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jacob klein

The subtitle of my talk might be “Liberal Education: Program and/or Pedagogy?” The reason is that I think of Jacob Klein’s life as being an embodiment of that slash, “and/or” and therefore an occasion for asking what seems to me a question the answer to which determines the success—I mean the lively and secure survival—of liberal education.

There is the much more often debated converse to the question: “Is there a specific pedagogy for liberal education?” This is the question: “Is there a specific curriculum for liberal education which goes with the kind of teaching you might call “liberal?” I won’t dwell on the answer today, except insofar as it bears on particular aspects of teaching. I’ll just say that I think the answer is that almost anything can be taught liberally—to a point. In particular, the shop crafts are germane enough on the liberal arts (which form one part of liberal education, as I’ll spell out later) to serve as a suitable complementary curriculum. To prove it, there’s that wonderful book by Matthew Crawford, who is both a student of philosophy and a motorcycle mechanic, it is called Shop Class as Soulcraft (and is the much worthier successor of that cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance); it shows how fixing things forms souls, just as reading books does.

Let me give my answer to the topic question up front. I’m not a great believer in that mode of talking to my colleagues which attempts to make a whodunit of the telling so that they get to learn my resolution to the inquiry only when they’re mostly long adrift in mind.

I am persuaded, even with a certain passion, that Liberal Education does have its most appropriate program, its preferable matter, and that this matter particularly calls for its own pedagogy. Concisely, and thus a little too peremptorily, put: You cannot achieve liberal education in the mode of a specialized teaching authority, a professor. That is by no means to say that professors who know their stuff inside-out can’t sometimes teach liberally—but it will be, I think, in an alternative style for them: Ex cathedra, “from the podium” will have to become “in the trenches,” on a chair around the table with the other human souls.



I was one of that diminutive number of refugees for whom that little devil Mephistopheles’ shamelessly candid admission held: “I am a part of that power that ever seeks evil and ever accomplished good.” (It comes from Goethe’s Faust which no German-born person can live through a year without citing thrice.) The Nazi persecution brought me to America where, with some practical know-how and some luck, anyone who knows how to be happy, can be happy, and to St. John’s College, where several of my older colleagues were refugees. I came very young and grew very old in Annapolis, so this band of my seniors, including Victor Zuckerkandl, a well-known Viennese musician, and Simon Kaplan, a Kant scholar, who came in middle age, are all gone. Jacob Klein, called Jasha by us all, including by some cheeky students (who are supposed to accord each other and their tutors, as I will do, the honorific “Mr., Mrs., Miss” and later “Ms.”) was among them. As far as I could tell—and I observed avidly—they were well appreciated, even well loved by their American hosts who, in their gracious naiveté, admired them for their thorough learning and marveled at them for their pronounced personalities. But Jasha held a special place.

All the refugees that I’ve known or read of who were fully adult when they emigrated led a cleft life—a European formation and an American re-formation. Mr. Klein grew up and studied in Slavic and central Europe and fled to the Anglophone West, from the Nazis’ politically, but psychologically also from an antically tyrannical father. This ogre, however, also came to the States and made Sonoma County, where he turned grapes into raisins, unsafe for habitation. Among the many stories about him that Jasha told me was that of his wedding gift to Jasha and Dodo. Dodo Tammann was the divorced wife of Edmund Husserl’s son, and she became a powerful presence at St. John’s. The wedding gift was a smallish bag of these raisins.

