(Some books authored by Richard J. Blackwell.)
I just found out that my graduate school mentor, Richard J. Blackwell, died last month. He was 92. Here is an obituary with a photograph. I have kept in touch with him regularly through the years, but I hadn’t seen him in person in a long time. (In the photo he looks exactly as I remember him.)
In a previous post, I wrote about his profound influence on my intellectual development and his extraordinary generosity as a human being. He had a hearty laugh and was so calm. When I was stressed out as a graduate student I would walk into his office and talk to him. He would sit there, feet propped up on his desk, a picture of relaxation, and I immediately felt calmer—it was better than taking a Xanax!
And I still recall this handwritten letter he wrote to me so many years ago containing his sage advice:
As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
Now I want to tell a story that, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never told anyone. For my dissertation, I had to translate some previous untranslated French. I got a book called French for Reading and Translation and studied it assiduously for many months. Along with my French dictionary, I translated several passages from Jean Piaget’s Introduction to Genetic Epistemology. I submitted the relevant chapter to Professor Blackwell and awaited his response.
When we met to discuss the chapter, Professor Blackwell told me that my translations were bad. As best as I remember he said something like,
“John, your translations are childish. It’s as if you had the book in one hand and a dictionary in the other and just substituted words.”
And I’m thinking to myself “how else would you do it?”
Then he handed me 4 or 5 hand-written pages with his translations. (Professor Blackwell had a solid grounding in Latin and could translate in multiple languages.) Looking back he must have assumed my translations would be bad so he did his own beforehand. Reading them, I realized their professional quality as compared to my amateurish ones.
I then asked, “what do I do with these?” I’ll always remember his response “Just put them in there.” So Richard Blackwell did the translations in my dissertation.
Now I only hope that some official doesn’t find this post all these years later and take away my Ph.D.! But if they did it wouldn’t matter to me. It’s the love of learning that was nurtured under his tutelage that has stayed with all the decades.
So for one final time, I would thank Professor Blackwell for his immense contribution to my education. I am lucky to have been his student and will never forget him as long as I live.