Stan and Education, Preface
In a paper intended for Stan’s memorial conference at CUNY in April 2006, Jonathan
Tennenbaum, Stan’s eldest son, gives the fullest account of Stan’s relationship to Education
currently extant. Stan and Jonathan were extremely close and, until leaving La Jolla for
Denmark in 1973, spent a great deal of time in each other’s company, providing Jonathan a
ring-side seat through conversations and observation to understand Stan’s thoughts and
actions regarding education.
Consistent with his thoughts on education, Stan permitted Jonathan to attend grade school
and high school irregularly, indeed he completed neither. Beginning university courses in
mathematics and languages at the U of Rochester at a very early age, Jonathan completed
when he was 22 his PhD from the U of California under Errett Bishop, his thesis entitled ‘A
Constructive Version of Hibert’s Basis Theorem’.
Eschewing academia after a few years in Europe, Jonathan has had a rich life in science,
research, lecturing, 37 years in the LaRouche organization, involvement in ‘physical’
economics, intellectual links with and visits to Russia and China. Moving to Berlin in 2003,
Jonathan continues an extremely active life, poetry and music performances with his wife
Rosa around Berlin, writing in biophysical therapies, his new book ‘The Physical Economy of
National Development’, continued involvement in Russia and Brazil.
For those interested, there are a large number of segments on YOUTUBE featuring various
of Jonathan’s talks, addresses, and lectures.
Stan and Education 1
I was unfortunately not physically able to attend your conference, but I should like — and I
think it appropriate — to contribute some remarks, not on my late father’s mathematical
work, but concerning the subject to which he devoted the greater part of his life’s energies:
My father had to do with an enormous number of people; and each of them, in their own
way, has a piece of the story. I limit myself to the period in which I was more or less
intensively involved in his educational projects: the period prior to my leaving the United
States in 1973. Those were different times, and my father was also in many ways a different
person, from the one people encountered, who got to know him in the 1980s or 1990s. I
should ask you to forgive possible inaccuracies concerning some events and places, as I
have not yet had the opportunity to cross- check my memory with documents.
Over the years many people have spoken and written about the disaster of school education
in the United States. But I am sure nobody studied and understood the nature of the
problem more deeply than my father, including the ominous implications of certain changes
in education, introduced beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, for the political future
of our country. Moreover, while many stood by and allowed the disaster to happen, he
undertook serious efforts to do something about it.
Probably the quickest way to get to the heart of what my father was concerned about, is to
contrast, as he often did, the 1960s so-called “New Math”, and the classroom environment in
which it was taught, with what went on in the old- fashioned schools of his own childhood
I should preface the comparison by emphasizing, that for my father what really matters in
education is not the curriculum per se, not what children learn or do not learn in school, but
rather what happens to their minds. He was certainly not against learning; but, in his view,
it were better children would learn nothing, than that their ability to think things through
by and for themselves — the sovereignty of their minds — be destroyed. (I don’t recall my
father using that word, “sovereignty”, but its seems at the moment the best term to express
his idea as I remember it now.) So, he would often challenge me and others, to be rigorously
honest with ourselves, whether we said or believed things just because we had heard or read them somewhere, or because the teacher said them, or whether we really knew them
on the basis of working them out for ourselves. Something you have understood or truly
discovered in that way, becomes yours in the fullest sense: it belongs to you forever, and
nobody can take it away from you.
My father held that all healthy young children are essentially geniuses with regard to talent,
at the point they first enter school. He could demonstrate that with actual children, and did
so many times, for anyone who showed an interest. In nearly all cases, however, a child’s
talents decrease monotonically as a function of the number of years spent in the
educational system. Only a very few arrive at the end of their “education”, with something of
their original brilliance still intact. He often liked to sum it up this way: “If we would teach
people in school how to walk, we would be a nation of cripples.”
My father emphasized that these were no casual observations, but conclusions grounded in
many years of careful investigation. In these matters he was a passionate experimentalist.
He spent an enormous amount of time, over the years, talking to children, visiting all kinds
of schools around the country, teaching classrooms there, working with both “problem
cases”, “normal” kids and so-called “gifted children” of all ages and backgrounds.
In this process, my father developed his own educational method. Its roots go back at least
to his early student days at the University of Chicago, when, after a deeply demoralizing
encounter with Andre Weil, my father turned from his original interest in geometry, to
philosophy. He spent the better part of the following ten years studying first of all Plato,
whose dialogs he came to know “inside and out”, and secondarily St. Augustine and a large
number of other authors. Another very important influence was my father’s experience
working as a voluntary assistant in Bruno Bettelheim’s school for autistic and schizophrenic
children in Chicago. By understanding the extreme case of the damage done to those
children, and how they could be helped, and comparing with many other experiences, he
gained an extraordinary insight into the emotional side of education generally.
