Jan

9

Richard Kostelanetz writes:

My friend Victor drafted this essay toward his autobiographical The Education of a Speculator (Wiley. 1996), only to obey his publisher’s command to reduce personal material, which he did, nonetheless leaving behind in his book a luminous opening chapter about growing up amid the handball courts in Coney Island, New York. Self-published in 1994, this essay inspired my own memoirs published here. Since Victor’s Harvard memoir is unavailable elsewhere, I'm pleased to reprint an excerpt of it, with his permission and my gratitude. I’ve omitted a few digressions in the original, while adding between brackets some clarifications. You can find the whole essay in my latest book.

HARVARD COLLEGE: SQUASH & SCHOLARSHIP

Victor Niederhoffer

Copyright c 1993, 1994.

Education at Harvard has always favored the dilettante, coddled the "gentleman's C" scholar and allowed those who concentrated on extracurricular activities such as football, computer programming or musical theater to survive. During my undergraduate years (1960-1964), of the 1,500 freshmen entering each year only a handful wouldn't graduate. To earn a degree with honors was as easy as getting a mosquito bite at a nudist colony; more than half the class received this token, even in those days When you consider that at least half the student body at Harvard hardly attends more than half of their classes, and most of the others are so totally committed to their extra-curricular activities that they have no time for reading the assigned course work, let alone any outside readings, the graduation rate becomes an example of noblesse oblige.

I was one of those students who would have been hard-put to survive in any other college. I have always had a reluctance to attend large lectures. And most of the popular undergrad courses were given by eminent professors in halls like Sanders and Emerson where 500 to 1,000 were in attendance, if not wakefulness. The smells in a lecture hall turn me off. I can't breathe well with all that carbon dioxide circulating back into the air. Besides, I like the idea of feedback. The ideal form of education to me has always seemed to be sitting on a log with some erudite professor on one end and me on the other, talking about areas of common concern. In this day of copiers and desk-top publishing, there is no reason why lectures should be delivered in a no-feedback format. Notes could be prepared in advance and distributed to students. This would force the instructor to be concise and accurate, as the printed word

demands more presentational logic and rigor than does the spoken lecture. I have found that only at prestigious universities and cabals do the lecturers balk at providing written notes.

During the 2 or 3% of the time in my waking life I have truly been interested in becoming educated I have garnered 99% of my learning. I suspect I am typical in this regard. The challenge to the educator, then, is to motivate the student to desire to learn, and then to figure out how to provide the product when it is desired.

On a more mundane level, I have always found it difficult to stay awake at morning activities after a strenuous day of exercise. And my mornings were invariably taken up with a squash match, and then a rush to finish up my homework. Having not yet developed the art of blindfold checkers or chess play, only way I could stay awake in class was to buy an advance copy of the Suffolk Downs Racing Form and handicap the races. Many of the professors seemed to me to have been coerced into teaching the undergraduate courses because they were over the hill. Others seemed more interested in the handful of attractive [Rad]Cliffies in the class than in engaging in dialogues with shallow Harvard youth.

I subsequently learned how right I was in this regard, at least with respect to the University of Chicago, where I read rhapsodic letters of recommendation for Michelle S., my sweetheart during my time there, of the professors independently wrote about how they looked at her constantly while lecturing for a feel for how it was going, and how uplifting it was to receive her approval when they delivered a particularly apt précis, how they valued the feedback she provided with her smile, frown and other body language. I noted that they found her body language equally uplifting outside of the lecture halls. She told me that once she was having a departmental dinner with four professors and four students at a table at the Faculty Club, and that three of the professors independently passed her notes to meet them afterward for a continuation. Needless to say, she graduated summa cum laude, one of two of her class (1966) to do so. As I was to learn some years later [while teaching] at the University of California at Berkeley, this incident was merely one example of a tendency endemic to academia.

