At the end of the nineteenth century, in a graduation speech to Barnard College graduates, William James made the following statement:
What the colleges—teaching humanities by examples which may be special, but which must be typical and pregnant—should at least try to give us, is a general sense of what, under various disguises, superiority has always signified and may still signify. The feeling for a good human job anywhere, the admiration of the really admirable the disesteem of what is cheap and trashy and impermanent—this is what we call the critical sense, the sense for ideal values. It is the better part of what men know as wisdom. Some of us are wise in this way naturally and by genius; some of us never become so. But to have spent one’s youth at college, in contact with the choice and rare and precious, and yet still to be a blind prig or vulgarian, unable to scent out human excellence or to divine it amid its accidents, to know it only when ticketed and labeled and forced on us by others, this indeed should be accounted the very calamity and shipwreck of a higher education.
The sense for human superiority ought, then, to be considered our line, as boring subways is the engineer’s line and the surgeon’s is appendicitis. Our colleges ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities, and a disgust for cheapjacks. We ought to smell, as it were, the difference of quality in men and their proposals when we enter the world of affairs about us. Expertness in this might well atone for some of our ignorance of dynamos. The best claim we can make for the higher education, the best single phrase in which we can tell what it ought to do for us, is then, exactly what I said: it should enable us to know a good man when we see him.
When I accepted an invitation from President Sovern to chair the Hammerstein Center at Columbia University, I told him that I thought the purpose of our training was to help develop in all students we dealt with, the habit of intelligent choice. No one makes infallible choices. We all make decisions on insufficient evidence. We are denied knowledge of the repercussions, consequences, and results of our decisions before we make them. Our knowledge is limited to take place after the fact. We have no way of collecting sufficient evidence to make a perfect choice or decision. The best we can do is to learn the habit of making the most intelligent decision of which we are capable. The skills needed to manage that task are information, common sense, imagination, and courage coupled with humility. The education profession should direct its energy to cultivate those skills, no matter what the subject matter. It is with the habit of intelligent choice that a student should leave her or his educational environment.
A famous acting teacher, Stella Adler, used to teach to her students that “imagination was in the choice.” That statement meant that if the actor were to perform a father or a mother, that performer had a variety of choices by which to say good morning to a child, to reach for the morning coffee, to reflect her or his attitude towards the spouse, even how to sit in a chair. The actor might choose very trite or cliched behavior, as if he or she were acting like all parents, or the actor might choose one of a number of choices that was a bit different from all the obvious choices by which to illuminate an understanding of the performer’s specific, particular, unique parent. That choice would reflect the actor’s imagination. I will offer a few examples.
Jean Seberg, a freshman student at The University of Iowa, answered an audition call circulated by Otto Preminger, the famous director who was casting for his movie, SAINT JOAN. Seberg did her homework at age 18, daughter of a pharmacist. Instead of attempting to audition as the warrior-saint (Joan of Arc), instead of attempting to shower Preminger with knowledge of Hollywood glamour, Seberg auditioned as a fifteen year-old farm child from the countryside of France. She was selected to portray the warrior-saint, left Iowa City and State and had a significant film career.
Henry Winkler of Fonzi fame, was Stella Adler’s student who paid attention to everything that was offered him in his training at the Yale School of Drama. Answering the audition call for Alfonzo in an anticipated sit-com called HAPPY DAYS, he planned to read for that role. And paying attention to Stella Adler’s advice, he studied the material for the audition. Henry decided he would not audition with any of the trite, cliched, clues to a 50’s hotshot. Winkler decided: my Alfonzo will not wear a leather jacket, will not carry cigarettes in his sleeve, and will not comb his hair! After the first exercise, the director told Winkler, “Now go to the mirror and comb your hair.” Henry balked and muttered Alfonzo would not do that. The director impatiently said, “Go to the mirror and comb your hair.” Henry once again balked until the director ordered him to go to the mirror and comb his hair. Desperate, Winkler went to the mirror and ran his empty hand across his head as if his empty hand could comb his hair. The imagination of the actor won the day and a very famous career.
In an interview I conducted with Dustin Hoffman in 1972 or thereabouts, I asked him, “Mr. Hoffman, how did you manage to create so round and firm and fully packed a character like Ratso in MIDNIGHT COWBOY? After all, his name tells us his character.” Hoffman smiled and said, “I played his dignity.”
Marlon Brando made theatrical history by his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. His costume of a white tee shirt reflecting and illuminating his character, that of a lower-class, honest, genuine, no nonsense adversary to Blanche, whose background and personality have resulted in a young woman who could not bear the crudities of reality (a naked lightbulb without a shade to give it taste!) has become the trite costume for the Stanleys who have subsequently played that character. However, almost twenty years ago now, Alec Baldwin, much to my surprise, was wearing a suit jacket. I couldn’t believe it, until I realized that Stanley Kowalski discovers Blanche’s past because he is a traveling salesman and knows the people and the gossip in all those towns. A traveling salesman is accustomed to wearing a suit. It’s in the script.
If you wish to know the quality of your life you have thus far lived, list the decisions you have made as if on a tree of knowledge; You will discover how much imagination you have thus far exercised in the living of your life. Respect yourself sufficiently so that you will not end up having taken a long day’s journey into TRITE.
Thank you for this thoughtful article on making intelligent choices. The application of “the non-trite choice” doctrine has great meaning that should, and must, color the decisions we make every day. We can choose to follow the simple, trodden, path — or we can blaze a new way of thinking that helps re-imagine what we think we already know.
Great article! It must have been pretty exciting to interview Mr. Hoffman on such a close level. I like the examples that you gave especially about Mr. Baldwin.
I really appreciate the advice about taking stock of your life as you live it. Have I taken enough chances? Have I been too passive and ordinary? How can I make more tempting choices in the future?
Nice article. I would also think the choice must be reasonable. We don’t want a lot of untrained, crazy, choices being made that are picked just to be different without being sustainable or in tune.
It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miranda. Dr. Stein died in October. He was 90.