The years of Mr. Klein’s life were split almost exactly between Europe and America: from his birth in 1899 to 1938, his arrival in America—thirty-nine years, and from 1938, his arrival in Annapolis, to 1978, his death while still teaching–forty years. (Winfree Smith, in A Search For The Liberal College [1983], gives an indispensable account of Mr. Klein’s early years at St. John’s, ending with his deanship.)

greek mathematical thoughtTo me there is, in my mythifying mood, something providential in this half-and-half life. For in Europe, Mr. Klein was a private scholar without institutional bonds. He studied, conducted private seminars, and above all, wrote his principal book, entitled in English, Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra (1934-36). It is a work of enormous scholarship, drawing from primary and secondary works in all the modern and classical languages—oddly not Hebrew; this visibly Jewish man governed by a Jewish fate didn’t, as far as I could tell, have a Jewish bone in his body. Let me interject here my understanding of this apostasy. It was not the ordinary assimilation of convenience, still so hotly debated when I was young, but an allegiance that trumped everything, even his love for Russian novels, namely his deep affinity for the Greeks—not the esthetic Greeks captured in the formula “Noble naiveté, quiet grandeur” which appeared in the first and greatest history of antique art, that of Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768) and which dominated that famous German philhellenism (I myself grew up under its aegis.) What drew Mr. Klein to the Greeks was—let me joyfully risk some political incorrectness—a very masculine view of that Greek grace as sober soundness, as, so to speak, the apotheosis of good sense, a virtue which the Greeks call sophrosyne—literally, soundmindedness. It was a glory that I, who had spent my post-graduate years as a Greek archaeologist, had never suspected—that behind all those canonical great books, there might be a very specific intellectually handsome togetherness.

Since I’ve begun to understand something of the Origin of Algebra, I’ve thought that its doctrine was a, perhaps the, principal example of this sense of Greek soundness. The book, after all, traces out a loss—the loss of just this whole-heartedness. Not that Mr. Klein was a modernity-basher; far from it—he had studied physics and found the revolution on which he was reporting and its modernity (plus, I should say, its extreme realization in post-modernity) irresistibly interesting, and so his account of our condition seemed to me far deeper and more persuasive than the socio-political explanations I was given as a history major in Brooklyn College. There was, furthermore, I learned in time, nothing Heideggerian in his approach to the mode of this loss, no call for the Destruktion (mitigatingly translated as “de-construction”) for the sake of recovering a pre-traditional ontological origin. But, it seems to me, there might actually be large, sensibly practical consequences from a propagation of the thesis of the Origin of Algebra.

Obviously, I should now say as concisely as possible what this thesis, this teaching, seems to me to be. The very subtle, very reliable paragraph by paragraph exposition of the thesis in all its complexity is to be found in Burt Hopkin’s Origin of the Logic of Symbolic Mathematics (2011). I see it, more simply, in this way: The Greeks, meaning the relevant written texts we have (but I think the artifacts harmonize), had a direct, an immediate approach, to beings of thought, what might be called a first innocence, and if you like, even a naiveté, perhaps after all, even of a noble sort. Their direct intellectual sight accorded those beings a fullness, a meaning-fraught concreteness. Their way of regarding numbers is a prime example and probably the most illuminating case—negatively, because for mathematics the psychological element is much reduced so that the intellectual mode stands out, positively because the loss of this immediacy enabled the principal science at the foundation of our epoch, astronomical and terrestrial physics. Greek numbers, arithmoi, are collections of things, a counting-up of them, in German, Anzahl. These counted-up assemblage-numbers undergo, in a long-breathed conversion traced in the book, a reduction to mere symbols, completed by Vieta and Descartes. In the helpful medieval language, they are transformed from first to second intentions, meaning that a word that once reached for a thing now reaches for the thought-belabored abstraction of the thing. This second-intentionality dominates so much of modern discourse as to be practically a signature of modernity. My favorite example is this: Socrates follows a way, in Greek a methodos, “a way gone after” (a good example: Republic 596a). We tend to have not a “method,” but a “methodology;” not a jigged way, but the conception of the jigged way. We talk, very often, in concepts rather than objects. Mr. Klein, a most natural and, I might say, earthy person—and I might also say, like most flesh-and-blood people full of student-delighting singularities—kookiness in plain language—had a gut-aversion to this world of abstractions. He used to expend himself in trying to persuade Johnnies that Socrates’ forms, the eide, were not “abstractions,” literally “drown-off,” life-deprived, thought-ghosts, but full of attractive being.



