How does one measure Jerome Balmuth's half century of service to the Colgate
There is the sheer number of students -- more than 9,000 -- he has taught
since arriving in Hamilton in 1954, more than one third of Colgate's living
alumni. One can look to the high esteem his colleagues have for him, or
perhaps, the number of lawyers, college professors, architects, economists,
scientists, and others whose admission into graduate or professional school
were given a boost by a letter of recommendation from him. There is his
devotion to family, a concept he and his late wife Ruth expanded to include not
only colleagues and students, but also the girlfriends who trekked to Hamilton
to visit their beaus in the days before coeducation.
Then, there is the man himself. The idealist who was one of a few faculty
members to join students in a peaceful sit-in in the late 1960s to push for
more diversity within the university community. The consummate teacher who
wields questions like a scalpel to challenge young minds (and not a few older
ones) with logic, pushing students and colleagues -- even himself -- to rid
themselves of sloppy reasoning and finely hone their intellects. And, of
course, there is the simple fact -- remarkable only to those who don't know him
-- that the season of deeds for the Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of
philosophy shows no signs of ending soon.
"This is the world that matters to him; it's Colgate. The students, faculty,
and the general education program," said Anne Freire Ashbaugh, professor of
philosophy. "There's nothing at this university he hasn't touched, cared about,
or that you could ask him about and he doesn't know or hasn't thought about."
"He is the rare kind of professor who makes one want to be a professor," said
James Wetzel, professor of philosophy and religion and department chair. "I
never thought about becoming a university professor until one of my
undergraduate professors at Princeton, a man akin in spirit to Jerry, awakened
my sense of possibility in thought. That's what happens when a teacher invites
you into questions that transcend the answers any particular generation is able
to give them. Entering into the openness of a question -- without resorting to
either facile skepticism or mere cleverness -- is what Jerry is particularly
good at facilitating."
"He is a paragon of vitality and dynamism, with an impressively wide range in
philosophy," said Robert Audi '63, professor of philosophy, professor of
management, and David E. Gallo Chair in ethics at the University of Notre Dame.
"He has wit, a sense of humor, and he loves to frame arguments. He is a great
critic of weak reasoning and inspires his students to strive for the best."
"I found the knowledge I gained in his class as the most practical and useful
beyond my next test or paper," said Gregory Williams '95, senior assistant dean
of admission. "He didn't just teach for us to learn specific points, but how to
think and apply what we learned."
|[Photo by Dick Broussard]
||[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko
Left to right: Bob Schack '59, Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of
Philosophy Jerome Balmuth, Fred Rosenberg '72, and Illse Goldfarb
(wife of William Goldfarb '59) chat during the Reunion College event
on Sunday morning, "Fifty Years and Counting: The Tradition of
Philosophy and Religion at Colgate, On the Occasion of Jerry
Balmuth's 50th Year of Teaching" held at the Colgate Inn.
[Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Seated in his office in Hascall Hall, a book-filled warren charitably
described as "amazing chaos," the familiar Plato baseball cap perched squarely
on his head, Balmuth reminisced about how he became interested in philosophy.
During an interval between graduating from high school and entering the Army
during World War II, Balmuth enrolled in a few night courses at the City
College of New York. Fatefully, one of the courses was in philosophy.
"I remember this young instructor, who brilliantly presented the nature of
Aristotle's theory about four causes and the nature of matter and form," he
said. "I was so impressed with both the power of these ideas and the capacity
of a human being to be able to master them. I thought, `Boy, some day I am
going to try to emulate his ability to know ideas well.' I went into philosophy
principally because of all the disciplines, it was one that seemed to me the
least easy to master. It was the most difficult."
The start of Balmuth's teaching career had to wait until after he fulfilled
his commitment to Uncle Sam. By the end of 1944, Balmuth was serving in a
Signal Corps unit in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge. The costly battle
left the United States Army short of officers, and in February 1945 Balmuth was
assigned to an officers' candidate school established in Fountainebleu, France.
He was commissioned a second lieutenant in infantry just before Germany
surrendered and served in the 80th Infantry Division during the early stages of
its occupation of Munich, before being transferred to a military police unit at
Dachau, the notorious death camp that had been liberated two months earlier and
was being used to hold German prisoners of war.
"I saw the ovens. It was just after the liberation, and the beginning of the
cleanup was underway. I remember walking into one room and seeing it filled
with wallets, just wallets taken from people," Balmuth recalled. "Some of the
wallets had pictures in them. They were stacked up very neatly. It was quite
Balmuth eventually was promoted to first lieutenant and then commander of a
military police escort guard company. He was up for another promotion when he
was discharged from active duty.
"I've always viewed that period of my life as an intermission. It matured me,
but it didn't satisfy my curiosity for learning," he said. "I was offered the
opportunity to stay in the Army. I had four years in, and in sixteen more years
I could have retired with pay. Coming from a relatively lower middle-class
background, the money and security was very appealing, because I was a
But not appealing enough. After returning to the United States, Balmuth
entered Amherst College on the G.I. Bill, which he called "the greatest piece
of social legislation ever passed" in the United States. After graduating Phi
Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Amherst, both he and his younger
brother, Daniel, entered graduate school at Cornell University, where Balmuth
held a Sage Fellowship, and later, a Dan-forth Fellowship. (Daniel Balmuth, who
recently retired as a professor of Russian history at Skidmore College, held a
"Colgate is a marvelous place to be for someone who is interested in ideas and
in students," said Balmuth, who turned 80 in May. "For someone who wants to
teach, this is an ideal institution."
