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Alexander Gerschenkron

Faculty Profile

By Rand K. Rosenblatt

My first impression of Alexander Gerschenkron came not from the man, but from his office. In contrast to the long, cold corridors of Littauer Center, his small room was intensely human; hundreds of books covering the walls and, stacked high on the floor and chairs, along with glasses for fine wine, tobacco and pipes, two large knives, and a rifle resting on the couch. He apologized slightly for the disorder--"I've just come back from Oxford"--and he remarked, with an eye to the sleet falling outside, that Europe had been worse--all wrapped in fog.

"I was educated in Russia and Austria," he recalled. "Of the Russian schools I have no pleasant memories. The Austrian schools were just as bad, but at least they taught me German. Like most Continental systems, we studied about twenty-five subjects with twenty-five dogmatic texts. We missed all the beauty of Latin poetry because we were too busy studying grammar and syntax. We learned the techniques of calculus without understanding them--I can still do calculus problems in my sleep."

Compared to his own "burdened" education, Professor Gerschenkron felt that his children's American schooling had been far superior. "I'm a great admirer of good American secondary education. My daughter learned fewer facts than I did, but they learned how to work, and even more important, how to doubt. It's up to the university to fill in the actual gaps, and this is one justification for the General Education and interdisciplinary programs."

He spoke in fluent, idiomatic English--it "got his gizzard" when someone praised the old Continental school system. Yet Europe gave him his languages; I saw books in German, Russian, French, Italian, Swedish, and Latin, and there were probably more. He was modest about his gifts: "In European economic history, you pick up languages as you go along." Walking to the bookcase, he put his hand on some volumes by the great Swedish economic historian, Eli Heckscher. "I am a great admirer of Heckscher's, and the Scandinavian experience is very important. So my wife and I learned Swedish together."

Gerschenkron's Specialty

From Heckscher's work, the discussion moved to Gerschenkron's specialty, economic history, which deals with the processes of economic change.

"The weakness of economic history, until recently, was that it was done mainly by historians and lawyers. They had definite contributions to make, but they could not even raise, let alone solve, significant economic problems. Eli Heckscher recognized the importance of the adjective in 'economic history'; he saw that while the questions and solutions lay partly in political, social, and religious history, they were fundamentally economic problems."

"After World War II, the tremendous interest in economic development had a profound effect on economic history. Economic historians became aware of larger problems than those of the French glass industry from 1650 to 1660; they saw that the European experience was relevant to the economic efforts of Africa and Asia." Gerschenkron refrained, however, from drawing any easy lessons from the older industrial countries; as he noted in an essay on Doctor Zhivago, "all analogies limp." "The economic paths of the new nations will be similar, but not identical, to those of their European predecessors; the differences are especially great in the areas of location and technology."

More Articulate than Bright

Threading his way between the stacks of books, he returned to his seat and relit his pipe, his eyes smiling through his steel-rimmed spectacles. "American undergraduates are more articulate than they are bright, and brighter than they are intelligent. By 'bright' I mean the ability to solve problems within a pre-established framework of reasoning. 'Intelligence' is the willingness and the ability to establish a framework for yourself."

According to Gerschenkron, his undergraduate course for this term, the first in several years, will be an exercise in intelligence rather than in brightness. Titled "The Political Element in Economic History," it was originally conceived as a dialogue between the disciplines of politics and economics. Gerschenkron now sees it, however, as an attempt to pick out the political factor in economics, and to define its importance. "The key thing is to establish the limits of propositions and approaches--the boundaries beyond which the hypotheses no longer hold water." By teaching an upper-level General Education course, rather than one on strict economic history, Gerschenkron can proceed by "free association." "I feel liberated from the rigor of discipline. If I find something that interest the students and myself, we can follow it out."

Shuns the Metaphysical

Such intellectual "branching out" seems characteristic of Gerschenkron's style of work. At the same time, he shuns the metaphysical, and prefers "operational or empirical data." This double approach to economic history, at once imaginative and factual, is reflected in his latest book, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. (H.U.P., 1962) A humanistic tone pervades the entire book; economic data is meaningfully punctuated by evidence from poets and novelists in five languages.

As I prepared to leave, and stood looking at the books on philosophy, Latin poetry, and Scandinavian economics, I could not help asking Professor Gerschenkron how he had managed to escape the ill effects of his oppressive schooling. "It was a tough system," he replied. "If you failed one subject, you had to repeat a whole year, which did you great social harm. But school was so mechanical, so bureaucratic, that everyone read outside school and developed outside interests." "Mine," he added, "was Bulgarian philology."

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