Monday, November 28, 2011

Conserve and correct, counseled Clemens

Not an original thought or political philosophy. I encountered the writings of William F. Buckley, Jr., Edmund Burke, and the likes of J. William Fulbright in my Archmere Academy, a "preparatory" (for more than I'll ever know) school for (then just) boys in Claymont Delaware, under the guiding intellect of my political science (not civics) teacher, Mr. Paul N. Clemens. He assigned many books to us. We discussed them. He gave me a few books from his extensive library. We read Fulbright’s The Arrogance of Power, and editorials written by Buckley and other thinkers of the time.

We listened and debated. We wrote papers; many. Mr. Clemens engaged us in the hallways and in the library. He kept his office door open. He assisted us with applications to universities. Mr. Clemens offered great lectures, but he listened intently.

This was 1967. I watched Buckley on TV every week as he debated the notables of day like Gore Vidal. Spirited to say the least. Explosive at times, actually. Articulate and astute beyond my vocabulary (I still need a dictionary close at hand when I read Bill). I ventured into Philly a few times to listen to the revolutionary speeches on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania (not Penn State, that campus is further west, a lot further west). Perhaps that Quaker spirit in Philly, that William Penn statue on City Hall, that Ben Franklin tongue-in-cheek atmosphere had something to do with this search for ways...realizing that we make our way, that the way is not set out for us. It's the Philly way, paved with a lot of bricks that aren't yellow by the way...

Exciting times, I felt at the time and I still ache to understand it all. My mayor, Joe Eyre, lived a few houses down from my 800 square-foot row house, in Highland Gardens, Chester, Pa. He lived in one of those little row houses too. Joe was a big guy in many ways, but this city leader always had time for me. He often admitted that “times they were a changin’” and he didn’t listen to Bob Dylan.

In the midst of all the confusion and change, Paul Clemens kept his cool, in and out of class. He wanted us to swim in the complex mix of ideas and he certainly, in retrospect, threw us into the deep end beginning freshman year. He challenged us to write well, to read more, and consider alternate perspectives. I remember when I told him that I felt an affinity with Buckley. He smiled and counseled me to “conserve and correct”; to appreciate and understand the goodness, to assess the world around me, to think, to develop courses of action (something that helped me a great deal in my military career), to work to write clearly, and to act upon my conclusions.

Conservation is a matter of judgment; collective judgments, for we live in a democracy. Corrections deserve careful thought, time, and planning. This, among many more things I’ve forgotten and will endeavor to remember, Paul Clemens taught me. I’m still a conservative, Mr. Clemens, in that conserve and correct kind of way.

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