An interview with Richard Zacks [listen via this 17mb .mp3]

Jim Zellmer: OK. Richard, you've written about education. What is education? What does it mean to be educated today? What do you think?

Richard Zacks: I was so afraid you'd ask that question.


Richard: I've got to be honest with you, I'm really not a big picture kind of guy. I'm more of--I told you this before--but who, what, where, when. But keep it...I mean, I was thinking about that a little bit. I think more in the particulars of I really enjoy it when someone's well educated in one field or one area.

There are guys who know everything about poker, guys who I ride on the train and just talk Wall Street with, guys who know sports. I was trying to think of general views on education and I just haven't been forced to think that way. I think people should be well grounded in the basic areas but, I was thinking about, not in a grinder way.

In our family the worst thing you can insult somebody is call them a grinder. It just means that all they do is study for the test. Robert Frost, as a schoolboy, is someone who can tell you what he knows and the order that he learned it. I think there's way too much of that going around in America today. Studying for the test and a limited kind of knowledge.

But I don't have a great answer for you about what does it mean to be educated, sorry.

Jim Zellmer: Well, so let's talk about your education then. You mentioned Horace Mann, in the news recently. How did you end up there as a young boy?

Richard: I loved the education that I got. First, I went to Hunter College Elementary School, which was only one of seven kids got in so it was already kind of a select school. Had great teachers there. Then, went to Horace Mann because my parents, I was an only child and they decided where to put the money was in education.

I loved Horace Mann, I have to say. Right, we'll get it up front. I was not molested. I was pinched however. There was...I'll even name his name. Mr. Wooster was the English teacher. He had this kind of grandfather white hair and he used to hug people way too much.

If you did something bad...I was caught eating Sweet Tarts. He made me sit on his lap. He grew a couple of his fingernails really long and he would pinch you. We called it the "Woo pinch." When he pinched me he got me in an incredibly sensitive part of the body which...


Richard: At the time, you kind of tell people the story, I thought he missed my thigh and caught another part. You didn't talk about it. It was over with. You didn't eat Sweat Tarts again. Anyhow...

No, the best part about Horace Mann was, indeed, it was so quirky. We had, Mr. Glidden was the general language teacher and we got to taste test...I think they should have this course, actually. It was called general language. You had a month of German, a month of Spanish, a month of Italian, a month of French, a month of Latin. But he was so quirky about it.

He had a vocabulary list that started with the word zarf--a holder for a hot coffee cup--then strigil--a Greco-Roman skin scraper. A lustrum--a period of five years.

He had a dictionary catcher. Every so often during the class, when he'd pretend not to know a word--he knew all the words--he would take this dictionary that was strapped with a big heavy thick band around it and he would throw it over his head backwards. The dictionary catcher would have to go and dive and catch it.


Richard: It just made it more exciting. He sold...we were allowed to have sleeping privileges. The number one kid in the class was allowed to sleep on Fridays during class. You could sell them, if you wanted to.

Jim Zellmer: A market in sleeping, that's... [laughs]

Richard: Yeah. What was so wild about that whole thing was that he also had the fool of the class, a fit thrower, who was supposed to be the worse student in the class. It was kind of a joke.

I have to say, I and another boy had sleeping privileges and you can argue how well we've done or haven't done. But the kid that was supposedly the worst, the [indecipherable 04:13] thrower, became the head of Universal Studios.


Richard: He was a major Hollywood success. Anyhow, I love that [indecipherable 04:20] .

Jim Zellmer: So you transitioned from Hunter to Horace Mann, what was the difference?

Richard: So much quirkier and pushing the envelope. The bar was so much higher at Horace Mann. I mean, with all due respect, I know Hunter was considered one of the best public elementary schools. At Horace Mann, there was a palpable competition in the air about how much you could know and learn, and how well you could do it. Not just test scores, just knowledge.

For instance, I voluntarily took Ancient Greek. They didn't even have a class in it. Four of us got together and asked the Latin teacher would he be willing to teach us Ancient Greek. I loved that school.

We had Mr. Berman, who has also been a little bit in the news. He was the one who made a list of the 1,000 greatest men and women who have ever lived. He ranked them by 100's. It was a little like the stock market. People went up and down a little bit. He really instilled in me this love of learning, and this precision about knowledge, and an expansive love of the arts.

I just can't imagine too much better of a high school education, all things considered.

Then, I got obsessed with Arabic around then, and decided to try to find the place that had the best Arabic Studies program. There were two of them. University of Michigan ran the Center for Arabic Studies abroad. Princeton also had a great program. I only applied at two schools, got wait-listed at Princeton, and went to Michigan.

Jim Zellmer: I was wondering how you ended up in the Midwest, Michigan.

