Category Archives: Brandeis University – my courses & professors

Balzac, “Le Père Goriot”




Complete audio book (in French) posted here.


Pere Goriot, Chapter 1 -excerpts

Also, the opening pages of Chapter 1 (as a downloadable Word document, above).




Diana Brown (a voracious and perspicacious reader), host of the site

Thoughts on Papyrus: Exploration of Literature, Cultures and Knowledge

has a new post

“Review: Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac”


Her post got me to thinking about Le Père Goriot, one of my all-time favorite books. I read it first in French, in Mr. Walter Albert French 3 class in my freshman year at Brandeis University. Mr. Albert was an outstanding teacher.

I decided to post the complete audiobook, read in the original French.

I will leave the commentary on Le Père Goriot to Ms. Brown. But I recall that my college best friend John Ferris also read the novel in French class, and that it was one of his favorites. John was a sociology major and a polymath. (He encouraged me to go with him to audit a lecture on James Joyce’s story “Araby” by the revered professor and poet Allen Grossman which I never forgot). John made the point to me that Mme. Vauquer’s boarding house in the novel (Le Père Goriot) is a microcosm of society, with the different floors representing different levels of social standing. The unappreciated and neglected (by his social climber daughters) Père Goriot lives in a garret on the top floor.

I have read Le Père Goriot several times in both the original French and English translation.




email, Roger Smith to Diana Brown

July 26, 2020


Loved your brilliant post on “Père Goriot,” Diana. It’s one of my all-time favorite novels and probably Balzac’s best. I first read it in college in French. I had a very good professor for third year French.

I’ve read “Père Goriot” several times in both French and English. It and Balzac’s unique genius can be enjoyed and appreciated on many levels. Mme. Vauquer’s boarding house is indeed a microcosm of society; and she, and the others, is a character only a Balzac or a Charles Dickens could create.





For reference, I have posted the text of the first few pages of Chapter 1, in English translation (by A. J. Krailsheimer), here. The brilliance of the novel is apparent from the first few lines. I have sometimes thought of Balzac as a sort of French Theodore Dreiser (or the reverse); Dreiser in his formative years was greatly influenced by Balzac’s novels. But, without intending disrespect to Dreiser, I would say that Balzac is unquestionably the greater writer. Both Dreiser and Balzac wrote hastily, without fussing over niceties of style. Both had a capacity to create great stories and unforgettable characters.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

  August 2020

Joshua Prawer


English Society in the Early Middle Ages


In the spring 1966 semester, I took the course History 124a, “Feudalism: Medieval Society and Political System,” at Brandeis University.

The course was taught by Professor Joshua Prawer. Prawer, who was a visiting professor on leave for the academic year, was dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was an internationally known medieval historian. Books which he later published include The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages, The World of the Crusaders, Crusader Institutions, and The History of the Jews in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

I took great courses and did well in my first two years of college. I had placed out of a few required core courses, which enabled me to take several higher-level elective courses.



Despite enjoying the courses — greatly — I was a shy, inhibited person in those days, and I was unhappy with the social milieu at Brandeis. I tended to be repressed and taciturn. And diffident among other students and probably in class as well. (I can’t exactly recall.)

I recall that there was no final exam for Professor Prawer’s course, in which I received a final grade of B. There was a required term paper.

My term paper was based on the English historian Doris Mary Stenton’s English Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066–1307), which was published in 1951 as the third volume of the Pelican History of England. She was the wife of the medievalist Sir Frank Stenton, author of Anglo-Saxon England, c550–1087, Volume II in the Oxford History of England.

I recall that I worked fairly hard on the paper and enjoyed Doris Mary Stenton’s book. I was very interested in medieval history and society. I seem to recall that my paper mostly amounted to summarizing the contents and findings of the book and I thought that, on that account, it was probably not a great paper.

To my great surprise (really and truly), I got the paper back with only the following (no other comments or marks): an A+ on the top of the first page and the professor’s comment beneath, “Why didn’t you open up more in the seminar?”

If I may say so without bragging, what this seems to show is that a good writer can write well at any time about almost anything, and under constraints and deadline pressure. It must have been my writing that impressed Professor Prawer. I don’t recall that the paper was otherwise remarkable.


— Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble


On Thursday, November 16, 2017, I heard a performance at Carnegie Hall of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat major, K. 428 by the Tetzlaff Quartet. Mozart’s K. 428 is one of his Haydn Quartets, a set of six string quartets that he dedicated to Joseph Haydn.

It is a flawless work. It exemplifies Mozart’s genius. It also brought to mind a sentence in my first-year Russian textbook — written by a famed Slavicist and foreign language teacher, Alexander L. Lipson — which was as follows: “Как и Моцарт, Пушкин написал только шедевры” (Kak i Motsart, Pushkin napisal tol’ko shedevry. Like Mozart, Pushkin wrote only masterpieces.)

The Russian word for masterpieces, shedevry, is the same as and is derived from the French. (Makes me think of the French used by the aristocracy in War and Peace.)

The Mozart piece brought to mind the comparison between Mozart and Pushkin made in the textbook from my college Russian course, and he course itself.


