Harkness Fellows: Father and Son

Amahl Smith

My late father and I were both Harkness Fellows. Since this seems to be unique, or almost unique, in the history of the Fellowships, I thought it might be worth a few words on how it came about.

My father, Neilson Voyne Smith, read modern and medieval languages at Cambridge. In his final year, he took a course in linguistics as a whimsy because he’d never heard of the subject. He was quickly addicted. For his PhD he decided to write a grammar of an unstudied language and hitch-hiked from Birmingham to Bida in Northern Nigeria, where he lived in a mud hut for a year studying Nupe. He came home with a thesis and his beloved stuffed crocodile Lucinda.

He was soon taken on by the Africa Department at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies. He recalls long arguments on matters linguistic with one of his colleagues in the India Department, Yamuna Keskar, which she always won. Arrogant enough to believe this was not so much his lack of ability as her working with a much more sophisticated theoretical framework, he resolved to go and study with the man she kept talking about, the then still relatively unknown Noam Chomsky. Accordingly, he applied for and was awarded a Harkness Fellowship, which took him to MIT and UCLA.

Half a century later, he still recalled the linguistics lectures he attended as intellectually and confrontationally the best he ever encountered. The scintillating clarity of the exposition, the dazzling subtlety of the argumentation, the devastating ruthlessness of the treatment of purported counter-examples – all combined to confirm his linguistic conversion. When he returned from the Harkness Fellowship, a committed Chomskyan, he secured a position in the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at UCL, where he was head of the linguistics section for 34 years, building it into one of the most highly regarded departments in Europe.

Chomsky’s influence on my father extended beyond linguistics though. When he went to the US, he had no prior knowledge of Chomsky’s other, political and activist, persona. Here too, he was overawed, almost overwhelmed, by the breadth as well as the depth of Chomsky’s scholarship. Chomsky appeared to have read everything. My father rapidly decided that his political ignorance was culpable and that he needed to become much more engaged with the world around him. His political awakening proved critical some years later when his former student, the distinguished Malawian poet Jack Mapanje, became a political prisoner charged with sedition. My father campaigned vigorously to have the case championed by Amnesty, PEN and others and did much to successfully secure Jack’s release.

Shortly before he left for the States, my father had married his colleague Yamuna’s younger sister Saras, a medical doctor who had qualified in India and come to the UK to pursue higher studies. My mother took the Harkness in her stride, but while her qualifications were recognised in the UK, they weren’t in the US leaving her unable to work there, a source of endless frustration. It wasn’t until I was born, half-way through their two-year stay, that she felt usefully occupied. My arrival during the Fellowship probably also makes me one of the few people to have held a Harkness as a US citizen.

On their return to the UK, my mother resumed her studies for Membership of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. This involved the usual hospital rotations, making childcare difficult. After some months, my father hit on the idea of solving their childcare problem by making me the subject of his research. Accordingly, he studied the way I learned to speak – specifically, the way my pronunciation developed over the first five years of my life. The resulting monograph, The Acquisition of Phonology, made his name – and mine. Twenty-five years later I could walk into a linguistics department anywhere in the world and be met with groans of ‘why did you have to grow up – there’s so much more data we want to collect!’

It will come as no surprise that, throughout my childhood, syntactic analyses of linguistic examples, discussions of Chomsky’s latest critique of US foreign policy, the Harkness Fellowship and everything it had enabled were a constant source of conversation. While I was never tempted by linguistics, Chomsky’s work also helped usher in a new era in the cognitive sciences and I became hooked on the broader study of the mind. When I graduated, having read Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology at Oxford, it seemed only natural to apply for a Harkness Fellowship myself, to go back to where it all began and to see what I could learn from Chomsky – and the many philosophers and psychologists who had been inspired by him. So, I spent a year at MIT and a year at the City University of New York Graduate Center. I too found the experience incredibly stimulating and was all set, on my return, to take up a lectureship in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin.

Unfortunately, life had other things in mind. Having suffered from clinical depression for many years, I suffered a complete mental breakdown the summer I was due to come home, attempted suicide and spent a year in and out of mental health wards. By the time I was more or less able to resume a normal life, many anti-depressants later, I found I was no longer able to think in the same way as before and all thoughts of an academic career were abandoned. Academe has remained central to my life, but at one remove – I have forged a career working for charities that fund scientific and medical research, helping those better able to make a contribution to do so. For most of the last 25 years I have done this part-time, devoting the rest of my hours to bringing up our children and to voluntary work for a number of human rights organisations.

Looking back, it would be hard to overstate the influence of the Harkness Fellowships on our family. From our intellectual interests to our political awareness, our child rearing to our voluntary endeavours, they have had a profound effect. And they inspired an enduring connection with the US. Readers will be aware that one of the few requirements of a Harkness Fellowship is to travel. In the first year of my life, I believe I visited all 48 of the contiguous states, strapped in a Moses basket on the back seat of my parents’ Chevrolet. While it is an abiding regret that I can, of course, remember none of it, I have done my best to revisit as many as possible and deepen my understanding of the fascinating cultural variety of the United States.