Skip to content

Exactly the Education I Needed

In praise of combative and cantankerous instruction.

· 11 min read
Exactly the Education I Needed
Statler and Waldorf: a pair of Muppet characters best known for their cantankerous opinions and penchant for heckling. Alamy

Gary Brodsky taught philosophy at the University of Connecticut from 1963 to 1997. In the spring semester of 1976, I enrolled in his Problems of Philosophy survey course. By his lights, I was probably just another ignorant, unwashed American plebe, whose cultural consciousness (to the extent that I had any) had been formed by the twin vapidities of television and rock and roll music. Which was pretty much true. Year after year, “Mister” Brodsky (who insisted on formality of address—we were “mister” and “miss” to him as well) confronted the products of what must have seemed to him the appalling vacuity of American middle-class culture and tried to drill some philosophy into our heads.

Mr. Brodsky had no respect for that culture and he had very little respect for us. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in today’s academic environment. Possibly, the contempt, sarcasm, and condescension that constituted his pedagogical method, not to mention his undeviating and extreme Eurocentrism, left lasting scars on the psyches of multitudes of his impressionable young students. But from what I could tell, my 20-or-so classmates seemed to roll with his punches pretty well. I learned a lot from him.

If we were, as he frequently told us, the benighted younger citizens of a vulgar and bankrupt national culture, educated into conformity and mediocrity, who was Gary Brodsky? He was a mid-level philosophy professor at a mid-level college, joint editor (after my time) of a book called Contemporary Readings in Social and Political Ethics, author of articles in the Journal of Metaphysics, Transactions of the C.S. Peirce Society, and other specialized publications, but not otherwise a “name.” He “did” philosophy, primarily, by teaching it. Nor did he leave a legacy of passionate disciples, inspired by his example, to carry forward his critique of American pragmatism, logical positivism, and 20th-century continental philosophy.

At the time I encountered him, he was a relatively nondescript man in his late 40s with thick glasses, a drooping mustache, and a heavy Brooklyn accent. I can only imagine the distaste he must have felt for the varieties of identity politics that would have confronted him in the later part of his career, yet he openly embraced the identity that fate had assigned him. Notwithstanding his PhD from Yale, his cultivated tastes, and his familiarity with the best restaurants in Paris, he was proudly—almost ostentatiously—a working-class Jew from Canarsie.

Brooklyn College, from which he received his BA, had been a laboratory of intellectual ferment, unlike (with a few notable exceptions in his and one or two other departments) this provincial outpost of remedial education, this cow college with pretensions, this “university” undeserving of the name, this “UConn,” a word he pronounced with a theatrical sneer. And if the university was bad, its surroundings were even worse. Storrs, Coventry, Willington, Willimantic—these and other backwaters were notable only as exemplars of the “bucolic plague,” that fantasy of rustic virtue promulgated in the inane writings of the deplorable Emerson and Thoreau.

Outrageous hyperbole was merely another ploy to shock us out of our complacency. I’m quite sure that Mr. Brodsky really did dislike rural Connecticut, that he found nothing of value in Emerson and Thoreau, and that he considered the institution that employed him lacking in intellectual distinction. But he laid it on thick. Somehow, I doubt that he referred to John Dewey as a “jackass” in the refereed journals in which he published; that was a linguistic register he saved for the classroom. I forget what Dewey’s crime was—maybe that of underestimating the ignorance and credulity of the American people. That was not a mistake Mr. Brodsky would ever make. Dewey, as it happened, was in the small pantheon of philosophers that he genuinely esteemed. And that was how he talked about people he liked.

Among other things, Mr. Brodsky was a militant atheist. A few years earlier, he told us, a nun, out of some apparently perverse curiosity on her part, had enrolled in this same course, for which he grudgingly admired her. He hadn’t held back. He never held back. I expect that nun must have heard the same parable he used in my class to demonstrate the infinite regress that can only result from the futile search for a foundational belief in a deity. In Mr. Brodsky’s version, the seeker of truth was an earnest UConn graduate who has journeyed to a Himalayan mountaintop to imbibe the wisdom of a venerable seer. When informed that the world rests upon a giant turtle, the devout pilgrim presses for more. And what does that giant turtle rest upon? After some obsequious back and forth, the magus finally loses all patience. “Listen, schmuck,” he tells the pilgrim, “I’ve got nothing but turtles straight down the line!” The punchline was no less effective for being so obviously rehearsed, and illustrated fairly well Mr. Brodsky’s own foundational belief: no one gets any respect unless they deserve it.

In the recent flack over the dismissal of an adjunct professor at Hamline University in Minnesota for showing, with suitably solicitous trigger warnings, an image in an art-history class of the Prophet Muhammad, the student who brought the complaint against the professor was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.” I can assure that student that she, along with every conceivable classmate, would have been profoundly disrespected in Mr. Brodsky’s philosophy course.

