The Colgate Scene
July 2004

An extended season of deeds
Jerome Balmuth completes his 50th year at Colgate
 

How does one measure Jerome Balmuth's half century of service to the Colgate community?

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.
[Photo by Dick Broussard] [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko
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."

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]

Intermission
"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."

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 poignant." 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 Depression boy." 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 White Fellowship.)
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 14th amendment.

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 units.

Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox wins the Pulitzer Prize for history.

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 launched.

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.

The living link
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 reality.

"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 life. "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."

"He kept you honest"
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.

"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, respectively. 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 encounters. "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 class discussions." "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."

How do you know it's a table?
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.

"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 morning stroll.) 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 others. "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 communal lives." "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."
Top of page
Table of contents
  Next: "One sees clearly..." >>