Too Soon Old, Too Late Wise

The students of Prof. Paul Weiss at Catholic University of America had to be careful about where they sat in his classroom. Too far from the podium and Professor Weiss, who is a bit hard of hearing, might not catch their questions. Too close and they risked getting an errant whack from his cane. But over the years the students kept coming back because Weiss taught them to think. "He runs the class by throwing out a series of theses. Then he basically says, 'Attack me'," recalls a former student, Father Robert Spitzer, 39, now a philosophy professor at Seattle University.

Paul Weiss, 90, is a world-class philosopher, an emeritus Sterling Professor at Yale and author of a score of books. He was once regarded as a prize catch by Catholic U., a financially pinched school of modest reputation in Washington, D.C. But last summer Weiss was told that he was being demoted to teaching graduate students part time. The reason, according to the university, was "shifting priorities." Weiss's highly personal brand of metaphysics no longer suited the needs of the university's philosophy department.

But the real reason that Weiss was shoved aside, according to a report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was his age. When an EEOC investigator asked a university official what factors, other than his salary and 20-year employment, went into the decision not to renew his teaching contract, the official answered, "He's 90." Undergraduates should not be taught by someone like "a grandfather," the official told the EEOC; Weiss should make way "for a younger man." Earlier this month, the EEOC gave Catholic a year to work out a settlement with Weiss. If the university fails, the agency will sue for age discrimination.

When is a teacher too old to teach? Airline pilots start losing their reflexes as they age, and senility and infirmity can be incapacitating in any profession. But philosophers are supposed to just get wiser as they get older. Bertrand Russell worked into his 90s, Kant into his 70s and Socrates until he was about 70 and the Athenian tenure committee chose not to renew his contract. Weiss believes he's another wise man handed a goblet of hemlock. He's determined to get his job back, even if it means a messy lawsuit.

Indeed, Weiss can't wait to go to court. A gnarled little man who lurches about his book-filled apartment with the aid of two canes, the professor loves confrontation. A high-school dropout (his father was a tinsmith, his mother a maid), Weiss took boxing lessons before going to night school at City College of New York. In 1929 he took his Ph.D. at Harvard, which he called "an advanced prep school for rich kids in raccoon coats." Teaching philosophy at Yale in the late '40s, he ran into strong anti-Semitism, which he defied by giving lectures like "What It Means to Be Called a Jew." (Upon the urging of his colleagues, he did go to a voice coach to lose his heavy lower East Side accent, but the teacher pronounced him incurable.) Weiss became the first Jewish faculty member at Yale College. He notes, gleefully, that a history of the school "devotes a whole chapter to the anxiety and disturbance of hiring me."

Father William Byron, Catholic's president, insists that the university went out of its way to care for Weiss. He says that Catholic allowed Weiss to teach students out of his apartment after he was slowed down by a back operation two years ago. Such an arrangement is "absolutely unprecedented," Father Byron told The Washington Post. "False!" cries Professor Weiss. "Wittgenstein had students come to his rooms at Cambridge," he declares. "Alfred North Whitehead had students to his rooms at Harvard. I know. I was one of them." Weiss is not modest about the company he keeps. He also compares himself to Plato ("who was out in left field, too"). In testifying before the EEOC, Catholic administrators alluded to Weiss's "fading reputation." "Reputation!" exclaims Weiss. "They have no reputation. I was in Who's Who in the World. They're not. They teach philosophy. I'm a philosopher."

Weiss admits that he has a poor memory. For a scholar, isn't that somewhat of a liability? "I've always had a bad memory," he snaps. "I'm not haunted by what I know. I think every issue afresh. A philosopher," he continues, "is an arrogant man who asks himself fresh questions." Weiss is delighted by the publicity his case has attracted. Columnist William F. Buckley Jr., who studied under Weiss at Yale, accused Catholic of "shabbily" treating a "truly eminent" man. But Weiss was mildly offended when The Washington Post described him as a "manic lizard." "What are they trying to convey by these references to reptiles?" he asks a visiting journalist, who doesn't quite have the heart to tell him that he looks like one. "That your movements are quick?" the visitor suggests. "Hmm," he ponders. "Makes sense." He raps his cane.

Weiss shows off his latest manuscript, "Being and Other Realities," 500 pages of typescript covered with metaphysical chicken scratches in black ink. "Revise! Revise!" he growls. "I am constantly revising." He works on the book from morning until night but says he misses his students. "I cherish teaching," he says. When will he be ready to give it up? "When I'm vague and puttering," he barks, in a tone that defies anyone to suggest that he is either.