Stanley Tennenbaum
American Original

Fall 1965 - Spring 1966

In his efforts to wake the students up to their own context, Stan dwelt fulsomely on their relationship to the university, particularly in regards to money.

In the middle ages the transaction was simple, direct, a group of scholars (ie students) pitched in and paid one of their number (ie professor) to give them a series of lectures on a topic of their choosing, the professor known to husband great knowledge of that topic. At Rochester (as elsewhere) the transaction was more complex but recognizable, the students (really their parents) paid the university, the university paid the professors, the professors taught what the university (OK, the departments) dictated. Stan’s point was that though the system was more convoluted, the students were paying and therefore had a right to control what they were being taught and who was doing it ...... he, ever the disturbing influence, urged the students to storm the administration (OK that’s a bit strong), to look into how decisions were made to determine the student’s education, a starting point through analysis of the university’s budget, where the money came from, where it went, who controlled it. Zoot alors !!! .... A handful of students, many on my corridor in the dorm, did exactly this.

These same students, on a roll and wakening to their great good fortune in finding themselves in Stan’s class, invited him for an evening to Gilbert Hall, maybe 10 to 15 students on chairs and pillows in the lounge to meet him. As soon as he arrived, he launched, no ceremony, into dialogue with the students as to what they had found, this pathing through various other educational topics, to segue into a tour de force mini-seminar on how to really read a academic book, material to be mastered, say a physics, chemistry, psychology text, you know, a textbook.

OK, on the one hand you have this (hopefully really good) textbook containing all this stuff which you want to transfer (and master) into your own brain ..... how do you do it?..... After calling for a textbook (chemistry as it turned out), handed over with some trepidation by one of the students, the literally hands on demonstration began. Stan’s first point was that the physical book was a vehicle, a tool, it was not a shrine, a religious icon, and it was to be used (read abused) in whatever way necessary to achieve the desired result. It was to be written on, pages were to be bent, ripped out, devoured, so much the better if it ended its days ragged, torn, destroyed if indeed the result. Shocking of course to these kids raised to treat books as if objects in the arc of the covenant ..... Stan’s next point was the gold contained in the book’s preface. A close reading, word by word, sentence by sentence, would reveal the character of the author, his depth, insight, knowledge, creativity, ‘phony’ quotient, critical as to whether the work had any real value worth pursuing. Given that it passed this critical evaluation, what next? Start reading ..... at the back ! ..... or in the middle !...... attack the book, read a sentence, can you understand it ? yes? .... then go on .... No? then work backwards until you find the meanings of the words you don’t get ..... iterate..... if the book is any good, you can do this, it will hang together, there will be no holes, lapses, chasms in the exposition ...... as Stan with great admiration pointed out, something like Feynman’s Lectures on Physics.

Talking, talking, talking, excitedly, passionately, the night ticked by, time never a consideration, never a boundary for Stan, he in full flow, tireless, a juggernaut of fascinating, to most students novel, ideation ... and always to the point, always to and with his audience in mind, always what was of interest, germane, relevant to them, in this case their education ...... it was of course expected that we, 18 year olds, could easily last out the full night, but Stan at 39 bested us, showing not the slightest trace of wear, slowing not a fraction in his fulminations, much more bright-eyed and chirpy than any of us as dawn broke, as we transferred to a breakfast diner, my eyes drooping before the coffee arrived.

(It was these same imaginative students who dressed up one of their number as a giant bat on Halloween, which then swooped without warning into one of Stan’s lectures, this specter so unnerving Stan that he swiftly whirled and threw himself directly into the slate blackboard, a nearly calamitous end to one of America’s premier mathematicians.)

Becoming increasingly disgruntled with what constituted academia even at a relatively sophisticated prestigious institution like the U of Rochester, I began with increasing frequency to visit Stan’s office, just down from the math commons room, always open, always full, a steady stream of students trooping in and out, generally, as noted, not needing mathematical enlightenment, but most typically a psychological adjustment. At times we chatted but mostly I was a mute presence in the chair in the corner, listening, watching, grokking, learning, hanging on Stan’s invariably interesting every word, my ‘education’ there worth whatever the price of admission, this my oasis of sanity in a maelstrom of mundanity, irrelevancy, and triviality.

