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April 9, 2010

Mommie Dearest

By Spear's

Returning to Columbia University, I didn’t expect to feel that way: a rush of pride, joy and nostalgia. But I was close to tears.

I didn’t expect to feel that way: a rush of pride, joy and nostalgia. But walking through the wrought iron gates and onto central campus of Columbia University, I was close to tears.

I’m home again, was all I could think. I flashed my Cheshire cat grin at all the passing students, and I struggled to restrain myself from rushing up to them and saying: “I was here, too. Don’t you love it?”

Alma mater, indeed.

I’m a second generation Columbian: my father got his BA in Economics there and was a participant in the famous 1968 demonstrations (some would call them riots) against the Vietnam War. When the police tried to haul him away in one of the police vans into which they were tossing students, he flashed them his Venezuelan passport and they thought better of turning it into an international diplomatic incident and let him go.

Columbia University’s Low Library and the statue of Alma Mater

The scandalous police violence at those demonstrations was rather pithily summed up by the late Columbia philosophy professor, Sidney Morgenbesser, in one of my favourite Columbia stories.

At a voir dire during jury duty, one of the lawyers asked Prof. Morgenbesser why he thought the police had behaved unfairly in those demonstrations.

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“I didn’t say they behaved unfairly,” he retorted, like any philosopher worth his salt. “I said they behaved unjustly.”

“What’s the difference?”

“It goes against the precepts of justice for a police force to beat civilian citizens like that. But it was fair: they beat everybody equally.”

I spent eleven years on that campus and got four degrees from the university, from B.A. all the way up to Ph.D. and I always loved the activism of its students. I always smiled at the Marxists eagerly passing out leaflets, even if I never agreed with them.

But certainly my most memorable moment was when one Columbus Day (October 12), they burned Christopher Columbus in effigy on the steps of Low Library, which is no longer a library but an administrative building that houses the president’s office.

It was an act of self-loathing, for Columbia University was named after Columbus to emphasize its New World sympathies after the United States gained its independence from Britain. Its original name of King’s College was a bit too imperialistic for them after 1776. They did keep the emblem of the crown though.

And I’ve kept my pride and nostalgia.

Last night I attended the Tannenbaum Award and Lecture, the annual dinner of the University Seminars. Held in the Presidential room of Faculty House, it’s a sort of academic Oscars. The award went to Prof. Gary Sick who has been an Iran expert for many decades, advised three US presidents and negotiated the Iran hostage crisis. The main lecture was a bit of a crowd-pleaser: the films of Akira Kurosawa, particularly Roshamon, as a personal and political statement.

“A bit light on scholarship,” complained an English literature professor to me in the loo. “Don’t you think? What is your field of research?”

“Political theory, specifically Latin America,” I answered. She smiled. “You’ll have a lot of material then.” I think she found that more acceptable.

Seated between a genetic researcher and a transcultural psychiatrist, I felt a surge of pride when a philosopher and former professor of mine, Philip Kitcher, stood up and asked about the film’s portrayal of the epistemic partiality of truth.

There’s something extremely comforting about geekiness: despite a world racked by jealousy and materialism, there are those to whom such concerns mean nothing and work hard every day to improve the world and our understanding of it. Long may it continue.

Indeed, I’m carving out my own little geeky space, too. I’ve just been invited to become an Associate of the University Seminar on Latin America — an academic appointment of sorts to which you have to be nominated and elected. This means I will have to prepare my own seminar lecture in the fall and face a room full of experts who will challenge me, too.

And I can’t wait.

My alma mater has taken me back into her soothing and comforting bosom. I’ve come home to mama and I couldn’t be happier.

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