[OPE-L] Remembering Bob Heilbroner

From: Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM
Date: Sat Jan 15 2005 - 10:17:06 EST

Remembering Bob Heilbroner takes me back a few years.

In the Fall of 1976,  when I  enrolled in the graduate program
in the Economics Department at the New School for Social
Research (now "New School University" -- yuck!) Bob
Heilbroner was the best known faculty member.   He was also
the best known graduate _of_ the  Economics  Department --
he had studied with Adolph Lowe (who was a professor emeriti
in '76 who occasionally -- depending on his health -- offered
seminars) many years before and _The Worldly Philosophers_
was accepted in lieu of a dissertation.

Adolph Lowe (a fascinating and important figure in his own right)
was his most influential mentor.  Lowe, I believe, was
especially influential in encouraging him to seriously study
methodology and the history of thought.  Politically, they were
not all that dissimilar either -- both were social democrats.

Within the Department, Heilbroner taught courses mainly in the
history of economic thought -- most notably the 100-level
2-semester  HET sequence which most  of the new students
enrolled in (the first semester was a required course for an M.A.
in political economy).   That's how I first met him.

I thought he was an excellent teacher -- but he did have a rather
dry style.  He mostly lectured and wasn't exactly very animated
in the classroom.  But, he was always well-prepared and
knowledgeable.  He encouraged discussion in the classroom --
even though these were big classes -- but generally got few

I will never forget the first day of  that class.  The class of perhaps
70 students was stunned by his demanding requirements and
expectations: he told all present (mostly new students like myself)
that if they received a final grade below A- then they should
consider that to be a failing grade and should consider dropping-out
of graduate school!

Once you got to know him, though,  he was a very likeable and
supportive faculty member.  Like the rest of the economics faculty
at the NSSR,  he preferred to be called by his first name.  All of
the students called him Bob.  This level of informality was a distinctive
feature of the Department and was a progressive practice  intended to
break-down the traditional lines of demarcation that separate faculty
from students.   Like most of the other faculty, he also attended social
functions sponsored  by the Department and/or the Economics Society
-- the student organization that represented students (with voice and
vote!) at  Department meetings.   If he saw promise in a student, he
would go  out of his way to talk to and encourage that person.  Even
though he socialized, he was actually a rather shy person who, one
could sense,  felt awkward at such occasions.

He had a very good -- but unappreciated -- sense of humor.  In the
classroom, he had such a dry sense of humor that most students
didn't even recognize it.  I remember on several occasions he made
humorous comments  (I can't remember what they were now) and
hardly anyone recognized them for what they were.  One time he
made a joke in class and I started laughing.  All eyes were on me --
other students glared at me quizzically as if to ask 'why is Jerry
laughing?'.    It made me wonder whether it wasn't a joke after
all -- but Bob reassured me with a twinkle of acknowledgement
and a half-smile.   Another occasion comes to mind.  After my
first semester I was elected a representative of the Economics
Society and, along with the other representatives and most of the
faculty, we were waiting in a seminar room for the Department
meeting to begin.  Ross Thomson -- who was at the time a new
faculty member who taught the "Introduction to Political
Economy" sequence (a 2 semester required course in the p.e.
program on reading the three volumes of _Capital_) -- complained
about all of the time it was taking him to read and grade the
student papers for his courses.  Ross had a reputation for
meticulously reading papers and making copious comments.
Anyway, Ross asked Bob how he managed.  Bob said -- with
a perfectly straight face -- that his system is to make a pile of
all of the papers and throw them up in the air.  Those that
landed on one side of the room passed and those that fell on the
other side failed!  Not a single person in the room laughed.
Not a single person smiled or smirked.  A pregnant pause ensued.
During the pause, everyone else looked at each other as if to
ask "You don't think he's serious, do you?".  Finally, one of the
student representatives (Robert U?) asked "You don't really do
that, do you?".   Slowly -- with a timing that a professional
comic would have appreciated -- a big smile came to Bob's face.

No one questioned Bob's integrity.  He treated everyone fairly
and, if he thought that someone within the Dept. was wronged,
would fight tirelessly on that person's behalf.    He was
distressed, however, by the intrigue that sometimes accompanied
faculty hirings and re-hirings.  He found it .. well ... unseemly and
distasteful.  At the end of my first year, two political economy
faculty members were not being re-hired (primarily due to complaints
from students who objected to their theoretical perspectives!) --
Alfredo Medio and Harry Cleaver (who, as you know, went on
to make important contributions and have outstanding careers).
Well, I had a bright idea.  I went to Bob's office and asked if I
could speak to him.   When I mentioned Alfredo and Harry a
pained look came over his face.  I suggested that the students and
faculty sponsor a going away party for the outgoing faculty members
and asked him if he thought it was a good idea.  A _huge_ smile
came across his face and he reached into his wallet and handed me
three $20 bills. And that's how we were able to have a going
away party.

There were many things in the late 1970's that made the New School
Economics Department unique (e.g. over 90% of the students
considered themselves to be Marxist and all but 3 faculty members
also considered themselves to be Marxist; there was only one
truly mainstream marginalist faculty member [David
Schwartzman -- whose specialization was industrial
organization]).  One such thing was the _emphasis_ within
the Dept. on the history of economic thought and methodology.
More than any other faculty member,  Bob Heilbroner was
responsible for this emphasis.  Under his tutelage, several
generations of NSSR students were able to specialize in
these areas and write HET dissertations -- including many
on Marx and classical political economy.  This contrasted
sharply with other Economics Departments around the
country and the world which de-valued HET and
discouraged and even prevented students from studying and
writing dissertations on HET.    Even today, most Eco.
Depts. do not take HET seriously.

Within the NSSR, he helped to stimulate the study of HET.
Outside of the NSSR,  he was influential in popularizing
HET -- most notably with the best-selling book, _The
Worldly Philosophers_.   I suspect that his popular books
-- of which there were many -- will be what he will be most
remembered for by those who never attended the NSSR.
Former students -- like myself -- will remember him for
so much more.

In solidarity, Jerry

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