When President Eisenhower of the old USA visited Dartmouth in the 1950s, he said it looked exactly the way a college ought to. By the late ’90s it still did, despite the fact that they’d built an ultra-modern student center on the traditional green —part of the “foul your own nest” maxim that ruled most campuses from the 1960s on. Those were the days when “art” was defined as whatever was ugly or shocking or out of place, not what was beautiful.
Professor Sanft had retired from the German department in 2012. Actually, he was driven out by the weirdos who then populated college faculties —the feminists, freaks, and phonies who had replaced learning with politics. I found him at a house in Hanover, which turned out to be not his residence but the college-in-hiding, otherwise known as the Martin Institute. It seemed some conservative alumni, recognizing that the barbarians were within the gates of their alma mater, had bought a house in town, brought in Professor Sanft and a few other genuine scholars, and were offering Dartmouth students the courses the college would no longer teach, like the great books of Western civilization.
I knew the prof and I would get along when I saw the Zeppelin poster on his office door and smelled the pipe smoke curling out the same. The office was a vast clutter of books and papers, pipes and walking sticks, straw hats and the occasional bottle of something refreshing; no old Sandinista posters on the walls here. Professor Sanft, dressed in a white linen suit for summer and the Raj, with a pink shirt and polka-dot bow-tie, bid me welcome. Jim Sampsonoff had written, saying I’d be by. I wasn’t quite sure why I was there, but the professor seemed to know.
“Jim says you’re interested in getting an education,” he opened.
“Well, I thought I already had one,” I replied. “I graduated from Bowdoin with a pre-med major, before I decided I’d rather make holes in people with a bullet than a scalpel. It’s quicker and more fun, though the pay is less.”
“What do you think an education is?” he continued.
“Going to college, taking some courses and getting a degree, I guess,” I responded, suspecting this was not the right answer.
“No, that’s just credentialing. It may help you get a job, but it won’t help you, yourself, much beyond that. Do you know what the word ‘education’ means?”
I allowed as I hadn’t thought about that much.
“It’s from the Latin ex, for ‘out’ or ‘beyond,’ plus ducare, to lead. An education leads you out beyond where you were, in terms of your understanding of life, the universe, and everything. Did Bowdoin do that for you?”
“Well, not really,” I guessed. But I wasn’t sure this was leading me where I wanted to go, either. “Jim said I should see you because you would help me understand why I got fired for doing what I thought was right. Would a real education help me understand that?” I asked.
“Yes, and perhaps a few more things besides,” answered Professor Sanft. “There was a fellow named Socrates, some years back, who had a similar experience. Ever hear of him?”
I had, and I remembered something about drinking some bad hemlock wine or some such, but beyond that it was hazy.
“You’re in the same situation as most of the students who come to me here,” he said. “You know where you are in space but not in time. You don’t know where you came from. You live in Western civilization, but you don’t know what it is. You don’t know that this civilization had a beginning and went through some rather remarkable times before getting to where we are today.”
“Without the songs and stories of the West, our West , we are impoverished,” he continued. “Weightless and drifting, we do not know where we are in history. We are what the Germans call mere Luftmenschen – in a free translation, airheads.”
The mention of history perked me up. Ever since I was about eight years old, I’d read a lot of military history. I learned to read not so much in school as by falling in love with C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, which followed a British naval officer in his career from midshipman through admiral, in the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. They were fiction, but rooted in fact. I didn’t realize it until much later, but they were also a great introduction to military decision-making.
“In the Marine Corps,” I said, “I saw that people who hadn’t read much military history could only follow processes, which they learned by rote. They could not understand the situation they were in. They had no context.”
“That’s an insight most Dartmouth students don’t have,” said the professor. “And it is what I’m talking about, on a larger scale. Just as your fellow Marines could not understand a military situation, so you can’t understand your situation in the war for our culture. Literally, you can’t see your place—situ—in it.”
“Jim said I was a casualty in the culture war. I always thought wars were fought by guys with uniforms and guns. I’m not quite sure what this ‘culture war’ is all about,” I said.
“Sadly, this great culture of ours, Western culture, is under attack,” the professor replied. “The universities today are active and conscious agents in its destruction. Indeed, they have generated theories as to why Western culture should be destroyed. Of course, they aren’t alone. The most powerful single force in America now is the entertainment industry, and it is also an agent of cultural destruction. Many of the politicians play the game too. The usual code-words are ‘racism, sexism, and homophobia.’ When you hear them, you’re hearing the worms gnawing at the foundation.”
I’d been told my high crime was “sexism,” so that clicked, and Col. Ryan was certainly a politician. It sounded as if there were a new battlefield I needed to understand.
“So where do I start?” I asked.
“By studying our culture – what it is, where it came from, what its great ideas and values are and why we hold them to be great,” Professor Sanft answered. “In other words, with an education.”
He’d brought me back to where we’d started, though now I grasped what he meant.
“That doesn’t mean going back to college,” he continued. “You can do it on your own. In fact, to a large degree, you have to do it on your own now, even if you are a college student. That’s why we have this institute, and why I’m here. And I can give you a small present that will get you started.” He handed me a copy of a book: Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe. “Another Darmouth professor, Jeffery Hart, wrote this a few years ago. Think of it as a road map, though I’ve heard it’s dangerous to give those to infantry officers,” Professor Sanft said.
“Thanks, I think,” I replied. Actually, we grunts did get lost a lot, we just tried to keep it a trade secret.
“It tells you what to read, what commentaries are best, and offers a few comments of its own,” Professor Sanft said. “The books don’t cost much, a tiny fraction of a year’s tuition at Dartmouth, but they’ll do for you what Dartmouth no longer does. They will make you an educated man of the West.”
I thanked Professor Sanft that day, though not nearly as much as I’ve thanked him since. I went to the Dartmouth Bookstore and stocked up. Maine would give me time for reading.
When we look back on our lives, incidents that seemed small at the time may take on great importance. That half-hour with Professor Gottfried Sanft changed my life. Most of my years since that day in Hanover have been spent fighting for Western culture, then rebuilding it, piece by piece, once the fighting part was done.
Thanks to Professor Sanft, this was one infantryman who wasn’t lost.