Learning for Life: the Prep the Way
Recollections from Jenik Radon '63
Time to reflect. 2019 is an anniversary year, for me at any rate. 60 years ago in 1959 I walked from Webster Avenue to Hughes Hall, then the home of the Prep, as a budding member of the Prep class of ’63. So when I was recently asked how my Fordham Prep Jesuit education, in particular its teaching of history, impacted my career, I admittedly had to tax my memory. In that regard, it is heartening to hear that the Prep’s social studies department will at last, as part of the East Wing Project, have a new and expanded home at the Prep, where teachers and students can comfortably meet, discuss and debate ideas.
For starters, they can reflect and discuss the events of 1959, with its tumultuous impact to be felt throughout the lives of my classmates and myself and the effects of which are still lingering today. (Or the students and teachers can discuss and debate comparable events unfolding now, as the to-be-historic events of today will unfortunately reverberate for decades to come and throughout the lives of the present Prepsters.) 1959 was to become a historic year. Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries took over Cuba, threw out the dictator Batista, as well as his Las Vegas mafia supporters ensconced in Havana, but proceeded to make Cuba a communist dictatorship on the borders of the US, even risking a world war by inviting the Soviets to host nuclear weapons on the island state. John F. Kennedy, who was attacked for being a Papist because he was Catholic, nevertheless became President of the United States and ushered in an era of hope and optimism when he inspiringly asked what can we do for America, not just what America can do for us. Pope John XXIII had unexpectedly been elected Pope at the age of 76. He immediately surprised as he ushered in a new inspirational age for the Catholic Church with his call for an ecumenical council, known as the Second Vatican Council, which began a still ongoing period of renewal for the Church. Nikita Khrushchev, famous for his boast that the Soviet Union would bury capitalism, made the first visit by a Soviet head-of-state to the US in the same month the class of ’63 enrolled in the Prep. I still vividly recall his being denied admission to Disneyland, the symbol of American optimism. A few years later we would have the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement, and the proxy wars in Africa and Latin America, the arms race and more between the West and the Soviet Union. While we were eyewitnesses to history in the making, what did we, 13 year olds, really know about these events, or what made them meaningful. We did not have the background to understand them.
Moreover in 1959, I had first to meet my own challenges, as a starter four years of Latin, bolstered by three years of Greek, not to mention English, math and social studies, before I could graduate from the Prep. And, of course, my schooling would not stop with my graduation from the Prep as I still had much to learn: economics at Columbia, city planning at Berkeley grad school and law at Stanford. My studies at each school naturally built on the other, as each was an educational building block. Of course, after 16 years of school, came the school of hard knocks, real life, where what I had learned was tested. And believe me, being an associate at a New York law firm is not heaven and the experience is in keeping with the apprenticeships a la Middle Ages.
And it cannot be forgotten that before Fordham there was elementary school, a too often overlooked formative period where we learn the very basics, the fundamentals, admittedly in simplified form. It was in Our Lady of Victory elementary school where I learned geography, an
indispensable discipline for anyone who wishes to understand and engage with people from around the world. Life has taught me that it is a matter of courtesy and respect to people of other countries to know where their country is located, its size, the languages spoken there, and its capital and principal city.
Further, learning, as we have all had to discover, does not end with school. It never stops, even 55+ years after graduation from high school. So what I can say for sure after all of this time is that the Prep laid a foundation, a very solid one I may add, for lifetime learning and a rewarding career. I am grateful to Francis X. Holbrooke, my history teacher, who sparked my imagination with his openness and personal touch and for encouraging me. And, of course, he demanded excellence.
My career has been joyfully expansive and has taken me to all continents, ok, not yet Antarctica, although I have been invited to join an expedition to the icy continent to lecture on the governing treaties, which are set to expire when I am still going strong in my 90s. Over the years, I have lectured or worked as a researcher, lawyer, teacher, advisor, executive and activist across the globe, on all continents, in over 70 countries from Estonia to Nepal to Namibia to Cambodia to Peru, and traveled to 106 independent states. As a founder of the Afghanistan Relief Committee in 1980, which had as its real purpose the expelling of the Soviets from Afghanistan, I helped support the Afghan freedom fighters. During the communist period but shortly after martial law in Poland ceased, I pushed the envelope by lecturing in Poland on why it should adopt a free market economy. I was an active supporter of the independence movement of Estonia and Latvia and co-authored a number of laws for Estonia after its independence was restored and the Soviet Union had become history. I am proud that I brought scores of Estonian high school and university students and teachers to the US for which Estonia awarded me the Order of the Cross Terra Mariana. I took on BP in the Caucasus and “forced” it to agree to adopt the highest environmental standards in the construction of the BTC oil and gas pipelines, although it did not honor its contract commitments. For my work in vigorously defending Georgia, I was given the highest civilian award, the Order of Honor, by President Shevardnadze. I had the privilege and honor to draft the peace (the so-called interim) constitution of Nepal which stopped the decade-long bloody civil war and granted citizenship to millions of stateless people of Indian origin who had lived in Nepal for decades, require a significant minimum representation by women in the parliament and enshrine human rights principles as basic rights. But what kept me going? It was the values my parents instilled in me as reinforced by the life-forming words of many of my Prep teachers who said you have been selected to attend the Prep and, as such, you have a responsibility to give back. But the how was left up to each of us. These words resonated with me then, and still do today. They gave meaning to a question I had been asking since I was eight. I wanted to know why was I here.
