An hour ago I was happily browsing the internet and decided to look up my favorite college teacher from undergraduate days at WSC (Washington State College). Cynthia Schuster was the Channing Club faculty adviser in 1957 and I was the President of that Unitarian student club. Our college required all student organizations to have a faculty adviser, even off-campus quasi-religious ones.
Cynthia is probably as close to an intellectual guide as I had in those young adult years, when kids are adapting their own DNA and childhood learning to what they perceive as the real world. Although I don’t believe I was ever particularly mean as a youth, I do know I had an obnoxious streak, which somehow didn’t prevent me from having some really nice girlfriends. But it was my conversations, especially those with Cynthia, that truly enlivened those college years. I remember going over to the library and searching through the checkout cards in the back of books to see which ones Cynthia had checked out, and then reading those books. I didn’t do particularly well in my other classes, because I was spending most of my time reading those books and hanging out in the coffee shops. Really.
Then I came across the following introduction in The Mind’s Arrows by Clark Glymour, a student of Cynthia’s who went on to MIT, on page xiii in the Acknowledgements:
“To my teachers Cynthia Schuster and Wesley Salmon I owe debts of a lifetime.
Cynthia Schuster and Wesley Salmon studied with Hans Reichenbach at UCLA in the early 1950s. Cynthia and her husband, Philip, came to UCLA after many years in Europe, where, after they had finished their undergraduate study at Cornell—he in literature, she in chemistry—they had gone in the 1930s as young, optimistic American expatriates, only to be caught up in the Second World War and interned in a German camp in France. Wes had come to UCLA from undergraduate school in Michigan. The young man and the older knockabout woman became friends, and later both became my teachers.
Cynthia took and lost a job at Washington State University. In the 1950s, in the grip of McCarthyism, the State of Washington had its own Un-Washington Activities Committee (you can read about it in Owen Lattimore’s Ordeal by Slander). In part because of her invitation to Robert Oppenheimer to speak on campus, Cynthia was charged with undermining the morals of youth (the irony of the charge pleased her to no end) and dismissed from her job. She moved to the University of Montana, where she was my teacher for two years, until I was dismissed as a student.”
I knew Cynthia had moved from WSC to Montana to teach at the University there but I didn’t know why. I only knew she wasn’t our faculty adviser any more and a Dr. Wells, of the philosophy department, then was. I also remember I had asked him if I could ask J. Robert Oppenheimer to speak to my Channing Club, after I had made the same request to Cynthia, because Oppenheimer had been denied the privilege of speaking at Washington State’s other University a few months earlier. I was told by Wells, quite clearly as I remember, that it wouldn’t be condoned by the College, even though it was technically off campus, and that I should let it drop. Which I did, not having any particular reason to pursue the issue. I simply wasn’t aware of how important an issue it was; after all, what is a kid supposed to know when living out in the remoteness of rolling wheat fields of a college campus intentionally isolated from the problems of civilization.
Earlier, that summer I had the extraordinary good fortune to visit Dr. Oppenheimer, the Director of the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb, at his home in Princeton, NJ. It may seem very strange, but we had many things to talk about because we had been involved in quite a few similar projects. The most recent one, and the one which got me the invitation, which I didn’t request, was the Ethical Culture Society of New York City. It also turned out that I knew personally the children of some of his friends back in my high school in Richland, Washington, and that I had lived just three years before, and my parents still lived, directly across an empty field from the reactor which Oppenheimer used to create the plutonium which began the Atomic Age and ended WWII. And lots more. But the crux of this blog post is that I requested Cynthia Schuster to invite Oppenheimer to speak at Pullman, to my Unitarian, Channing Club and because she did that – she got fired from the University.
I just discovered this event, of 55 years ago, by reading the introduction to Glymour’s book, and I was tremendously chagrined. I had always thought the McCarthy nonsense was distant from me, and here I was absolutely immersed in the dead-center of it, and stupid me, I didn’t even know it. I certainly didn’t understand it, but how can someone make sense of senseless foolishness? I’ve had many of these unexpected events. Somehow, strange things gravitate toward me without my bidding them to come.