Even with the policy of noblesse oblige, my education at Harvard was in jeopardy. Professor Williams, who taught my Introduction to Logic course, one day caught me in the act: he suddenly stopped his lecture, walked to my seat and grabbed my Racing Form, loudly upbraiding me in front of 500 eager scholars for my rudeness in handicapping races while he was droning on about such fascinating subjects as the difference between probabilities based on relative frequencies and degree of belief, and the Popperian view of probability as a revised estimate of one's knowledge based on various hypothetical experiments.

Since that time, I have found only one satisfactory motivation of probability. This was by Richard Hamming, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. Strangely enough many 'experts on probability theory have worked at military installations, especially in England. Hamming's view is that where you have events in a sample space, such as tosses of a die, that are symmetric, or interchangeable, the probabilities must all be equal. So if you take the number of events possible in the space, the probability of each event must be one divided by the number of events. As Hamming remarks in a typical passage, "Although very likely you have been interpreting many of the results in terms of frequencies, probability is still a measure derived from the symmetry of the initial situation." (The Art of Probability, 1991).

His extensions are sufficient to resolve all the philosophical questions that were the meat and potatoes of Professor Williams' class.

But first, I had to get through my classes without unduly antagonizing my teachers, as my performance on exams would never be sufficient to undo any bad impressions made on the professor, nor would I have enough sex appeal to barter for a good grade.

My solution was one of my masterpieces. I noted that most of my teachers were graduate students obviously down and out in terms of money, but who were teaching for the prestige and potential career advancement. When I saw them, they always seemed to be grinding away at their own course work in an effort to reverse their bad fortunes by garnering a job. Even then, Eastern Illinois University favored [hiring] assistant professors who had put in a stint as an adjunct assistant professor at Harvard earlier in their careers.

Now Harvard has always been masterful at maintaining low salaries among their employees. One of their techniques was to refuse to hire any of their graduate students until they had taught at some other school for at least five years. This policy was already famous in those days for having lost Paul Samuelson, the famed Nobel Prize-winning mathematical economist who popularized Keynesian economics in his best-selling textbooks of the 1960s, and who can still be counted on to trot out his theory favoring greater government spending and higher taxes for the benefit of any sitting or would-be President. Samuelson's doctoral thesis, written at Harvard in 1955, was entitled "The Foundations of Mathematical Economics", in which he quantified the interaction of the multiplier and the accelerator in fomenting government's impact on total output. This study is still considered one of the classics in the field, but it wasn't sufficient to break the Harvard taboo against hiring its own.

But there was a quid pro quo for the graduate students. In exchange for low wages, and no chance for tenure, the grad students were graded on a very high curve. The average grade in most of the graduate courses, A-, was considered quite good in those days before grade inflation, egalitarian marking, and numerous pass/fail courses — all of which have made most grade-point averages as meaningful as the chants of the whirling Dervishes.

I quickly realized that if I confined myself to graduate courses as an undergraduate, that even if I consistently copped the worst grade in the class, I would still be likely to pull a B+. And this would more than compensate for my bad study habits.

I was so successful at this approach that when the time came for a final class ranking of all the economics majors at Harvard I came in second out of 150. My technique did not pass unnoticed. Any time an undergraduate of apparently limited intellectual accomplishment took on a curriculum of mainly graduate courses he or she was said to be "Niederhoffering the curriculum." .

Years later, I ran into Professor Wassily Leontief, founder of input-output economics, at a [George] Soros party. Soros loves to stock his foundations with distinguished, collectivist emigrés from Eastern Europe and Russia. Leontief was at that time serving on the boards of some of Soros' foundations. He had been my professor in 1962 in graduate-level Microeconomics 201, where I had received a B+, the worst grade in the class. The Professor's basic idea, that there are fixed technological relations between the output of an economy and the raw materials necessary to produce them, makes about as much sense as the Russian notion that there are some genius master-planners in Washington responsible for all the wonderful variety of goods on American supermarket shelves. Nevertheless, Leontief had one of the sharpest minds I have ever encountered. He remembered me, after 25 years, and said, "Here you are Niederhoffering the commodity markets by picking up the detritus of Soros' trades, just as you did in my classes." As I was surrounded by government officials, foundation mavens, administrators, philantropists and other liberal types — as is the norm at a Soros party (and indeed at most other New York parties I have attended) — I held my tongue and played the respectful guest.

