You Are There

Remember that show? You Are There? 1940s?
I’m just remembering a moment in history: I was there for a facet of it I never saw reported: a Van Doren moment at Columbia, the morning, February 11, 1957, TIME came out with Charles Van Doren on the cover, Van Doren currently a quiz show celebrity. The setting is a lecture hall, Hamilton Hall, Columbia College. Mark Van Doren’s lit class is about to begin. Mark Van Doren is one of the old lions at Columbia, Charles Van Doren is just a pup lion: he got his PhD there but just began teaching a year or two before. Now everyone in the world knows Charles Van Doren’s Columbia salary, a couple of thousand dollars a year. Poor scholars are an old saw, but that was ridiculous, contemptible, a doorman, a mens room attendant might expect to make more. Of course I didn’t: I was some of Columbia’s belly lint, a student, one paying big bucks to have no income, to be held out of the economy. Like priests we supposedly had respect: supposedly.

Anyway the ink is still wet on the cover of TIME. Charles Van Doren’s TV fame has blasted him way beyond the fame of his famous family of bedrock American intellectuals: his father, his uncle, his mother … A student, another fiber of Columbia fluff, deposits a TIME on the lectern at the head of the hall. It’s one of those halls built like a theater, the seats rising in a ring, the lectern the apex of the stage. Columbia discussion classes are small, there were only seven students in my senior seminar, but the lecture classes might have seventy-five acolytes. Mark Van Doren, teaching in his final year before retirement, enters. You could stamp his head on the intellectual coinage of the realm. Thin, severe, Mayflower missionary, chisel cheeks.


Mark Van Doren ascends the steps to the stage, walks to the lectern, ascends that last step, is just putting his briefcase beside the foot of the lecturn’s column, when he spots the magazine’s intrusion on the lecturn’s display. (The Bible lies open on the church’s lectern; in secular churches such as Columbia, the papers to be put there are optional, change by class, physics one class, Shakespeare another.) Mark Van Doren releases the briefcase from his hand. That hand now takes a corner of the cover of TIME and raises it aloft. The magazine splays open, dangles, he holds it like a woman picking up a dead cockroach by a foreleg. Mark Van Dorn torques his body till the offending TIME is levered over the waste basket already placed by the lectern. Aim, center, steady, drop. The magazine flutters unread to the trash can.

The whole of the hall’s student belly lint goes, Gulp.
Jeez, did I love Mark Van Doren at that moment. (Another was when he wrote on my paper on Abraham that he believed I really understood the subject: Abraham!) (around those years I found a couple of my father’s english papers in the attic, Mark Van Doren’s comments on them: the Professor had been my father’s professor too.)

The other night Jan and I were watching a DVD. We prop cushions against her bed and sit on the floor. Someone was being sweated. Was it Cary Grant? An Affair to Remember? The actor blotted the sweat with a handkerchief. He didn’t wipe, he blotted. And I remembered ’50’s TV, Twenty-One, Charles Van Doren, American’s quizz darling. Suddenly the mousey little intellectual is getting interviewed, commissioned to write magazine pieces. Suddenly Charles Van Doren is referencing Sherlock Holmes’ absurd theories about finite mental space in public, as though the mind could be filled up like an attic, suddenly this blather is being regarded, by morons of course, as brilliance: all in the context of answers to quiz show questions being palmed as knowledge. Anyhow: I didn’t watch much TV in 1957, 58 … (a lot more than I do now though: now I watch zero!) But I read an article or two involving Mr. Quizz Master: and I read how Charles Van Doren on Twenty One had been coached to appear to be sweating and to blot, not wipe, his brow!

Show biz, folks, we here don’t got nuttin to do with intellect.

In 1958 I did still worship education: conflated education and intellect. Now I separate them, relegate education entirely to more show biz.

OK, dandy. Now I’ll say some of the things I’ve targeted via the above, scrapbook style, my usual.

Charles Van Doren’s learning was vast. America is supposed to honor learning. [The denizens of boob land seem to believe that what they’re supposed to believe is true. It’s impossible, or neigh impossible, to know what’s true when information is at the mercy of kleptocracy. (I can’t imagine God admitting any human-kept records at Judgment: science knows better, history is supposed to know better, despite the paradox of history being nothing but human kept records. (Just remember, when physicists wanted to test Einstein’s theory of relativity, they measured star light, they didn’t look anything up in any library.))] TV shows such as Twenty One profited from such confusions while fanning the confusion. But any TV exec knows that the bottom line is revenue, the revenue comes from advertising, Fortune Five Hundred plays the power poker there. A contestant in a general knowledge quiz show could have near perfect knowedge, have quick recall, no stutter, and still miss the hundred dollar question long before the $64,000 question is broached. Twenty One had a champion, but ratings were falling. They didn’t want that champion. They groomed Charles Van Doren. The execs convinced Van Doren that this was show biz. Of course it was. Show biz is managed. Of course.
It’s a small step, once you’ve swelled management, to cheat. Van Doren and the rest of us were victims of show biz fraud before the execs met Van Doren. (I, as a bit of Columbia belly lint, thought that I, and the poor son Van Doren, and the famous father Van Doren, were excepted, like a monk on a rock or a saint in a niche is excepted. I thought Columbia was a monastery where an true intellectual could hide, and be saved: I (then) didn’t see that we were all just house n-s, and that only a real rock was a rock.
[Bowdlerizing K., 2016 08 02 To me a syncopated word is even more offensive than the straight vulgar term.]

Anyway, word got out that the execs had fed questions and answers to Charles Van Doren in advance of the show. Van Doren finally confessed to deception before a Congressional committee. Now: what right does a congressional committee have to investigate deception? That’s like PT Barnum chairing Houdini’s investigation of illusion.

dammit Knatz, get to your point! Charles van Doren was dragged over coals. Fine. Were the Twenty One dragged over coals? Was the audience? How come Congress wasn’t? TV shows, scripted, rehearsed, went right on. Advertizing! went right on.

Our religion says that the Temple sabotaged God in the person of Jesus. How come the temple is still there?

How come there’s still a congress? still TV?
All I want is the rock, to confess on: but I want everyone there, all of us confessing.

A little editing to come, meanwhile, here’s another memory from that year. That spring the dorms around Hamilton Quad suddey erupted. It was spring, exams were coming up. Guys were throwing toilet paper rolls from the dorm windows, the trees of the qual liked like a white-Christmasy Easter. Guys marched on Barnard, other side of Broadway, started chanting for panties, some girs threw some panties down. Then the crowed evaporated, we were filing back to our rooms.
Next day the Times said it was a students for Charles van Doren protest! ?

I was there, I didn’t hear a word breathed about Van Doren! Talk was the usual male blather, plus some candid appraisals of this and that specific Barnard girl’s female talents. Reporters: they haven’t gotten one whit better.

Stories by Age

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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