The Value of Liberal Education: Fareed Zakaria in Conversation with Leon Botstein

Andre: Good evening. My name is Andre Aciman,
and I’m the director of the Center for the Humanities, and it is my sincere pleasure
to welcome so many of you tonight. There is no question that we owe the attendance tonight
to our guests, who are established celebrities. Fareed Zakaria, Leon Botstein, and Sam Tanenhaus,
but we owe the evening to the very hard work of the Center of the Humanities, to the students
of the comparative literature department, the staff and director of the Graduate Center’s
public programming department, and to President Robinson and the Provost Louise Lennihan.
And we also owe it to two individuals. To professor Uday Mehta, without whose help and
goodwill, this evening could not have been happening, and to my good friend, Joan Bingham,
whose generosity and support made this evening possible. Generosity and support these days
are not easy to come by, and if many of you think I’m trying to be subtle here, kindly
take a moment to read the back of the card which you received before entering this hall.
We are a public institution, and like so many public venues in this amazing city, we rely
and we thrive on the support of individuals who like the Graduate Center. My mission as
the director of the Center for the Humanities has been twofold – to take what we do here
to the rest of the city, to the far reaches of the city sometimes and beyond. We are the
doctoral-granting heart of this City University of New York. Our Ph.D. students teach about
a quarter of a million students within the CUNY system. Bringing the very best research
and learning to virtually every neighborhood of every borough of the city of New York.
We are committed to interdisciplinary compact across our many programs, centers, and institutes.
It is also here where just last year, a student of ours got named as a Guggenheim fellow,
and another won the Pulitzer Prize. No other place in the country, it’s been said, has
so many experts in so many fields under one roof, who many of you remember as being a
department store. Tonight I am thrilled to welcome our Graduate Center alumni, who are
present in this auditorium. But the second part of my mission is to bring what happens
in this very building, to bring the very best of New York here in this building. In the
past week, we hosted, among others, a panel devoted to what remains the most celebrated
European writer here in America today, Elena Ferrante. Then we had one event devoted to
Harper Lee’s latest novel. In the months to come, we are hosting an event devoted to the
haunting memory of the Holocaust, not among survivors, but among the children of survivors.
Among the speakers will be Roger Cohen, Daniel Mendelsohn, Adam Kirsch, the New Yorker critic
Ruth Franklin, Marianne Hirsch, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia. Then
we’re going to have the brilliant pianist, young pianist, from Switzerland, and Israel,
David Greilsammer, be here in residency for a whole week. We’re also going to have the
privilege of hosting none other than Murray Perahia for one evening. He will not play,
but he will talk. We also are going to be hosting an event on translation. Among the
guests will be Jonathan Galassi, the president of Farrar, Straus and Girous, and Homi Bhabha
from Harvard University. And also, finally, one of the things we’re going to be doing,
which is totally innovative, is a course in the comparative literature department in which
Claire Messud, Paul Auster, Rick Moody, Paul Muldoon, Roxana Robinson, and Judith Thurman,
among others, will each teach a classic that they love. We are an extremely dynamic and
innovative place. Tonight we have three important figures who
will discuss the role of the liberal education in America, a subject truly frought, and of
interest to this institution. As we all know, Fareed Zakaria is the host and commentator
of CNN’s Sunday’s GPS program, and has a column every week in the Washington Post. With Fareed,
you learn not only new facts, but you learn how to think about them with intellectual
clarity and sobriety. You not only end up agreeing with him every time, but you also
end up slapping your head and said, “Why couldn’t I have thought of that?” Fareed has written
for every magazine in existence, and every newspaper. He’s also the author of The Post-American
World, From Wealth to Power, The Future of Freedom, and most recently, In Defense of
Liberal Education. Our other guest also needs no introduction. Leon Botstein is the president
of Bard College, and the music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony
Orchestra. He is so committed and invented an advocate of progressive education, that
you can call him the Edison of education. He is the author of Jefferson’s Children.
