Birenbaum: My Oral Comprehensive Examination and the JFK Assassination
For most Americans, November 22nd, 1963 is remembered as the day John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. The recent anniversary of that event brought out numerous interviews with eyewitnesses from the parade route, official participants who handled the details surrounding the passing of the presidency to Lyndon Baines Johnson, and sometimes people who were home and at work in other parts of the United States. My experience was quite different because I was a graduate student in sociology at Columbia University and I was taking part in a rite de passage involving four professors from the Department and one outside observer.
I went into my oral examination very confident that I would do well. My study group, composed of fellow students, regarded me as a “rate buster”-- an expression derived from the sociological study of work situations in the 1930s--because I answered all the mock examination questions very well. I also did well on the preliminary oral examination, with only two professors asking questions and there seemed to be no doubt that I was ready for the four examiners. I was to be quizzed in classical theory, the sociology of knowledge, political sociology and the sociology of religion. The Sociology Department opted for the oral rather than the written comprehensive because the faculty did not want to read long essays and they wanted to get a sense of how professorial the student was since this was the end of course work and he or she should be ready to enter the classroom as junior faculty.
The day of testing arrived, November 22nd, 1963, a warm day for so late in November in New York City, but I was able to walk from my nearby apartment without wearing a coat. We were all dressed in suits or sport jackets, with ties being a standard part of the dress code those days. Immediately, the proceedings were disrupted by the late arrival of the outside observer, a faculty member from another department, who announced that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. My first response was, “what about Johnson?” How I knew that the Vice-President was going to be in Dallas that day is still a mystery to me.
My committee was shaken by this news but decided to start the proceedings, perhaps because they didn’t want to inconvenience me, or themselves as well, by postponing the examination. The expressions on their faces were somber but not unduly grim. Certainly, the smiles that I was greeted with had vanished as we began my examination. There was no discussion that the examination should be postponed. I certainly didn’t call for a postponement and didn’t think I had the right to do so, even though this monumental event was stopping normal activities all over the country.
The questioning started with the sociology of religion and went on to another area after a half hour. A break was declared after an hour and two of the committee members rushed out to get to a radio. Remember, in 1963 we depended on radio and television for breaking news and faculty members didn’t carry portable radios with them during oral examinations.
Shortly, the two professors came back and announced that Kennedy was dead. One of them was a Mormon and was smoking a cigarette, a forbidden practice in the Church of the Later Day Saints. Everyone was still in shock but we went on with the second half of the examination. Two hours passed and was certainly relieved that it was done. There was little conversation at this point because the larger events of the day took over as we went our separate ways.
When the oral examination was over, I went outside, not happy but relieved that the orals were behind me. No longer did I have to participate in a study group except as someone who could be helpful to others. I ran into a friend, someone from my study group, and a faculty member who was not part of my committee. We discussed the events of the day and concluded that political deviance would be much more subject to controls since we assumed that the assassin was either from the far left or the far right.
Looking back on November 22nd, 1963 only a few days later, what struck me as strange, and not fully defensible, was that as sociologists we did not halt the proceedings, even though it was important and take to the streets to find out what people were thinking and how they were behaving. I certainly didn’t make a recommendation that we do that. It was never brought up and the wheels of academia continued to grind on.
I returned to my apartment, and with my roommates and a friend, we watched the endless photographic and filmed repeats of the assassination and the endless trivial reporting of the newscasters, who spent the entire day and night commenting on the event. My friend, later to become a Canadian historian, made some anarchic cracks about the event and particularly the way that Mrs. Kennedy started to climb or, better, crawl out of the convertible. He thought she was trying to save her life, although he didn’t exactly use those words. I found his comments distasteful and told him so. The event deserved a respectful response. To me, the murder of her husband could provoke desperate behavior. Some years later, I went with yet another historian friend of mine to a performance by Lenny Bruce, the outrageous comedian, at a club in Greenwich Village, and he basically made the same observation about Jackie Kennedy that I heard on November 22nd 1963. This time, my friend found Bruce’s monologue offensive while I did not.
The next day, I left for Ann Arbor, Michigan to spend some time with my sweetheart, later my wife, to recover. A good deal of the joy of the visit was tempered by the loss of a president we both admired. While in Ann Arbor, we sat drinking coffee at a shop with a television and saw the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, a local hood who I immediately identified as Jewish. I spent a lovely week there and I was able to move away from my orals examination on that terrible day and the event that would change the way we live.
The story does not quite end with the death of Oswald. I learned soon after that he spent a year and a half in the Bronx when he was in his early teenage years and he went to Junior High School 44 at the same time I was there. I never met him but if I did, I would remember a boy from Texas living in the Bronx. A recent article in the New York Times suggested that he was disturbed and took out some of his aggressions on the building in which he and his mother lived.
Can sociology contribute anything to learning about fast-moving events? Only recently I learned that students in the Department of Sociology right after the assassination did seek to learn about what “the man-in-the-street” was thinking. That effort didn’t amount to much and journalists, over the past fifty years, have eclipsed sociologists in finding out what was happening in the streets, bars, and coffee shops, when events like the assassination or even larger atrocities overtake us. Still, my experience was unique and I have to talk about it at least every twenty-five years.