Amongst the Most Lucid Prose in the English Language

by Robert Kent '84

A black and white photograph shows a young woman with her parents on either side of her.
Photo courtesy of Deborah Brothers, Williams College Costume Director and Lecturer in Theatre and daughter-in-law to Clara and David Park

One of my fondest memories at Williams was my association with Clara and David Park.

My frosh year Winter Study was David Park's class Quarks and Gluons (subatomic particle physics, but where he did all the math for us and we talked about the implications, so the course was as much philosophy as it was physics). The course requirements for the five people taking the course were to come to class five days a week, do the readings (mostly in Scientific American), and produce ten stellingen. Professor Park explained that "stellingen" is a Dutch word and there's no satisfactory English equivalent - but basically it is a short pithy proposition with some meat on its bones, along the lines of "God exists because _____________." It turned out the Professor Park spoke eight languages, was editor of the Journal for the Study of Time, and when he took time off he went hiking in the Himalayas. His last book, The How and the Why (a history of explanation which is still in print 40 years later), had won the Phi Beta Kappa award, which sounded prestigious to me at the time.

In other words, I was quite impressed with David Park as a scholar, as a teacher (two hours a day, five days a week for the month of January and I was never bored), and he was also just a cool guy.

Later that spring, at a philosophy majors picnic in Professor Nathaniel Lawrence's backyard, I got talking about how impressed I was with David Park, and Professor Lawrence commented something along the lines of "I've known David for quite a long time, and he's a great scholar, but you need to know that his wife Clara is the brighter of the two." He then proceeded to tell me the story about how when their autistic daughter Jessica was born, the prevailing theory about autism, put forth in a book by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim titled The Empty Fortress, contended that 1] autism was the result of something the parents had done, 2] that the best thing for the child was a supportive institutional environment, and 3] that the child's mental life consisted entirely and only of the walls they put up, and that there was nothing "inside" those walls.

Eight years after Jessica was born, having ignored prevailing wisdom on the matter and having raised her daughter at their home on Hoxsey Street, Clara published The Siege: A Family's Journey Into the World of an Autistic Childalmost singlehandedly rewriting the standard treatment for autistic children in the process. Professor Lawrence declared that the writing in the first 180 pages of that book, before a more technical afterward, was "amongst the most lucid prose in the English language." Note that he said that without qualifiers - not "of this decade," not "in books about child development" . . .

I do not believe this was an exaggeration, just a simple statement of fact.

I bought the book the next day, and took her course on Dante the next semester, and her course on Shakespeare the term after that. For the Shakespeare class, we were all required to recite 75 lines, but instead of meeting in her office in Stetson, she had students come to her kitchen. I guessed correctly that the smart move was to sign up for the last morning slot, because after reciting my lines"But soft what light thru yonder window breaks, etc."she invited me to stay for lunch.

After graduation I returned to campus fairly regularly, enjoying a mini-reunion with a small cadre of classmates, and I always made arrangements to meet the Parks for lunch or for tea until they passed away.

I feel honored to have been in their orbit, and only at a place like Williams would that have happened.

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2 comments on Amongst the Most Lucid Prose in the English Language

  1. What a marvellous reflection. Indeed, only at Williams. Volcanic capacity of the heart and mind. Joy.

  2. I could not agree more, Rob. So fortunate that Ted and Marcus snd I were also in that winter study course. So few students since nobody in their right mind wants to take an early morning 2 hr course 5 days a week in winter study, but what a treat. And Clara’s book is a masterpiece. Thanks for sharing,

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