It was on this basis, I think, that he saw through the malevolent intent of the so- called
“liberal reforms” in education in the 1960s most clearly, and identified the essential problem
not in a lowering of the intellectual standards of education per se, but in a specific form of
emotional “brain damage” which was inflicted on practically the entire generation that
attended U.S. primary schools in the 1960s.
On the other hand, he demonstrated again and again, that children could progress with
astounding rapidity in learning whatever they took an interest in, if only their sovereignty
and intellectual self-confidence were restored, and a suitable environment provided.
I was also among of my father’s many “experiments”, one might say, albeit not in the way
some people thought, who imagined, merely because I finished my formal education at a
very young age (by present standards), that I had received extensive instruction from him.
In reality he taught me only a very few, but extremely valuable things.
My father was convinced, for example, that an alert and healthy child could easily
understand even the most “advanced” mathematical ideas, as long as they were real ideas,
and they were presented in a suitable way. Sometimes he would try such ideas out on me,
often things he was studying himself at the time. Once, for example — I could not have been
more than 7 years old or so — he showed me Georg Cantor’s argument for the
uncountability of the real numbers; or, as he put it at the time, why is impossible to make a
list of all the points on a line. He explained Cantor’s idea with a few scratches in a dirt patch
during a walk outside our apartment in Hyde Park. I got it immediately, and it has stayed
with me all my life.
Several years earlier, he had tried out a method for presenting Pythagoras’ Theorem to very
young children. It evidently made a big impression on me, as I remember the experience
quite vividly to this day. He had prepared some very nice big squares and triangles out of
solid wood: eight identical right triangles of one bright color, the square fitting on the
hypothenus in a second color, and the two squares fitting to the triangle’s shorter sides, in a
third color. He put the squares before me and asked me, playfully, to imagine they were
made of delicious candy, and I could choose between getting either the big square, or the
two smaller squares together. That captured my interest. But which should I choose? I
remember my hesitation: it was really not clear how to compare the amounts by sight or in
my mind. My father then showed me, to my great surprise and delight, that, by adding four
right triangles at a time, first to the big square, and then another four to the two smaller
squares, in two different ways, we got larger squares of exactly the same size and area. In
fact, we could superimpose them, one on top of the other. And then, by taking away the
same four triangles again, from each of the larger squares, we could verify for ourselves
that the remaining areas — the hypothenus-sized square on the one side, and the two
smaller squares on the other — had to be equivalent.
For me, this surprising truth — more physical than mathematical in the way he presented it
— was really sweeter than candy!
Among the few other things in mathematics, my father showed me as a kid, I should
mention: the incommensurability of the diagonal and side of a square; Erathosthenes’ sieve
for the prime numbers; and the concept of a “Turing machine”. He also used to talk to me
about the idea of a Riemann surfaces, which he was fascinated with, although without going
into specifics; and a bit also about the work of Cantor and Gödel, and the way the power of
the human mind transcends even the most universal type of mechanical proceedure.
My father’s educational method, however, is not fully expressed in such examples. The heart
of it lay in his unequaled skill in a special sort of freely-improvised conversation, through
which, starting from some question or problem posed at the outset as a theme, he evoked
actual, sovereign thinking in people. Often, particularly with the older children and adults,
thinking would only emerge after a more or less extended period of “battle”, in which my
father — ruthlessly, but with a great deal of humor — uncovered and beat back each and
every attempt by them to get away with “bullshitting” (his technical term for sophism!). In
this respect my father’s method resembled the classical one of Socrates, but with at least
one important difference, which he often emphasized. My father’s approach was much more
subjective, directed not so much at the content of the sophisms per se, but rather to exposing and overcoming the pathological state of mind, that causes people to become
“bullshitters” in the first place. In that way, his educational method was much more a kind of
therapy than the teaching of a specific subject- matter. Yet, it had nothing of the
manipulative and often condescending manner associated with modern psychology, but
was always playful, always focussed on ideas, ironical and humorous.
My father’s conversational method corresponded also to his ideal of a university, as
basically a discussion process. Indeed, one could say, that the greater part of scientific
education at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, did not go on in classrooms, but rather
in places like Steinway’s coffeehouse on 57th Street, where my father used to hang out a lot
of the time, often with me tagging along; and where young people could learn most of their
physics, mathematics and chemistry by just sitting at the table with scientists, many of
them already famous ones, arguing and fighting over ideas. My father attributed a
particularly “American” character to this atmosphere: open, direct and free of the European
tendency to bow down to authority.
