Christopher Lasch, who for many years served as chairman of the history department at the University of Rochester and who was famous for his commentaries on American social history, including such books as The Culture of Narcissism and Haven in a Heartless World, died in March 1994 at the age of 61. Those who knew him only through his printed works knew one sort of person, and those who had personal dealings with him knew another. Those who, like many of his colleagues here, knew both the man and his works, sometimes had trouble reconciling Christopher Lasch, the author, with “Kit Lasch,” the gentle and soft-spoken professor.
His books were bitter and ironic; he saw a world on the edge of collapse. Where it was poor, people were starving or killing one another for bread. Where it was rich, it squandered its substance on cars and houses and calories—all unneeded—urged on by what he saw as dishonest advertisers using the latest scientific brainwashing techniques. And while the well-to-do spent their evenings and weekends mindlessly watching television, or pursuing an elusive security, whether of finance or of love, the poor in our country, while doing much the same (though with smaller cars and houses), were being taught by the producers of televised love and death to envy their richer neighbors and maybe even to kill them.
Lasch began his academic career as a socialist of the “New Left,” an ill-defined term even in the 60’s. However, as experience mounted, and the 60’s and 70’s wore on into the 80’s and 90’s, as the simplicities of the socialist ideal grew ever more suspect, it became impossible to place Christopher Lasch into a neat “right” or “left” political camp. What he remained was a radical, however; he saw our conventions and traditions ever changing for the worse, and he believed that superficial solutions were not going to restore the self-discipline and responsibility essential to a good society. What that radical solution might be, he never quite said; he was a social critic, not a social revolutionary. His home was in the university, not the streets.
Yet, Puritan as were his ideals, in person Kit Lasch was kindly and considerate. If everyone in the world were like him (this is my belief, not his) our social troubles would soon be over. The rage you could read in his writings came across only as disappointment when you met him in person. Mention some awful stupidity in public life, the hypocrisy of some public official, say, or the selling of arms to some dangerous Third World thug, and Kit Lasch would smile an embarrassed smile, as if shrugging his shoulders: “What do you expect?” or “Isn’t that the way of it?” He might not have said those things in so many words, but the impression you carried away was resignation and sorrow, rather than anger and a program for changing the world by next Tuesday.
While Lasch was usually bitter in print and sweet in person, there were times when the two could be combined, and one such occasion was the retirement of Abraham Karp, professor of history and religion and well known to many in our city for a long time, since he had been rabbi of the Conservative Temple Beth El in a well-to-do Rochester suburb for years before coming to the university. Even at Beth El he had been a scholar, difficult as that was in a world where he had to deal with boards of directors and donors of funds; so that when a chair in religion was offered him by the university he accepted with gladness; and he served us well for nearly 20 years.
It is the custom, on the last faculty meeting of the academic year, for the chairman of the department from which a professor retires to read a “minute” on the departing professor, an appreciation of his work, a sort of eulogy and farewell. In 1991 Professor Karp retired and moved away from Rochester, and at the May faculty meeting. Professor Lasch, as chairman of Karp’s department, rose to speak.
“Abe Karp, who retires this year,” he began, and we all settled back to hear the usual recital. Fine scholarship, irreplaceable loss, farewell; we hear it every year. For a while, that’s the wav it went. “His books include . . . The Golden Door to America: The Jewish Immigrant Experience and Haven and Home. This last work, a magisterial synthesis of Abe’s earlier studies . . . ” Yes, yes, what fine things come out of the University of Rochester. Aren’t we wonderful.
But listen to this (Lasch continued speaking): “Indeed Abe is not. . . one to disguise his views in the language of academic indirection. . . . He never subscribed to the academic community’s often inflated sense of its own importance, or regarded university politics as the earth-shaking events we often imagine them to be. . . . All his work at the University of Rochester testified to a profound love of learning, coupled with a healthy skepticism about the proposition that academic institutions are alone in their devotion to learning or their ability to foster it. It was a growing suspicion that they were losing their claim even to preeminence, in this regard, that reconciled Abe to retirement—made him look forward to it, in fact, as an occasion not to be regretted but to be welcomed and savored.”