Everybody got it in the neck in Problems of Philosophy. Because Christian students predominated, their faith was held up for particular mockery, but no one was spared. If he hadn’t so much disdained every variety of “low” culture, Mr. Brodsky might have appropriated the line used by Lenny Bruce to end his transgressive comedy monologues in the 1960s: “Is there anyone here I haven’t offended?” It wasn’t personal. In fact, Mr. Brodsky was something of a standup comic himself, using mockery and ridicule to subvert the inherited prejudices that half-educated students, barely out of our teens, brought into the classroom. He treated all his pupils—regardless of physical appearance, gender, or race—with a perfectly uniform absence of solicitude. The degree of deference he accorded each student–that is to say, none—never varied.

I don’t say that the harshness of Mr. Brodsky’s classroom style was an ideal or even an entirely successful method of instruction. It welcomed participation but only from those students confident enough to withstand a withering put-down. Others observed—or suffered—in silence. I was a straight-A student but otherwise a hopeless misfit. I raised my hand once or twice to raise some banal objection to the seeming illogic of Platonic or Kantian metaphysics and was almost gratified to be immediately shot down. Even Mr. Brodsky could have seen that I was a serious student who never missed a class and took careful notes. None of that mattered. Until I had something interesting or intelligent to contribute, I would be treated with the same abruptness as everyone else.

Most (but not all) of my professors, even in the archaic 1970s, found ways to be supportive, encouraging, and outwardly respectful, but I didn’t necessarily learn more from them than I did from the few scholarly ogres I encountered along the way. It depended on the abilities of the particular professor, whether that professor was (usually) welcoming or (more rarely) intimidating. In the case of Mr. Brodsky, his fierce, serio-comic animadversions seemed a proper match for the difficulty of the subject matter. Plato’s Gorgias, Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems, A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic: this was hard stuff, not to be comprehended by any touchy-feely obeisance to equally valid opinions. In this arena, opinions weren’t equally valid, and no opinion was as valid as that unitary if highly elusive thing, knowledge. That was how philosophy, as practiced by Mr. Brodsky and others of his kind, worked—not by deference but by attack. If anything was left standing after the attack, maybe you had something worth keeping.

There was still another reason for Mr. Brodsky’s ferocity in the classroom. It may sound sentimental, but I believe it: He cared. Enough to risk his career. Gleefully, he told us of past petitions on the part of indignant or insulted students to get him fired (to no avail—he had tenure). Nothing could have been more gratifying to him than such petitions; I think they made him feel like a Socratic gadfly. Which he was, in a way. He would have drunk hemlock for philosophy! I remember one moment of real passion breaking through his accustomed mask of implacable arrogance. We were discussing Plato’s concept of the Good in the Gorgias dialogue, and he could sense our struggle with Socrates’s contrary-to-common-sense notion that evildoers, in their infliction of evil, suffered more than their victims. “You see,” he expounded with rising emotion, “it’s not all verbiage, it actually has meaning, this philosophy stuff.” And then, as if recovering from this momentary display of ardor, he resumed the mask. “But you wouldn’t know that, would you?” he asked with compensatory scorn.

Was it all verbiage? Probably not, but I struggled to understand how these abstruse philosophical systems could possibly relate to a lived life—or whether they were supposed to. Certainly, it was hard to imagine Mr. Brodsky renouncing his ego in pursuit of an impersonal Truth. He was as wedded to his creaturely comforts—French cuisine, fine wine, his library of classical music—as I was to mine (junk food, Coca-Cola, Steely Dan records). I could sort out neither his contradictions nor my own, yet I was keenly receptive to his intellectual style, probably because I lacked all the self-assurance and wit he so abundantly possessed.

Being a fellow atheist, I was particularly dazzled by the comic brio of his invective against religion. Why couldn’t I be that funny when I told people, as I frequently did, that all their religious beliefs were an illusion? Eventually, though my atheism never wavered, I learned to temper my doctrinaire literal-mindedness, or at least stop haranguing people who hadn’t asked for my opinion in the first place. On that score, I don’t know whether Mr. Brodsky was a good influence or a bad one. Nevertheless, he was thrillingly clear about the necessity of overcoming our ignorance, of questioning assumptions, of never ceasing to read and think and debate. I’ve tried to do all those things in my life, if with none of his panache.

When I look back on the books I read in my 20s, I’m amazed at the intellectual discipline I once had. A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic? I don’t think I could read 10 consecutive pages of it now. And yet I don’t feel that I’ve betrayed Mr. Brodsky’s austere example. In college, I was an English not a philosophy major. I’m still an English major. As Mr. Brodsky urged, I’ve never ceased to read, think, and debate; it’s just that I read, think, and debate about literature rather than (strictly speaking) philosophy. Would he have approved? I think so, if only because he probably would have deemed me unworthy of philosophy anyway.