In 1954 . . .
Everett Needham Case is president of Colgate.
Colgate's student body consists of 1,200 men.
In the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the United States Supreme
Court rules unanimously that segregation by race in public schools violates the
The Tonight Show, hosted by Steve Allen, makes its debut.
Roger Bannister runs the first sub-four-minute mile in recorded history.
Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around The Clock" is released.
Jacques Cousteau makes his first network telecast on Omnibus on CBS.
President Dwight Eisenhower warns against intervention in Vietnam.
French forces are defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam.
The Department of Defense announces the elimination of all segregated military
Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox wins the Pulitzer Prize for
Marilyn Monroe marries Joe DiMaggio.
From Here to Eternity wins the Academy Award for best picture.
The first children receive Jonas Salk's polio vaccine.
Among those born are Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern, Kathleen Turner, Walter
Payton, Matt Groening, and Elvis Costello.
Among those who died are Enrico Fermi, Grantland Rice, Frida Kahlo, Charles
Ives, Henri Mattise, and Lionel Barrymore.
The first atomic-powered sea vessel, the submarine USS Nautilus, is
Sports Illustrated debuts.
West Germany is invited to join NATO.
The World Series is telecast in color for the first time. The New York Giants
sweep the Cleveland Indians in four games.
Spurred by the television debut of Walt Disney's Davy Crockett, the
coonskin hat becomes a fad for millions of children.
A first-class stamp costs three cents.
"He received his philosophical training at a pivotal time in American
philosophy -- the 1950s -- a time when Cornell was peculiarly important,"
Wetzel said. "Two of the most formative influences on his career -- Black and
Malcolm -- were antithetical in their temperaments; somehow Jerry had to make
sense of their legacy and make it work."
Black possessed an easy, fluid sense of language and "seemed to incorporate
all knowledge and understanding," Balmuth recalled, while Malcolm was a
"reflective, almost painfully shy person who articulated with great
deliberation and great hesitation."
The juxtaposition of those two personalities was fascinating, he said, because
Malcolm became the most important source of insight into a new philosophical
movement -- heavily influenced by Wittgen-stein -- that subsequently became
dominant in American philosophy. Black reflected a more traditional role of
philosophy, logic, and mathematics.
"What you had was a tension between those two that reflected both formal
systems of mathematics and logic and a new understanding of the connection
between formal systems and common practice, both in our social interaction, in
our relationships, and especially in our uses of language," said Balmuth. This
was the source of the continuing seminar on Wittgenstein's philosophy of
language that he has taught to seniors in philosophy every fall for 45 years.
In addition, Balmuth has taught regular courses in logic, the history of
philosophy, aesthetics, modern philosophy, ethics, and another of his staples,
the philosophy of law.
Edward Witherspoon, associate professor of philosophy and religion, believes
that Balmuth represents a "living link" to Wittgenstein, both as an
intellectual descendent of the Austrian philosopher and the personal connection
through Malcolm, who was Wittgenstein's Boswell during the last years of his
"My sense is that Jerry really embodies the continuation of that tradition.
He's got a lot of ideas, but is always rethinking them and wanting to test them
in argument with other people," Witherspoon said. "Philosophically, I think
there's nothing doctrinaire about him, which is very refreshing. You know, a
lot of people, certainly when they've been around as long as Jerry, get a sort
of a philosophical shtick, a philosophical basic theory, and they spend the
rest of their lives just spinning that out. Jerry is always open to new things
and is always exploring new topics."
Wetzel asserts that a key to understanding Balmuth's approach to teaching
philosophy is his experience at Cornell, where he was greatly influenced by the
philosophers Max Black and Norman Malcolm, the latter a student and friend of
the eminent philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge University.
Wittgenstein, who died in 1951, heavily influenced philosophers in Great
Britain and the United States with an approach to philosophy unified by a
persistent concern with the relationship between language, the mind, and
"It was a fairly narrow and select parochial institution, which is true of all
institutions at the time, because they each served a particular constituency.
After World War II with the GI bill, suddenly there was a huge number of
students who demanded to go on to college," he said. "Colgate certainly had a
large number of applications, as did all of the smaller institutions, and they
began to develop and began to see that with so many students eager, curious,
and with a desire to learn, we had to begin to open education to all of them.
Well, the transition wasn't that easy. There were quotas, I believe, and they
were anxious to sustain a certain constituency and to remain Baptist; but they
had to expand the faculty, they had to expand the student body, because there
were just too many good students desiring to come to Colgate. This was just too
great of an opportunity; the whole society was calling out for an enlargement
of opportunities for everyone in the post-war years."