Leonard Gillman arrived as chairman of the math department in 1960 bent on building a world class mathematical hothouse, immediately acquiring a coterie of extraordinarily accomplished mathematicians ..... in the mature ranks these included Harold and Dorothy Stone, Norman Alling (good mathematician but terribly stiff and boring lunch guest), occasionally Norman Stein, Sandford (Sandy) Segal, Bill Eberlein, younger fish included Newcomb Greenleaf, John Dollard, and Tony Hager.... Stan too was netted, arriving Fall 1965, designated a fully tenured professor despite but a fig leaf Bachelor of Philosophy degree from the U of Chicago as academic adornment, chosen instead for his manifest contributions to the theory of mathematical logic including his work with Bob Solovay on the consistency of the `Souslin Hypothesis` and the support of close colleagues well aware of his substantial attainments ...... Perhaps only coincidentally, the office of Robert Marshak, chair of the preeminent physics department, was just down the hall.

Your average mathematics professor is of prickly personality, introverted, socially maladapted, frequently enough exhibiting symptoms suggestive of Asperger’s Syndrome (if not actually being a full blown example), consumed with his mathematics, few interests outside of such, and little interested in other people .... at all. He sometimes cultivates a distracted, absent-minded, vague, bemused, head in the clouds air, one who has no time or inclination for the ‘realities’ of life, one who is inept, incompetent to deal with such, this often reflected in his body and attire. As such he has little interest in teaching, considers it an onerous yoke, inimical to, impediments of his researches, students but a nuisance, is devoid of pedagogy or interest in, has never thought much on how he learned or developed his own expertise in mathematics, has generally succeeded in the face of, in spite of any educational system that was afflicted upon him ..... OK, I am overstating the case, a bit of a caricature, but the real point is that in (virtually all) mathematics departments, there was (is) a huge distance between the professional practitioners, the grad students and the undergrads, the latter given no purchase from which to see, learn from, participate in, the lives and work of the former.

Stan was the precise opposite. Physically he was tall, medium build verging on lean, attractive, graceful of movement .... an ever present cigarette in one hand. Hugely social out of deep interest in the human condition, a psychological adept, he exuded first and foremost an inviolate humanity. He was always ‘present’, his ineluctable attention and awareness an unwavering laser, fully cognizant of his current context, surroundings, and the inner totality of the one he was addressing. He dealt adroitly with reality at all levels, no subject too large or small for his incisive, rational, startlingly clear-headed, rigorously intelligent attention. For Stan, steeped in the ethos the Hutchins’ university’, the ‘distance’ between the practicing mathematicians and the neophytes was an abhorrence, an ulcerous status quo, a lost opportunity, a situation to be addressed and rectified.

In this he was the word made flesh ..... ’education’ quite often his calling card, upon arrival he rapidly, proactively introduced himself to most of the mathematics faculty, early establishing a collegial, colleague to colleague relationship with many of them, a very warm association with Marshak who shared Stan’s deep interests in education. Particularly sensitive to the younger members and the foreign visitors, his spirited, garrulous vocalizations emanated from offices other than his own as often as from his. A raucous, high spirited, irreverent presence in the math commons room, more used to the hushed and muted tones of ‘quietly flows the Genesee’ conversation, he ebulliently injected himself into these conversations with ‘What’s going on here ?’ or as often involving all those present in the room in some discussion, a very social atmosphere then prevailing. Ever sensitive to the accoutrements of civility, he replaced the styrofoam coffee cups with a full set of china cups and saucers (billed to the math dept), these in his mind I’m sure equivalent (in emotional meaning) to his beloved black slate blackboards, white chalk, which were all changed out everywhere for disgusting green faux boards, yellow chalk ..... Stan was much amused to observe the ensuing turmoil regarding who, when, how the cups and saucers were to be maintained and cleaned, an intractable conundrum to the world class concentration of brain power in evidence ..... As further indication of his adamancy to maintain the proper relation between professor and university administration, Stan parked wherever he pleased on the campus, generally right next to the math building, ignoring the accumulation of parking tickets until their accumulation sufficiently mountainous to send them en masse to the bursar’s office.