After this preface I now come to the promised comparison between “Old” and “New” Math,
and the ominous side of what was happening with school education in the United States,
and which my father became more and more clearly aware of, going from the 1950s into the
1960s. It was these developments which caused him finally to launch the university projects,
I shall describe later.
Stan and Education 2
The Old Math, with its pedantic “drill and grill” in the rules and procedures of algebra and
euclidean geometry, was already a disaster, of course. It went along with a stifling,
“authoritarian” classroom atmosphere, with much attention paid to instilling discipline,
obedience, proper appearance and manners, more or less often with the aid of bodily
At first glance, the 1960s New Math classroom was a liberation from all that. Where the Old
Math focussed on mechanical performance, the New Math claimed to address the minds of
the pupils, to explain things to them and to communicate concepts. The archaic, millenia-old
euclidean geometry with its proofs and constructions, was thrown out in favor of a
supposedly very advanced new scientific topic called “set theory”. At the same time, the
emotional distance between teacher and child in the stiff old-style classroom was
overcome, and the earlier emphasis on behavior and formal content was replaced by a
“touchy-feelly” atmosphere. Teachers were trained in something called psychology, and
encouraged to intervene into the emotional life of the children — to mess with their minds,
we might say.
I don’t know when my father’s attention was first drawn to the changes in character of
educational practice, indicated by this sketchy comparison. But certainly he knew
something substantial about it already in his University of Chicago days, prior to 1960, and
before the “New Math” and related reforms hit the schools on a national scale. He was
horrified, and became increasingly so as time went on and he uncovered more of the
matter. Two main reasons stick out in my recollection, from a very large number of
discussions my father had with me and all kinds of people over the years.
First, and most importantly, he recognized that the new style of education, contrary to its
liberal packaging, was in reality incomparably more coercive in a psychological sense, than
the old authoritarian methods; and far more destructive of the sovereignty of the child. The
“authoritarian” school was bad enough, but it did not attack in the same way the child’s
sense of identity. The child could hate the guts of the nasty old pedant who hit him with a
ruler — that was accepted –, but in the new liberal classroom everybody was supposed to
be “nice”. The violence became mental, rather than physical, and the rebellious child, instead
of being beaten, would be sent to the school psychologist for diagnosis of his of her being
My father often emphasized, in this context, certain observations on the predominant
socio-economic background and mentality of U.S. school teachers of that period,
contrasting these with what he had gathered of the situation in the Soviet Union.
In the Soviet Union (of the 1950s and 1960s), being a school teacher was a highly regarded
profession. The teachers’ material conditions were not luxurious, but relatively speaking
they constituted a priviledged class. Teachers generally came from among the higher
percentile of university graduates in the Soviet Union and could regard themselves as
valued and successful members of society.
In the United States, by contrast, school teachers had a low social status. They were poorly
paid, relative to other “white collar” professions, and belonged to the lower middle class. By
and large they were intellectual failures. They came from the lower percentile of college
students, who could not get into better careers. They saw themselves, too, as failures, in the
intensely competitive atmosphere of American society in that period. They tended to be
resentful and disappointed with life.
What happens when you staff school classrooms with these sorts of people? My father put
it very bluntly: The teachers hated the children! Especially the children of their more
successful, upper-middle-class contemporaries. The more happiness and independence the
child displayed, the greater the resentment on the part of the teacher. Of course there were
exceptions; this was not an individual phenomenon, but an expression of a kind of “class
war”. The fact, that these teachers’ hatred and resentment of their pupils was (generally
speaking) not expressed in a concious and open way, made its effects on the children all the
more devastating. With the help of the new curriculum, textbooks and other things, to be
mentioned shortly, these unhappy teachers became — as my father put it — instruments of
the zombification of an entire generation. The United States was throwing away its children!
Could this be an accident?
Now to my father’s second point concerning “New Math”: The bits and pieces of “set theory”,
introduced into school curricula to supplant old-fashioned geometry and algebra, were not
only totally devoid of any content, but constituted a very specific and very directed type of
fraud. Let me briefly try to indicate what I mean, and what I think my father meant on this
My father pointed out, that in studying the long history of school education in the U.S. and
Europe, one observes an enormous inertia and resistance to the introduction of new,
fundamental scientific ideas and discoveries, made in society, into school curricula.
Sometimes it might take decades or even generations, or not occur at all. When something
gets in quickly, we have an anomaly that calls for examination as to the cause.