He has edited many, many books on different composers, and is the mind and heart behind
the Bard Music Festival every summer, which has become a sort of cultural mana for all
my Upper West Side and Upper East Side friends, who flee the city every summer to go to Hudson
and Dutchess County. Leon Botstein is also on the of the most generous persons I know,
and not only has he been extremely generous to me personally, but also to my twin sons,
who attended what remains, I think, the best high school in New York City, Bard High School
Early College. They are both fully employed (my twins). Thank you Leon for that. Speak
to Leon and you suddenly feel you need to come up with more intelligent things to say,
because what you really thought isn’t going to wash. Intelligence is also the signal quality
I have observed in our third guest tonight, who will be moderating the panel, Sam Tannenhaus,
who was until recently the editor of the New York Times’ Book Review, and is a writer at
large for the Times. He’s the author of Whittaker Chambers, which won the Los Angeles Times
book prize, and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
He is also the author of The Death of Conservatism. He has come to teach for us here at the Graduate
Center many times, and to comparative literature students as well, who are eager to master
the art of book reviewing. Sam Tannenhaus reads a piece, let me tell you, line by line,
sometimes a reader, something that all readers dread. When he doesn’t touch something you’ve
written, you either feel, wow, I got him fooled, until he says something like, oh, and by the
way, that thing back there, that was a split infinitive. One last word. It was James Chase
who first spoke to me about Fareed Zakaria, when Fareed was not even thirty years old.
It was James Chase who years ago brought Sam Tannenhaus to my attention, and it is thanks
to Leon Botstein that I met James Chase. So I want to do something unusual tonight and
dedicate this evening to the memory of this wonderful man, whom everyone loved so much
and misses so much. Thank you. [Applause] Sam: So I guess our microphones are on. Thank
you so much, Andre, and to CUNY, and for all of you who showed up, although I see my wife
isn’t here, and I hope she’s going to make it, oh, she’s back there, because there’s
a seat for you right in front. OK, well. Here we have two of… Tell me if this is… can
you hear me OK? Is this good? OK. First of all I have to say these two very brilliant
guests of ours, Leon and Fareed have both said they really like audience questions,
and I do too, so, and Andre has agreed that maybe we’ll cut it, their brilliant monologues
and answers, a little short, so we can get to questions sooner, if the audience would
like to participate. So, Fareed, I’m going to start with you, and ask you, of all people,
who people, I think, many of us think as kind of a policy guy, polymath, very globally minded,
wrote a book that Barack Obama was very visibly carrying around, before he switched over to
Jonathan Franzen. Who or what liberal education needs a defense from, and why? Fareed: Thank you all very much. Thank you,
Sam. I think that the reason I wrote that book was, I was struck by two realities. The
first was that there was this deep anxiety in the United States about the future of the
country. The anxiety, because middle class incomes are down, because this recession has
taken a long time to get out of, and more generally because the world seems to be changing
very fast in profound ways, and people felt that the old ways of doing things aren’t right,
and so they had to, they were searching around for something new. And in that context, you
have lots of people saying education should really simply be a trade. We need more people
who can be welders. You heard it in, I think, the last Republican debate, Marco Rubio said
we need fewer philosophers and more welders, and then the New York Times, in its inimitable
way, did a fact check, and discovered that the average wage of a philosophy major was
$92,000 and the average wage of a welder was $42,000, so that simply on a factual basis,
it wasn’t correct. But there is that anxiety, and I wanted to try to articulate a defense
for this very American idea that you get a broad general education. You know, in the
19th century, European countries like Germany, France, even Britain for the most part, with
the exception of the Oxbridge system, had trade-based education. The whole idea was,
you apprenticed, you learned your father’s trade, and you moved on. In the United States,
the feeling was, people didn’t want to lock themselves into one city, one guild, one trade,
one craft, they wanted to move, they wanted to experience the dynamism of America, the
economy, and so America always emphasized from very early on, this idea of a broad,
general education, that would prepare you not for your first job, but for your sixth
job. There was a sense that life changes, society changes, that you change, and you
try to develop this broad set of general skills. The second piece of it was, that I felt people
didn’t understand what innovation was all about. The idea seemed to be that we all need
to become software programmers, and that that would make us very innovative as a society,
but innovation is actually a much broader, more complicated thing, and if you try to
look at what societies are genuinely innovative, you find yourself surprised, and I was surprised
by this. We all know that Americans do very badly at standardized tests, compared with,
you know, our peers in the rich world. And so I ask myself, well how did we do ten years
ago? The answer is very badly. How did we do twenty years ago? Very badly. How did we
do in 1963, the first time there was an international test of fifteen-year-olds? Very badly. So
you ask yourself, but if you look back over the last 40 years, what country has dominated
the world of science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth, it’s
the United States? So, somehow we’re very bad at tests, but very good at life, and how
to explain that paradox. So I looked at other countries that are undeniably innovative.
