The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Mourning the Passing of Jacob Wilhelmus Smit

I just opened the Nov/Dec CC Today and discovered with shock and sadness that Professor Jacob W. Smit (Professor Emeritus History Columbia) had passed away earlier this fall. I never had the privilege of knowing him as Wim although I have taken a great appreciation in reading the remembrances posted at a memorial site and in the memorial tributes of his friends and family. I am sorry that I never got to know him like this, but my exchanges with him were no less profound for that failure.

I had Prof. Smit for CC or Contemporary Civilization in my Sophmore year. It was the first profound intellectual experience of my life and I can say easily and honestly from the vantage point of 20 years on, that Prof Smit touched my life as few have and helped Columbia to shape me as the person I am today.

Unfortunately, I only had Prof Smit for one semester as he traded off the spring term with Prof Ainslee Embree. But the fall semester remains indelibly in my mind and I remember the envy of my dormates and classmates as I described the fascinating lectures and discussions of that fall term.

I came to Columbia from a family of professors and intellectuals, Univ of Chicago grads and Litvaks. So I arrived with an especial eagerness for the famed core curriculum. My dad, an English professor, spoke of how reading Plato, especialy the Symposium, at Chicago in the late 30s had changed his life. In my freshman year I struggled with Lit Hum. I too read Plato, The Republic, The Symposium, The Apology. But they didn't change my life. They seemed distant and opaque. I didn't really connect to the readings until late in the spring semester when we read Crime and Punishment. And my struggles further alienated me from a father who seemed somewhat aloof to begin with, to inhabit a world far different from mine.

I like to think that Prof Smit had a role in changing some of that. I entered CC in my second year and we began by taking up the Republic again. And this time, through Prof Smit's eyes it was like reading a new book. The text came alive. The notion of Platonic ideals took on deep and personal meaning. And the hypothesis that justice is called for because we know in our hearts it is right connected with me on some deep and almost anti-intellectual level.

I still read my Columbia alumni publications religiously and with great interest. It always amuses me a little the way the College pats itself on the back for its Core. But I realize that for me the Core worked. It did its magic. I discovered the wonderful life of the mind. I put together the natural questions of a (somewhat) engaged 19 year old with the canonical works of generations and was able to explore them within the structured approaches of great minds that have come before us. I went on to major in American History and came to see the relationships between our structure of government and the way the Founders thought on the one hand, and the works of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquie, Rousseau on the other.

When I first struggled with Lit Hum my freshman year, I went, being the earnest freshman I was, to see my professor to ask what was wrong with me. 'Why did I hate the readings and feel they were so dry when my father claimed they changed his life?' My professor at the time laughed and told me to be skeptical of anyone who claimed reading Plato changed his life. Maybe reading Plato didn't change my life, but I discovered in the next year that reading Plato with Prof. Smit changed the way I thought about life and justice, and politics, and policy, and how to live, for the rest of my life.

I went on to get a masters in public affairs at Princeton and a doctorate in public policy at Harvard and my first reaction at both places was the immediate sense of how different the campuses were because they did not have a core curriculum. Harvard struggled to reform its Core when I was there and I could only feel bemused by the great difficulty they had in realizing what Columbia realized 80 years ago and continues to realize today. Intellectual life seemed more vibrant at Columbia. The students seemed more engaged in their classes and in the world. I am sure some of this is attributable to self selection. But what was striking to me was how the students in Professor Smit's class seemed to feel as I did that what we were talking about was life today, not the life of the ancients, about the questions of the globalized, modern world, not the questions of ancient Athens. That the world outside the campus at Morningside Heights mattered and that what we discussed in class actually related to that world. I am sure this is unfair, but at Harvard and Princeton, students, by and large, seemed no different from my grade obsessed, ambitious high school classmates for whom courses, classes, homework, and school were all means to an end rather the end in themselves.

I never had the courage to speak up in class because I was amazed at the pace of our discussions, of the way the ideas would flow and the dialogue unfold. Before Prof Smit and some of the other students I always felt three steps behind. But I knew I was in the presence of greatness in the classroom so I would steal to his office hours to talk with him about the works of the week. He was always gracious and kind and eager to talk about the works, even though we would often go over the same ground that we would discuss in class. I remember the way his office smelled, the smell of books and what seemed in my mind to be a lingering sense of a farmers lunch of good dutch cheese with bread. Prof Smit did for me what no one had yet done. He made me rediscover how fun and engaging school and study could be. He helped me connect with my father on a level we hadn't until then. He was in short my most profound and heartfelt connection to what is best about Columbia and I mourn along with those here his too soon passing. I wish his family and friends the best and treasure the moments I shared with this great man.