Several, then-recent anomalies of this sort attracted my father’s special attention in those
years: first, the introduction of certain ideas of molecular biology into the schools, within a
relatively short time following the Watson-Crick work on the structure of DNA; and
secondly, the introduction of “set theory”.
I leave the case of DNA and the promotion of “genetics” aside here, but just remark, that
both innovations came in a time-frame, when significant new government money was
flowing into the modernization of U.S. education, especially the expansion of universities,
but also primary and secondary education to a certain extent. The context was provided by
the “Sputnik shock” and the percieved need to upgrade science education in competition8/8/2019 Stanley Tennenbaum: American Original
with the Soviets. Curiously or not, nobody seems to have thought of seriously increasing
the pay of school teachers across the board: an expensive but otherwise easy measure,
which — according to my father at least –, would have done relative wonders in terms of
the mental survival rates among young people coming out of primary and secondary
schools. Instead, the emphasis was on a sweeping reform of school science curricula and
textbooks, supposedly to bring them up-to-date with modern developments in science and
How paradoxical, then, that the “set theory” introduced in the New Math, should consist of
nothing but empty formalism, having no scientific content whatsoever and absolutely no
relationship — or, more precisely, a negative relationship — to the ideas of Georg Cantor,
who founded the subject! What got in to the schools was a hodge-podge derived from the
work of John von Neumann, Bertrand Russell, the Bourbaki group and other authors, whose
philosophy and conceptions of science, as my father often pointed out, were diametrically
opposed to those of Cantor.
This remark cannot be omitted from my account, because it touches directly on what my
father was concerned about, namely: that the “New Math” constituted a vehicle for
promoting the standpoint of von Neumann and others, that the human mind is essentially a
machine. My father knew Russell and von Neumann well from his Chicago days. He was not
only not sympathetic to their views, but regarded them as an absolute menace.
Much more should be said about these matters, but for brevity I must move on with another
insight into the problem of education, which my father gained from extensive studies of
school mathematics textbooks, of the publishing companies dominating the school textbook
market and the corporate-financial structures behind them.
In examining successive editions of one and the same textbook, one could see that, far from
being improved and corrected, they became progressively worse — more confused, more
chaotic, more full of mistakes. My father frequently demonstrated this to people with actual
books, and the demonstration was indeed quite shocking. The old-fashioned books tended
to be dry and formal, but they were written by an actual human being, and were still
organized in a more or less intelligible way. The books that replaced them were composed
by groups of authors, often by anonymous, Orwellian committees. The texts became totally
incoherent, caleidoscopic, broken up with countless colored boxes, irrelevant cartoons and
arbitrary symbols, supposedly to make them “interesting” (i.e. distracting) to the child. In
reality, my father emphasized, they were worse than unreadable. They were an assault on
the mind, brainwashing of the most vicious sort!
My father became convinced, that for economic and other reasons, these developments
would ultimately culminate in replacing the schoolteachers by machines. He saw this as an
ultimate horror: a complete dehumanization of children. The teachers, as bad as they might
be, were still human beings. Things did not go quite as he expected. Still now, computers
have not yet completely replaced the teachers. But they got into the homes, and I think it is
no great exaggeration to say, that many children and young people today have a more
intense relationship to their computer screens, than to their own parents and friends.
I cannot go here into my father’s extensive investigations of the background and corporate
control of the major textbook publishing houses and related institutions, their influence on
school curricula and so forth, and his conclusions concerning where this all comes from.
That leads, of course, beyond the immediate scope of these remarks, into the realm of
politics. Suffice it to say, that a coherent, but very ugly picture emerged, which is entirely
coherent with the misfortunes this country and the world have suffered in the intervening
So, what did my father try to do about it? The story is long and complicated; I shall therefore
concentrate on a few decisive points.
Firstly, there was no question for him of going into politics in any ordinary sense. Due in
part to the tragic experience of one of his grandfathers — an orthodox communist — he
was profoundly suspicious and distrustful of political organizations of any kind. On the
other hand, he spoke to and knew an absolutely enormous number of people around the
country. Probably very few individuals could compete with him in sheer numbers of
acquaintances he accumulated over the years, and upon whom he practiced his educational
method. People of every conceivable sort — from members of wealthy “ruling class”
families, to representatives of practically every significant institution related to education,
to workers and teachers in the black ghettos — knew him and were devoted to him to a
significant extent. He did not try to forge them into a coherent political force, but they are
“out there” nonetheless. To all of these, my father sounded the alarm about the disaster of
U.S. education, its ominous implications for the future of the country, and what might be
done to remedy it.