Stan was as attuned to the undergraduates as to the colleagues, fervently believing in the ‘community of scholars’ U of Chicago model as the ideal to furthering the acknowledged goals of a ‘true’ university. Besides his attention to his own classes, his own students therein, he quite naturally looked out for young talent and promise, well aware that in the normal instance these could be lost, overlooked, undeveloped, the measure of which indicating how far the U of Rochester, as with most other universities, departed from the vision, operation of a ‘true’ university. In my class of ’69, Dave Scheim, certainly the best mathematics student in the class, was to large extent known to the faculty. Gary Russell, on the other hand, one of the finest mathematical minds in the nation, was nearly invisible. Gary had scored 5th in the nation in high school mathematics competitions and twice 30th in the collegiate Putnam competition, no mean feat, the 2nd time, coming in absolutely cold with no prep or support from the university, solving the first morning tranche of 6 problems, but wasting too much time on but one in the afternoon, except for which he most likely would have scored very near the top. Stan uncovered Gary when he out of interest reviewed his exam paper, instantly recognizing the power and ferocious competitive spirit displayed therein, astonished (and horrified) that no one in the department even knew who he was, to some extent rectified when Stan did make it a point to make his acquaintance. Another case (in my mind somewhat more unhappy, if not tragic) was Alan Arkawy, an exceptionally clear mind and manifest talent, undeniable strength in mathematical logic. Alan’s mind was of the order that, while taking a graduate class from a leading logician who was using the draft of his soon to be published ground-breaking work as the class text, he discovered a major logical flaw in the exposition, immediately acknowledged by the prof, causing him to postpone publication for substantial revision. (In the light of this though, the professor gave Alan a B grade ..... for not turning in the homework). I have always thought it regretful that Alan did not become aware of Stan (and vice versa) until we were in one of his Set Theory classes together, unfortunately too late, as given that Stan’s subject was logic, a closer association between the two might have altered the course of Alan’s trajectory, fast-tracking him to commingling with the movers and shakers in that arena and perchance leading to his (predictable) productive participation therein.

In my office chats with Stan I became aware of the extensive intellectual underpinnings of Stan’s thoughts (and actions) regarding education. Somewhat disingenuously he described his deep, abiding, and profoundly emotional interest in education as a ‘hobby’ ...... some hobby. As he rarely talked about his life prior to his entry to the U of Chicago at 16, I often had the impression that he did not really have a childhood, adolescence, but rather had sprung fully formed from the forehead of Robert Hutchins.

From 1929, age 30, to 1951, Hutchins first as president, then chancellor, devoted himself to the realization of the University of Chicago as a ‘true’ university fashioned on the historically developed ideals probably most cogently delineated in Cardinal Newman’s 1852 publication, ‘Idea of a University’, such an institution of very serious societal intent, critical in conception, structure and content to the production of citizens able to properly, effectively, morally function in the larger society. With a content of the Mortimer Adler’s ‘Great Books’ as the undergraduate 2 year curricula, the university was organized with maximal simplicity, every thoughtful, meaningful aspect designed to promote, foster, facilitate its optimal functioning. Professors and students were indistinguishable outside the classroom, all mixed with all, a professor was ‘Mr’ so and so, not ‘Professor’ so and so, meals together, a ‘community’ of scholars. Course attendance optional. Entry at an early age for the interested, no high school diploma necessary. One exam at the end of a course, pass or fail, no grades, no punitive measures if fail, not recorded in permanent record.

The University of Chicago, the one (and only) university in America that has approached the ideal of a ‘true’ university, had an enormous impact on Stan. Not only thriving on the vaunted intellectual freedom, steeping himself in the Greek classics, the Greek philosophers (in the original language), philosophy, mathematics, literature, music, the arts, he also, assuaging deep curiosity, absorbed the tenets on which the university was based and organized from discussions with Hutchins, Adler, Stone, and others. He understood full well and took to heart the relation between the conception and philosophical basis of this university and the fact that during this period the U of Chicago produced the most gifted, productive, creative practitioners in every subject, overwhelming in number the products of other universities. At Rochester Stan played a game in the commons room, he against all, you named a mathematician or physicist of a certain caliber and attainment trained in the early 50’s anywhere in the USA, he would match this with one from the U of Chicago. The loser was the one who ran out of candidates ..... he never lost.

The Achilles heel, also a lesson not lost on Stan and one which he wrestled with in his later periods of trying to replicate the U of Chicago ‘experiment’, the element which ended the U of Chicago according to Hutchins’ conception upon his leaving the chancellorship in 1951, sun setting on Camelot, was, you guessed it, funding. The funding was largely dependent on donors, gifts, benefactors, most of whom grew restive and doubtful, the coffers getting emptier and emptier as time went on ...... This was the essential problem Stan had to solve were he to ultimately establish a new U of Chicago in the 1970’s.

Stan’s interests in education were of course not confined to the university but were assiduously pursued, with an even more emotional fervor, through the primary and secondary levels. Though we never discussed it, my guess was that the motivation for such stemmed from his own harrowing experiences in the public schools of Cincinnati, searing in him that the schools had a great deal to answer for, that they held the power to unleash the full, healthy potential of the child just starting out but grossly abused this power to produce with gruesome uniformity damaged, psychologically twisted, misshapen, confused beings with little connection to their fundamental and fulsome abilities to ultimately be creative, rational, mentally self-reliant and independent adults, trusting in their own minds and outfitted with the mental tools to exercise such. Stan’s anger and rage palpable, he devoted considerable energy to his lonely vendetta to even the score (read set things aright), awakening and enlisting in the struggle as many people as possible along the way..... some hobby.