I was eager and thrilled to be able to take introductory Russian in my sophomore year at Brandeis University. The course was taught by Charles E. Gribble. Professor Gribble, who held a doctorate from Harvard, began his teaching career at Brandeis. When I took the course with him, he was in his late twenties. At that time, Professor Gribble was in the preliminary phase of founding an important publishing house for Slavicists: Slavica Publishers. He was the firm’s editor for thirty years.

I was motivated to study Russian for several reasons:

I had discovered the works of the Russian émigré scholar Pitirim A. Sorokin in my senior year in high school. I was totally engrossed in books of his such as Leaves from a Russian Diary. This led to a fascination on my part with Russian culture.

At the time, the Soviet Union was regarded with outright hostility, fear, and suspicion. Being by nature a contrarian, I tended to think differently. Politics aside, I saw, as did Sorokin (to quote from one of his works), “an essential similarity or congeniality in a number of important psychological, cultural, and social values” between the USA and the USSR: vast territories with all that implies (such as various climates, topography, and regional characteristics); rich natural and human resources; major cultural and urban centers; the fact that both countries were world powers; and so on. I was a sort of Slavophil without knowing it.

Russia as I imagined it was a country with vast expanses like us and a multiplicity of nationalities and ethnic groups and with a rich, continually growing culture, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whom at this stage of my educational development I had not yet read) and composers such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich (whose works I had already become acquainted with and admired — in fact, Shostakovich’s fifth symphony almost in and of its itself made me a Slavophil). Just like America, Russia was huge, diverse, all encompassing, culturally fertile; and with a vibrant economy. And, I felt intuitively, a rich language.


My previous language study had consisted of a year or two of French in junior high school (a complete waste); four years of high school French, on the basis of which I was placed into third year French at Brandeis University; and two years of high school Latin. Romance languages.

It was a thrill for me to be studying a Slavic language and one with a different alphabet.

Learning the Cyrillic alphabet, in both cursive and print form, was a stumbling block for me, a hurdle to be overcome. It often felt like I was back in the first grade learning my letters and being taught to sound out words phonetically.

Our professor, Charles Gribble, knew the author of the textbook we used, Alexander Lipson, personally. Lipson was teaching at MIT. (He later taught Russian at Brandeis.)

Lipson’s first year Russian textbook, A Russian Course, was in developmental form; it hadn’t yet been published. It consisted of pages that had been copied and bound, but not in book form. Without covers.

It was a clever and entertaining text, besides being well conceived from a pedagogical standpoint.

I was fascinated to find that Russian had cases — six of them — like Latin. (I love studying grammar and cannot understand why modern day self-appointed language “experts,” as they style themselves, want to emend or simplify, essentially emasculate — in the name of political correctness or conforming to their misguided, benighted theories of how language and English composition should be taught — language instruction. See Addendum below.)


The genitive case (possessive) in Russian was introduced early, as follows. There would be an entertaining reading with a lot of words ending in –ого (-ogo), indicating the Russian form for a noun such as doctor’s used in a phrase such as “the doctor’s office.” Even Russian proper nouns have a possessive form, so that “Tolstoy’s house” becomes “Дом Толстого” (dom Tolstogo).

In the next or a subsequent chapter of Lipson’s textbook, the genitive case and its usage and endings would be formally introduced and explained. Since one already had a rudimentary familiarity with it in the previously encountered reading, one assimilated the grammar point with ease. This is sound pedagogy. It’s how we learn the grammar of our native language.


Despite being motivated, I had difficulty with the course.

Some of the students had already taken Russian in high school, which, in the case of a language like Russian with a steep learning curve, put me at a competitive disadvantage, so to speak.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I tried very hard. I spent hours in the language lab, but — despite my best efforts — I always seemed to be a couple of lessons behind the rest of the class.

Professor Gribble said he would take into account class attendance and effort in grading. He kept his word. I got D on practically every quiz and exam. My final grade for the 6 credit course was C.

I have always had a very high aptitude for foreign languages. In French and Latin classes in high school, I was usually (but not always) the best student in the class. The same was the case when I took Spanish as a postgraduate student at Columbia University.

So how does one account for my struggles with introductory Russian? My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., had an explanation. He regarded it as a case of what one might call “learning inhibition.” When a student feels uncomfortable with the classroom setting and the instructor. This was true of my experience with Professor Gribble. Strangely enough, he was actually a good guy. I went to a web site containing his obituary at

and it was clear that this was the case. (The obituary mentions his concern for and rapport with students.) In the following year (I did not enroll for second year Russian), I would occasionally run into Professor Gribble in the snack bar. He was always pleasant and seemed interested in how I was doing.


Alexander Lipson died in 1980 at the age of fifty-one. He was the author of the three part textbook, A Russian Course, which in its prototype/preliminary form we had used as our text in Professor Gribble’s course.

In a review published in The Slavic and East European Journal of the book Alexander Lipson in Memoriam (1994), Catherine V. Chvany refers to Lipson as follows:

… language pedagogue extraordinaire, maverick entrepreneur, linguist’s linguist, travel tour designer, and enfant terrible. Though Lipson never completed his own Ph.D., members of his now gray-haired cohort have claimed in my hearing they learned more from Alex Lipson — about language, about Slavic, and about teaching — than from any of their professors.

She also notes “Lipson’s broad interests [which reflected] Lipson’s profound if irreverent knowledge of Russian literature and culture.” One could sense this in the text of his we used, which was much more fun and informative than most language textbooks. And, often, downright funny.