Although I do not remember him speaking about it, I am now convinced he must have had
the idea of starting a new university very early, perhaps back in his Chicago period. My
father had long used the example of the University of Chicago as proof of the enormous
influence that a single educational institution can have on an entire society (positive and
negative). But it was only much later, under the impression of the 1967-68 student revolts
and other political changes in the United States, that he launched the two university
projects I shall shortly describe below. Up to then, his aims appeared relatively modest.
Fairly early, already in Chicago if I am not mistaken, he thought about certain educational
projects such as writing books for the schools. There exists at least a fragment of a very
beautiful series of lessons on “high school algebra”, written around 1961, when he was
working at the University of Michigan, and did some teaching at the high school at Chelsea,
Michigan near the farm where we lived. “High school algebra” is an ironic title, because its
main subject-matter – although not its mode of presentation — was drawn from the more
elementary parts of Gauss’ “Disquisitiones Arithmeticae”, including the development of
modular arithmetic, primitive roots and related matters. The text culminated, in the last
lesson, with one of Gauss’ most beautiful proofs of the Law of Quadratic Reciprocity.
I think it is in that general period, also, that my father taught at a Summer School for high
school teachers. He was appalled at the mentality of most of them, as I indicated above, and
at the thought that the minds of children would be entrusted to such people. “Why, I would
not even let them take care of my pet cockroach!” he exclaimed.
Unfortunately, his own children were victims, too. Starting with me. I had survived pretty
well until about the 4th year of school, because the teachers basically left me alone. But
then, in Michigan, I fell into trouble, especially in mathematics, and the teachers got to me. I
did not have my father’s defiant character. Instead of fighting back, I caved in. My father
was furious! He saw me being destroyed and finally decided to take me out of school
entirely. That brought him into serious conflict with my mother, who believed children had
to “grow up and accept society as it is”. She feared I would become some kind of freak. There
was also a chorus of relatives and others who chanted, “don’t let Jonathan become a failure
like his father.” (My father never officially finished his university studies and never got a
Ph.D.) He made some effort, under this pressure, to have me learn something at home. To
little avail. I was lazy and rather spoiled, and spent most of my time running around outside
on the farm.
(In the sequel, I hopped and jumped in and out of school and home, without finishing either
grade school or high school, sat in on some university courses, finally got interested in
mathematics — particularly Riemann’s theory of functions of a complex variable and
analytical number theory –, learned to work hard, finished a doctorate at the University of
California and left, at the age of 22, for a teaching position in Europe. In the meantime, the
chorus of voices changed its tune: Jonathan was the exception, the “genius”; but my father
was wrong about his other children!)
Let me now jump to around 1966, when (as I recall) my father was teaching at the State
University of New York at Stony Brook. He was teaching large classes of students, and his
intensive involvement with young people drew him quickly into the focus of the growing
student ferment that led into the famous 1968 “revolution”.
My father was not in favor of the war in Vietnam. However, he was much more alarmed at
the mentality of the students and the intentions of those — including some “old leftists” in
the faculty — who were manipulating the process for their own political purposes. Why
were they aiming at disrupting the universities, the most free institutions in the country?
he asked, suspecting that the universities were being “set up” in order to be punished later.
He regarded the New Left as a disaster, and was appalled at the indifference of his
colleagues. It was only my father who was ready to talk to the students, at any time, for as
long as they wanted, about literally everything. With his skill he could easily shut up types of
the Mark Rudd variety, who were otherwise terrorizing the classrooms, showing them up to
be sophists and actually totalitarians although they claimed to be the opposite. In the period
he was on the scene, the students quieted down. But my father was appalled: “The United
States has produced its first authoritarian generation!” He was convinced that the country
was threatened by fascism of a new type.
It was largely in response to these experiences, I think, and the sense of a brewing national
crisis, that my father began to activate his university plans.
Stan and Education 3
There are two ways to create a new institution: to take over and transform an
existing one, or to start a new one from scratch.
My father’s first attempt began after he had received a tenured professorship at the
University of Rochester. (He was probably one of the very few in the country to
obtain such a position without having any formal university degree!) He quickly
became a central figure in bitter fights between the University faculty on the one
side, and the administration headed by then-Chancellor W. Allen Wallis, on the other.
One must know a bit about Wallis’s background, to appreciate the significance — and
the risks! — of my father taking on W. Allen Wallis as a personal enemy, in a very
open and aggressive fashion.
