Part One: College
I was born -- John Steven Kreis -- in the early morning hours of July 11, 1954 in New Haven, Connecticut. My father, David, was an OB-GYN at Yale-New Haven Hospital and because he was in solo practice I hardly ever saw him. But my brother Dave, three years my senior, was always there as was my mother, Androneke or Niki. We lived a rather comfortable life -- solid middle class, suburban, I suppose. I still remember the little white house on Grace Trail in Orange, the tree fort my Dad built, planting flowers with my mother, and the room I shared with Dave. Just as if it were yesterday, I also remember watching hours of the Three Stooges (with Officer Joe Bolton), "The Honeymooners," "I Love Lucy," Abbott and Costello and so on. My mother, who was raised in a Greek household in Winchester, MA, did not have the opportunity to attend a four-year school (her three siblings did, but that's a long story) but was an avid reader. She consumed books and I know that my passion for reading books was wholly her doing. Our house was always full of books, many of which I have to this day
I attended Racebrook Elementary School on Granniss Road in Orange (1960-1966). What I can most remember about that school was that I hated almost every day of it. For some reason the place scared me to death. With the exception of my second grade teacher, who managed to make learning fun AND take an interest in me, I led a rather miserable existence and did not do very well at all. I played Little League baseball and learned to play the saxophone as well. One thing I do remember is that I loved to laugh and so I found that my laughing often put me in the principal's office -- I was a regular! I also remember my sixth grade teacher who wore this huge college ring on his right hand. I once saw him turn the large part of his ring toward his palm and with that he would strike -- not too hard, but not too soft either -- the skull of some troublesome student. What a jerk!
I came from an educated family. My Dad did his undergraduate work at Brown and then went to Tufts Medical School (against his father's wishes who wanted him to be an engineer!). He went to Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven and so did my brother (the school is now known as The Hopkins School), who eventually graduated from Harvard College and then Yale Medical School. So, it was more or less decided that I go to Hopkins as well. I was up on the hill from 1966 to 1972. Hopkins is a prep school that dates back to 1660 and was built to send students to Harvard. My experience there was essentially little different from my elementary school days. Every day brought fears that I would have the wrong answer. And some of the kids in that school were certainly bright -- my class graduated seventy-two boys, almost a third of whom went on to Ivy League schools. Of course, I tried to compete with my brother but that was hopeless. He went on to win award after award, varsity letter after varsity letter, class officer, student council and so on. Me? I muddled through all my classes with barely passing grades. I still have the grades and to this day I don't know how the hell it was that I actually graduated. I did manage to letter in soccer, swimming and lacrosse and edited the yearbook for my class.
My earliest academic interests were in the physical sciences and environmental studies. I also became something of a photographer (Mamiya C-330 Pro TLR and Minolta SRT-101). By my senior year I had decided to study geology in college. I had this vision of rambling across the desert in a Jeep CJ-5 in search of, I don't know . . . rocks! Nice vision! It didn't last very long.
In a Form II (8th grade) western civilization class, I wrote a book review of Lost Worlds, by Anne Terry White. It was a horrible paper! I know because I've still got it. I received a grade of 70 on it! On the first page I wrote that "I have always been interested in finding odd things in the most peculiar places." My history instructor, Mr. Karl Crawford, wrote in the margin, "Curiosity is the essence of a good historian, either fledgling or professional. Don't lose it."
I spent a brief stint at the University of Miami (one semester, in fact!). I intended to major in marine geology but ended up doing things like skipping class, hitch hiking to Long Key, learning what it meant to live away from home for the first time and, in general, not doing what I was supposed to do, which was study and get a degree. My class in Physical Geology was interesting but the prospect of having to then take calculus, inorganic chemistry, and minerology was too much for me. I stopped attending my other classes -- in fact, it's been so long, I can't even remember what other classes I skipped! I was not ready for college. So, after my final exams I left Miami in January 1973 and went to work as a material handler ($2.50/hour) at Deck House, Inc., a building company in Acton, Massachusetts. I lived with my grandmother in Winchester, MA and woke up every morning at 5:30. She'd have a fried egg sandwich wrapped in foil for me and I ate that while walking to my uncle's house where I would climb in the back of a pick up truck for the twenty mile drive to work. I did this for about seven months. I did get a lot out of the experience. I learned how to drive a forklift, load forty foot flat-bed trailers, and handle all sorts of building materials. I also learned the meaning of work -- hard work.
