Monday, May 01, 2006

Linguist Friend Remembers Galbraith

When friend CC informed me that Galbraith had died, my response was not so much a matter of sadness at his death as amazement that he had lived for so long in a world which by and large had rejected his message of economic liberalism of a sort very consistent with the ethics on which traditional Christianity and UUism largely agree. The long and honest obituary by Holcomb Noble and Douglas Martin in the New York Times will remind many of us of his contributions and foibles. I can add only one trifle, from the only occasion on which I met and conversed with him.

I graduated from high school at small secondary school at South Woodstock in eastern Vermont, where the boys’ dormitory was on a dirt road off a dirt road off a dirt road, and the students did all of the work except the teaching and accounting. Academically, it was not on a level with Phillips Andover, which I had left after a year, on encountering there a world of racism, prejudice, and physical brutality among students such as I had never seen even in growing up in southeastern Virginia. But Woodstock did stimulate me to think and read, and I had read Robert Heilbroner’s wonderful The Worldly Philosophers, which gives a good introduction to the basic ideas of economics and their history, and I had written about the American socialist utopias, one of which my paternal family came from England to join, specifically the one founded by Robert Owen in southern Indiana. It was the time of the Rockefeller report on the American economy, and that intrigued me so that I had plowed through it. Bruno Rossi, the MIT physicist father of one of my high school classmates, told me about the mathematical modeling of economic processes that his colleagues were engaged in, and that seemed exciting.

I had seen much of Harvard during the period when I was in my later elementary school years, and my father was transforming his MIT undergraduate studies in naval architecture to a graduate degree in architecture at Harvard. He would take me to concerts at Sanders Theater and explain the physical basis of Sabine’s experiments in acoustics conducted there, to the Leonardo exhibit at the Boston museum of science, etc. So, of course when it came time to apply to college, I really wanted to go back there. But I was very shy at that age, and I did not arrange the interviews and such that would fill out an application dossier, so that at the end of the spring, I found myself on the waiting list for entrance to Harvard, although I had two other very adequate acceptances.

However, my headmaster, David Bailey, not only came from an old Boston family and had himself bounced out of Harvard in some spectacular way, he was also a major figure in the Democratic party of Vermont, of whom there probably were far fewer members than cows in Vermont. This combined background gave him connections such that when it came time to arrange graduation speakers, he could draw on some interesting figures. This year, perhaps quite by accident, it was time for Kenneth Galbraith.

Graduation was a time of exultation for me, even though it looked like I would go to Princeton. At one point, I ran and took a running vault over one of the tall fences of the paddocks of the Green Mountain Horse Association, such was my sense of power. I have no memory at all of the content of Galbraith’s speech, but after the commencement talk, the speaker and the graduating students were traditionally invited for a (hitherto illegal) drink at the house of Buffy Dunker, also of formidable Boston stock and later to come out as a lesbian on national television. So, soon I found myself with the opportunity to talk in a natural and spirited way about my interests and reading in economics with Galbraith over drinks at Buffy’s house, which I recall as a great pleasure, since it was not a favorite subject among my fellow high school students in 1958. I suspect that conversation took the place of the missing college interview. Two weeks later, I received my acceptance to Harvard, where it took me two years to find myself academically, but where I did manage to get a bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, but not in economics. The undergraduate course in economics that I took seemed deadly dull and I did not handle it well, and I never met Galbraith again. It was the time of the cold war, and I had a natural fascination with the phenomena of language, so that I turned towards the study of East European languages and linguistics, with a few detours in the direction of experimental psychology in relation to speech. When later I turned to research in the physiology of speech production, the physical approach that seemed congenial to me (muscle mechanics etc.) matched very well the informal technical orientation that I had received from my father and his engineer friends. However, all of these fields have in common that one takes an analytic and quantitative approach to the phenomena of human social interaction. That, I suspect, is a matter of the tuning of one’s mind, no matter what is the subject of analysis.

I hope that Galbraith’s decease will renew interest in his way of looking at society and its economic mechanisms, and the human values implicit in governmental policy. Anything else that achieves the same result would also be productive, and much more welcome than the news of his death.

Linguist Friend


fausto said...

Also sorry to see him go. He was a giant.

He spoke at my Yale graduation and told only one Yale-Harvard joke. Surely the mark of a disciplined mind.

(I must say, by the time I got to PA it must have been a very different place. "A world of racism, prejudice, and physical brutality among students" is nothing like my experience. One of my PA classmates now owns High Brook Horse & Harness, next door to the GMHA. Galbraith may be gone, but my Yale econ prof Paul MacAvoy now lives just up the road from there. It's a small, small world.)

LinguistFriend said...

I did really miss the fine teachers and level of instruction at Andover when I left it. Teachers like John Hawes for English, Dr. John Colby for Latin, and Josh Minor for earth science are still fresh in mind. At Woodstock I knew Mardi Byers, whose father was a distinguished anthropologist and director of the anthropological museum at Andover.


fausto said...

I knew Miner. The others had retired by the time I got there.

Chalicechick said...
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