W. Allen Wallis belonged, together with his close friends Milton Friedmann and soonto-be U.S. Secretary of Labor and later Secretary of State George P. Schultz, to the
core group of the infamous “Chicago School” of economics. Coming out of Operations
Research in World War II, Wallis became Dean of the Business School of the
University of Chicago in 1956, and served as economic advisor to four American
Administrations. He was a member of the Mont Pelerin Society and (later) “eminence
grise” of the American Enterprise Institute. At the time of the events I report now,
which coincide with a high-point of the Vietnam War, Wallis was politically and
otherwise closely tied to the incoming Nixon Administration.
Although my father hated most everything the Nixon Administration stood for, his
quarrel with Wallis was more directly connected with Wallis’s educational views, and
the fact that Wallis embodied a dominant academic current in statistics, psychology
and sociology, which my father regarded as fundamentally fascist in character.
Wallis had his own design for expanding and reorganizing the University of
Rochester, drawing in a great deal of new money for this purpose, and at the same
time moving to intimidate the faculty and to downgrade its influence in a variety of
ways. It began with little things, such as the issuance of parking tickets to faculty
members by the campus police. My father simply forwarded the tickets he received,
to the administration for payment.
Then came my father’s initially successful efforts to block the establishment of a new
“Department of Computer Science” at the University. He insisted that no such
science exists: the whole notion of “Computer Science” is an absolute abomination
and has no place in any serious institution of learning,. Naturally, my father’s
vociferous position on this matter made him not only friends, but also quite a few
enemies on the campus and outside it.
It was in the middle of these and other battles that he hatched his university plot.
My father argued, that according to the statutes of the University, the institution
was technically owned by the tenured faculty, and not by the Chancellor and the
Board of Trustees. He proposed that the faculty make use of its inherent powers, to
essentially take over the University of Rochester and to transform it into a new kind
of university — “The Riemann University”, as he called it — which should become the
center of a renaissance of public education in the United States. For this purpose
one could tap the U of R’s huge endowment — at that time one of the largest, if not
the largest endowments of any university in the country — to bring in the best
scientists and scholars from around the country. The name, “Riemann University”,
arose from collaboration with a brilliant mathematical colleague, who was also quite
interested in education, and who together with my father had been circulating a
reprint of the English translation of Bernhard Riemann’s 1854 “On the Hypotheses
that Lie at the Base of Geometry” to students and faculty of the science departments.
Naturally, the pursuit of this plan was totally incompatible with Wallis remaining
Chancellor of the University. Wallis, however, was by no means the only leading
figure at the University who might feel threatened by my father’s activity.
But my father proceeded, with significant success, to organize support for his plan
among various departments of the University. Most important was probably the
Physics Department, which had a strong tradition in experimental work and the
reputation of being one the best in the country. I vividly recall my father’s reporting
the enthusiastic reaction of Robert Marshak, long-time chairman of the Physics
Department, to the Riemann University plan: “Count me in!”. Marshak exclaimed. A
figure of some influence in the U.S. and international scientific establishments,
Marshak was at that time himself embroiled in bitter political disagreements with
Wallis. (Shortly after the collapse of my father’s initiative, Marshak left the U of R to
become President of the City College of New York.)
My father had numerous other allies on and outside the campus, at the time. They
included, at one point, at least one member of one of the wealthiest old families in
Rochester, whom my father knew quite well. (I should note that my father possessed,
as far back as I can remember, an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the leading
families in the United States, their history and different branches. No doubt he
encountered many of them very early, among his fellow students at the University
of Chicago. Otherwise, I can only suppose that he deliberately accumulated this
knowledge with a view to eventually launching a new university or related
enterprise, and with the expectation — justified or not — of being able to secure
support for it among a section of those families.)
Without attempting now to judge, how great were my father’s actual chances of
succeeding with his “Riemann University” strategy, I think there is no doubt, that his
activities became at least a major nuissance, and probably even a serious threat in
the eyes of W. Allan Wallis and his friends. Accordingly, various operations were
launched against my father, of which I only know one — the most devastating one —
in significant detail.
One of the people who felt particularly resentful and threatened by my father was
the wife of a faculty colleague, who was trying to build herself a career in “computer
science”. The particular colleague, while very brilliant, had a history of mental illness.
Now, his wife went to my mother and confided to her, that she recognized the same
symptoms of “manic-depressive psychosis” in my father, as her own husband had
suffered from! This intervention came at a time when my mother was rather
terrified about my father’s aggressive activity, and the reactions it might produce at
the University. In addition, a serious conflict had arisen in the family over the
education of my brother, who had come into a similar crisis in school, as that which
had initially caused my father to take me out, many years earlier, in Michigan. This
time, my father’s attempt to intervene on behalf of my brother raised a hornet’s nest
To make a long story short, my mother demanded that he go with her to see a
university psychiatrist for “consultation”. Smelling an attempt by Wallis et al. to
obtain a pretext for removing him from his tenured position at the University —
mental illness being one of the two legal justifications for such a move — my father
demanded that I go along as a witness. Lo and behold! In the presence of the three of
us, the psychiatrist admitted, rather straight-forwardly, that some high-up persons
in the University administration were “concerned” about my father’s health!