The language is elegant but the judgment is harsh. Karp, according to Lasch, had come to believe that scholarship, teaching, and learning were better fostered, better accomplished, outside the universities than inside. Karp would be happier in retirement, continuing his scholarly work away from universities, than he could be in what he had come to regard as a stifling environment at the university.
Now I myself do not believe this, at least not 100 percent. There is a New York Public Library and a Library of Congress, yes, and one can read and write in a desk and chair there or at home, but these environments are not sufficient to replace the scholarship that would be lost if we closed the universities or turned them into super high schools devoted to “teaching” without research.
The very word “college” explains what is missing in the world of the solitary scholar. A college is a collection of people, working together. For his own knowledge to advance, the mathematician (say) must have other mathematicians to talk to day after day, and to listen to. And some nonmathematicians as well. Books and hard work are not enough. The same is true of historians and others, and even more so for scientists who need laboratories. From the Middle Ages on, the presence of students has always been half the value of the collegial environment, quite apart from the “lessons” students pay to get from us. The progress of scholarship itself is advanced by them as well as by their masters. Developing his ideas for a group of students is the surest way for the scholar to understand what he himself is doing, and to find out its errors. As Joubert has written, “To teach is to learn twice.”
Abe Karp understood all this very well, but was so distressed at what was happening in the universities in his time (and it has been growing worse) that it was a downright pleasure for him to retire to solitary scholarship instead. Kit Lasch understood that distress, and used the occasion of Karp’s retirement to mention it to his colleagues.
When I wrote Lasch a note on his observations, he replied in typical pessimistic fashion: he said he believed I was the only one who had noticed. Those few faculty members who were even there to hear Lasch’s speech that day had probably tuned out, hearing only what they expected to hear. It ain’t quite so, said Lasch, but he said it so mildly that I had trouble believing what I had heard. I even sent to the Secretary of the faculty for a copy of Lasch’s remarks, just to make sure. Yes, I had heard correctly; yes, hardly anyone there had paid attention.
Ihc delicacy of Lasch’s characterization of Karp’s attitude was, I fancy, partly because he was saying it in person (Lasch was always ceremonious and gentle in person), but also because he was attributing the sentiment to Abe Karp, and would not have wanted to attribute a really extreme opinion to another person. Had Lasch put this idea into one of his own books, and into his own (written) voice, it would have come out as a blast, a firestorm, against what both Karp and Lasch, and many of the rest of us, observe as a dangerous development grow ing from within the college faculties of our time.
To explain what that misfortune actually is would require a more leisurely format than the present comment allows. Its major aspects are probably well known to readers of this journal, though one more recent development, the subject of the book Higher Superstition by Gross and Levitt (Johns Hopkins, 1994), is as yet little known, especially to the general public. It is a kind of populist assault on science, which, though affecting a philosophical or sociological rationale, is politically motivated and draws on a combination of recent ideologies, from feminism and Afrocentrism to rather technical developments in philosophy, art criticism, and academic crannies even less likely than these.
The war on the intellect usually proceeds under the cover of some humanitarian ideal, setting up false conflicts, exalting “feeling” over (cold) judgment, for example, or the love of one’s homeless neighbor over scientific truth; but there is more to the phenomenon than two or three “isms” that happen to be going around this year. The attack has in fact always been with us, coming from one place if not the other, now the state, now the church, sometimes the military, sometimes an aristocracy, sometimes a populist movement.
In recent centuries, surely since the time of Galileo, scholars have wanted their universities to be a defense against this attack, and have sometimes been successful. Today, alas, no one is louder in claiming liberty in the pursuit of truth and beauty than those enemies, academies themselves, who are putting to the pillory their errant colleagues. (While at the same time announcing, some of them, a proof that truth and beauty cannot exist.)
The university, in other words, has itself become a source of danger to its announced ideals. This is what Kit Lasch was saying, as Abe Karp was escaping into retirement. Karp, to be sure, was old enough and prosperous enough to do that, but where shall his successors go, who still need the goodwill and encouragement of open-minded colleagues and students?