Spectator Staff Writer
The second installment of a four-part Columbia 250 lecture series titled "Our Past Engaged: Four Turning Points in Columbia's Recent History," continued Tuesday night with a program called "Columbia at Mid-Century: The Intellectual Capital of the Nation?"
University Provost Alan Brinkley, also the Allan Nevins Professor of History, gave the lecture. He was introduced by the series moderator, history professor Robert McCaughey, who said that Brinkley "is, in some ways, the Roger Clemens of academia" because he has won teaching awards at both Harvard and Columbia.
Brinkley theorized that in the two decades following World War II, consensus ideology and the countercultural Beat movement dominated American intellectual life, and that prominent players in both could be found at Columbia.
He went on to say that it is impossible to pinpoint one location as the center of intellectualism, but noted that when he taught courses on 1950s intellectual history, a great number of the figures discussed were Columbians.
"Columbia left a deep and lasting mark on the nation's culture," Brinkley said.
According to Brinkley, 1945 to 1965 were "years of extraordinary intellectual distinction" at Columbia. He attributed this "brilliance" to "the imagination of its faculty and students."
Brinkley discussed consensus ideology as the prevalent mode of thought among the established intellectuals at Columbia, stating that it was based on "a really profound belief ... in rational inquiry to answer the most basic questions of society." This world view arose in response to the more provincial perspective that permitted the rise of anti-Semitism and McCarthyism.
Columbia's urban location helped foster its faculty's emphasis on tolerance, diversity and rationality, suggested Brinkley.
He noted that a conference was held at the University in 1954 to consider the causes of "the harsh anti-Communism that was then such a pernicious influence" in the nation. The conference, which included Columbia scholars from various fields, attempted to use an interdisciplinary approach, then a new concept, "to define a vision of American society, and this conference contributed to create such a vision," Brinkley said.
Quoting former professor Richard Hofstadter, whom Brinkley called "one of the most ... influential historians of the century," Brinkley said that the scholars engaging in debate at Columbia shared "a common commitment to inquisitive individualism."
As Columbia faculty helped form a core to encourage such inquisitiveness, Brinkley noted that Columbia students were also "making important contributions."
The Beat movement, he said, challenged what they viewed as the materialism of middle-class society. They "embraced rootlessness, anti-materialism, sometimes drugs ... and the celebration of the instinctual as opposed to the rational life," Brinkley said.
Two major Beat figures, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, attended Columbia, though neither graduated. Brinkley mentioned that Kerouac entered the College in 1940 on a football scholarship and dropped out when he was a sophomore. Ginsberg began attending the College in 1942 but was expelled, Brinkley wryly noted, for writing what the administration considered to be profanity on a bathroom wall. Ginsberg "thought it was poetry, so he signed it," Brinkley said.
University Professor Emeritus and Provost Emeritus Fritz Stern responded to Brinkley's lecture, saying that he and Ginsberg were best friends during their first year at Columbia. He went on to agree with Brinkley's point that one place cannot be credited as the nation's intellectual capital.
However, as a student during the time in question, Stern, CC '46 and GSAS '53, found Columbia to be "an intellectual community of scholar-citizens" and said that the professors "took teaching with intense seriousness."
History professor Casey Blake, the other respondent to the lecture, minimized Columbia's significance in the intellectual world of the period. He said that greater New York City, rather than Morningside Heights, was the center of the "liberal, modernist intelligentsia."
Stern spoke of Columbia's potential importance for the future. As opposed to the conflict between rationality and emotion that, in Brinkley's words, "clashed so dramatically, and so catastrophically" in 1968, Stern described the University now as a place where the two views might be combined.