That brings me to the second half of Mr. Klein’s life, the American part, spent almost entirely at St. John’s College. He did, to be sure, write two more books in this epoch. The first was A Commentary on Plato’s Meno (1965). The Meno is to St. John’s College something like what the Declaration of Independence is to the United States, the condition of its possibility; it is our enabling work for freedom from academicism. The Meno shows under what conditions learning by inquiry, as distinct from knowledgeableness by study, is possible. Like the Algebra book (as it is, ridiculously, known at home) the Meno book contains some unforgettable insights—unforgettable because as soon as you’ve read them you think you’ve always known them. This was the kind of mental plagiarism Mr. Klein chuckled over as a mark of his insights having been understood and adopted. My particular pick is his discovery that the capacity of “image-recognition” (eikasia: not “imagining” or “imagination”) attached to the lowest section of the divided line presented in the Republic (509 ff., the commentary on the Meno mines other dialogues for relevant illuminations) ranges through all the divisions to the highest, because imaging is the generating principle of the world that flourishes under the “Idea of the Good,” thus our lowest capacity is also our most encompassing. These assimilable insights are life-changing; I’ll refrain from personal testimonials, but you can see that at the least the thought of an imagination-ontology will affect your way of reflecting.

The second, late book, Plato’s Trilogy, on the Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman (1977), I could never take to. It is written in a mode that seems to belong to old age: It paraphrases the text with the intention that the reader will extract a commentary from the emphases and deviations. David Lachterman’s review of the book (Nous 13, 1979) helped me to see its accomplishments, one of which is that it really functions as a sort of provocation to reflection on texts left intact by the interpretor. (I might say here that David was, to my knowledge, the most universally learned student who ever came out of St. John’s; he carried on Mr. Klein’s projects in his own competently ingenious way.)

Most of Mr. Klein’s writing was for lectures directed to our students, and these, insofar as they were recoverable, were edited by Robert Williamson and Elliot Zuckerman and published by the college. They have that same quality that he saw in the Greek authors: simultaneously with having grasped it, it grasps you: it sits naturally in the intellect—mine, at least, and many of my colleagues’.

But these published works are not what dominated the second part of his life. In fact, he was almost comically inimical to publication. When I came in 1957 for my appointment interview, he placed me in a chair and, so to speak, danced around me, holding the two pot-publications I had proudly sent with my application between thumb and index finger as if they were some loathsome matter and then tossed them back to me. (Publication wasn’t and still isn’t a criterion for appointment or tenure at St. John’s.) Taking his aversion to publication seriously, I translated the algebra book in secret and confessed only late, because I had questions to ask. Then, however, with splendid inconsistency, he was eager for it to come out into the world, where it first languished, only to emerge slowly and steadily into some fame and influence, particularly of course, under Burt Hopkins’ energetic shepherding.

So now to the point. If the first half of his life, the European part, was under the aegis of learning and scholarly production, the second, American half was predominantly a teaching life, be it as a tutor (our replacement of the title “professor,” though it’s not used in address) or as dean of the college (1949-1958). As for the latter function, I remember vividly that when the end-of-class bell rang, he would issue from his office to stand at the bottom of the stairs of our main building and scan the faces of descending students for signs of life. Once he caught me coming down, maneuvered me into his office, and chided me for having threatened with bodily harm a student who had not been able to inflect the Greek verb “to be.”

Here is the serious aspect of Mr. Klein as a teacher in an institution whose faculty had bound itself to an all-required, coherent plan of liberal education, with the consequent abolition of electives for students and specialization for teachers and the replacement of the ways of learning and modes of teaching then, and even more now, current in universities and colleges—less in the latter since some of these ways are functions of size and consequently of—phantasized—economies of scale.