For instance, I will never forget how Chapter One began:

Хулиганы сидят в парке весь день и курят. (Khuligany sidyat v parke ves’ den’ i kuryat; Hooligans sit in the park all day and smoke.)

This was a mockery of Soviet attitudes towards deadbeats.

Another chapter had a reading devoted to the topic of навозные мухи (navoznyye mukhi): manure flies. This was a satire on life on the Soviet колхоз (kolkhoz; collective farm). After this chapter, the Russian word for fly, муха (muka), was permanently implanted in my mind.

Then, there was the aforementioned chapter with a reading on Pushkin. It included a short poem by Pushkin, “Ты и Вы” (“Thou and “You,” 1828) that was accessible to first year students and from which I got a feeling for the enchanting musicality and the sensuality and power of Pushkin’s verse.

Пустое вы сердечным ты
Она, обмолвясь, заменила
И все счастливые мечты
В душе влюбленной возбудила.
Пред ней задумчиво стою,
Свести очей с нее нет силы;
И говорю ей: как вы милы!
И мыслю: как тебя люблю!

Pustoye “Vy” serdechnym “Ty”
Ona, obmolvyas’, zamenila
I vse schastlivyye mechty
V dushe vlyublennoy vozbudila.
Pred ney zadumchivo stoyu,
Svesti ochey s neye net sily;
I govoryu yey: kak vy mily!
I myslyu: kak tebya lyublyu!

She substituted,
by a chance,
For empty “you” — the gentle “thou”;
And all my happy dreams, at once,
In loving heart again resound.
In bliss and silence do I stay,
Unable to maintain my role:
“Oh, how sweet you are!” I say —
“How I love thee!” says my soul.

Russian — as with the French tu and vous or Spanish tu and usted — has two forms (formal and familiar) of the second person pronoun.


— Roger W. Smith

  November 18, 2017


Addendum :

The 1960’s, a learned friend of mine once opined, was the Golden Era of American education. I would not dispute this. I experienced it in English and history courses, in foreign language courses, and in mathematics instruction. To get an idea of how low conceptions of foreign language pedagogy have sunk since Alexander Lipson’s time, one might take a look at the following article:

“Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy,” by Carmel McCoubrey, op-ed, The New York Times, November 16, 2017

“Humanities 12, The Pre-Socratics, the Theory of Forms; Baseball”


“Humanities 12, The Pre-Socratics, the Theory of Forms; Baseball”

by Roger W. Smith

In the country of baseball, time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward, and forward, until we seem to be reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same. Ted Williams goes fishing, never to return to the ballpark, and falls asleep at night in the Maine summers listening to the Red Sox on radio from Fenway Park; and a ghostly Ted Williams continues to play the left-field wall, and his flat swing meets the ball in 1939, in 1948, in 1960. In the country of baseball, the bat swings in its level swoop, the ball arcs upward into the twilight, the center-fielder gathers himself beneath it, and Dixie Walker flies out to Willie Mays.

— Donald Hall, Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball)



At Brandeis University, a college with a heavy liberal arts orientation which I attended in the 1960’s, I took a year long course in my sophomore year: Humanities 12, “Nature and Value.” It was a philosophy course.

In the first semester, we studied the Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers. In the second semester, we read the works of philosophers such as Kant and Hume.

Philosophy has never been my strong point. It leaves me confused and mystified.

The professor for the first semester, the course on the Pre-Socratics, was Peter Diamandopoulos.

Professor Diamandopoulos, who died recently, was at that time a rising academic star. He became dean of faculty at that time and went on to become a university president, serving successively as the president of Sonoma State University and then president of Adelphi University. Details of Diamandopoulos’s compensation package at Adelphi resulted in a conflict of interest investigation, which got wide publicity, and his removal from his post as president.

The second semester of the course was taught by an eminent philosophy professor, Henry David Aiken, who had just left a tenured position at Harvard and joined Brandeis in the fall of 1965.

I barely recognize Professor Diamandopoulos, a Greek-American who was born on Crete, from photos on the Internet, taken in his later years. When I took his course, he had a young, pudgy face and jet black hair.

I was at a complete loss in his course. To me, his lectures made no sense. There is one and only one thing that I remember from the course: that a Pre-Socratic philosopher was known for his observation that “whatever is, is.” Of course, I didn’t remember his name, but I Googled the statement. It was made by Parmenides of Elea, a Pre-Socratic philosopher from either the late sixth or early fifth century BC.

I had a sense of reductio ad absurdum when I heard the statement repeated over and over again by Professor Diamandopoulos.

Professor Aiken, whom I had for the second semester, seemed at times to be verging on mental instability. I cannot say this with anything like certainty. I had no knowledge of his actual mental or psychological state. But he acted histrionic while lecturing. He would pound the lectern and would be almost shouting in his high pitched, squeaky voice. Again, I had almost no idea of what he was talking about and did not understand most of the readings. (Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason was just words and was basically unintelligible to me. I should make it clear that this says nothing whatsoever about Kant and a lot about my own stupidity.)

Again, as was the case in the first semester with Professor Diamandopoulos, I remember almost nothing, except that the professor repeatedly used Aristotle’s phrase Zoon politikon (political animal). He said it again and again, pounding the lectern for effect each time.

