On Ludwig Wittgentstein and Charles Haas

by James Alan Astman
(1993)

Thinking back, I still can't believe it. I had spent almost four years writing my dissertation on "Education and Human Presence" and, in the process, studying the German philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in considerable depth. Wittgenstein's thinking had changed the way we think about language; his writing, however, was dense and abstruse. So when I gave a copy of my dissertation to Chuck Haas, I thought he would appreciate the gesture - after all, he was the one who had persuaded me to pursue my doctoral degree when I became Headmaster - but, to be honest, I hardly expected him to appreciate the content.

I should have known better. It wasn't so much that he had been educated at North Shore Country Day in Chicago and then at Harvard University. It wasn't that he had studied with such luminaries as T.S. Elliot or F.O. Matthiessen. And it wasn't even that he and his wife Emilie had been among the handful of families that started Oakwood in the early 1950s. It was simply that he was the single most well-read person I'd ever met, the most polyglot (he is fluent in several languages), and the most deeply thoughtful educator, professional or layperson, I'd ever known. So I should have anticipated that Chuck would have read my 400 page dissertation as carefully as any of my committee members had read it.

"You already know it's good," he told me when he called me just two days after receiving the volume, "so I won't waste your time complimenting you. It'd be more useful for me to tell you my criticisms." I admit it. I snickered to myself, thinking I should respond with appreciation and feigned interest. "You've misquoted Wittgenstein about the fly in the bottle."

I had a smart and quick retort. "Chuck, that's Anscombe's translation, so I can't imagine it's incorrect."

"It is incorrect," he told me in his maddening matter-of-fact way, and continued: "Let me check the original. Hold on a minute."

An interminable three minutes passed before Chuck picked up the phone, and read me from Wittgenstein's own German words. Without a trace of arrogance, but with utter certainty, he said, simply, " Anscombe was mistaken."

I suggested that I come over sometime later in the week so we could continue our conversation. And then, the moment I hung up the phone, I called the philosopher on my doctoral committee - a wonderful man named Albert Louch who had, himself, been a student of Wittegnstein's. I laughingly told him about the curious exchange I'd had with one of the school's founders, not expecting to hear his instant reply. "Your friend is quite right. Anscombe changed the translation in a later edition."

He is like unto no one, this extraordinary man who helped start the school that has been my home for nearly two decades. So it shouldn't be surprising that I haven't been able to stop thinking about him this past week, since he made the decision to step down as a General Member of the Oakwood Board.

A word of explanation: Oakwood's governing structure is headed by three General Members, at whose pleasure all other trustees serve the school. These three people hold in their hands ultimate responsibility, as well as final authority, not only for the health and well-being of the school, but for the integrity of its vision. All three are past parents - Barbara Marshall and Phyllis Gottlieb are the other two - and all three continue to be intimately involved in the life of the school. But only Chuck has seen the school grow from its earliest and most humble beginnings.

In fact, he was one of the original Oakwood parents - two sons and a daughter attended the school in its earliest days - who quite literally helped build the Elementary School campus. (Besides being a successful film director, Chuck is a talented and exceptionally literate carpenter!) He was also the person who hired Ham Smith, the gifted educator who served as the Secondary School's first principal. But it was not until the early 1970s that founding parent, Robert Ryan, a well-known actor in his day, asked Chuck to replace him as a General Member. Thankfully, but with his characteristic disdain for pomp and ceremony, Chuck agreed.

By the time I'd become Headmaster in the fall of 1979, I had already developed a deep well of affection and respect for Chuck, who gave me astonishing amounts of time and training. I think it was less than a year later when I tracked him down in France - he was on an extended stay there, if memory serves - to beg him to come back. Too many issues needed his expert attention, too many trustees needed clear and compelling leadership, and I desperately needed his support and guidance Chuck became, for the second time, Chairman of the Board for the next three years. Then he simply announced to me: "Enough is enough!"

He used these very same words to tell me of his decision to step down as General Member. From my point of view, there can never be "enough" of Chuck's wisdom, goodness, and support, all of which he has provided the school, and me, in full measure. So I am especially relieved at his willingness to serve in a special capacity as "Founding Trustee and General Member Emeritus." I am relieved, too, that he is powerless to change his blood ties (!): Chuck is the father of Toya Harrison, a longtime and gifted Oakwood teacher, and the grandparent of Elisabeth, an Oakwood senior. And, finally, I am relieved by, and deeply grateful for the choice of Chuck's extraordinary successor, Kenneth Fritz. But this is a story about Chuck, so I will await the next issue of Connections to have my say about Ken.

I have had the immense privilege of working closely with some of the very best minds in the field of education, from Elliot Eisner and Nel Noddings at Stanford to Malcolm Douglass and Albert Louch at Claremont to Paulo Freire in Brazil. But when I think about the values and vision I have developed as a teacher, or about the practical skills I have acquired as an institutional leader, or about the most powerful and enduring sources of my growth as an educator, none of these luminaries comes to mind. Instead, I think about Chuck Haas. He has given me, and all of us at Oakwood who have been the beneficiaries of his work and love, more treasures than I can possibly describe.

And I wouldn't even begin to try. Because, whatever words I might choose, Chuck will undoubtedly correct my use of the language or, if all else fails, remind me of what Wittgenstein really meant to say.

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