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Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits – Part 2, The Wobbly Chair

It did seem at some critical moments in the 1960’s that the Humanities as we had known them were seriously imperiled. On my own campus at The State University of New York at Buffalo, a smoke-bomb was rolled into the office of the Chair who never recovered from this dangerous assault upon the integrity and assumed autonomy of the Groves of Academe, the Ivory Tower, and the Halls of Ivy (even though we taught in temporary trailers and surplus Quonset huts).

Although I sympathized with the Chair’s fear for his life and the life of the department, I had to admit to myself that I was somewhat wary of his authority myself. One of the department’s leading crazies at the time had advised the Chair to fire me (I had been told), and I wasn’t confident that the Chair wouldn’t take his advice.

My adversary — a former 1930’s socialist who never had recovered from the betrayals of Stalin’s show-trials — saw the students of the 1960’s and faculty who were somewhat sympathetic to them as sanculottes and participants in a neo-Reign of Terror. For him, the peace sign was equivalent to the guillotine.

So far as he was concerned, I was trying to destroy the university through the incendiary methods of what then was called “the open classroom.” This person was convinced he knew something about fire since he once had written (108): “I believe it is in the light provided by the burning of its own bridges that the mind can best see.”

The Chair didn’t fire me, but I, too, became somewhat suspicious about authority and could then, to some extent, view the student protest on certain issues with more than a little sympathy. I never stopped defending “great literature,” but I stopped wearing three-piece suits and began to question my goals as a teacher and writer.

After the smoke-bomb incident, the Chair was understandably terrified by the Student Movement. It was always on his mind, and he suspected that people were plotting against him even in their dreams.

Some years after his reign, during an idle moment in a department meeting – such moments were not uncommon – I leaned over and mentioned that he had been lecturing to me in one of my dreams. He looked alarmed and said, “Stop dreaming about me.” I said I would try as hard as I could.

He retired a few years earlier than anyone thought he would and, with the help of a wife’s inheritance, bought, I am told, a lovely house in the Berkeley Hills where he writing, as I understand it, a book about the Russian Revolution. I see him, in my mind’s eye, if not in dreams, looking down towards Telegraph Avenue, where a rag-tag remnant of the 1960’s, reinvented as Occupy UCal, keeps him on edge and alert. I suspect he sometimes dreams that his house is the Winter Palace.

If I’m in the dream, I probably look like Trotsky.      


Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits is a weekly multi-part series by Howard R. Wolf. Please check back next week for part 3. Click here to view all the parts in the series, as they are added.

Howard R. Wolf is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow in The Department of English at SUNY-Buffalo. He is the author of The Education of a Teacher and Far-Away Places: Lessons in Exile. Some of his recent work has appeared in Colere, George Orwell Newsletter, Moment (online), Evening Street Review, Prosopisa (India)and The Buffalo News.