I drove my third grade teacher, Sister Ethelreda, crazy with that question, admittedly I had already done the same to my mother. I was acutely conscious of the fact that life was not going to be easy, in fact from my point of view unnecessarily harsh. My grandmother had suffered throughout her life. When she was in early 20s, WWI broke out with its devastating consequences. Then she suffered through years’ long economic depression in Germany, followed by the rise of Nazism and WWII. Then she became an internal refugee in Germany, having had to flee her home. She was in her 60s before life became “normal.” Why did she have to endure such suffering? I still ask that question.
My teacher’s answer to my question was simple: to merit heaven. That response still did not really tell me why I was here, or for that matter why my grandmother had to endure such hardship; and, moreover, my teacher failed to give me a roadmap on how to get there. I mysteriously came up with my own answer, admittedly vague: to leave this world better than I found it. At the age of ten, I even came up with an answer on how to make that possible: I decided that I was going to be a lawyer, not knowing what that entailed as there was no lawyer in the family. But I had somehow discovered that lawyering and doing things internationally fit together.
I was internationally focused since the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Soviet invasion. It was incomprehensible to me that hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, who sought and only yearned for freedom, were forced to flee from their homes to Austria and become refugees --- I have never forgotten the TV broadcasts showing people fleeing in freezing weather, in the snow. As it turned out two of my Prep classmates, George Vizvary and Steve Hovani, were Hungarian refugees and their stories, many of which were nightmarish, moved and inspired me. As unusual as it may sound, from then on I wanted to do my part, and, years later, becoming a founder of the Afghanistan Relief Committee was a natural way to do so.
But a career was clearly still a long way off as in 1950 I was just a high school student with dreams, which still had to become reality; and, obviously, I still had a lot to learn. Father Vincent Novak laid the core foundation in religion classes. The classes, besides teaching the history of Christianity and Catholicism, elaborated on what it meant to be human, on values and ethics, and on human dignity. As I learned later in life, these classes, as deepened by the Columbia undergraduate Core curriculum, were in essence philosophy classes on universal human rights, which has been the underpinning and driving force for most of my professional life in advising emerging countries as well as my teaching at Columbia and Stanford.
Father Novak’s classes were also an excellent counterpart to my social studies classes. The classes on global history, admittedly, were narrowly focused as they touched only on western, or European, history, but thereby they did provide a solid grounding in understanding America’s colonial European roots. My American history classes showed how a country grew rapidly from 13 English colonies on the Atlantic to a land that stretches across the entire North American continent to the Pacific, the struggle to make one country out of states with different and conflicting political and economic interests and colliding values on freedom for all or only freedom for a select few (slavery vs. non-slavery), and how concepts such as Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny became driving forces. An understanding of the roots of one’s culture and society is the sine non qua of being able to share and exchange ideas with those from other countries who naturally have different backgrounds, perspectives and viewpoints. (As an aside, maps in social studies classes in different countries always position their own country in the center of the world, which underscores the fact that national centric thinking is a worldwide phenomenon.) But to truly appreciate and know one’s own culture and its history, it is necessary to read and study original documents and texts in order to form one’s own opinion and to speak more credibly with others --- being able to cite chapter and verse is invaluable. Francis X. Holbrooke, who was also my AP History teacher, opened me up to this approach; and it has been a lifelong lesson.
The founding fathers of the US are obviously larger than life figures, but they were still people confronted with the pressing life challenges of the day. To understand what motivated them to seek independence of the US from Britain, and what energized them to see the struggle through, can best be learned from their own words. Moreover, a history text Holbrooke noted has to be selective in the choice of the events set forth for the simple reason that history is replete with events. And it has to be recognized that any author’s interpretation of the meaning of the events has to be understood through the author’s frame of reference, background and perspective. The consequence is that studying history only through the works of others, even if the interpretations of the different scholars differ on the significance of events, is still seeing history only through someone else’s eyes. In fact Holbrooke did assign readings of authors who interpreted historical events differently, even quite differently, which certainly made your think, and as it turned out is good preparation for engaging with officials, scholars and people from other countries, who invariably have a different lens on history, current facts and, accordingly, have different perspectives and opinions.