The department he joined had established a reputation for distinction, Balmuth
said, with "unusually strong teachers and a strong following among students,"
and included such luminaries as Herman Brautigam, Gene Adams, Huntington
Terrell, and Stephen Hartshorne. In the years immediately prior to Balmuth's
arrival, two members of the department -- Eugene Bewkes and Howard Jefferson --
had become presidents of St. Lawrence University and Clark University,
It was in this setting of dedicated, hard-working scholars -- everyone taught
at least eight courses a year -- that Balmuth established an enduring
reputation as a rigorous teacher who was not to be trifled with, and woe to any
student who came to class unprepared. There are, he said, some former students
and alumni who bear the intellectual and, perhaps, emotional scars from such
"I was like everybody else in the class. I think we were pretty conscientious
and were always prepared and eager to participate, contribute, and debate,"
said Ausonio Marras '63, professor of philosophy at the University of Western
Ontario. "It was a good class because he certainly encouraged give and take in
"You knew that when you were in Jerry's class you were going to have to talk,"
recalls Mark Wheeler '89. "You knew that if you didn't do the reading, everyone
else would know. I liked that he kept you honest. If you had done what was
assigned, somehow he was able to get you and the others [in the class] to see
things you didn't think you had seen, and to get a conversation going sometimes
just between you and him, or between you, him, and the others about the
material. That brought the material alive and engaged us with it in a way that
the straight lecture doesn't always do."
An associate professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, Wheeler
considers Balmuth his mentor. "He was always able to somehow keep you clearly
focused on the fact that philosophy was about human beings living life, and in
the end, philosophy was about trying to help human beings live better lives,"
said Wheeler. "That's my vision of what the field is all about, and that lesson
was always kept right up front for me by Jerry."
When Balmuth arrived at Colgate in 1954, he was one of only two Jewish members
of the Department of Philosophy and Religion on a campus with very few African
Americans, fewer Jews, and no Catholics.
"At that moment, as I grabbed the bar, bracing myself for the force of that
initial tug, the student shrieked at me, `Balmuth? Balmuth! Do you know who your
father is?'" she recalled. "This very question . . . has followed me throughout
my adult life."
Raffeld said the home her parents created for her, her sister Deborah, and her
brother, Andrew Balmuth '89 (a nephew, David Balmuth, graduated from Colgate in
1981) on Maple Avenue (the so-called Addams house) helped to foster "an
inclusive, welcoming, diverse Colgate community.
"Every weekend, the home on Maple Avenue was filled with the sounds and smells
of lively intellectual engagement and discussion; good, hearty food, strawberry
daiquiris -- still one of my dad's specialties -- and always, the array of
familiar jokes," said Raffeld. "My sister and I would hide out of sight and
eavesdrop on conversations that ranged from politics to religion, world
affairs, families, and always, to Colgate."
Her parents, Raffeld continued, were always among the first to welcome a new
faculty member to their home, her father always invited his seminar classes
home at the end of every semester to feast on her mother's lasagna, and the
combination of her father's concern and her mother's generosity brought many of
Colgate's first African American students to Maple Avenue for a meal.
Even at home, Raffeld said, her father never stopped being a philosophy
professor, always seeking an opportunity to teach or learn.
"We were hesitant to bring friends home for fear they might be intimidated and
bewildered by Dad's direct question, `How do you know this is a table? What is
the essence of tableness?'" she said.
Raffeld made these remarks at a Reunion College event in June that included
friends, family, faculty colleagues, and a cross-generational assemblage of
alumni. While the event was intended to focus on the evolution of the
Department of Philosophy and Religion as well as Balmuth's contributions to
Colgate, most of those who gathered swapped their favorite Balmuth anecdotes,
saluted his devotion to his late wife (who died in 1999 from Alzheimer's
disease), and expressed their happiness that he remarried two years ago. (A
familiar sight in Hamilton is Balmuth and his second wife, Marty, taking a
It fell to Balmuth himself to provide the historical context. With
characteristic generosity, he acknowledged all of his colleagues such as
Hartshorne, Terrell, Brautigam, and others from long ago, to current
contemporaries such as Ashbaugh, Wetzel, Steve Kepnes, Clarice Martin, and
"I have taken all of this time really to pay tribute to our present
department, as well as to the presumed wisdom of those predecessors who hired
me -- despite the clear evidence that they were likely changing the
character of the department and, indirectly, the institution that had nurtured
and rewarded them," said Balmuth. "This took some courage -- if not negligence
-- and it suggests to me a more general principle: that the only way an
educational institution can remain alive and vital is to strive constantly for
excellence rather than for reassurance, even if it may err at times, while
recognizing, following Heraclitus, that change is the dominant reality of our
"I know that my father has influenced each of us in very profound and personal
ways," Raffeld said. "He is a man of the book, who has helped to foster and
develop the very values of community, caring, and learning that he himself has
come to admire most about Colgate today."
"Nobody," Wetzel said, "wants him to go."
Beth Balmuth Raffeld, one of Balmuth's three children, was seven years old when
she began to understand the extent of her father's influence. Raffeld was
waiting in line at the bottom of the old Colgate ski hill, when the student
running the T-lift glanced at her season pass.