Richard: Yeah, I was rebelling against my Jewish parents. I really infuriated my Jewish mother by studying Arabic. I wound up in Michigan, and I studied Arabic, and in two years I won a Fellowship. I was the youngest person to win this Fellowship to Cairo. A few months in Cairo cured me of my love of Arabic and the Arab world.

I was 18 years old. I was very young. I didn't like what I found. I really had trouble. There was such poverty there, and I just wasn't...We were at the American University, so we were around the wealthiest, not 1%, one-tenth of 1% of the wealth in the country.

They had little boys who would...They'd invite you over to their house for dinner. There would be a boy whose only job was to open and close a door inside the apartment. I mean, just standing there for the whole, and thrilled to have the job.

When you're an 18-year-old American, it was just very hard to see that. I wound up playing blackjack in the casinos of Alexandria and Cairo. Not much more Arabic for me.

Jim Zellmer: You graduated, became a reporter and began to write books. How has your education continued from, let's say, the college days through today? What do you do to keep up and learn? How do you do it?

Richard: Because of my job. Basically, I write these offbeat books. In the early days, I really had to continue my education.

The first book was called "History Laid Bare", and it was basically about sex and history. Authentic accounts of sex and history that many of them hadn't been found before. What I would do...

By "found" I mean, collected in an anthology, broadly known. What I would do is have to skim in foreign languages like crazy. Get leads in scholarly books, say, and then go back to the original.

It was an enormous task. I had so much more energy in those days. I loved doing it. I would sit for hours in the Columbia Health Science Library reading some medical treatise on sexual accidents, where someone slipped their member through the hole at the top of a skeleton key, and then got an erection and couldn't remove the skeleton key.

Jim Zellmer: [laughs]

Richard: I mean, knitting needles. Who would have thought that servant girls were masturbating with knitting needles, and they'd get lost in the urethra? You can't make this stuff up.

Jim Zellmer: [laughs] Richard: I have to admit I really enjoyed doing that. An editor who saw the book decided, "Well, this guy can bring this kind of scholarship or curiosity to sex, why don't we unleash him on the full spectrum of human knowledge?"

I sort of love him and hate him. He's been in my life. He's my editor again 20 years later, 15 later. This guy, Bill Thomas at Doubleday, who was just a young Assistant Editor then. He slapped a Post-it down on a bar, and it said something like, "Everything you're not supposed to know about history." That became "An Underground Education." It was such enormous task.

I'm kind of the guy who could tell you about Napoleon's hemorrhoids, but can't tell you about the Battle of Waterloo. I became the guy who learned the obscure, amusing thing.

I'm always nervous when I'm around people who have that good, solid, grounded education, because I can fill in the extras and frills but I'm not as strong...I'm not a big concept guy, so I can never talk to big [indecipherable 09:20] . That's just how my brain works.

Jim Zellmer: But you are a parent.

Richard: A parent? Yeah.

Jim Zellmer: Yes. You are a parent. What do you think about being a parent and educating your child or children? What are your views on that given your experience at Hunter, Horace Mann and Michigan?

Richard: It's been a little frustrating, because we lived in Brooklyn. We then moved specifically to a town called Pelham in Westchester for the school system, which a lot of people do.

It's a perfectly decent public school by Westchester standards. It's probably in the top 25 percent of the Westchester, maybe in the top 10 percent even, but it wasn't a Hunter or a Horace Mann, by no stretch.

My daughter, whether it's genes or luck, or whatever, happens to be really smart. My son is also very smart. But my daughter, for instance got 2290 on her SAT's. That's the score but without working all that hard at it and she picked up languages pretty well.

You can just tell this brain is just ferocious, so we wound up pulling her from the public school in the 10th grade and moving her to a private school, Rye Country Day, for the last two years.

That really changed the arc of her education. I wish we didn't have to do that. She also had some social issues with the girls at the public school. Things started going a little south that way too. That was unfortunate but I think that Rye really opened her up to it. At Pelham, you almost had to be secretively smart.

At Rye, if you had read some book, whether it was Proust or Mellville, you could talk about it in the hallways and not be made fun of. It was just a different mentality towards learning. That was the key. Then, she went through a very liberal liberal arts school, Pomona, out in Claremont, California.

Jim Zellmer: Oh sure, yeah.

Richard: For my money, it was a little too all over the map. She took a little of everything and now here she is.

I love my daughter but here she is. 24 and has taste-tested a lot of things, but hasn't found the path yet. I never saw her report card. You know the rules better than I do. I didn't see it through the four years. In hindsight, she's just so smart. She finessed me for four years.

Jim Zellmer: I can't imagine where that came from.

