(Some books authored by Richard Blackwell.)
I just found out that my graduate school mentor, Richard J. Blackwell, died last month. Here is an obituary with a photograph. While I have kept in touch with him regularly through the years, I hadn’t seen him in person in a long time. But the photo must have been taken about the time I was his graduate student for it is 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 grad student I would go into his office, talk to him, and it was better than taking a Xanax! I instantly felt better.
And I still recall that handwritten letter he wrote so many years ago containing this 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.
This is still 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 then translated many passages from Jean Piaget’s Introduction to Genetic Epistemology. I turned in the relevant chapter to Professor Blackwell and waited for his response.
When we got together to discuss the chapter, Professor Blackwell told me that my translations were very poor. As best as I remember he said,
“John, 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 3 or 4 hand-written pages with translations that he had done himself. (Professor Blackwell had a solid grounding in Latin could translate in multiple languages.) I started to read them and immediately realized the quality of the translations 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’s translations ended up in my dissertation. He probably knew that given my French translations skills it would take me years to complete my dissertation.
Now I only hope that some official doesn’t find this post all these years later and take away my PhD:) But if they did it wouldn’t matter to me. It’s the love of learning that was nourished under Dr. Blackwell’s 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.