In the last class of the term, Mr. Brodsky and I were left alone after all the other students, one by one, had completed and turned in their final exam blue books. I, however, was determined to use my allotted 90 minutes to wrestle to the death the question of theory versus praxis in Mill’s On Liberty. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mr. Brodsky observing me with what I thought was a certain bemusement. It might have been nice if he had said something like, “Put down your pen, Mr. Akey. You’re going to get an A anyway. Tell me where you think Mill goes wrong.” But no, he was probably eager to get back to the wife and daughter he doted on, or to his Beethoven records, or to some recondite article he was writing, so I turned in my blue book and shuffled off with an awkward goodbye. I wanted to tell him how invigorating I had found his class, but I was afraid that would seem like ass kissing. Anyway, pleasantries weren’t his style.

As he would have wished, my thoughts about him and the issues he obliged us to confront have evolved over time. Even as an undergraduate, however, I found his cultural frame of reference alarmingly narrow. As with everything he said, it was hard to know where his actual beliefs ended and where his deliberate provocations began, but the Brodskyite Weltanschauung followed along certain clearly articulated lines. To begin with, nature-love was sentimental rot. Civilized people lived in cities, specifically Paris and New York, and not all of New York but only Manhattan, and not all of Manhattan but only Manhattan below 96th Street. Music was approximately 200 years of Western European classical composition; everything else, including the piano rags of the recently rediscovered Scott Joplin, whom, he assured us, he had listened to with an open mind and found barren of all interest, was wind.

The popular art of movies had overcome its humble origins and achieved distinction in certain rarefied precincts of European cinema. Bernardo Bertolucci was an artist; John Ford was not. Further, not only was the United States incapable of producing major literary artists, with a few exceptions such as T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner; it couldn’t even produce edible cuisine. If you were serious about food—and you should be—you dined as often as possible in French restaurants. An older student in class once tried to flatter him by announcing that he had spent the weekend listening to Brahms and sipping a vintage Beaujolais. Mr. Brodsky was unmoved. Upon further questioning, it was revealed that the student had been listening to the wrong Brahms and drinking the wrong wine.

In academia you have to specialize in something, and Mr. Brodsky specialized in Western philosophy. That was reasonable enough, but wasn’t Western philosophy enriched by points of contact with Daoism or world mythology or the Upanishads? Hadn’t Beethoven, for that matter, listened to a lot of popular folk music? Apart from the narrowness of his interests and the misanthropy that must have been somewhat alienating, it seemed to me that Mr. Brodsky denied himself a great many ordinary human pleasures. Must every activity or indulgence meet some august standard of purity and excellence? In fact, he addressed that question, apropos of the third movement of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Yeah, you could have some fun, he allowed, but only after striving rigorously towards meaning and significance. Anyway, I hope he enjoyed a cheeseburger every now and then.

If Mr. Brodsky’s incuriosity extended to most of the known world, mine wasn’t far behind. We were products of a particular cultural tradition, and since Mr. Brodsky regarded most of that tradition—apart from a very few philosophers, composers, and literary artists—as shit, I can’t say he held an uncritical attitude towards Western culture. But it was only Western culture that was under consideration. Schopenhauer, an extracurricular discovery of mine, had derived much from his study of Hindu scripture, had he not? I didn’t dare ask, but if I had, I imagine Mr. Brodsky replying, “Yes, and that only proved what a stupid and contemptible charlatan Schopenhauer was” (an opinion sometimes shared among philosophers to this day). Still, a furtive interest in the Bhagavad-Gita—arrived at independently of Mr. Brodsky’s fierce strictures—was better than none at all. Mr. Brodsky taught me many things. He did not teach me to see my cultural tradition as one among many.

One of Mr. Brodsky’s firm beliefs was that most parents were wretchedly incompetent and had no business bringing children into the world. He excepted himself. And maybe he brought to bear all his intelligence and learning on the task of raising his only child. She might have a different opinion. All I know is that at the big canopied skating rink at the edge of campus, where I sometimes saw him, to my astonishment, zooming around the ice like Wayne Gretzky, I once or twice beheld him waltzing his gawky pubescent daughter on skates. I had to swerve to avoid them. So yes, he was human. In the classroom, he hectored, harangued, and bullied. Perhaps his students would have benefited from some of the patience he bestowed on his own child.

Or perhaps not. I can speak only for myself. Mr. Brodsky’s impatience, mockery, scorn, and ridicule delivered a shock to my system that was—given the peculiarities of my intellectual development or lack thereof—exactly the education I needed. I don’t doubt that a safe, nurturing classroom environment can be conducive to learning; that was the norm, thankfully, even in my college years. And yet if Mr. Brodsky had been polite, deferential, conciliatory—if he had been anything other than the combative, infuriating classroom presence that he was—Problems of Philosophy would have been, for me, just another routine, forgotten, undergraduate survey course. He did me the favor of disrespecting me.

Stephen Akey

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs Raccoon Love and College and a collection of essays, Culture Fever. His essays have appeared in The LA Review of Books, The New Republic, and elsewhere.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette