Editorial: George Jaeger: ‘Education must be better & much deeper’
A dear friend to many of us Middlebury-area residents in the 60-plus crowd, George Jaeger led a fascinating life. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1926, the son of Frederick Jaeger who was a university professor of art, he and his family survived the Nazi takeover of Austria, even though at 13 he was sent out of the country to safety as part of the famous Kindertransport operation. He landed in England where he attended school; later moved to the U.S. where he eventually got his undergraduate degree in Pennsylvania. He joined the war effort, receiving his basic training in 1944, became a U.S. citizen in 1945, and boarding a ship that took him and his soldier compatriots to Europe where, as his obituary says, “he came face to face with the horrors of the concentration camps.”
Post-war he attended Harvard studying International Affairs, which launched him into a long and productive career in the U.S. Foreign Service. He served in Liberia, Yugoslavia, Germany and Washington, D.C., before his marriage to his beloved wife, Pat, in 1970. Afterward, his work postings took him to Paris, Quebec (as U.S. Consul General), Ottawa and Brussels, where he worked with Lord Carrington at NATO. His final work assignment was as Diplomat-in-Residence at Middlebury College from 1987-89, after which he remained in Middlebury, building a house on Munger Street and filling his time, as his obituary on Oct. 28 reported, “with writing, lecturing (both as an invited speaker and to anyone who showed the slightest whiff of interest anywhere, anytime), traveling (including lecturing on cruise liners), and carrying on a vigorous social life.”
At age 95, George died peacefully at home on Oct. 20, after a short illness.
For anyone fortunate enough to be attuned to his willingness to share his knowledge about world and current affairs, a luncheon date with George was an encyclopedic journey into a region’s complex history brought up to date with a sharp analysis of the politics of the moment and what the vital American interests should be. Over the past 20 years, I was fortunate to have had my share of lunches with George, at which I learned a great deal in a short amount of time.
George also represents a cadre of exceptionally talented members of the “greatest generation,” who call the Middlebury area their home. George was an intellectual confidante to many of them, it turns out, as several others have come forward with similar tales of sharing lunches with George to learn from his exceptional knowledge on foreign affairs.
He did live a life worthy of a novel, and in an interview for the Library of Congress conducted on July 9, 2000 by Robert Daniels, he concludes what is a 505-page biographical report with a summation of what is most needed in today’s America to cope with the challenges we face.
As a tribute to George, here’s that question and his answer — an answer that he would frequently champion at almost every opportunity: the country needed to provide a more stringent and purposeful education!
THE KEY IS EDUCATION!
Q: At the end of this long and fascinating discussion let me ask this: Looking back on your career was it worthwhile, would you do it over again and what do you think is needed most to provide this country with first-rate people managing our foreign affairs?
“On the first two questions an unqualified ‘yes’. It was an enormously rewarding experience to play a small part in our successful operation of containing the Soviet Union. We really were the ‘city on the hill’ confronting a deeply flawed, dictatorial system whose destructive ideology, if imposed in Europe and elsewhere, would have made for a very somber world.
“Revisionists argue that we could have reached a modus vivendi with the USSR. We certainly did make major progress on arms control. Even so, it was a system held together by fear, fear of military force, torture and deportation, which only collapsed when Gorbachev (president of the Soviet Union from 1974-84) refused to use force to continue to hold it together, as had been done in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in earlier times. Containment took 40-some years to bring Moscow to this point. It was an enormous success, not only because we won, but because we won without using major force and wide-spread war and destruction.
“As to what we need to do to provide America with “a sufficiency of men (or women) to meet the problems of the day,” as Burt Marshall was apt to say, the answer, I think, is much better and much deeper education.
“I sometimes told students in recent years that diplomacy is so terribly important because it’s about blood, it’s about human blood. You make little decisions in meetings, you give advice in memoranda and in telegrams, you give or deny a visa. If the decisions are wrong, somebody pays for it with their property, their freedom or, in some cases, their lives. Of course, you walk away and go to lunch. In the short term you are untouchable.
“But the moral responsibility of dealing unsoundly with major and even minor international issues is very large. To get it right, our schools, at every level, need to teach history, not just the flag-waving kind, but the starker reality: That nations and civilizations rise and fail, usually because of their own short-sighted behavior; that failure isn’t pretty; and that carrying on at others’ expense, as we did during slavery and the extermination of our Indians, is really worse. (Italics added.) We are still doing it today, for instance, by keeping agricultural prices up and disadvantaging cheaper producers in some of the poorest countries of the world.
“So our students need to learn from the past, a discipline our schools have watered down almost to extinction. They must also regain a moral compass by reflecting on philosophy and religion and the whole meaning of life; since the unjustified use of force (most recently in Iraq), abuse and resort to torture, or our broad indifference to the suffering of the world’s poor and underprivileged, can only be put in correct perspective if students are taught to recognize the value and dignity of all human life. (This was) an idea which was still central to our founding fathers when they asserted that “..all men were created equal…”
“Lastly, there is a lack of rigor, almost an epidemic of frequent sloppy thinking. We are moving into harder times, where global warming and its related crises will require us to tighten belts and be much sturdier than has been necessary recently. Whether this and future generations will meet that test remains to be seen, but will determine whether we and the rest of the world will succeed or fail. The stakes are very high.”
As George would often note, the stakes are even higher 21 years later. Rest in peace, George.
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