Archive for February, 2014

Ideas and Actions

One of the frustrating things in life is trying to match the present with what is coming and, if we fail to do that, search through the past for clues.  There is, however, the problem of how people in the past knew what they were doing?  There is ample evidence that much of the time they did not.  I have recently read one new history book and reflected on a previous one on the same period and subject.

 Doris Kearns Goodwin has recently written A Bully Pulpit, a long but fascinating book about how Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and a group of writers for McClure’s magazine collaborated to prize the hands of early capitalists such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J. P.Morgan from control of the new industrial economy and from the democratic political apparatus which they had bought.

 Roosevelt in all his elected capacities was educated by writers for McClure’s about the increasing economic inequality in American society.  He, in turn, enlisted Taft in the political struggle to bring some regulation to monopolistic capitalism.  McClure’s educated the growing middle class about issues their writers described so thoroughly in well written articles.

 Goodwin’s is a story of popular democracy, properly led, overcoming greed and avarice bound up in new and complex forms of organization.  Through education and political will our society provided a more prosperous and equal life for its citizens.

 More than forty years before, Richard Hofstadter wrote The Progressive Historians about the ideas of Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard and Vernon L. Parrington.  Turner made the case that it was in moving west that Americans developed their ideas of becoming, and helping others become, more prosperous, self directed citizens.  Beard saw that government depended upon the will of the people in control at any one timeParrington wrote on the history of literature (primarily American) which he saw as a reflection of the national political mind.

 Even with the simple explanation of these two books, it is possible to ask what do they have to do with each other.  One is about deeds and the other primarily about ideas.  How can I make a comparison, expand my understanding of the world I live in and set my actions in a particular direction?  Do Hofstadter’s interpretations matter any more?  At the time I read him I thought I had a better grip on that period of time.  Now I really wonder.  Goodwin’s story certainly maintained my interest and attention better than Hofstadter’s, but can I draw more understanding and intelligent actions from it?   I think so, but how much am I depending on what I got from Hofstadter in building that understanding?

AN INVITATION:  I am savoring all 750 pages of THE BULLY PULPIT.  I would enjoy discussing it with those of you who read it.  JGB

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A Renaissance Professor

I would like to open this blog with some remarks I delivered several years ago to an alumni group which was giving a memorial plaque to be placed in Lisner Auditorium to honor Professor Elmer Kayser.  For at least 20 years Professor Kayser taught one of two required history courses for undergraduates and most of us took his.  So, I had been his student, became his colleague and then friend.

 Elmer Louis Kayser arrived at The George Washington University in 1914 as a freshman student and never left.  He received his Bachelor of Arts in 1917 and MA in 1918.  As a student, he was instrumental in founding the Student Council, serving as its first secretary-treasurer.  He wrote the words for the alma mater, and probably for the original fight song.  He supplied the name Colonials for the athletic teams.  He obviously  participated in the major sale of war bonds that was held at the University during 1917-1918 because the bonds were left in the hands of the Graduate Manager of Activities:  Elmer Louis Kayser.

 Both the President and Secretary of the University retired at the end of the academic year 1917-1918, and Elmer Louis Kayser was appointed Secretary of the University, or more specifically, Secretary of the Board of Trustees, of The President’s Council and of all the Faculties.  In other words, by age 21 Kayser was Provost of The George Washington University.  He had already been appointed to the faculty upon receiving his BA in 1917.  The first task of the new president and secretary was to speed up the movement of the university to its present location in Foggy Bottom.  His stories of dealing with “the neighbors” are a match for those of President Trachtenberg today.

 At the appropriate time, the bonds that had been left in his care as Graduate Manager of Activities were cashed in and the proceeds applied to building the gymnasium known to generations of students as the Tin Tabernacle.

 Dean Kayser’s favorite instructor was “Old Professor Swisher,” professor of history, whose position he filled when Swisher retired.  Dr. Swisher joined the faculty in 1896 at age 50 and retired in 1926.  During the Spanish American War Professor Swisher inaugurated a course of once a week lectures in current history where he explained the issues of the conflict to students and community residents.  He continued these lectures until he retired when Dean Kayser picked them up and continued until almost his own retirement, a run of 60 years.  During World War II he expanded his audience by offering a daily news broadcast on radio.

 There was a great deal of “Old Professor Swisher” in Elmer Kayser the professor.  He once described Swisher as a brilliant conversationalist who knew everybody and was in great demand socially.  He had known every president since Buchanan, was a gifted lecturer with many striking mannerisms of style and an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes and observations of the great figures of history.  If there was ever an apt portrait of Professor and Dean Elmer Louis Kayser, this is it.

