Sunday, March 26, 2006

Fritz Stern

I got into Columbia College in 1943 and wanted to be a doctor like my father, my two grandfathers, and my four great-grandfathers — I had no choice, but I was helped by my remarkable incompetence in chemistry and physics, and by the fact that I had two very different but each very wonderful teachers: Jacques Barzun, the European cultural historian, and Lionel Trilling, the literary scholar. I always like to say that I had Lionel Trilling before he was Lionel Trilling. He was then an assistant professor, not yet the celebrated, great man, but I must say it was an absolutely overwhelming experience to have been in Lionel Trilling’s class on romantic poetry in which I distinguished myself mostly by being silent and overawed. To give up Barzun and Trilling for chemistry was just too much. It wasn’t an easy decision. I hesitated and in fact consulted Barzun, who knew I was thinking of switching. Barzun said, “Marry medicine and keep history as your lifelong mistress.” When I went back to him a second time—I mention that because it’s pedagogically interesting—two or three months later, I said, “I can’t get it out of my system,” and he said “Let me ask a question: What do you want to do?” and I said “I want to teach” and he said, “I know the headmaster of the Lawrenceville School [a private school in New Jersey] very well, would you want to teach there?” I said “Sure. That would be very nice.” And he, “I think you’d make a good historian.” He wanted to make it clear to me that I shouldn’t think that I could go into college-level teaching or anything like that. I believe the test, which to him was intuitive, was to ask, “Would you be satisfied teaching history in high school, albeit a special high school?” And since that seemed perfectly reasonable to me, that was that.—Fritz Stern, “A Conversation with Fritz Stern”, GHI [German Historical Institute] Bulletin.

See also Fritz Stern on Barzun-Trilling.