Childhood & Youth
A Childish Reflection
Born in 1939, I have a few, vague memories of life during World War II, but my experiential memories are of a post-War childhood. An observer of that childhood would note that I enjoyed great good fortune — my parents were hard-working, well-educated, and affluent. They gave me an excellent environment to grow up in, secure and stimulating. Since a child does not run about highly aware of how he fits into the objective order, I remember pluses and minuses, and to avoid belaboring a lot of recollections irrelevant to the matter of my canon, I'd sum up the pluses and minuses as a certain confusion of identity, which I suspect had something to do with my developing a reflective bent. That confusion was most childishly evident in my acquiring the nickname, Tick Tock, because I had trouble settling on the pronunciation of my last name.
A more important confusion arose because I had great difficulty deciding whether I was a city kid or a country kid. The city, specifically New York City, won out, but not until graduate school. Until then I vacillated between identifying with a farm in eastern Pennsylvania, where I spent the more idyllic childhood times, and the New York, New York, where I spent mostly school times, at least until I escaped to a boarding school in western Massachusetts. Outwardly, both city and country were all very fine and I enjoyed a fascinating world of activity and benefited from first-rate schooling. But I remember a sense of being uncertain about my identify, about who my people were and about what was my place in the world. My stock of experience always seemed a bit different from that of other kids, who struck me as either city kids or country kids.
This mild confusion was exacerbated a bit by being an only child. My uncertainties were not necessarily painful or problematic, just uncertainties, and if anyone noticed them, I was usually, nevertheless, left to work them out by myself. My parents were busy with their work, which was demanding in the mode of upwardly mobile professionals, and they delegated my childhood to me in two important ways. The first was to give me lots of time to muse and wonder within my own little world. This was not neglect, but a genuine respect for my autonomy.
Early on I seem to have developed the habit of dreaming up and getting intensely involved in this or that project, framed often without much attention to its apparent feasibility. Little more than a toddler (this is an "as told to me" memory) I picked up the idea that China was on the opposite side of the earth and immediately started digging a tunnel with a trowel, and after a few days I declared success on finding an old tile at the bottom of the hole, then about as big as I was. As adults, our uncertainties usually involve figuring out what is probable and we impute this concern back onto children and childhood. As I think back, I was much more observant and curious about what is possible, not what is probable, and I still believe that purposefulness involves an effort to find out what is possible and that calculations of probability are interesting and important, not as goals, but as means of testing and discovering possibilities. We are born entirely ignorant of what is possible and the vital uncertainty of life is to discover its possibilities.
My childhood was delegated to me in a second way, which was also important and perhaps a bit ironic: it was arranged so that I spent a lot of time with adults. My New York was not the New York of ethnic neighborhoods, but the Manhattan of anonymous apartment dwellers, and Pennsylvania was not a suburban playground, but a rural region of small farms. Hence "other children" involved a conscious import-export dynamic, for which my parents took some care, but they were busy, especially in the years of my childhood. Hence, their determination that I grow up at ease with other people often led to my regularly accompanying them in their social world as a quasi-peer.
By some quirk of demographics, in the 1940s and early 50s "other children" seemed to have been relatively rare in my parents' social and professional circles. Included as a quasi-peer, I acted as one, and became fairly adept at entering into adult conversations, quizzing people about their work and opinions, forming judgments about what I saw and heard. While not the masters of the universe, these people were not far removed from those heights, and I learned much from them, somehow developing a quiet, critical distance at an early age. It was not so much that I could quickly spot a phony — that capacity requires an element of resentment, which I did not really have. Rather I felt that I was an accidental interloper, closely observing a world in which people were asserting significant pretensions, which seemed to me, as I listened and thought about them, to be quite hollow. This discovery did not make me angry or disappointed, I think because I had never formed the expectation that it would, or should, be otherwise. And it did not make me feel superior, because I was asking them real questions to which I had no ready answers. My own uncertainties were such that I was aware I did not really know what was what, and through the years of my childhood, sampling what quite a number of FIPs (Fairly Important People) had to say, I concluded that even well-connected adults also did not really know what was what — a Socratic from an early age.
How can one realize what is possible, immersed in a life and world that is characterized fundamentally by ignorance and uncertainty? This was my baseline.
From Post War to Cold War
It is a cliché to say that some children choose their parents wisely, which I did. It may be more revealing, however, to note that some children time their lives astutely, With due respect for that other great cliché about timing — "It ain't over 'till it's over." — my timing was pretty astute.
Democracy and Education