Sweden and Israel really pop off the charts on a per-capita basis, obviuosly. And you
ask yourself, what is it in them? So the first thing I did was looked at how they did in
these science tests. Guess what the answer is. Worse than the United States. So, we come
24th in math in the PISA test, Sweden comes 26th, Israel comes 27th. Now what do they
have in common? They’re all very open, dynamic, flexible societies, with the economies. They’re
all very non-hierarchical in their approach to education, in their approach to life, so
that, you know, a junior researcher can challenge something that a senior researcher does. A
junior person in a firm can challenge what the C.E.O. wants. They’re also very confident.
This is something you can actually measure, because the PISA test started asking, at one
point, in the early ’80s, after you did the math, they would ask you, how do you think
you did on the math test? You can imagine what happens to the American students. We
do lousily in math, but we do really well on how we think we did. And so, when hearing
this Bill Bennett, the Secretary of Education at the time, said, it’s clear what the problem
in America is, we’re beating at teaching self esteem than science. And it’s a good laugh,
but I would put it to you, that if you’re trying to encourage entrepreneurship in a
society, what’s probably more important than science is self esteem. You have to have confidence
in yourself. You have to have confidence in your ideas. You have to have confidence that
you can make it, even when you fail, because all entrepreneus fail the first, and the second,
and the third time, and they pick themselves up. That’s why Americans do well. It’s not
that we have better scientific training than Germany. Germany has much better scientific
training than we do. Yet their rates of entrepreneurship are much worse than the United States. Why?
Because they don’t have that sense of confidence. They don’t have that sense that bankruptcy
is a temporary path to progress, rather than a permanent matter of shame and obstacle.
Look at Donald Trump, boasting about bankruptcies. So, for both reasons, I felt that we were
misunderstanding the unique nature of American education, but also how societies and how
people innovate. Sam: Let me ask Leon now. Young though you
are, you’ve been the president of a college for a very long time, and you, for some forty
years or more, and you’ve watched American education change. In fact, you have been one
of the innovators yourself. Some may remember a long profile of Leon in the New Yorker,
fairly recently, about a new approach you had to college admission and applications,
how they should be done. What are the most important changes you’ve seen for better and
worse? Leon: So, I’m most impressed by how things
remain the same. People have a certain kind of investment in describing a change that
doesn’t really exist, or is actually very superficial. So, I actually think that, actually
the university itself, and the [inaudible] system, and I think Fareed made this point,
has remained reasonably stable. Much less has changed than we would like to think. One
of the reasons why I am not particularly utopian or dystopian on technology. You know, we’ve
been living with this sort of, you know, that the computer and internet were going to put
the classroom out of business, and I smiled because the university, if someone were to
wake up in a… what was that novel, when the guy wakes up? Rip Van Winkle, right, or
the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, wasn’t there such a story? If someone from
the 12th century woke up, and walked on a campus of a university, they would see more
continuity than change. Yet, since the 12th century, if I listed all the technologies
which have entered our life, you know, the current technological revolution is going
to be absorbed and adapted to the very fundamental character of how universities work. So, in
America, I think very little has changed, except in some respect, in the way the public
looks at it. There’s much more emphasis on a kind of reductive standardized testing.
This has been an American disease. Bad tests that drive curriculum and give policy-makers
a handle on whether things are going well or not, which are inaccurate. And, a sort
of fear, and an anti-intellectualism toward who becomes a teacher, and how we treat a
teacher in our classrooms. And no sane person would become a teacher. Sam: And do you mean before the college level? Leon: Before the college level. Sam: Because you’ve written that fifteen-
and sixteen-year-olds are ready for college. Leon: The real weak spot in American education
has always remained, in my view, adolesecence. So, the majority of Americans didn’t finish
high school until after the Second World War. And our system of high school has something
admirable, which explains why the liberal arts are so important in the United States,
because we didn’t have a university preparatory, secondary system, which selected people out
at 11th grade or 13th age, and so what you had is a democratic system in which people
learned to live together, but knew how to do nothing at all, and they went to college.