 It was obvious to all that he was on a fast track.  When President Collier retired in 1926, Kayser was in an excellent position to succeed him.  However, after what was apparently a bruising battle within the Board of Trustees, it was decided that a President with a doctorate was needed and Kayser did not have one.  So, Cloyd Heck Marvin was called to be president and faced his principal competitor as Secretary who effectively controlled the University.  Marvin met this problem in 1928 by offering Professor Kayser the first sabbatical the University had ever granted to pursue his doctorate in history at Columbia University.  As soon as Kayser was safely out of town, Marvin went to the Board and managed to strip him of every office other than professor that he held.  By that time the list also included being director of summer sessions and University Marshal, director of all public events at the University.  Unfortunately for Marvin, the first  major public event with his new regime was the granting of an honorary degree to British Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald at the Fall Convocation and he botched it. Mr. MacDonald traveled with his daughter who functioned as his secretary.  She carried her father’s speech and someone denied her admission to the auditorium.  It was an unhappy occasion and Spring Convocation found Professor Kayser back in his role as Marshal, a position he held until he retired.

 Fortunately for the University, Kayser did not sulk for the rest of his long career there.  Almost immediately upon returning from Columbia he began agitating for a division that would admit qualified people to study in individual courses where professors would accept them without their having to matriculate for a degree.  Thus, when the Federal government began to expand under the Roosevelt administration, the Division of University Students, with Elmer Louis Kayser installed as director and then dean, was in business to receive these builders of the New Deal.  For years the Division had more students register through it than through it than in any other academic unit of the University.

 Dean Kayser was an active advocate for an active alumni association and for an alumni giving program.  President Marvin was in favor of neither.  It was not until the waning days of the Marvin administration that alumni were actively organized, and not until the coming of President Elliott that an active Development Office was established with Dr. Seymour Alpert as Director.  He and Dean Kayser used to remind me of two confidence men at lunch in the University Club with a victim.  The joviality, the cordiality, the familiarity, the clouds of cigar smoke were signs that the guest was about to become a member of the fraternity of University benefactors.  Dean Kayser used to say, “I just finger ‘em, Sy fleeces ‘em.”

 When President Marvin appeared ready to retire, once again Elmer Kayser was in a position to become president.  He and a key board member had been discussing this very eventuality and Kayser had laid out his ideas for the future of the University.  The board member thought he was the man to set a new direction for GW and was convinced he could get the votes to make it happen.  Before the Board began to consider a new president, Dean Kayser’s supporter suddenly died and the Board went on to choose a man with connections to the new Kennedy Administration.

 When Cloyd Heck Marvin died in 1969, Mrs Marvin wanted the funeral to be at the University Chapel, which was still considered to be Western Presbyterian Church.  Dean Kayser was selected to deliver “words of remembrance” for his old archenemy.  It was a masterpiece.  Mrs Marvin was moved and delighted.  It was a mark of the man that he could describe someone he had so cordially detested as “a man of strong will, keen perception and immovable conviction.  He knew where he wanted the University to go and he saw that it went there.”  And “a man of great ability and of varied gifts, of dedication and singleness of purpose.”

 Upon retirement, Professor Kayser was appointed University Historian and, after several years, completed a two volume history of the University.  He continued to appear every day at his accustomed table at lunch in the University Club.  He always had a single martini, which he told me (though I did not completely believe him) his doctor had agreed was as effective as a prescription drug for his glaucoma.  The Club staff doted on him and, when he was admitted to GW hospital for a minor problem, took his lunch over to him which he had in a small private room that the hospital staff had fitted out for him for gracious dining.  On his third day of confinement lunch arrived without his “medicine.”  He promptly made a call and the Club went into a state of panic.  Soon, two trays with two drinks each arrived in his dining room with neither tray bearer aware of the other.  When I arrived about an hour later the staff was in a state of high alert themselves: they feared the Dean had had a stroke.  Upon starting to walk back to his room he lost his balance and slid down the wall into a sitting position and appeared not to know what was going on.  I sat on the floor and took his hand which startled him out of his lethargy.  He recognized me and began a rambling conversation on waves of alcoholic fumes.  It was then that I noticed the four martini glasses.  When I assured the resident and nurses that they had a drunk on their hands, he was bundled into a wheelchair and put in his bed where he promptly began to snore.  It was later that afternoon as I was imparting the story to the club manager that I discovered that Dean Kaiser’s daily martini was a double.  The next day he was not worse for wear.

 Sometime later, in his office, I twitted him about this escapade.  “Well,” he replied, eyes twinkling and emitting clouds of cigar smoke, “I thought my glaucoma was worse that day and needed extra treatment.”