Sanzio_01_Plato_AristotleIn my young and ardent years as a tutor, I saw in Mr. Klein the incarnation of a teacher in a program which was conceived by its founders, Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan, as a contemporary re-animation of the traditional liberal education that was first set out in the seventh book of Plato’s Republic and in the eighth book of Aristotle’s Politics (where the word liberal, “belonging to the free” [eleutheron] is, as far as I know, first used to distinguish this upbringing from the vocational, utilitarian sort). For Rome, the guiding text was Quintilian’s Teaching Program for Oratory, and in the Middle Ages Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon and John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon (which is, however, concerned only with the verbal arts). These works, to be sure, often concentrate on the specific liberal arts, the skills of learning, rather than on liberal education, which relies on texts for reflection.

Indeed, when Mr. Klein arrived in late 1938, for the second year of the college’s New Program, it was already fixed in its broad organization into tutorials for the exercise of the liberal arts and seminars for the discussion of great books. The liberal arts were exactly the trivium, the three-way of words: grammar, logic and rhetoric, their correctness, validity and persuasiveness, and the quadrivium, the four-way of things: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, their countability, extendedness, regular motions and attendant harmonies. The program of tutorials stuck quite closely to this scheme—reducing it to language and mathematics classes with the modern addition of laboratory. Rumor has it that in the library of those early days, physics books were catalogued under music, the study of bodies in ratio relations. Learnedness was required to find the finest working examples for exercises in these arts, taken from the most highly regarded works of language, mathematics, and science. The early faculty had put enticing tutorials together by the time Jasha arrived.

What he also found was a particularly felicitous modern fusion, instigated by Buchanan, of the so-called Great Books with the Liberal Arts, which had long been regarded as ancillary, particularly to the exegesis of Scripture. Canon-establishing lists of Great Books go back to antiquity and forward into our times, so our founders were well-supplied (especially: Ernst Robert Curtius, Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter, 1948; Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, 2011). As it seems to me, Mr. Klein’s function with respect to the Program’s teaching matter was largely to add an additional element of competence and, most importantly, to undergird the programmatic sequence with an intellectual history that put the dawn of modernity found in the mathematical writers of the late sixteenth and seventeenth century at the center of the drama of a break between antiquity and modernity. It was a break mirrored roughly in the discontinuity of our sophomore and junior years; its pathos is that of a great loss of human substance and a huge gain of human power.

Buchanan himself was what is called a charismatic figure, evidently (I didn’t know him) full of pedagogically enervating outrageousness—very much the memorable master teacher dominating and drawing the college together—just what it needed in its uncertain youngest years.

I must say here that the view I am about to offer of Mr. Klein as presenting a model, perhaps the model, of teaching best fitting a stable community of liberal learning is my own, perhaps to my colleagues more of a construction than it ought to be, but very plausible to me. It goes along with the conviction to which I’ve confessed that a liberal education which is mindful of its tradition and works pretty well day-to-day, with semi-frequent ascents into sheer glory, has its own, proper teaching mode. I think that the delineation that follows fits not only a program of liberal education that has its own institution but also more partial, more tentative efforts. But I should report here that our founders emphatically asserted that the program they were instituting was not a curricular experiment. I think that attitude was crucial to our holding together over the years: We thought—how shall I put it?—that if this didn’t work out, then there was something wrong with the world, not with the Program. And contrary to all pious preaching about not being too inward-turned but more accommodating to reality, that passionate sense of being, for all our flaws, on the right path turned out to be intensely practical. As I recall him, Mr. Klein had a sovereign sense of being in a place that had it right. I might add that I’ve visited a number of schools where they did things quite differently but had the same sense of “having got it right,” and the consequent affect between us was immediate sympathy and potential friendship.

To begin with, then, he had the right temperament—a bit of a gourmand (he, who despised academic grading would grade Dodo’s uniformly delectable cuisine at every meal), a little indolent, pipe-puffing (a horrible weed called Balkan Sobranie), amusedly tolerant toward all signs of intellectual effort in the young and overtly repelled by adult intellectualism. In fact, he took delight, not always fairly distributed, in the eager naiveté and good natured hijinks of the student generation of his first arrival, he had a special affection (which I’ve inherited) for the scamps. (Our students of the present day, I might say, are more experientially sophisticated and thus more psychologically fraught—but none the wiser for it.)