Although this open admission “blew the operation” in terms the plot to remove
tenure, our family, whose happiness had been my father’s pride and joy, was broken
forever. This really got to him, and during a subsequent semester at the Institute for
Advanced Study, he collapsed.
That was the end of the first university project.
After a certain period of recovery, following his subsequent resignation from the
University of Rochester and in the middle of a struggle over custody of his two
younger children, my father launched a second university project.
This time the plot unfolded from a suite at the St. Regis Sheraton Hotel in New York
City, where my father resided for an extended period, and involved a number of
extremely wealthy individuals and families, whom he had come to know from his
Chicago days and afterward, and whom he believed he could recruit to supporting
the founding of a new university. As prospective partners in the project he selected
three old student acquaintances from Chicago: one was an exceptionally
independent-minded academic, the second a prominent New York lawyer, and the
third a descendant of one of the oldest and wealthiest banking families in the United
This time, my father set out to demonstrate, by actually producing a series of
educational films of a fundamentally new type, how a new university could launch a
revolution in public school education, and support itself at the same time, through
the sale of these and other materials to the schools.
The “studio” was the suite in the St. Regis, and the films showed impromptu dialogs
between my father and children of various ages, engaged at a blackboard in trying to
solve certain geometrical problems. As I recall, some parts were with one child, some
two or three children. For the filming my father was fortunate to find a gifted
professional cameraman who understood something of his idea, and was able to
capture, in the faces of the children and in their interaction with each other and my
father, moments of insight and other “shifts” in thinking, which by their very nature
could never have been staged or planned. This feature — that the dialogs were
entirely free and spontaneous, yet at the same time intensely concentrated and
dramatic in the highest degree –, made them absolutely unique in character,
testifying to my father’s extraordinary mastery of the conversational method he had
developed. All who saw the films were immensely impressed by them. The minds of
children viewing the films were immediately and powerfully “sucked” in to the
process going on among the participants in the film, in a manner which, again, could
never be achieved by an artificially-staged dialog or classroom-style presentation.
The few films made with my father were intended to be only an introduction. His
intention was to make films of original scientists and other extraordinary
personalities in conversation with children. He had a long list, including Kurt Gödel,
and people like Richard Feynmann. Again, these were not to be staged and prepared
conversations with scripts, but real, spontaneous ones. From his experience and his
educational method, my father knew how to create the conditions for such
discussions to happen, even without being directly part of them himself.
I do not propose to go into the elaborate and sometimes wild story of the second
university project and everything that went on around it, nor how it gradually
dwindled out. Suffice it to say that I, a very close collaborator of my father’s at
certain critical points in that process, became increasingly doubtful about the
seriousness and committment of many of the persons, whom he considered his
supporters. Unfortunately, those doubts seem to have been justified; the new
university did not materialize and the film project did not proceed beyond its
We near the point at which I departed from the U.S., and my story’s end. There are
two important sequels to the story, however, one which I in part witnessed directly,
the other not. Both involve the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton — an
institution to which my father was closely connected, albeit mostly informally, over
While not a teaching institution, the IAS has exerted a significant influence in
education, through its enormous prestige in the academic world and not least
because of some of its permanent members, of whom the most famous were
doubtless Albert Einstein (long since deceased) and Kurt Gödel (who was still living in
the period of the events I describe).
My father’s involvement with the Institute grew out of his close association with
Kurt Gödel. I think it is accurate to say that my father was, in many ways at least, the
leading disciple and defender of Gödel in the last 10 years of that man’s life. However,
my father became involved with a great many different people at the Institute, from
the leading faculty and visitors down to the security guards.
In 1966, the deceased physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was succeeded as Director of
the IAS by Carl Kaysen, an economist who had served as Deputy Assistant for
National Security Affairs in the Kennedy Administration. Kaysen, no doubt reflecting
the desires of the Trustees of the Institute, among them IBM head Thomas J. Watson,
began to gradually downgrade the Institute’s original, strong emphasis on physical
science. At the same time my father noted, and opposed, what he saw as a deliberate
policy by Kaysen and the Trustees to intimidate the faculty, and, by unnecessarily
increasing expenditures on new buildings etc. to make the Institute dependent upon
a search for outside funding sources.