Richard: I was just shocked. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this will all work. She took a little Economics. [indecipherable 12:02] . She took a Science class. She took Philosophy. She took a Literature course. She wound up being a Russian major when it was all done.

Jim Zellmer: You mentioned your son was recruited for basketball, so let's talk about academics and sports.

Richard: Yeah. That's an interesting topic because he's six foot seven, weighs about 240.

Jim Zellmer: Wow!

Richard: He's the star of the Pelham basketball team. It was a pleasure.

He got recruited by about a dozen schools, including some really fine ones, mostly all D3's. What I didn't realize about the whole process is that you'll get pressured to apply an early decision to a place where the coach really wants you.

A kid who's very impressionable can wind up picking his school based on which coach needs a six foot seven power forward or whatever. That's probably not the best way for someone to pick their school. That's one downside.

The other thing that I learned a little late, was that if you get brought in and they think you're coming in as an athlete. There's such team bonding you tend to spend most of your time with the team.

No offense to the team, but they're not necessarily the brightest kids that go to that school. They might have gotten in on athletics. You hang out with the team, and then they tell you it's only two hours a day of practice and they practice, secretly, four hours.

Jim Zellmer: Right.


Richard: Your college experience becomes. He's not a partier, so I can't say. For a lot of kids it becomes athletics and partying. There's not a hell of a lot of time left for academics. I just think parents who have this dream, just because they watch TV and they see Kevin Garnet and the rest of them...


Richard: ...and they have this fantasy, be a little careful about that, because your kid can wind up hanging out with the jocks, and in a whole different track than maybe what you wanted.

Jim Zellmer: Given that you had the experience of both public and private as a student, and then as a parent, what would Pelham do differently? How could the culture be different, or the academics, or the teachers? Is there a solution to this, or not?

Richard: Personally, I don't think it's the test solution. That's just me. Human nature will have people teaching to the test, and that will limit knowledge even more. That's horrible.

I think it actually comes...Parents shouldn't keep screaming about, "Get better grades." They should have a little curiosity in the household. I really think that, if you're curious, and you're reading books, and you're talking about books, even to your spouse, and the kid overhears, then that's a good way to bring up kids.

Don't just rag on them for grades. The whole hypocrisy of the parents who are drinking like three gin and tonics and yelling at their kids about drinking a beer.


Jim Zellmer: Right.

Richard: Oh my God! There's a lot of that out where we are! I think it comes from the house...I don't think we're prizing education, knowledge, books, literature, the rest of it, in our households. Then, we're making speeches about education. That dichotomy is absurd.


Jim Zellmer: Sounds like a book to me.


Jim Zellmer: Finally, I have one last question; a reading list for students and parents.

Richard: I've thought about that, and looking at my bookshelf, trying to think. A book that's really broad appeal...I don't want to be pretentious and say James Joyce and books that are going to put people off.

There's a book called "Eyewitness to History." I don't know if you remember that book. It's edited by a guy named John Carey. It's basically authentic vignettes, anecdotes from history from original sources.

He writes a little intro, so you understand something about the time period. Then, he goes the whole sweep, as far as recorded history. I love that book. It just makes things so...

It's just a great sampler, to get into the past. Then, if you want to take it one step further, "The Outline of History" by H. G. Wells.

Jim Zellmer: Oh, sure.

Richard: I've dropped into it, I wish I could say I've read it first page to last. It's a bit difficult for me, but for someone who's got that kind of brain.

Also, "ABC of Reading" by Ezra Pound. It's just an amazing book. He's a little crazy in some parts, literally insane. But in other parts, he just explains things so well. It's almost like a reading list. Frances Vignon. A lot of playwrights you haven't necessarily heard of. That's great.

People should really read one book in a foreign language, at some point in their lives. Because even if you've studied a foreign language...I've studied a lot of them, I have to admit I've only read maybe ten books in foreign language, from first page to last page. I really shouldn't have admitted it on camera.

I treasure the ones I have read. One of the most (interesting) books..."Il Fu Mattia Pascal" by Luigi Pirandello. It's a book about a guy whose clothes are swept up on the shore near a river and they think he's drowned. He gets a chance to reinvent himself as a new guy. He wins a lot of money at a casino.

It's an existential tale about, "Can you reinvent yourself as a new person, given money and given no identity?"' I love it. I read it in Italian and it was really hard for me to read.

Just recently, I read a book. I think people should read out of their comfort zone. I was on some literacy project. They asked me to hand out books in Mount Vernon public schools. A book called "Kindred" by Octavia Butler. Its a science-fiction book, which I never would have read, about a woman transported back into being a slave.

It sounds implausible. It is implausible. You just can't put it down, and it makes you feel what a female, African slave must've felt like. I just loved the book. It was out of my comfort zone. That's another one.

(c) 2012