liberal” by quoting a passage from a letter Ordzhonikidze wrote to Kirov in 1934. “Our cadres who knew the situation of 1932-1933 and who bore the blow are truly tempered like steel. I think with them we can build a State the like of which the world has never seen.” The “situation” referred to was the genocidal Soviet policy of state-managed famine in which about five million Ukrainians perished. The famine is known to Ukrainians as the Holodomor—the Hunger—and it must class with history’s epic atrocities; but it didn’t take long for cultural amnesia to set in. Walter Duranty of the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for in-depth reporting on the Soviet scene in 1932-1933 without ever noticing the Holodomor. There were a surprising number of things that western intellectuals failed to notice about Soviet Communism.
Those hardened heroes gutsy enough to “bear the blow” were Communist apparatchiks who organized and carried out the murder. The chief apparatchik was one Nikita Khrushchev, best-selling author of The Crimes of Stalin. It was hard work, but somebody had to do it. They did indeed create a State the like of which the world had never seen. We have seen several more since then, though, and if we succumb to cultural amnesia we are likely to see more yet. Continuing education is not such a bad idea.
The Ukraine, 1932; not strong enough to bear the blow