Having little regard for what passed for formal primary and secondary education, viewing it mostly as a hindrance to the development of the children, Stan despised colleges of education that permitted potential teachers to slide by with watered down versions of their subjects, in actuality ensuring that they really did not know their subjects at all, noting that the end result was that teachers came from the lower 5% of the university-educated population .... for him, an expert in the pedagogy of mathematics, simply knowing (really knowing) your subject was 80% the requirement of being able to teach well, which indicated where efforts should be concentrated in the development of would-be teachers.

Always putting his money where his mouth was, Stan frequently visited the primary and secondary schools of Rochester, pulling up unannounced to request an audience with the principal, whereupon he would ask to teach a math class to whichever level during their ‘math’ time. With his practiced, psychologically acute powers of persuasion, he was never turned down ...... skills honed perhaps in part in working with Bruno Bettelheim at Bettelheim’s Orthogenic School in Chicago (devoted to the cure of autistic children) or perhaps with the juvenile delinquents in Chicago, another project. Stan, with an innate love of children, had a savant ability to enter the world of the child, gaining his rapt attention, and holding him enthralled as he led him through some magical mathematical ideas, often proving that, in the right hands, children could be brought to understand the most abstruse of mathematical notions ..... these efforts, yes, a contribution but only part of Stan’s agenda in being there, it also affording him the opportunity to, from the inside, keep track of the state of American education, permitting him to get a feel for current pedagogy, the quality of the teaching staff, and an accounting of the textbooks that were being used, the disheartening conclusion of course being that throughout the 60’s and 70’s American education was on a steep slide downwards (witness the ‘new’ math, an obscenely misguided stab at getting school children to ‘understand’ arithmetic), never to recover, and leaving us with the laughable (if not so tragic) status quo of today.

Given my own love of children, and my own interest in education, it was a supreme (and instructive) pleasure to watch Stan with a group of children, regardless the circumstance. A particular occasion, we were an afternoon with Stan’s son Peter, age 10, and a bunch of Peter’s friends, playing baseball, running in the park, maybe it was a birthday...... Before long Stan had the kids crawling all over him, plaguing him, hanging onto his legs, tormenting him as best they could ...... finally having enough, I was stunned to hear him, in a 180 degree turn in persona, very loudly and roughly shout at them to leave him alone, this an extremely effective ‘act’ designed, as he explained, to achieve a result and without lasting effect on the elastic, malleable, resilient psyches of the boys so treated ..... another lesson for me.

Stan was utterly fascinated with how the knowledge in one mind is transferred to another’s, be it professor to undergraduate, or school teacher to grade school kid. A complex psychological process at which he himself was eminently proficient, he admired others who could shed light on it ...... H G Wells in an unknown essay, perfectly describes the mental and emotional machinations in play as two children, a boy and girl are introduced to multiplication, the one succeeding through a faith that the ‘answer’ will always be the same, the other not so sure and therefore losing footing on the climb to further success ..... Stan’s reverence for this piece when he read it to me blatantly apparent, he gave it his highest accolade, it was ‘sublime’.

And so passed my freshman year, only made palatable by my discovery of and subsequent association with Stan ..... indeed for me he was an island of sanity, rationality, intellectual freedom, an island floating on Grecian clouds, unmoored to accepted dross of academic life decomposing below ..... and he was unique, the only one of stature, a fact expressed in my very juvenile outburst one day that except for him I would have lost sanity that year, that he ‘saved’ me, a sentiment I’m happy to report that he discounted as being a tad overstated, a tad overwrought .....

As summer loomed, Ron Bunch and I laid plans to drive the Pan American Highway from the USA to the southern tip of South America in his dark green top-down Morgan, difficult now to imagine a journey more ill-conceived, in part because large parts of this highway were yet figments of some planner’s imagination ..... Ron backing out at the last moment, I at loose ends wandered over to Stan’s office, the building deserted for the summer...... By rare accident of fate, Stan was there behind locked door, but of course answered my knock, let me warble on about the defunct plans, and then invited me to live at his house with him and the family, Carol and the three children, Jonathan, Susan, Peter....... And so began the most exciting, intellectually intense, revelatory year of my life.