A bit less than 20 years ago, when I was teaching at the University of Tulsa, I received a call out of the blue. “Would you have a moment to converse with Speaker Albert?” I was asked. “He needs your help.”
The Albert in question was Carl Albert, former Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives (1961-71) and former Speaker of the House (1971-77) – a man 5’4” in height, born in Bugtussle, Oklahoma, who was known throughout the state as the Little Giant from Little Dixie.
Albert and I had never met, but we had this in common: We were both Oklahoma Rhodes Scholars. The number of members in that select club was small, and it was a fairly tight brotherhood. He had a right to call on my services, and we both knew it.
His problem, as he explained it, was straightforward. At Oxford, Albert had studied at St. Peter’s College, and he was arguably its most prominent alumnus. The Master of St. Peter’s was about to descend upon him with his Director of Development in tow, and Albert wished to put on a luncheon for the man at what was billed as the oldest Italian restaurant in Oklahoma – Pete’s Place in Krebs, outside of Macalester, founded in 1925. To this luncheon, he proposed to invite all of his local friends and associates so that they could hear the Master speak. It was his hope, and that of the Master of St. Peter’s, that someone could be induced to make a major gift to the college in Albert’s honor.
The Master of St. Peter’s College at that time was a man named John P. Barron. He was by trade an ancient historian, and he had done distinguished work on archaic Samos. Albert knew nothing regarding the man’s field, and he was slightly senile and had the sense to know his limits. So he asked me to perform what was properly his responsibility – to introduce his guest.
This I readily agreed to do. And, on the appointed day, I drove down to Krebs and met all of the local notables from southeastern Oklahoma – the owner of the Chevrolet dealership in Macalester, the president of the local state university, the mayor of Macalester, and the like. The best known among these was the longest-serving state senator in American history, a lawyer of legendary ability who had been tried by the feds for income tax evasion three times and acquitted on each occasion. He was said to control the drug trade at the state prison in Macalester. But no one was ever able to prove a thing.
When the meal was nearly done, Albert introduced me, and I spoke briefly about Barron, talking about his career and praising his scholarship (which I still very much admire). Then, my introduction took a turn unanticipated by my host. I am afraid that there was mischief in me, even then.
So I digressed to discuss Barron’s abandonment of teaching and scholarship for – drum roll, please! – administration. Faculty members, I explained, regarded administrators with a jaundiced eye. Somehow or other they were always making trouble for us. We thought them, I said, an evil – but an exceedingly necessary evil. They saw to it that we were paid, and to that end they became accomplished in relieving other people of their excess cash.
Be careful, ladies and gentlemen, I exclaimed, this man has not come here with innocent intent. When you leave, check your wallets, look into your pocketbooks, examine with care the contents of your purses. For mark my words. This man wants the contents. Something wicked comes this way.
Albert loved it. So did the other patrons – and the Director of Development for St. Peter’s College, who was seated at the head table next to me, was nearly on the floor he was laughing so hard. “I have never seen that done,” he told me.
Barron was quick on the uptake, and he came right to the point. He was, indeed, hoping to raise money because he had a worthy project. St. Peter’s College is located in Oxford right next to the Oxford Jail – parts of which date to the 12th century. The jail was being closed, and it was up for sale. The cells, he explained, would make good student rooms. It was the chance of a lifetime for St. Peter’s. It would allow the college to expand, but renovation was expensive.
While listening to the talk and chatting with the Director of Development, I could not help but think of Michel Foucault’s influential book Discipline and Punish – which, in elaborate ways, argues from a Marxist-existentialist perspective that schooling and incarceration are akin (Foucault died a Hayekian). Among other things, its author insists, both institutions are rooted in surveillance by the public authorities, and both are designed to enforce a species of discipline on the population. I suggested that Dr. Barron could make his talk more academic by bringing in Foucault, but I acknowledged that this might not make his pitch more effective.
But are schools really akin to prisons? Or is Foucault talking through his hat? I can see the arguments on both sides. I must confess, however, that I never felt that I was incarcerated while in school. I found it a liberation – a real source for stimulation. What about you?