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Andy Rooney’s Professor and Mine

While reading TV Journalist Andy Rooney’s WW2 reminiscences in the book My War, I came across an astonishing coincidence. In 1940, Rooney had an economics professor named Kenneth Boulding…and in 1987, I had the same professor!

I’m going to quote Rooney at length, because the description is fascinating:

The other was a Quaker iconoclast Kenneth Boulding, who taught economics for the university and pacifism for his own satisfaction at night in meetings with students at his home. I don’t know firsthand that he was brilliant, but it is an adjective that almost everyone used in referring to him.

When the college opened after preseason football, I had classes with both men. Boulding stammered badly, and even though you knew it shouldn’t have, it influenced the way you thought about him. During a class lecture, you were driven to pay careful attention because of the difficulty of following his broken speech. He was always surprising us, too. He’d be expounding some theory of economics that we barely understood when suddenly and unexpectedly he’d drop in some mildly witty or unexpected remark. The class would erupt in raucous laughter, more from the sense of relief the class felt when Boulding got it out than by the humorous content of it.

When Boulding posted a notice on the bulletin board about a meeting of all those opposed to our entry into the war, I took the second opportunity to separate myself from the other football players and started going to his meetings. For some reason opposing the war seemed like an intellectual stand to take. It still seemed that way to Vietnam protesters. It was almost like not watching television now. There’s a whole subculture in America of people who are proud of themselves for not watching television. They take every opportunity to tell anyone they can get to listen. I suffered something like that syndrome in opposing the war.

Boulding was a good teacher. The best teachers are not the ones who know most about the subject. The best teachers are the ones who are most interested in something--anything, and not necessarily the subject they teach. Boulding was consumed with the idea of pacifism and I’ve often thought of him as a good example of how little it matters that a college teacher is professing theories that are counter to popular and acceptable ideas of economics, religion, race or government. His students were constantly propagandized by him but they ended up sorting things out for themselves. Being exposed to a communist professor in the 1930’s didn’t make communists of many students. Being exposed to the pacifist ideas of Kenneth Boulding didn’t do his students any harm although if the parents of many of my classmates had sat in on some of those evening sessions in Boulding’s home, they might have been reluctant to pay the next tuition bill to Colgate.

Quakers, like Christian Scientists, are frequently such decent, gentle, and seemingly reasonable people that they are not often considered to be religious fanatics. But they are generally more zealous than other Christians–most of whom, God knows, are zealot enough. The further a religion is from mainstream, the more devoted its followers are likely to be to it, and Quakers are down a long little rivulet.

Boulding may have been an economics genius, but he was definitely a religious nut. I was caught up with some of his ideas before I knew that and became convinced of the truth of one of his statements I’ve since seen attributed to both Plato and Benjamin Franklin: “Any peace is better than any war.” I liked that a lot. It was Boulding’s contention that the conflict in Europe was none of the United States’ business and even if it had been, war was an immoral way to pursue interests. The argument made sense to me, which gives you some idea how sensible I was when I was twenty. ..

…When Boulding died in 1993, several people wrote me saying I’d been unfair in some of the things I’d said about him. Our opinions of people tend to alter slowly over the years, and, if we don’t update our relationship by talking to them, become untrue. I have opinions of a great many people that must be unfair and untrue, but I’ve repeated them so often they’re set in my mind and serve my purpose when I’m casting characters for stories that illustrate a point. My opinion of Kenneth Boulding settled and changed moderately over the years without my having come on any new facts to justify the change. It may not be accurate. On the other hand, of course, it may be accurate.

Here is the complete first chapter from Andy Rooney’s book which contains the above quote. I have to commend Rooney for at least for acknowledging that his remembrances may be unfair or biased in some way. Actually, it is possible that Boulding was just as much of an extremist as he describes Boulding, although surely even Boulding must have tempered his beliefs with age.

Boulding was an amazing character when I saw him teach at Trinity University in 1987. He was definitely getting on in years, and he was teaching an interdisciplinary course on Evolution and Modern Systems. He had a background in many fields, and he was adept at applying a systems approach to many disciplines (usually ecology and biology). He also was a bit of a renaissance man, peppering his talks with quotes from religion, philosophy and literature. One day he arrived in class with a sonnet he had just composed the night before. He had an almost debilitating speech impediment which made him impossible to listen to for prolonged periods of time. But he was kind and genteel, and conveyed a certain optimism about society’s ability to overcome insurmountable problems. For class I wrote a paper on Malthusian economics and and how sometimes food aid aggravates long term economic problems. He seemed very familiar with the facts and arguments for and against, although his only comment seemed to be” we must be careful not to let cases of ineffective charity to discourage us from all charity altogether. ”

Here are some writings by Kenneth Boulding

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Andrew 4/27/2004, 7:14 am

    I also took a class with Mr. Boulding while he was a visiting professor at Trinity. He was a peaceful, gentle man, and utterly opposed to violence. I forget the title of the course I took with him, but it was largely devoted to the military industrial complex. His lessons were very influenced by “evolutionary economics” theories. In some file somewhere, I may still have my class notes, and a collection of “Boulderisms” that I wrote down. I know that the final paper I wrote for the course is still on a shelf somewhere, with Boulding’s written comments.

    What made him so appealing to students was that he embodied many of the characteristics of a true “Rennaisance” man. He had no formal PhD, but was very influential in his field during the 40s and into the 60s. He enjoyed poetry and philosophy. He would invite groups of students into his home for long intellectual discussions, and his cookies were top notch.

    I also knew that he was a Quaker, and that this obviously influenced his thinking, but suprisingly I don’t remember him actually employing religious arguments openly. Perhaps this is my memory at fault. And, while I certainly recall his speech impediment, unlike others I did not have any difficulty following his lessons.

    He was, all in all, a very memorable, terrific person. He certainly did influence my thinking, and my expectations for the field of economics. And here I am, many years later, an economist sans PhD who views economics in the context of a social mission. How would my career path run without having known an economist like Boulding? Perhaps the same, perhaps different, perhaps perhaps… but I would certainly conclude that the influences upon me are of a different and more positive nature than described by Rooney…

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