And the idea of the liberal arts that we have now really derives from America’s entrance
to World War I. Here in New York, when Nicholas Murray Butler and Columbia decided, we’re
sending people to die in the fields of France, and they have no idea where they are or why
they’re there. And so… Sam: From Columbia. Leon: Columbia, yeah. So, suddenly our conception
of general education, the liberal arts, and all this rhetoric picks up from an 18th- and
19th-century tendency… Jefferson was very concerned, that’s why Jefferson was invoked,
to create an American educational system that fit American politics and American life, and
that was not an import. And we created a hybrid of the British Oxbridge system and the German
university that influenced that land grant universities. But the idea of a liberal arts
education, a general education, was compensatory for a very poor secondary schooling by comparison
to European standards. So, the fact is that… But the weak spot has always remained, especially
as more and more people came into the public system, the secondary, the high school, the
American high school. And so, what I’ve seen over the last twenty years, is that that has
not improved. We do not recruit better people into the teaching system. The depression was
great for teachers, because people couldn’t find work elsewhere, went into the teaching
profession, and we had a much higher quality of teacher in the ’40s and ’50s. Many of them
retired, and the replacements were not from the same calibur. So we suffer from a deficit
of quality of teachers and quality of training of those teachers, particularly when young
people come of age, and they have real focused interests, and they want to work with professionals,
they’re not children anymore. Sam: What age is that? Leon: I would say, in my view, it’s when the
onset of puberty. And that we really lose the most creative moments of young people
from the ages of thirteen to eighteen. There’s a kind of black hole. Some things do well
– music, people are in computer science, but those are at the margins. And eighteen is
a little too late. The age of maturation has dropped, biologically, owing to nutrition,
and vaccination, and so in answer to your question, has something really changed? The
other thing that’s changed is the attitude of the public, and Fareed responds to that.
And that took a big leap forward in the financial crisis of 2007, combined with the technological
revolution, this notion that studying English, even the President of the United States made
some kind of derogatory comment about getting a degree in art history, and somehow this
is the sort of anti-intellectualism of a kind of radical egalitarian theory, that we who
believe that Leonardo Da Vinci is more interesting than the visual character of some, Simpsons
on TV, is a conceit, that it’s a conceit of an aristocracy that doesn’t exist, and if
it doesn’t make money and requires subsidy, it can’t be very good, and there’s a kind
of rage against things that seem useless, and are pretentious. And there’s no evidence
that people who can quote Shakespeare by heart are better human beings, and nor should they
have more political power, so the putting forward high culture as a kind of self-improvement
has a double-edged sword in the United States, which a lot of people are against it. And
these fields, the humanities, and some social sciences, are viewed as useless. As Fareed
suggests, the facts are otherwise. Just as in the political campaign, people don’t seem
to care whether you’re saying the truth, people with liberal arts degrees have more earning
power and less unemployment than any other graduates of the American university. So the
idea that liberal arts are useless in an economic term, forget the other defenses of them, has
no factual basis. And yet there is this feeling that they’re impractical. Parents are worried,
what can you do with a degree in English. Let alone, should they get a degree in the
arts, that’s really frightening. And it’s an attitude which is understandable, and we’ve
done a bad job in the university of defending it, and in fact many liberal arts programs
are not very good. They’re dominated by academics, self-interested academic guilds. Sam: Explain what you mean by that. Leon: Well, these are people who go to graduate
school, and you have to protect many things from their defenders. You have to protect
music from musicologists. You have to protect literature from professors of English. You
have to protect history, because people who feel they own it as if they were own it as
a trade or a possession, and look down on the ability to communicate it, are not necessarily
the greatest scholars or the defenders. There’s this kind of academic self-importance, and
they become professions, which like to self-replicate, and universities are in silos of departments,
that talk to themselves, and each other, and a student comes to an undergraduate campus
and has a catalogue of courses listed by professional departments from graduate school, and no one
has asked the question, what does the student need to know? And what does the student want
to know? So, curriculums that masquerade as liberal arts curriculums often, there’s too