At some point in the Humanities 12 course, we read Plato’s Republic, translated by Allan Bloom. It actually made some sense to me. We also read Plato’s Timaeus, which I found to be interesting and very well worth reading.



An aside.

At the end of the second semester, there was a final exam, as usual. I had gotten a B in the first semester under Professor Diamandopoulos.

I did as well as I could – it was an essay exam. I was pretty good at writing answers to essay questions even when I knew very little, but this time I felt it was hopeless. I had learned hardly anything, had retained practically nothing, was just about as ignorant of philosophy at the end of the course as at the beginning.

In those pre Internet days, it would take a while to find out one’s final grade. We would put a self addressed postcard inside the blue book when we handed it in, with “EXAM GRADE _____ / “FINAL GRADE _____” printed in ink, to be filled in and returned by the grader.

A week or two later, the postcard came back, indicating that I had received an A for the second semester. Not even an A minus!

I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t figure out how. As I recall, my grade on the midterm, which would have been factored in when calculating the course grade, was low.

I thought about it for a few days. I had a summer job on campus. I decided that there must have been a mistake and that I had been given someone else’s grade. So, I went to the department office. Of course, none of the professors was there, but I explained the situation to the department secretary. I said to her, in so many words: “I just got back my course grade for Humanities 12b. It was a straight A. I hadn’t been doing well all year. I’ll bet it was a mistake and that my exam booklet got mixed up with someone else’s. I don’t deserve an A, and I don’t want someone else to get a lower grade that they didn’t deserve when it was intended for me.”

The department secretary looked at me kindly and said, “I think you had best let the grade stand.”



Which brings me to baseball. You may be wondering, quite rightly, how did he get there?

Well, although I was at a loss in philosophy, I did enjoy reading Plato. I remember learning about his Theory of Forms (also known as the Theory of Ideas).

I have, when engaged in idle speculation, sometimes thought about Platonic forms as they do or might apply to what I perceive in the world around me.

I have often thought of baseball teams as illustrating the Theory of Forms.

Baseball teams, as is well known, have identities — “personalities,” so to speak. I have thought this may have something to do with the stadiums they play in, e.g., Yankee Stadium, the corporate headquarters for an efficient, well oiled winning machine made up of ballplayers who function as cogs in the machine and interchangeable parts; Fenway Park, a cozy, quirky place for ballplayers with separate identities and non conformist personalities who sometimes screw up and don’t always win; and so on.

Anyway, I have thought about this more specifically in terms of the players’ POSITIONS.

Why is it that the Red Sox have always seemed to have great left fielders (but, not necessarily, great center fielders)? It seemed as if, when Ted Williams retired, there had to be another Williams caliber player to take his place. The Theory of Forms required it.

Why do the Yankees, who had one star after another in center field, never seem to have had a star left fielder?

Why do the Red Sox seem to have historically had bad fielding but good hitting infielders (second baseman after second baseman who couldn’t make the double play)?

The Dodgers an ace (or perhaps two at the same time) with future Hall of Famer credentials?

Why have the Mets never seemed able to find a good third baseman (at least until recently)?

And so on.

I am sure you get the point.

An interesting idea, or a stupid one?

You tell me.


— Roger W. Smith

  December 2016

a message to an old friend


Ella Lou Rutledge was a friend of mine from high school days. We were both very active in Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) and belonged to the Norfolk Suffolk Federation of LRY in Massachusetts.

Ella and I attended the same college, as is noted below.


— Roger W. Smith

      August 2016



from: Roger Smith

to: Ella Rutledge

January 25, 2016



I recall you enrolling as well as me for a freshman humanizes course at Brandeis on Greek poetry, Humanities 5. We both ended up in Humanities 6, Literature of the Bible.

I recall that you were there when we showed up at the door of the building for Humanities 5 and found out that the class had been canceled.

I learned a whole lot from the Literature of the Bible course. It was an easy A. Genesis; Ecclesiastes; Job; Amos, Hosea, and other prophetic books; and so on.

I definitely was in that class! They used to call me (behind my back) “the goy.”

Have you seen that Norfolk-Suffolk Federation newsletters which I posted on my blog at?

There are eleven newsletters from the years 1962 through 1964, totaling around 45 to 50 pages. Some issues are missing. You were editor for almost all of them.

[Rev.] John Coffee saved them.

Also, Phil Pierce also sent me a copy of the tribute to John Coffee at John’s memorial service. I posted it at:

And, Phil also sent me a copy of four page letter about Midwinter Conference from John Coffee to me in 1964. It is posted at:

Some people I remember well who are mentioned in the fed newsletters are you (of course), George Kaldro, Phil Pierce, Dick Ryan, Steve Cooper, Cappy Pinderhughes, John Coffee, Melissa McQuillan, Dave Klotzle, Paul Klotzle, Bob Day, Dick Barnaby, Richard Derby, Chuck Forrester (President of continental LRY), Peter Baldwin (advisor from the UUA), Bruce Elwell, Rev. Jack Hammon, Russ Weisman, Eileen Day, Charlie McGlynn, Kathy Phair, Larry Jaffa, Gordon Hall, Larkie Colebrooke, Leon Hopper (executive director of LRY prior to Peter Baldwin), Bill Moors, Dick Hood, Cal Mosher, John Ertha, my brother Pete Smith, Rev. Kenneth Patton, and Chris Adler.