 In a conversation with President Trachtenberg later Dean Kayser’s name came up.  The President commented that he rarely went anywhere to talk to alumni that someone did not come up and tell a story about Dean Kayser.  Then he said, “he must have been a hell of a man.”

 Well, he was!


Complexity II

Last week I opened the subject of trying to understand human actions in the context of the constant change tied in some way to the complexity of the world.  This week I go further in thinking about these related topics by examining an author who thought he had the ideas in hand.

 In 1987, Thomas Sowell published A Conflict of Visions that is still in print.  His theme was that people construct mental visions that govern their actions in worldly affairs.  There are two essential visions; constrained and unconstrained.  He traces these visions back into history and chooses examples from the writings of Adam Smith to Milton Friedman as exemplars of constrained visions and Thomas Paine to John Rawls of unconstrained visions.  He explains visions of knowledge and reason, social processes and describes some varieties and dynamics of visions.  He then moves on explaining application of visions to equality, power and justice by drawing from his array of thinkers.

 A vision is our sense of how the world works and this kicks in immediately in encountering a new situation which may be moral, political, religious, economic or social.  Before we think, we make an assessment.

 In the constrained vision, life cannot be laid out in a plan which is then followed to its intended conclusion.  Human beings simply do not have the intellectual  capacity to overcome the limited choices available.  The constrained vision focusses on limitations

 The unconstrained vision sees humans as capable of overcoming limitations in the world through wise and human social policies.  The unconstrained vision focusses on humans making positive changes in the world.

 You cannot move from Sowell’s explanation to contemporary liberal and conservative thought, but if you work with his explanation, you realize that it is difficult to be all one or the other, though some people seem to manage it.

 Sowell is not the only one to attempt to elaborate a social process that guides us in coping with life that offers little in the way of direction.  Even though  Sowell attempts to lay out two ways of approaching the constant diversity in our lives the task exceeds his grasp through the fact that every individual constructs his/her own intellectual and emotional structure to deal with the world.

 Diversity in life faces us all, is constantly changing and challenging our ingenuity in coping with it.  I nod my head at Sowell and then go forth to fumble my way on, encountering people everywhere who are doing the same thing.  So, I close with the same insight as the previous blog; death clears the way for change.  Depressing, but, perhaps true.



The President has just given his State of the Union speech to Congress.  The Washington Post broke it down by minutes allotted to specific issues.  Apparently, the idea was that time showed the importance to the President of each selected issue.  By the following day, each issue had been challenged by members of the other party and assorted other interested parties.  Why can’t we look at the “facts” and come to an agreement?  Why is life so complex?

 Well, most scholars who deal with human societies simply say they are complex.  With specific regard to the President’s speech, there is no agreement on what the facts are. Secondly, complex human societies cannot be managed through centralization.  Yet, that is the tool that government has at hand and that is how any President deals with issues, as well as do mayors and school principals.  A former president of my institution described a professor as one who thinks otherwise.  That description could be applied to congressmen and a vast array of other citizens.

First we have to deal with complex-complexity.  Several dictionaries provided no useful definition.  Roget’s International Thesaurus provided four synonyms, convolution, abstruseness, complication and difficulty, none of which suits this discussion.

With the help of my thoughtful neighbor next door I will attempt a framework for complex thought and behavior.   It is by no means all encompassing, but it will provide a basis for agreement or activity to replace it with something else.

Complexity is the result of a number of human factors.  One is age difference.  At 82 I have lived through a lot more than a 50 year old has, the result being that my experience in events from the early part of my life gives me knowledge and opinions that the 50 year old does not have and probably sees little use for.  By the same token, my experience with and knowledge of Twitter is nil (by choice) and I cannot have a reasonable conversation with younger members of society for whom technological advances are eagerly adopted.

Sticking with life experience, our family upbringing inculcates attitudes, ideals, values, behaviors which shape our own approach to the world in which we live as well as a world we imagine we would like to live in.  These two factors give a hint of why complexity is so difficult to deal with.  No two people are alike and assembling a large group of like minded people means that even that group will have differences to be papered over.

So, we can’t all agree on the health care bill because we don’t have a common basis of knowledge and life experience, and as the years pass people with my kind of life experience die, such things as same sex marriages and use of marijuana become part of mainstream life.

 Complexity comes from the myriad interests, needs and desires of millions of individuals.  What keeps this diversity from tearing societies apart is a web of mutual trust and social cooperation.  Diversity promotes growth and prosperity for a society in which these two factors are front and center in social and economic life.

Next week one person’s belief about how this process of maintaining unity works.

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