far a gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Sam: I warned our two guests that I’m going
to read something to them. It’s from a quite well known book. It’s called The American
University. It’s by the very distinguished Columbia professor who lived to the age of
101. Jacques Barzun, who was a very distinguihsed eminence at Columbia University for many,
many years. Introduced Lionel Trilling to the novels of Henry James. Those of you who
thought Trilling discovered that himself. And Barzun’s book was published in 1968, and
so it’s cheering to me to look out at this audience, and this is meant only as a compliment,
and know that some people here will actually remember what happened at Columbia in 1968,
so I’m going to read a postscript. He actually writes ‘P.S.’ at the end of his preface. And
Barzun writes, “The completed typescript of this book was in the hands of the publisher”
– all these archaic terms – “six weeks before the student outbreak of April 23rd,” and that
was not an outbreak to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, “that disrupted the work of Columbia
University.” Right? You know what he’s talking about. They had major student campus riots
there. SDS and all the rest. “I have since then found no reason to change or add to the
substance of what I had written months earlier.” So here’s my question to these two guys. You’re
both admirers of Thomas Jefferson. Fareed, you’ve got a chapter on the natural aristocracy
that Jefferson thought a liberal arts university could create. Leon has written a book he’s
mentioned called Jefferson’s Children. There are campuses now in the United States where
Thomas Jefferson is not the most esteemed of our forepersons, we’ll call them, along
with many other figures that we might think of as consequential, however flawed, but great.
We discussed some of them, and you’ve been following this – Woodrow Wilson, at Princeton.
There was a question about John C. Calhoun. Now, there’s a strong case to be made against
him, but nonetheless, Richard Hofstadter said, one of the few primary political thinkers
in American thinkers. Essentially created the idea of concurrent majorities which are
giving us such a difficult time in Congress now. Major figure. Harvard has decided that
its college masters should not be called masters, because that implies the students might be
slaves. Amherst has had trouble. And I say this only as a question. How does this affect,
if at all, the way each of you think about the idea of the liberal university, of the
liberal education, and students, their expectations. Leon has mentioned, students need to be taught
the things they want to learn. So I’ll start with you, Fareed. Does any of this, any of
what you wrote or thought about look different to you now. Fareed: No, not really. I think that when
I look at the kinds of things that have happened on college campuses in the last few months.
You know, one has a variety of reactions. The first is, when you talk about issues like
Jefferson, Calhoun, Woodrow Wilson, I think this is incredibly healthy and admirable that
students should care that much what the name of their dorm is, that they should inquire
as to who these people are, that they should ask themselves, are these people we genuinely
want to honor? And that’s a fascinating and important and interesting discussion, and
we can all have differing views about it. You can take the position, for example, I
studied Calhoun when I was getting my PhD at Harvard. And Judith Straw(?), my professor,
who was an Eastern European Jew and refugee, still admired Calhoun enormously, even though
he was really one of the prime defenders and articulators of the idea of slavery as a natural
way of American life, because he was also a great Democratic theorist, and as you point
out, with concurrent majorities. Woodrow Wilson is a great, great, towering figure in some
ways, and an extremely nasty, unrepentent racist in others. Jefferson was a slaveholder
and the articulator of some of the greatest ideas of liberty and democracy. So, people
are complicated, and you have to decide, in each case I think you’d have to weigh the
balance. I have a preference for not adopting an Orwellian attitude towards one’s past,
which is to say, expunging people from the past as if they didn’t exist, but I can also
see the argument that some people crossed the line at a point at which you just think
it’s not right to be honoring them. That’s a great conversation to have. The other set
of discussion that have been taking place on college campuses, I have slightly different
views on, which are, these issues relating to trigger warning, microaggressions, the
desire for some students who say they need safe spaces. Sam: Everyone’s familiar with those terms? Fareed: So, this is an argument that has been
taking place when, for example, at Yale, there was an email sent out by the cultural dean
saying people should be aware when, coming up on Halloween, don’t wear culturally insensitive
Halloween costumes, blackface, or Indian headdress, I mean, feather-, not dot-Indian, in this
case, which I suppose is itself sort of culturally insensitive on both counts. Sam: I think you better stop right now, Fareed.