There were some other names which, when I saw them, reminded me of people I knew but had forgotten about: Martha Chickering, Herb Weeks, Chandler Newton, Rick Corley, Jane Urich, Lorna Laughland, Rev. Carl Scovel, Wally Fletcher, and Jean Nichols.

The May 1963 fed newsletter had a story based on a supposed popularity poll. The headline read, “ROGER SMITH VOTED MOST IMMORAL BOY IN FED!” John Coffee cooked this up and took great delight in his joke. The joke was that I was regarded as such a straight arrow. See:

“Roger Smith Voted Most Immoral Boy”

The November 1963 fed newsletter contained a review of a made up book, Pest Control in the Pripit Marshes, signed “J.C.” I was at John [Coffee’s] apartment with other LRY’ers who were visiting when he wrote this piece. Maybe you remember this.

In another issue, there is a plug for the book Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman. I actually got to meet Goodman a few years later in New York when I was hired to house sit in his apartment for a few days and walk his dogs while he was traveling. I was performing alternative service as a CO then.


Ellie Lou Rutledge

Ellie Lou Rutledge

Roger, 'mug shot,' Brandeis University, fall 1964.jpg

Professor Joachim Gaehde




Brandeis University Art History professor Joachim Gaehde passed away three years ago. I had not thought about him for years and learned about his death from an online obituary:

May I be permitted a few words about the professor and his course?

“Gem” is a good word for Prof. Gaehde. He was very dedicated and serious in class, but you could tell that he was a very warm person.

I learned things from his obituary that I never knew and about which, when taking his course years ago, I had no clue:

that he was a Jewish refugee from Germany;

that he had two children who survived him;

that his wife, Christa Gaehde (nee Christa Maria Schelcher), “was renowned in the field of conservation and restoration of art on paper, and worked for many of the top American museums.”

I took two courses with Professor Gaehde: one on early medieval art and one on the art of the high Middle Ages.

I loved the courses; they complemented the ones I was taking with Professor Norman F. Cantor on medieval history.

I barely passed. I got a C in one of the two semesters and a C- in the other semester.

Art history was never my strong point. I am especially bad at architecture (e.g., church architecture). I still can’t for the life of me tell what a flying buttress is.

But Professor Gaehde was a dedicated, enthusiastic teacher and a fine lecturer. He introduced us to much fine, rich, and beautiful art — particularly illuminated manuscripts, many of which are at the Morgan Library in New York City.

He would note that this or that illuminated book was at the Morgan Library, and I would be saying to myself, “that’s funny, wouldn’t they be in a MUSEUM rather than a LIBRARY?”

Professor Gaehde was not an easy grader, but I liked him and his course and got a lot from it, despite my subpar performance. It shows that grades can be a misleading indicator (sometimes) of the value of educational experience.

What I most enjoyed was the illuminated manuscripts that we learned about – mainly, the Carolingian, Gothic, and Romanesque manuscripts and the complex, fascinating Irish art, the former including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the latter the Book of Kells.

I rarely missed a lecture.


— Roger W. Smith

   June 2016

Psych 132b


The following is a true story. I haven’t thought about it for a long time.

An obituary in the The New York Times of June 25, 2016 of Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham reminded me of it, indirectly.

One paragraph of the very interesting and well written obit struck me particularly:

As a teenager, [Cunningham] got a part-time job at the department store Bonwit Teller, then received a scholarship to Harvard, only to drop out after two months. “They thought I was an illiterate,” he said. “I was hopeless, but I was a visual person.”

 I immediately thought that this was on an on target comment, a bit of perceptive self-analysis. And, I thought about myself.

Cunningham, the fashion photographer, was obviously right brained. He was not equipped — mentally, so to speak — for the Harvard curriculum. (Which does not mean he was stupid; intelligence is complex and multi-faceted.)

I am just the opposite. I am totally left brained. I can read and write very well, but at right brain tasks, I am hopeless. A complete idiot.

At Brandeis University, a liberal arts school which I attended, most of the work involved reading and writing. Heavy reading loads. Term papers. Essay exams.

At the end of the semester, there would be a three hour final exam. You were given a blue book and a few essay questions. It was like pulling teeth. You would scribble and scribble and hope to get a good grade or at least pass. I would usually fill up two or three blue books, would hand them in exhausted, would usually not finish until the three hours were up.

I tended to do well, often with very little preparation. The reason: I could write an essay on particularly any topic and spin it like a spider weaving a web, if given just a few facts, a grain of knowledge, to work with.

I also knew how to “protect” myself. Be clear, be succinct, don’t make wild statements you can’t back up, don’t stray off topic, answer the question.



In the spring of 1968, in my senior year, I took a course, Psych 132b, “Psychology of Emotions,” with Professor James B. Klee, who was a colleague of the famed psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Professor Klee was the typical psychology prof, it seemed – almost like a parody of one. He spoke in a high pitched, squeaky voice. He wore a bolo tie and causal sport jackets. He had a beard, of course.