Around 1970-72 an open fight broke out at the Institute, over Kaysen’s plan to create
a new “School of Social Science” alongside the existing three faculties of
mathematics, physics and history. My father was in the middle of the fight, as
probably the chief instigator and organizer of opposition against the plan. First, he
held that “social science”, as practiced in U.S. universities, was no science at all, but
pure quackery. The attempt to bring “social science” into the Institute for Advanced
Study on the level of the other institutes, meant prostituting the Institute’s
considerable scientific authority, in order to lend prestige and credibility to a field
which was not only quackery in fact, but was still openly looked down upon as such,
in many academic circles. Beyond this, my father warned that “social science”, as
promoted, represented the very worst political tradition in the country, and the
move to elevate it in this manner had ominous implications. He characterized the
threat succinctly as follows: “Social science in the United States means social
In the ensuing fight, which at one point broke into the New York Times, the
mathematicians and the historians mainly opposed the plan, while the physicists —
which meant above all Freeman Dyson — curiously supported it. My father, as I
recall, had very much hoped that Gödel, who was certainly not in favor of the plan,
would take a public stand against it. Gödel however, was very reticent in institutional
and public matters. I remember my father telling me of a private discussion, in which
Gödel had expressed the view, that the best one could do, given the nature of the
(then) current historical epoch, were to “lean in the right direction”.
In any case, the fight was lost, the School of Social Science was established. In the
process it had become very clear to my father, and also to me by 1972, that, after a
period of great prominence given to physical science in the United States in the
1960s, the dominant grouping within the “Establishment” — as represented by the
Trustees of the Institute for Advanced Studies in particular — had now decided that
science was “expendible”.
What to do about that? I became gradually convinced, following some experiences in
Europe, that the underlying issue had to be fought out directly in the domain of
politics. My father did not see how to do that in a way acceptable to him, but he
continued his educational and related efforts in his own way, trying to accomplish
The effort to which he attached the greatest importance, I think, concerned the
private papers of Kurt Gödel, who died in 1978. My father was convinced that these
papers, which included unpublished scientific writings, letters and extensive notes
of Gödel’s conversations, were of extraordinary scientific, educational and probably
even political significance, comparable perhaps to the unpublished papers of Leibniz
(which Gödel himself had careful studied in the archives). My father believed there
were powerful enemies of Gödel, and of what Gödel represented, who had an
interest in making sure that certain things would be “locked away” for a long time
and not become generally available.
A long and elaborate story ensued in connection with my father’s interventions in
this matter — a story that began, in a sense, already before Gödel’s death. To
attempt to tell it were to go beyond the subject here, and also beyond my own direct
knowledge. I should just remark that my father’s experiences in this connection, as
he retold them to me, had much of the dark quality of a Venetian intrigue; and that
not all the persons, entrusted with the fate of Gödel and his work, could be regarded
as sympathetic to his philosophical point of view. Nevertheless, in the end it does
appear that the relevant papers, or most of them at least, have been been made
accessible in print or in other ways. If this is indeed the case, then – without wanting
to belittle the honest efforts of scholars involved in that project – – I think my father
deserves a good deal of the credit.
This brings me to the end of my short account. It is of course very far from
complete, but should give a certain sense of my father’s educational efforts.
What is the conclusion? I leave that to the reader, and especially to the very many
persons, who knew him and in whom those efforts might find some continuation. I
want only to add the following:
Looking at the recent misfortunes that have befallen the United States and other
countries, from the standpoint of what I have reported here, I think there is no
question, that my father’s concerns were entirely justified; and that anyone,
seriously desiring to improve education, will find much to learn from in my father’s
life and work, and reason to be thankful for what he did.
Let me give my father the last word, by citing from the preface he wrote for the
intended textbook, referred to above, with the ironic title of “high school algebra”. It is
dated May 1961, and expresses well, I think, the spirit of his educational work:
“This book … differs substantially from most new as well as old school texts. It
doesn’t try to protect the student from the hazardous and painful experience of
thinking things out from scratch. It doesn’t throw out the old pedantry only to install
a more stultifying one under the mantle of “modern mathematics”. Nor does it
advertise everything as either fun or valuable for making a living. Much in this book
is neither. Rather, it attempts to teach mathematics as it has always been taught
whenever it was taught with honesty and spirit. It avoids the deadening mail order
catalogue style and speaks unashamedly in the first person. Indeed, I could not write
without some passion because I want to arouse, in so far as I am able, that desire for
truth and craving for beauty which alone motivate science. For without these there
is no point in learning anything.”