Ready to give it yet another try, in the Fall of 1973, I was accepted to the College of Basic Studies, a two year, general education program at Boston University. I eventually graduated from the College of Liberal Arts in 1977 with a dual B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science, with an emphasis on modern political philosophy. At this time I was attracted to the writings of all the major political theorists in the Western tradition, but especially Karl Marx. I wrote two lengthy papers for seminars in Marxist thought. The first detailed (as best I could), Marx's theory of alienation. The second essay was a lengthy biographical sketch of Ferdinand Lassalle. While at BU I was fortunate to have attended the lectures of Howard Zinn (d. January 27, 2010), Alasdair MacIntyre, Marx Wartofsky (d. March, 1997), Elizabeth Rapaport, Sidney Burrell (d. January, 2004), and J. N. Findlay (d. 1987).
Between my sophomore and junior year (1975) I realized that I had become less interested in a specific political philosopher than I was in the specific historical epoch in which that philosopher lived and wrote. I recognized that it was perhaps not possible to grasp the meaning of a specific political philosopher or philosophy unless one also understood the historical background in which a particular treatise was written or in which a a particular writer lived. I began to read rather widely and wildly -- choosing books that appealed to me but without any sort of direct plan. Over the summer I was given a list of a dozen or so books from Thomas Conway, who had been my mentor at B.U. since 1973. His list included Peter Gay's The Enlightenment, Isaiah Berlin's Vico and Herder, H. Stuart Hughes' Consciousness and Society, J. H. Randall's The Career of Philosophy, Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death, Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, Soviet Marxism, and Eros and Civilization, and Jacques Barzun's Classic, Romantic and Modern.
I loved it! I devoured these books and began to collect used books as fast as possible. Boston and Cambridge are great places for that! It was at the beginning of my junior year that I realized I wanted to study European intellectual history, the history of ideas, and the philosophy of history. But, I remained in the Political Science and Philosophy departments, taking my required courses including German. I ended my undergraduate years by taking Sidney Burrell's two-part graduate level-course, "The History of Historical Thinking." I would say that of all the courses I took as an undergraduate, it was Burrell's that taught me the most. It was also in Burrell's course that I first read R. G. Collingwood's (1889-1943) The Idea of History, a wonderful book which taught me to appreciate the philosophy of history as a personal and academic pursuit. There was something about Collingwood. It wasn't just that he had something important to say. It was that it impressed upon me an ethos of scholarship. I don't mean to conclude that he made me want to "play" scholar, but his scholarship certainly infused me with the idea that scholarship was indeed possible (and perhaps even necessary!)
I also managed to enroll in J. N. Findlay's course, "Kant." We read Kant's Inaugural Dissertation but the real focus of the class was The Critique of Pure Reason. We also had to read Norman Kemp Smith's Commentary as well as several other critical works. It was a ninety-minute, late afternoon class that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The twenty-odd students would assemble and from the groans and head-shaking you could tell the Transcendental Aesthetic had us beat. Finley would enter the room, sit at his desk and then hand out his lecture notes for the day. And what lecture notes. They were usually four pages in length, single-spaced with 5mm margins! And the smell of that purple ink! He would then lean back in his chair, close his eyes and talk for an hour. I confess that Kant was a killer but I took the course as a test to see if I could actually comprehend the system. It was a tough class and I was surrounded by graduate students but I did end up with a B for a grade, a grade which certainly did not reflect the gargantuan effort I put forth. Kant is tough going -- and so was Findlay.
Not wanting to leave the city of Boston, and realizing that my chances of attending B.U. as a graduate student were slim, (my grades were good but not great -- a 3.0 or thereabouts) I applied to the graduate program in Political Science at Boston College and was accepted. I did not like the program. B.C. is a great school but I found myself taking classes from professors who were not that interested in an historical approach to the study of political theory. In fact, one professor was quite liberal with his red pen whenever I mentioned the word history. Although I received excellent grades for my work, I quit after only one semester and then entered the manual labor phase of my life.
From 1974 to 1979 I lived in an apartment on Queensberry Street in the heart of The Fenway, just blocks from Kenmore Square, Fenway Park, and The Museum of Fine Arts.
Between January 1978 and August 1981 I worked again at Deck House and at several lumber yards in the Boston area. I also managed to drive cross country in my 1973 Ravenna Green Kharmann Ghia (the image is not of the car I owned, but it's the same year and color, and some color!). Two stops still provide fond memories -- San Diego and Jackson Hole.
I have always felt that my work career was as equally important as my academic training. There is a great deal that I learned as a manual laborer that later came in handy when I studied labor history in graduate school (of course, it's worth mentioning that I sort of had problems with labor historians who never, well, "labored"). When I quit my last job in 1981 in order to go to graduate school I was making excellent money, driving MGBs, drinking Heineken and having a good time.
But I decided that making money was not enough. I wanted to get back to my studies. I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. I applied to several graduate schools and was ultimately accepted to the graduate program in History at the University of Missouri-Columbia . . .
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Copyright © 2000, 2006 Steven Kreis