This past week I organized my first event at the university. It was my first true encounter with the mighty bureaucracy that stands behind the academy.
All I wanted to do was found a club for older students at the Divinity School. That part was easy. All I had to do was say, "We exist," and behold, we existed. And it was good.
"We" have been named "Gray DSA," which is the chapter of the Divinity School Students Association (DSA) that I've formed to represent those of us who are older and/or have major commitments outside our student life (like jobs, families, and season tickets). All I wanted to do for our first event was to sponsor a lecture. So I sent a few calls and e-mails and was delighted to find the agreeable and erudite Daniel Greene, a U. Chicago PhD in History and director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library pictured below). Danny (as I came to know him) has just published a book, The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity, and agreed to speak on the book to anyone I could scrape together.
So I went about figuring out how you try to cut through the clutter at the university, which, on any given day, probably offers more than 100 extracurricular lectures, symposia, concerts, plays, happenings, sporting events and violent crimes on view. I should have realized that getting posters made, securing a time slot, reserving a room, getting notice of the event onto calendars and listservs, getting the speaker paid, and manning the doors of Swift Hall so people would be able to get in (the doors lock automatically at 5:30, just when the talk was scheduled to begin) was like adding a course to my workload.
At 5:30, there were three people in attendance. Danny was very kind and patient, offering to turn the lecture on the Jewish origins of cultural pluralism (the subject of his just-published book) into more of a discussion. Fortunately, six Israeli students -- on a week's visit from Tel Aviv University -- came in a few minutes late (they'd been locked out, and finally someone in the building passed by and let them in). Danny's lecture then turned into a free-flowing lecture/discussion, enlivened by the fairly dim views these bright young Israelis took on how American Jews sought to assimilate (and, in the Israelis' view, forfeited their Jewish identity) in the early part of the 20th century.
Danny's lecture focused on the man who apparently coined the phrase "cultural pluralism." Horace Kallen was a philosopher, educator and co-founder of the New School for Social Research in New York, and a student of William James at Harvard. Despite coming very close in his early writings to the "biology is destiny" argument, Kallen, in later work, emphatically renounced this view. He was also instrumental in founding the Harvard Menorah Society, which later became the Intercollegiate Menorah Association (amazing to ponder how it was a Jewish, early 20th-century version of Facebook). The group sought to foster an inclusive version of American identity, and a cultural definition of American Jewish identity.
Kallen's ideas were in direct response to the idea of the "melting pot," in which individual identities and ethnic backgrounds were fused into one shiny new American brand. Kallen felt that "democracy is hyphenation," and he used the metaphor of the orchestra to illuminate the ways in which ethnic and historical backgrounds could come together (although Kallen was pointedly asked, "Who's the conductor?") without sacrificing their historical, ethnic or religious identities. Kallen was reacting specifically against the ideas propounded in The Melting Pot, Israel Zangwill's popular melodrama, which Kallen felt erased history by proposing to erase cultural identity.
Kallen was born in Germany. His father was an Orthodox rabbi, came to the U.S. in 1887 at the age of 5, earned his B.A. at Harvard in 1903 and his PhD there in 1908. George Santayana was his advisor. The titles of his works are clear distillations of his thought: Why Religion? (1927), Individualism -- an American Way of Life (1933), and Secularism is the Will of God (1954) being good examples.
So the event was the kind of modest success I'd hoped for, not only in terms of attendance but because the lecture was stimulating and thought-provoking, and the discussion was lively. The notion that a self-described Jewish secular humanist would promote a cultural basis for Jewish identity, and in so doing help develop a particularly American idea of cultural pluralism was fascinating. Kallen studied and collaborated with some of the greatest minds of the 20th century, and founded an important university. His life is one long example of the kinds of opportunities Jews were afforded in the U.S. in the early 20th century, even as anti-Semitism here was on the rise.
After the lecture, two fellow "Gray DSAers" and I adjourned to a Hyde Park eatery to discuss what sort of things the organization should tackle in the future. Really, we want to do two things: sponsor interesting, educational events; and help students who are older, employed, and/or otherwise "out in the world" to navigate the double labyrinth that is the Divinity School within the University.
I'm on the verge of completing the first year of the PhD program, my third year back in school. Partly because I'm fighting a cold, I'm utterly exhausted. And still thrilled. I move between worlds, which I've always liked. I bring a major weakness from the business world, however: I'd rather get something done on time than get an extension of the deadline in order to do a better job. As my advisor has cautioned me, once something has your name on it and is out in the world, you can't take it back. Better to do a careful job and take extra time.
Back to work.