I say “the right temperament,” but I mean a temperament; all teachers in the liberal mode need a bit of a personality, both to attract willing attention and to repel a too easy familiarity. Mr. Klein had a lot of the appurtenances of personality, for example, the ability to draw perfect circles on the board while facing the class by pivoting his arm behind his back—a source of delight to students studying Ptolemy. But these are gifts that you ape at your peril.

Then there were other traits that were not a gift of nature but the fruit of time. Older, more experienced teachers tend to carry their authority with less strain and more élan, to maintain their repose and to intervene with aplomb, even when a learning occasion goes embarrassingly wrong—well mostly. These ways you acquire more by keeping at it than by having a hero.

St. John's College

St. John’s College

Then there were the bread-and-butter virtues of any teacher in an institution, enforcing some discipline by mundane means—calling on the silent, administering quizzes, requiring and attending to projects to be handed in. This dutiful fulfillment of institutional requirements ought to be supervised by those in charge, in our case that is the dean. Mr. Klein learned meticulous dutifulness, as his wife told me, on the job; his pre-dean nature was to let such things—such mere necessities—go in favor of spontaneous life.

So far I’ve described a teacher at once too distinctively himself and too ordinarily dutiful to be a very imageable model. I’ll now try to say how he came to be the paradigm of a teacher in a school devoted to liberal education.

Let me begin by forfending the imputation that he followed something called “the Socratic Method.” Neither Mr. Klein nor we, the epigonoi as the Greek say, the successors, do any such thing. On the one hand, it’s a contradiction in terms: Socrates had, as I’ve said, a way, a pursuit, but not a method in the Cartesian sense of a set of jigged procedure for following an inquiry. Mr. Klein used to say that each dialogue was its own world and in each conversation Socrates goes about his search in a different way, taking into account the character of his conversational partners and of the object in question. So Socrates has his ways which are not a method, and in that respect he is the very incarnation of liberal teaching and our super-model. Yet, on the other hand, this Socrates of the Platonic dialogues is, after all, Plato’s marionette, who does as he’s told, which means he knows, or Plato knows for him, exactly where he’s going. And that we never do know—and we manage to rejoice in that fact.

And here finally begins my positive delineation of a pedagogy specific to liberal education and to Jasha Klein’s embodiment of it. It presupposes that liberal education, in its most specific sense, is realized in a curriculum of texts handed to us by the tradition, be they verbal, musical, visual. These works are primary in the order of making or finding and prime in the ranking of quality or worth. Confronted with such works, a teacher does well to recede into equality with the students, to inquire along with them, and yet to be the safekeeper; the tutor of the enterprise. Mr. Klein was a master of the somewhat mysterious art of leading from behind—by solicitous listening, by intimating questions, even by expectant silence. He himself particularly admired a colleague, Richard Scofield, a gentleman of the old American type, for his elegant tacitness.

This reticence had its infuriating aspects: The more a young fellow-tutor wanted to be initiated into the deep lore we were sure he possessed, the less forthcoming he was—sometimes, I discovered, because he didn’t actually know, but more often because he was terminally disciple-proof; he would tolerantly respond to the admiring affection of beguiled students but would not bind them to him by an inside teaching. It was part of that soundness of his, which did have a Socratic look about it. His most consequential discoveries fit, as I’ve said, into our own intellects as if there’d always been a place ready for them. Of course, in time the insufficiencies emerged, not such as to undo the insights, but such as to make them the center of a second sort of attention, critical attention.

Playfulness, another Socratic element, is of the essence in liberal learning—playfulness in making the most of the misfiring of the inquiring intellect, playful exploitation of felicitous coincidences and other fortuities, playful extraction of sense from nonsense, playful pinpointing of students’ personal ways—the sort that feels to them not like offensive denigration but like gratifying spot-lighting. Playfulness, after all, goes with laughter and surprised laughter is the physical analogue to wonder, the beginning of philosophy. We young tutors, who had just emerged from post-graduate studies, learned something wonderful: Learning has a human face, and a teacher who can’t laugh, can’t be serious.

