WHEN I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, about a million years ago, I walked a lot.
Graduate students have no money. When I came to Pitt I had a vintage Chrysler New Yorker, a white sedan with a black vinyl top and a large gas-hungry engine, which my dad bought for $100 along with a Saint Bernard. (The dog was the primary purchase, it was the car that was thrown in.) The car broke down constantly and I could not afford to repair it, or tow it, or put gas in it. So, after a few months I junked it for fifty bucks. My dad was furious. He refused to acknowledge the depths of that car’s problems. “He sees them as they were on the showroom floor,” my mother said of the stray cars my father adopted.
So, I walked.
That’s how you get to know and love a city. Walking it.
Two of my kids live in Brooklyn, a place that is a mystery to me. But upper and lower Manhattan I know because, over many years, and the course of one work project, I walked it.
Over the four years of my study at Pitt I lived in Shadyside, in Bloomfield and in Squirrel Hill. And I walked from Pitt to my apartment in those places most of the time because I was too impatient to wait for the bus. In winter, one could freeze while waiting for a bus. Better to walk.
And I walked from Pitt every Wednesday night to John W. Chapman’s home for his graduate seminar in political theory. I have mentioned Dr. Chapman in this space before. He lived just above Carnegie Mellon and behind the golf club. I would stop, if the weather was good, to read over my paper for that week in Schenley Park, a place very special to young people then, and I suspect now, as well.
Everyone wrote a paper every week for Dr. Chapman, on an assigned book. His premise was one I have lived by for 35 years since: You don’t really know what you think about something until you have to write about it.
Another professor crucial to my Pitt years, and my way of looking at the world, was Richard Cottam — this nation’s leading expert on Iran at that time and one of the greatest teachers in the history of Pitt. He, too, lived in Squirrel Hill, where each semester he kicked off his “game” for his undergraduate class — a simulation of World War III. The game was designed to teach the fragility of communication and the ease with which misunderstanding could slip into catastrophe. And that first night, the first night I attended, featured Iranian music and food, neither of which anyone present had ever encountered before.
A year later, the American hostages were taken in Iran, Iran was the enemy, and Dr. Cottam, who loved the anonymity of being a scholar, was a celebrity and sometime presidential adviser.
Squirrel Hill was my favorite place to live in Pittsburgh (I loved Bloomfield, too) because there was a public library there and the Squirrel Hill Cafe was essentially across the street from it; because of the delis, where old men argued with each other at the top of their lungs; and because of the Manor Theater, where I was introduced to French farce, which I loved and Kurosawa, whom I did not yet understand. And because Messrs. Chapman and Cottam lived there. Dr. Cottam taught me how empathy might be employed in social science. Dr. Chapman taught me how to think critically.
Both men viewed religion with a cold eye. John Chapman saw World War II and did not comprehend how a benevolent God could have allowed it. Richard Cottam saw what religion did to Iran.
They were two humanists living in a haven of humanism — Squirrel Hill, where madness came one week ago.
And if you ask me to write what I think humanism is, I would say this: The ability of humanity to prevail, with the help of certain intellectual tools we have acquired through the ages: Reason, respect for science, love of the arts, civility, manners, and intellectual curiosity.
And there is one other thing, at least in America: Generosity of spirit. I think of the great American humanists, be they in letters (John Updike, John Cheever, Saul Bellow), in the arts (Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, Robert Shaw), in diplomacy (George F. Kennan), in science (Freeman Dyson), in true religion (Dorothy Day) and I see an openness of spirit. And I think that is what our country needs today — the learned, open-hearted, and open-minded humanists, eager to engage their fellow citizens and at pains to understand them. And, more inclined to embrace expanded legal immigration than decry illegal immigrants; more inclined to look past party and ideology than to cling to it; more inclined to reach across the table than turn away in disdain. I want to walk with them.
Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade, and editorial director for Block Newspapers.
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