He seemed like a nice guy, but I got nothing out of the course. Professor Klee would ramble on and on about various topics, theories, and books. I had absolutely no idea what the was talking about — he might as well have been lecturing in German. The only thing I can recall is that he spent a lot of time talking about ectomorphs and endomorphs. I could not for the life of me ascertain what the difference between the two types was, how it pertained to the lectures, or why it was important.

He worked into his lectures all sorts of theories that mystified me: religious thought as it pertained to human psychology, for example.

I never did the required reading.

The course came to an end, mercifully; the day for the final came.

As it so happened, I had no time to study. I was up all night writing a term paper for another course. I barely finished in time to pass it in and to get to campus in time for the Psych 132b final, which was at an early morning hour.

An important factor relative to all this was that three of my roommates – Ron Ratner, Tony Camilli, and John Ferris – were also taking the course. They thought it would be gut course. They had encouraged me to take it.

Ratner, Camilli, and Ferris spent the night before the final preparing for it in a joint “cramfest.” They had not done most of the reading, either. But, they did some last minute studying and pooled their slight knowledge.

We lived together in a house in Newton Highlands, MA, about twenty or thirty minutes away by car from campus.

Ratner drove me and the other roommates to campus. They told me just before leaving, “don’t worry, we’ll tell you all you need to know.”

They coached me in the car. They enumerated the books on the reading list and gave me capsule summaries of their content. I forget what most of the books were. But, one that I do recall that we had been assigned was a book by theologian Paul Tillich.

“Tillich,” they said (words to that effect). “All you have to know are three things: being vs. non-being, the concept of absolute faith, courage as an affirmation of being.” That’s not what they actually said, but their mini-lecture in the car went something like this.

I took the exam, scribbling furiously in my blue book, trying to remember what my roommates had told me. I had only that to work with. A kernel or two. A few concepts, buzzwords. But it was enough.

The grades came back. My roommates were disappointed. They all got worse grades than I did: a couple of C’s, a B minus.

I got the highest grade of the four of us: a B on the final exam and a B for the course.


— Roger W. Smith

    June 26, 2016

my history professor, Norman F. Cantor


‘Norman F. Cantor’


Judy Cantor-Navas

to Roger Smith

July 1, 2016


Hello Roger,

Thank you very much for sending me the blog post you wrote about my father.

It was a lovely surprise. I know he would have been so pleased to have read it. It was interesting and gratifying for me to read how a student saw him, and know more of what his classes were like. And you took 3 classes with him!!

You preceived and remember a lot about his personality. He did love to tell stories and make jokes. Above all he loved to teach and to write, and to read. Besides his family, that was what was important to him, and that was what he dedicated most of his days to throughout his life. Although, as you noted, he liked watching baseball -and football- on TV. He also liked to cook, and was quite good at it.

I know that his strong opinions made him a controversial figure, but he believed in fighting for what he thought was right. In the Brandeis years, when I was a little girl, there were often students in our house. I loved living in Lexington- thanks for bringing that time back to me!




Roger Smith to Judy Cantor-Navas

July 2, 2016


Hi, Judy.

To say I was pleased to hear from you would be an understatement.

I worked hard on the essay (tribute) on your father. He meant a great deal to me as a teacher.

I noted from Facebook that you went to New York University, as did I as a graduate student. Once, in the 1980’s, I saw your dad on a street corner in the NYU neighborhood. I did not make an attempt to speak with him. He would not have remembered me.

in a Wikepeida article about your father

I read the following:

Cantor was intellectually conservative and expressed deep skepticism about what he saw as methodological fads, particularly Marxism and postmodernism, but he also argued for greater inclusion of women and minorities in traditional historical narratives.
A feeling I got about your father – I am not sure that this is right – was that he could be very liberal minded, but that he distrusted phony liberalism. In this respect, his thinking (if I have intuited correctly what it actually was) resembled mine (or, one should say, mine resembles his) and it resembles that of my hero Samuel Johnson, who was suspicious of liberal hypocrisy and had no patience with cant.

A fellow student of mine at Brandeis told me a story (I had graduated already, but he was still there) – it may be apocryphal – that in 1969 when black students took over the campus briefly and shut it down, your father put a sign on his office door saying something to the effect that he was against totalitarianism and “storm trooper” type actions, or whatever you might call them (perhaps one might say putsches) from any side, be it the right or the left. I am a liberal democrat, but I am totally against PC.

You mentioned that your father loved to cook. I was very interested to learn this.

As noted in my essay (tribute), I absolutely loved being in your father’s class. His erudition, wit, and personality.

He was a great writer.

I recently got around to actually reading his textbook, Medieval History, from cover to cover. It was something that I never did when I took his course; we were assigned sections to read. I enjoyed so much reading it at my leisure without missing anything.

Thanks again very much for your response.

Roger Smith




Norman F. Cantor — a noted medieval history professor, an inspiring teacher whose textbook on the subject reads like anything but a textbook — was THE medieval history professor of the past couple of generations.

It was my great good fortune to take several courses with Professor Cantor at Brandeis University in the 1960’s. This alone makes me grateful that I attended this particular school.

Professor Cantor passed away, sadly, in September 2004 at the age of seventy-four.

I say sadly because, in my experience, not only was he a great, popular teacher, he was the sort of person you felt you would have liked to get to know better.

