Reflections on the Early Years – from Prof. Anne Hall, University of Pennsylvania
Sometime in the early 1990’s, I was musing with my friend in Chapel Hill, Larry Goldberg, that I was tired of teaching Renaissance literature over and over again (although Renaissance literature is wonderful), that I needed something new to sink my teeth into. He suggested something like a Great Books course. I demurred–didn’t know enough. “Well,” he said, “I’ll coach you on the stuff outside the Renaissance.” I paused. Then I said, “No, I have a better idea! We should teach it together!” And so we did.
The first semester covered by the Greeks and the Romans; the second semester was the Enlightenment. We stuck with this format for two years, and then broke it up into four semesters–Greeks, Romans and Medievals, Enlightenment, Nineteenth-Century. The first year, we divided up the class hours; first Larry would be leading discussion and then I would. That arrangement didn’t work very well because Larry knew so much more than I did. Eventually we settled down into Larry’s being in charge and my being the best student in the class.
The first year, we had few students. I hand picked some from my existing Shakespeare class and asked them to join. I think the first semester of the second year, there were only six in the class. Then I decided to get serious with some advertising. Most students who were thirsty for serious reading were taking courses in modern French deconstruction and cultural studies. I xeroxed the frontispiece of a work of Rousseau (catch-the-eye sort of thing) and typed underneath it, “Read the Books that Derrida and Foucault Thought Were Great Too.” Both Larry and I ran the advertisement by Larry’s wife Raquel, who suggested a few changes. I put these advertisements up all over campus. It got back to me from a friend in the history department that he had been standing with a colleague in front of the elevator on the first floor of Hamilton Hall. The colleague, like my friend, was dismayed that Derrida and Foucault had swept the field, and when he saw our advertisement, he muttered some dismayed remarks about here was yet another course in French theory. My friend reported to me that he said, in response, “Oh, no, quite the contrary.” I appreciated his support.
After the second year, we had no trouble getting students. In fact, the first day it was my job to clear out those who were not really serious by emphasizing how much and how difficult was the reading. I had the good luck to be able to turn to a student, Miss Blair, and ask, “Now how long did you say it took you to do a précis?” and she would helpfully reply, “Nine hours.”
Larry and I were in constant conversation during these early years. I would snag him before class and say I most emphatically did not agree with his view of this or that. He would say, cheerfully, “Bring that point up in class. It will make a great discussion.” Or sometimes, when a student would interrupt with a point, we would say, “Hey, that’s just what we were talking about twenty minutes ago before class; and this is an entirely new wrinkle.” Sometimes when discussion got very energetic and class was galloping along, one or the other of us would stop and say to the students, “Did you hear what he just said? What he just said was very important.”
Larry Goldberg is always encouraging with students, so much so that I remember vividly one day when he was not. We had been given a small classroom over in Dey Hall, and one student who was in a period of disaffection with the entire world, said something along the lines of, “Well, there’s no point trying to figure out how to plan life; s–t happens.” Larry Goldberg turned over his open book and put it down on his desk so that it formed a triangle, as he said, raising his voice in a manner he was not wont to do, “Mr. So ‘n So, what kind of a response is that? Really and truly, what good does that do us?”
That was the question always there in back of discussion, what good does this work do for us? What does it clarify? What difficulties in the human condition does it illuminate? What does it say about how we should live our lives? Prof. Goldberg was always pulling the conversation back to that question. Philosophy is grounded in the human experience of the world. If we are not coming back to the question of how we should live our lives, then we are merely, when we read books, gathering up piles of “knowledge stones,” which Nietzsche so despised, or wasting time in idle chatter. It was this drive for seriousness about fundamental matters that gave the course its spirit.