Seriousness is naturally next. Seriousness is opposed in one respect to levity, for example a leaning some bright students evince toward easily distractible intellectual gadgeteering. In another respect, seriousness is opposed to earnestness, dead earnestness, such as rigidly relentless industriousness. Both evade entering into the “seriousness of the concept” (as Hegel terms it; “Preface” 4, Phenomenology). “Seriousness” here means not belaboring a thought but letting it work on you, not willfully grasping for insights but letting them come, by giving them room or—as I like to put it—by futzing around. Time-taking patience and messing-about belong to liberal learning, because the works don’t open up to strategic invasions.

Serious teachers who join their students in dithering purposefully and procrastinating concentratedly must also sometimes appear in a formidable aspect. Socrates, for example, appears thus formidable just once that I know of, though that leaves its daunting impression: When confronted with a young life going seriously wrong, here that of Callicles, he concludes with an impassioned speech in a tone devoid of any tint of parity or playfulness: He says that he will follow his own account for a life of virtue and bids Callicles and his crowd follow the same rationale of conduct. “For,” he ends, “yours is worth nothing.”(Gorgias, end) On rare occasions I’ve heard that tone from Mr. Klein, a tone utterly distinct from that of powerlessly querulous righteousness sometimes adopted by academics when great perturbations are caused by small differences. These were moments when the stakes were high—our students’ souls or our school’s survival, particularly its resolute non-careerism—for this is, as I’ve said, what the word “liberal” in “liberal education” originally betokens.

That brings me to the protection of the exchanges that are the life of learning from dangers both within and without the classroom. Of these there are many, of which I’ll mention only one: the corruption of conversation into debate, into argument, and even into discussion, into all the modes of human communication in which the passion of competition outweighs the desire for illumination. Mr. Klein practiced a pedagogy that incited in students the desire to shine but damped their impulse to outshine each other. I think what made it work was his own sense that some of the greatness of the works we were grappling with magnified us, but also that in the face of this grandeur our gradations, natural or acquired, were minimized. But there was some kindly cunning in it as well: to pretend in the face of much contrary evidence that everyone was genuinely at work and really up to it and to keep pretending it until it—sometimes—came true.



Perhaps I’ll mention one more vulnerability of any serious community of young learners: the excitation of friendships formed in the face of deep questions and difficult texts displaces proper preparation and solid learning. For young teachers that somewhat vacuous intensity wears out with time, but some of our students do graduate having had more experience of the love of learning than of learning. Characters like that hung around Socrates, and, as I recall, Mr. Klein didn’t know what to do about them either. However, to my mind there are worse ways to waste one’s time.

I have not at all exhausted the pedagogical lessons that many of my colleagues and I myself learned from Jacob Klein. Since I can’t recall his ever mentioning to me a living model for himself, this conclusion may be justified: What shaped the soundly ingenious scholar of intellectual history that he was in the first half of his life, into the devoted teacher’s teacher of liberal learning that he became in the second half, was a tiny college, St. John’s, with an unadulterated program of liberal education, seated in the continent-wide American Republic, with a continuous tradition of enabling liberty. This half-European was as American as they come.

I’ll finish with a little anecdote to show how Jasha was my teacher and my model. When, after his death, Dodo was disposing of his library, she told me to take whatever I wanted. I was simply paralyzed by the prospect of suddenly owning a lot of irreplaceable books. So I went minimal. I chose only his Greek Plato in the Teubner and Oxford editions, multiple volumes, falling apart with use and heavily underlined as well as annotated in his tiny, legible script. Then, nearly two-score years ago, I bound all the volumes up in a broad golden ribbon and never looked inside them again until I was writing this talk. He would have chuckled.

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is the keynote address for the Jacob Klein Conference on Liberal Education at Providence College (March 2016) and is published here with permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).

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