In my last teaching job at what is now Arcadia University I used to try to amuse my colleagues by recounting how I turned the Horatio Alger myth upside down inside a decade, beginning as a high school teacher from E. Lansing, Michigan in 1954 winning a Ford grant in New York City to implement my ideas about controlling the new medium of television’s impact on public education.
My first national publication, “Everyman in Saddle Shoes,” was published in Scholastic Teacher in 1954. It was an essay on how I taught TV playwrights like Paddy Chayefsky to my 10th grades and televised “Macbeth” to my twelfth graders who also helped me broadcast a weekly “Everyman Is a Critic” on teenage leisure pursuits (including TV) over Michigan State’s new UHF TV station, WKAR.
That led to my being appointed radio-TV editor of Scholastic Teacher to compile a weekly “Look and Listen” feature, occasionally expanded to one page Teleguides on big shows like a play by Shakespeare. I kept that job until an appointment in Honolulu disallowed my useful subscription to “Variety” the Showbiz Bible. In the spring of my Ford year, I gave a talk, “Liberace and the Future of Cultural Criticism,” to the National Council of Teachers of English convention of Freshman English professors.
That prompted three Trenton State professors to offer me a job at their bluecollar commuter college outside Princeton. Decades later TSC was renamed The College of New Jersey in an upgrading maneuver so popular those day. A move that miffed the bigger puffed up P since that was their original name! I loved the freedom of pretense at Trenton State, where almost all the students were first family collegiates.
In the middle of the 1956-7 year I finished my Ph.D. dissertation and was awarded a two year Carnegie post doctoral grant at the University of Pennsylvania to create a new course in American Civilization on Mass Culture. My new and original “Major”. Wow! From plain old high school English teacher to cow college instructor to an Ivy League assistant professor of American Civilization in two years! What a dizzying ascent. There was more. In 1958 the billionaire publisher Walter Annenberg gave Penn two million bucks to found a graduate school of communication. (Our publicity touted us as the first such Ivy institution, but History had already given that nod to Columbia!)
Still, faute de mieux, I became the U’s gofer spreading the good (if still empty words) throughout the land. With the exception of Herbert J. Gans who joined the Urban Studies Institute (we were both born in 1927, me in February in Battle Creek, MI and he in Cologne, Germany in March)it’s amazing that so few there knew zilch about mass anything!
If Walter were not trying to polish his messy rep in Philly he might well have chosen a more appropriate U for his philanthropy. Lucky inexperienced Detroit prole, I had a free ticket to travel the States, from NBC and CBS in LA to the Aspen Institute in Colorado, to Midwestern J-Schools to the Advertising Council’s annual blabberfest in West Virginia to federal offices in D.C. I learned more than anyone I visited did. Talk about post-doctoral education. All the while plumping for my media mentor Gilbert Seldes as the first dean.
He got the job and became his gofer, teaching the History of Communication at the brand new Annenberg. Midway in my second year there, sociologist David Riesman touted me as the first director of the Institute of American Studies at the new East West Center of Cultural and Technical Exchange at the University of Hawaii. My unusual mix of American Studies and media moxie made them choose. Before you could say “Aloha” my wife Mary and I were doing a Sunday morning TV hour dubbed “Coffee Break” on how Hawaii differed from the other 49. And later we did a radio series called “Two Cents Worth: A Penny for her thoughts and a red cent for mine.”
I also did another FM stint called “Pacific Profile” on the endless lineup of interesting people passing through Honolulu. (To catch my enthusiasm read the book "The Dolphin’s Guide to Hawaii” I wrote for Doubleday.) Amazing our voyage on the U.S.S. Harrison from San Francisco! As it steamed into the port, the morning news on the radio was ME! The first time ever. An announcement that me and my family were on the ship. I wish I could say the post-reception news was so comforting.
First, the president announced that my promised salary of $13,500 had been reduced to $11,000. No questions asked, no answers allowed! If I hasn’t been so fiscally innocent, I shudda wudda taken him to court. Alas, we left our roomy new Louis Kahn house in Philly for a dinky pit stop of a “house” a sabbatical professor had to rent to someone! It furthered complicated my wife’s first job as a college professor with our squirmers (9,7 and 5!) To make our minor messes stickier, my second in command had spent his ten years since an Iowa Ph.D. in the CIA! His task was to see that there were no Reds among the Asian and American students. And intellectually, he was terminally dumb.
My dream was veering towards nightmare. And when Annenberg welched on its promise to let me return, there I was up a 8,000 mile creek without a piddle!
Luckily, Erwin Steinberg, a Carnegie Mellon professor who had collabed with me on NCTE matters, hyped me to the dean and president of Beaver College then making a move from Jenkintown to Glenside, a half hour drive from our Greenbelt Knoll estate. I hopped at the escape! From associate professor and institute director to chairman and full professor at a rinky dink girls college, my Horatio Alger bellyflop in a mere six years!
As for rinky dink I was kidding because in the 20 years I spent getting fed up with hired education I watched, impressed, as President Gates and Dean Leclair upped the heft with chair appointments like Bernard Mausner in Psychology and Norman Johnston in Sociology, not to forget me in English. Except it didn’t take 20 years to realize I was a Lone Eagle, unmotivated, perhaps unable to lead the troops democratically. It’s then that I began to understand my character defect and reflect on its etiology.
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