I took the following courses at Brandeis — where he taught only briefly before moving on — with Professor Cantor:

Europe in the Later Middle Ages (sophomore year; spring 1966); grade A-

Civilization of the Early Middle Ages (junior year; fall 1966); grade A-

Topics in Medieval History (proseminar, 2 semesters; senior year; 1967-68); grade B+

I recall vividly the excitement I felt when I learned that Professor Cantor, who had been teaching at Columbia University and had become disgruntled with the Columbia history department, would be coming to Brandeis.

A roommate of mine, Ronald Ratner, also a history major, had learned from an older brother, who was a Columbia student, that Professor Cantor was decamping for Brandeis. “Cantor is coming to Brandeis next semester!” Ron announced.

I had recently changed my major to history, which I should have majored in in the first place. It was a natural subject for me.

My main interest was actually historiography — I liked to read good historical WRITING. I was mainly interested in how history was written and presented, more than the actual events themselves. My knowledge of history in terms of facts and chronology was then and has always been weak.

I had for a long time been yearning to learn about the Middle Ages. They have an intrinsic fascination. But there were few good medieval history professors anywhere, it seemed, even at top universities. If there even was a medieval history professor at Brandeis prior to Professor Cantor, I was not aware of it.

I can still remember much of Professor Cantor’s lectures. His witty remarks. For example:

— that knights (jousters) were like today’s professional athletes – they would retire and open a tavern with a sign outside showing them in armor;

— that St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into the Vulgate, was the sort of man who liked to sit and chat at the medieval equivalent of church coffee hours;

— that 99 percent or so of people in the Middle Ages believed literally in heaven and hell.

This last point Professor Cantor made by devising a ridiculous chart for our benefit and amusement. “You want statistics,” he said. “I’ll give them to you.” And, then he sketched a chart on the board, with made up statistics showing the percentages of medieval people who believed literally in heaven and hell, those who questioned the idea, and so on.

In appearance, he was sort of goofy looking. He wasn’t what you would call prepossessing, but he didn’t seem to care. He had the necessary confidence for a teacher; he knew he was good.

He was fit and still young when I took his courses, a former athlete, I was told. And, he was not slovenly in dress or appearance.

He had an impish wit and an infectious laugh. He delighted in taking you by surprise with a sally, but he was never mean or arrogant.

In the second course I took with Professor Cantor, in my junior year, the class met from four to six p.m. on Thursdays, once a week. It was the fall of 1966.  We had a class during the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles. The class would always have a short break at the midway point. During class on October 6, 1966, the same day as game two of the World Series, when time for the break arose, Professor Cantor adjourned the class. “I’m sorry,” he said (something to that effect), “but after all it’s the World Series and Sandy Koufax is pitching,” shrugging his shoulders (a characteristic mannerism of his) as if he were helpless to do otherwise. The game started late per East Coast time because it was in Los Angeles.

Cantor was a spellbinding lecturer. He had a folksy, down to earth speaking style and a rich voice. He spoke totally off the cuff, without notes and without a lecturer’s equivalent of histrionics.

His lectures were full of amusing and memorable anecdotes; brilliant aperçus; frequent jokes whereby he displayed formidable wit; asides intended to stir you and make you think; brilliant comparisons between one historical period and another or to the present day; considerable erudition, based on wide reading, that was brought to bear; analogies that would enable you to perceive and grasp ideas, controversies, and personalities that otherwise would have seemed remote, foreign, or strange to the modern student; and so on. He had the class eating out of his hand.

It was sheer pleasure to be part of the audience.

I had read St. Augustine’s Confessions in high school. Professor Cantor devoted considerable time to lecturing on the Church Fathers. He made the theological and philosophical disputes of the day come alive. He wrote in his textbook:

For his philosophic system [Augustine] was deeply indebted to the Platonic tradition, but his work sounded the death knell of ancient philosophy. He inaugurated a new world view. Socrates and Plato had identified knowledge with virtue: if a man knows what is good, he will do good. Augustine shows easily that this doctrine violates the realities of human life. It is obvious that men frequently know what good is but are powerless to pursue it. It is obvious, as Augustine contends, that man is not a rational animal, that will has primacy over reason, that man’s emotional, irrational tendencies preclude the following of dictates of reason.

Augustine’s doctrine, Professor Cantor contended, amounted to “religious existentialism” and prefigured modern psychology.

I said that Professor Cantor was a nice man. (His wit was sharp but gentle.) Once, I experienced this in a way that had a direct effect on me.

I was a horrible procrastinator when it came to term papers. I did write one A paper for Professor Cantor that he praised highly. But, in another course, I dashed off a paper which I completed slightly after it was due. It was too late to turn it in in class. I resolved to leave the paper in Cantor’s office without any further delay. But the building was locked. Unsure of what to do, I felt I had to somehow make it evident that I had finished the paper. So, I taped it to the front door of the history department building, affixing a note to it with big printed letters saying that the paper should be delivered to Professor Cantor’s office ASAP.

Time passed and the paper was not returned to me. A bit hesitantly, I made a trip to Professor Cantor’s office and asked him about it. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I remember that the janitor said something or other about a paper. I seem to recall that I got it, but I’ve lost it. I guess I have no alternative but to give you an A.”

Professor Cantor was aware of his popularity — like most born teachers, he had a strong ego. But he could be self-deprecating in a charming fashion.

As noted above, I took a proseminar course with him. A proseminar is a course that includes both graduate and undergraduate students. The course called for an individual student to deliver a paper on a given week, followed by class discussion. At the end of the term, Professor Cantor declared that the course had been more or less a failure. “I guess it’s mostly my fault,” he said.

Professor Cantor was brilliant when it came to describing the schools of medieval history:

The English institutional school – Cantor used the analogy of an acorn growing into a tree. The institutional school looked to the past to answer the question: how did our enlightened system of government and law come into existence?

Dialectical and sociological approaches – here, the emphasis was on history of ideas, an area in which Professor Cantor was brilliant and stimulating.

The devotional-personal school – it focused on “capturing the attitudes and mores of medieval religious leaders.” An outstanding exemplar of this approach, in Cantor’s exposition, was the English historian M. D. Knowles, who wrote a four-volume history of English religious orders. So much of what was happening in society in those days was ecclesiastical, the professor explained, that one could, by focusing on monasteries, uncover a lot of what was happening in that period. In other words, the monasteries were where you needed to look.

Cantor encouraged us to read the elegant writings of R. W. Southern, another English historian, with whom Cantor had studied. In monographs such as his The Making of the Middle Ages, Cantor explained, Southern “is able to talk of twelfth century churchmen as contemporaries and friends.”

The Annales school – – this school seems to have quickly become arid — few of its practitioners have had the brilliance of one its cofounders, Marc Bloch.

Professor Cantor introduced us to Bloch the man and his theory of history. Bloch, who was shot by the Nazis as a member of the French Resistance, wrote under duress during the Second World War an uncompleted, posthumously published book: Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien (published in translation as The Historian’s Craft). Thanks to Professor Cantor, I read it. And read it several times over thereafter. It was an original, immensely stimulating book.

To summarize — as best as I can with only a layman’s knowledge – Bloch rejected event-based, factually based history. This appealed to me because, as noted above, I was always weak on the facts, and I found a lot of chronological narrative history to be dry and dull.

Bloch cautioned historians not to rely overly on written sources but instead to seek out the “tracks” of medieval men. So, say, one wants to know about society during the reign of some medieval king. You may get a lot of misleading information in an account of his reign written by someone from that time – a court chronicler bent on flattery and praise, say, or perhaps a churchman with a grudge against the civil authorities. Instead, you should make active use of other sources that were not left behind intentionally, but which can unravel mysteries for us: sources such as economic data, demographics, agriculture, linguistics, coins, ships, and so forth. They can tell us a lot more than the official sources can and provide mute empirical data.

Professor Cantor was always enlivening his lectures with interesting nuggets so that scholarship was vital, a monograph wasn’t just a book – it had been written by SOMEONE, an individual with strengths and limitations as a historian, writer, intellectual, and scholar, as well prejudices.

For instance, in lecturing on the English institutional school, he demonstrated that the study of the history of law – what one might think of it as a dry subject — can be immensely informative. (It was an area of study that Cantor took great interest in.) He told us about an English historical work of immense importance, the two volume The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I by Frederic William Maitland and Frederick Pollock. Cantor said that Pollock should not have been credited as a coauthor. “Maitland wrote more than ninety-nine percent of the two volumes,” he said.

He had a keen appreciation of excellence in historical writing, indeed of writing and exposition in general. He exhibited this in his own writing, which was notably lucid. His textbook reads like a work of literature.

Once, while talking about Edward Gibbon — the first and oldest of the medieval historians whom Cantor discussed in his lecture on medieval historiography — Professor Cantor read a few passages from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the class. He paused at a sentence where Gibbon, who was famous for the use of parallelism, uses several semicolons. He expressed appreciation for this device, then lamented that the semicolon was not used more frequently in modern English prose.

As a side benefit, I learned a lot of vocabulary in Cantor’s courses — words hitherto unknown to me that are now familiar: hagiography, pejorative, chrysalis, debilitating, acidulous, daimonic, plenary, patristic, peroration, contumacious, prevaricate, desuetude, feckless, pusillanimous, lugubrious, procrustean. Words such as these are underlined in the precious (to me) copy of Cantor’s textbook that I still have.

He was always thinking on his feet and would keep his listeners on their toes.  He would come out with things that would occur to him as interesting or amusing that were not necessarily part of his “script.” For example, in one course we were reading portions of Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades. “It’s the kind of book that makes for good summer reading in a hammock,” he said.

In another class, we were given the assignment — one, as it turned out, I did very well on — of summarizing and critiquing several books on a related medieval topic. To get an idea of what kind of paper to write, he suggested we take a look at The New York Times Book Review. Then he added, as an afterthought, “the Times is the paper of the Establishment. If you read it, you will find out what they are thinking and doing.”

This is an imperfect summary of the rich and stimulating content in Cantor’s books and lectures. I have read four of his books: (1) his textbook, Medieval History: The Life and Death of a Civilization; (2) The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760; (3) Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century; and (4) his intellectual autobiography Inventing Norman Cantor: Confessions of a Medievalist.

I hope this post will convey some of the intense pleasure and intellectual stimulation I got from his courses.


— Roger W. Smith

      June 2016


Note: Professor Cantor’s obituary has been posted on this site at:

Norman F. Cantor obituary