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Book Talk on 'A Liberal Education' Entertains, Informs

March 9, 2010

On a recent Monday afternoon, a large crowd gathered at the Joukowsky Forum for a personal and often humorous book talk by History Professor Emeritus Abbott (Tom) Gleason, a long-time associate of the Watson Institute. Titled A Liberal Education, Gleason’s memoir chronicles an academic career spanning over 30 years in the field of Russian history and Cold War studies. Gleason also discusses his childhood and his formative years as a student at Harvard University. With a dry wit, Gleason responded to questions on his methodology and personal history from Open Source host Christopher Lydon and Ted Widmer, the director of the John Carter Brown Library.

Discussing his influences in the genre of memoir, Gleason pointed to Nabokov’s Speak Memory and Frank O’ Connor’s two works as models for his own writing. The diplomat George Kennan also inspired Gleason to some extent because of their similar interest in Soviet politics. In fact, a Russian influence may be traced throughout Gleason’s work. According to Lydon, the description of gathering hay during a youthful summer stay on a farm “reads like Anna Karenina all over again.” Gleason also mentioned the cultural essays of George Orwell, “the first writer [he] recognized as a kindred spirit.”

Widmer then turned the discussion to Gleason’s experiences at Brown during the politically charged decades of the 1960s and the 1970s. Gleason described this period in terms of his own experience as a new father and a fledging scholar; the ‘70s, he noted, were “a hair-raising time when I finally began to grow up.” Despite his expansive academic training, the “theoretical apparatus with which [he] was equipped” appeared to “be completely inadequate” at this stage in life. Considering the work of memoirist Henry Adams, Widmer described this period as a “great moment of human struggle” that Gleason “fully participated in.”

Following these insights, the conversation shifted to Gleason’s area of academic study: the Cold War. Lydon prompted Gleason to summarize “what the hell it was all about’ and discuss “who got it right.” Gleason situated his own contributions to the topic within the political middle ground (“left center,” in his words) of Cold War historiography.

Unlike the more leftist scholars, Gleason did not believe that the Soviet Union “would one day pass away and be replaced by something more revolutionary.” Conservative commentators, in contrast, declared that the “Soviet Union did not belong in the modern world,” for “any group that denied the economic realities of the world would not ultimately survive.” These two groups were the least surprised at the demise of the Soviet Union, but their political policies were not necessarily the wisest, he said. Rather, the most competent Sovietologist “questioned [his] own motives” and avoided rash action; his “super ego [would] pick itself up and rub its eyes” at the sound of hyperbolic rhetoric.

And certainly no scholar or politician expected the Soviet Union to fall without excessive bloodshed. “The best thing we can do,” Gleason cautioned, “is admit that we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

At this point in the talk, Gleason commented on his wider interests as a jazz aficionado and a lover of classical music. Lydon played a series of songs for the audience and asked Gleason to comment on the personal significance of each. These samples ranged from the New Orleans jazz of Louis Armstrong to the compositions of John Harbison, Gleason’s college roommate at Harvard.

From this exercise, the discussion transitioned to Gleason’s experiences in Providence over the past 30 years. Initially, Providence “did not seem to be an earthly paradise” with its famous traffic circle and congestion. Yet Gleason recommended the environment for “someone who wants to luxuriate, if not roll in, the deep past.” The local jazz scene further encouraged Gleason to remain in the region. Gleason concluded the conversation by advising his audience to “find something useful to do where you are” rather than yearning for the unrealized opportunities of life. Clearly, Gleason has lived his life in accordance with his own principles, emerging as the personification of a liberal education.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Zak Leonard ‘10