* * *

The Harvard Club of New York each year collects a scholarship fund for needy students with outstanding academic records. Somehow my credentials and my experiences at my high school, where the principal was actively working to keep me out of college, struck a responsive chord in some of the members of the scholarship committee, and I consequently was a beneficiary. Some of them, apparently, had also once been blackballed, and instead of working against me, my principal's active lobbying actually helped me. My experience coaching at Kaplan and the resulting improvement in my board scores didn't hurt either.

Even with the scholarship, my parents were making a heroic sacrifice to keep me at school. The then staggering tuition and board of $3,500 per year represented 25% of their pre-tax income. The balance of $1,000 they gave me for out-of-pocket expenses added further to their debt. It seemed only fair that I should reduce the burden by getting a job.

My first job at Harvard was in the Student Post Office. My duties were to sort the mail and run the route, delivering and picking up mail at all departments on the north side of the campus. The pay was the munificent sum of$1.80 an hour. After a few days on the job, I graduated to full-time mail carrier. My boss, an elderly Irishman with white hair and a Boston accent, was from the old school. His shoes were polished to a gleaming luster and his tie choked his neck in a perfect knot. As I left for a delivery one day in typical Boston fall weather, freezing rain with winds in the 50 mph range, he gave me some sharp advice. "Keep your head on your shoulders and whatever you do, don't miss picking up the mail at the Watson Laboratory in Biology. Since that professor won that Nobel Prize, he's thinks he owns the world, and when the mail isn't picked up twice a day, he calls up to complain. Last time we missed him, I found myself apologizing to a vice president of the corporation. "

Yes, Mr. McCarthy."

I have never been too good at sense of direction, and now, in retrospect, I see I was not well-suited to a career in mail carrying. My ideal career would probably be as the women's squash coach at a large university or director of research at a flavoring laboratory. But I needed the money from that mail job badly. Perhaps I was distracted by the rain, the secretary, or my studies, but I did manage to forget to pick up at Watson's lab. My boss's dismissal of me was abrupt.

"You're fired. How they let incompetents like you into Harvard, I'll never know. You don't even have enough sense to get out of the rain and come inside to pick up at the one place I told you over and over again not to forget. Get the Hades out of here and never come back."

I was crestfallen. This was the final blow. No way was I going to ask my parents for more money. It looked like I would be going back to Brooklyn College after all. Life seemed hopeless, so I called my father up and gave him the bad news.

"Don't worry about it. This could be a blessing in disguise. Remember what happened to Winston Churchill, as a young man in the British Army, on his arrival in India. Eager to disembark from a small boat that was tossing on the waves, he grabbed an iron ring fastened to the pier just as the boat fell sharply, and dislocated his shoulder. This injury stayed with him the rest of his life, and plagued him in every physical activity he undertook from then on, from polo games, to speaking in Parliament, to war.

"But as he says in his book, My Early Life, the injury probably saved his life during the battle of Omdurman. He was the only one in his cavalry to be unable to swing his sabre; but knowing his shoulder might give out at any time, he had purchased one of the newly-invented Mauser automatic pistols, and had practiced with it assiduously in preparation for the campaign. In one cavalry charge, he saw most of his colleagues cut to pieces around him by the dervishes' scimitars in their fierce resistance. But his skill with the Mauser saved his life, and he wrote of the experience, that one never knows when some apparent misfortune might actuaJly save one from something much worse.

"So remember, what seems to be a tragedy might actually be a lifesaver"
 

(to be continued).

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