Holbrooke was a very approachable person; he encouraged a student’s curiosity; and he was great teacher --- he was everything a teacher should be. When I noted, perhaps complained, that the history readings said little about the great number of Germans who had settled in the US, something of interest to me as I was born in Berlin, Holbrooke encouraged me to delve into the history of immigration, which I continued at Columbia.
Through the prism of studying German-American history, it became clear to me that on the whole traditional history texts at that time were also sparse in their coverage of the significant contributions of other groups, whether African America, Chinese, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Native Americans or Spanish/Mexican, and sanitized the descriptions of the discrimination, suffering and attacks such groups had to endure, especially the African and Native American. The treatises ignored the fact that American culture and society is not monolithic but in fact is a melding of ideas and effort from people of diverse ethnicities, nationalities, racial and religious backgrounds, and cultures, all as captured in the forwarding looking motto of the Great Seal, e pluribus unum. It thus became clear to me that history texts are important not just for what they say, but also for what they omit, what they do not cover, as well as for how they say things, which reminded me of the words of my mother: it is not what you say but how you say it. As noted, these texts are selective by definition, which places a premium on evaluating the choices the author of the texts made in selecting what to write about. It is obvious that no text can cover all that has happened in history. The only way to resolve this conundrum is to understand that social studies classes, in particular at the high school level, are really frames-of-reference. They provide a foundational understanding and serve as an inspirational springboard for future reading, research, and study, in fact lifelong study. So the foundation laid in high school is absolutely critical as some recent studies have now found that for many people their basic political and civic beliefs are formed by the age of 18, the age at which we graduate from high school. What facts students recall, and memories obviously become hazy over time, from their high school social studies classes will, we now know, be the basis of lifetime beliefs. I have to thank the Prep as well as F. X. Holbrooke and my other Prep teachers for laying a good and solid foundation for a lifetime.
My Prep history classes also let me understand the challenges of building a country, our country the US. There are the well-known ones such as the Civil War and the fight against slavery, but also the too often overlooked, but indispensable, building blocks of democracy, in particular the separation of powers among the executive, the legislature (congress) and the judiciary. And the fight to establish this fundamental principle of checks and balances was fought early in the history of the US. The Supreme Court case Marbury vs. Madison and the fight for the independence of the judiciary was pivotal. Although I studied this case in detail at Stanford law school, it was the Prep that made me first ponder Marbury and its many implications, including how do you create, establish and maintain an independent judiciary, which, as we know, has been regularly challenged by the executive branch. And fast forward, the principles of the Marbury case have been a cornerstone for my government advisory work in Nepal, Uganda and other emerging countries.
And yes, I was acutely conscious of the consequences of the American Civil War, and the challenges of Reconstruction, in my advising in the peace process of Nepal and anchoring a fundamental right in the constitution, the right for all voices to be heard. The facts in Nepal are obviously different and the situation is dramatically different from that of America; but the fundamental questions or issues are surprisingly the similar, if not the same, including, for example, how do you reintegrate into the life of a country the former fighters on the opposing side, the people who lost the war. In my case, drawing upon and applying issues I had been exposed to and internalized, made my own, from my formative studies in Prep history classes, as deepened in college and law school, were my starting point in that situation. My past learning was effectively a compass, which, of course, had to be adapted to different facts in a different culture in a different time.
But how does the Prep ensure that the each of the Prep students of today, and of tomorrow, develop their own compass so that they can meet the challenges of tomorrow and also have a rewarding and impactful career. Yes you need inspiring teachers to instill curiosity, a tradition which the Prep has maintained. Yes you need a meaningful social studies syllabus, which takes account of how our memories work (and fade), recognizes that high school is a critical educational building block, and studies in detail at least one specific other culture, whether Indian, Chinese, Malay or one of the other hundreds of cultures which exist in the world. Once you realize and appreciate that there is at least one other culture, not just the American culture as we have come to know it, then it easy to recognize and accept that there many other cultures. Moreover, being knowledgeable about other cultures is a sign of respect because it shows that you are open to listening to other viewpoints. Showing respect is what makes engagement with others who have different backgrounds possible. People always appreciate a person who has taken the time to learn about their history and culture. And there needs to be a class in geography, a subject that has been dropped from the curriculum around the US, with, among other things, up-to-date maps identifying every country in the world --- and a failing grade should be more than one misidentification as there is no excuse for not knowing basic facts.
Furthermore, as I learned in city planning at Berkeley, suitable space for learning is critical as the rooms where you meet should be an educational home for vibrant conversation and debate between and among faculty and students. The East Wing Project promises that the social studies rooms will be that. And, I personally look forward to the inauguration of the new social studies rooms and to celebrate the opening with a lively discussion on the teaching of history in an ever more globalized world.