[Laughter] Fareed: But I think, the answer… A dean
at Yale, actually the wife of a dean, sent out an email in response to some students
saying hey, I don’t think we should, as a university, be policing what students are
choosing to wear, this should be a matter of free expression, you know, people have
the right, unfortunately, to be obnoxious if they want. If you don’t like the costume,
either tell them you don’t like it, or turn your eyes, avert your gaze. Well, this produced
a huge controversy, hundreds of students demonstrating, and the argument was, we need safe spaces,
we need to have our identity affirmed, not assaulted. About that, I feel, fundamentally,
it’s anti-intellectual. I don’t have any problem with people arguing and saying, I hate your
costume, here’s why I think you shouldn’t be wearing it. I have no problem with people
saying, we need reparationg for slavery, and somebody else saying no. But to argue that
you cannot understand my pain because you’re not black, Hispanic, Asian, whatever, is fundamentally
anti-intellectual. College is not really about a safe space, it’s about a common space, a
space you can all engage in intellectually, and frankly it should be a little unsafe intellectually.
Now, why is this happening? That gets to something very interestingly unsaid. We talked about
how American high schools were very good at helping people to learn how to live with everyone
else, they weren’t that good at teaching stuff, and that’s why you ended up with colleges
doing that. Here’s what’s changed about colleges in America, and I noticed this, I was on the
Yale Corporation, the governing body at Yale, so I saw this up close. Students are arriving
at American universities today coming from far more segregated backgrounds than we realize,
probably more segregated than almost at any point in American history, by which I mean,
the rich live with the rich, the upper middle class live amongst themselves, the middle
class live amongst themselves, the lower middle class live amongst themselves, and the poor
live amongst themselves. The segregation by income is almost complete. The segregation
by political orientation is almost complete. The segregation by race, alas, endures and
has gotten worse. Sam: How long has this been going on? Fareed: Through the last thirty years, this
is the great rise of inequality and the sorting of Americans by political orientiation, and
they’re related phenomena. And the collapse of any effort at fair housing, integrated
housing, things like that. So all that means that when these kids come to American college
campuses, they are for the first time meeting people who come from very different backgrounds
than they do, and because Ivy League colleges in particular have very generous financial
aid policies, they really are meeting people who they have never spent any time with before.
It’s rich people meeting poor people for the first time, whites meeting blacks for the
first time, you know. And that is what is causing a lot of this tension, these people
are very socially ill-equipped to deal with the incredible diversity of campus life today,
and so they are as a result, retreating to a kind of search for a safe space, and they
aren’t finding it. I don’t know what the solution is, because as often happens in America, there’s
a problem in American society, and then you expect the school, the high school, or the
college, to somehow fix it. This is a deeper problem than colleges can fix. And so I have
some sympathy for the students who are searching for that. But ultimately, I still come back
to the reality. This is anti-intellectual. You have to be willing to, in some way, defend
and articulate the views you have. They may be very strongly held, and they may be very
strongly felt. But if you can’t defend them, then how are you different from a Donald Trump
supporter who says, “All I know is I love Trump, and I don’t need to explain to you
why, and if he says things that are factually wrong, and if he says things… you don’t
get it.” Well, if you attack that kind of anti-intellectualism, you cannot affirm it
on a college campus when some Hispanic kid says, “You don’t get it, I’m Hispanic and
you’re not, you’ll never understand, you’ll never be able to cross that chasm.” You have
to be able to cross that chasm. Dubois, in one of the most famously quoted passages,
says, “I waltz with Shakespeare, and he winces not. I summon Aristotle and Orelius, and they
come to me with no scorn nor condescension.” What he’s saying is I, as a black man, can
have access to the greatest that has ever been written or thought. And that has to be
the spirit, it seems to me, of a liberal education. Sam: Leon? Leon: So, let me try to… I agree on some
points, and disagree with Fareed… Number one, the segregation of students is enhanced
by the internet, because the internet has turned out not to be a conversation place,
but a place where people drift to that which confirms their existing prejudices. So, the
internet is a wonderful thing, I love it, but it is not a tool for democratic conversation.
So that, and the other is, that complicates the matter, in terms of confrontation with
things you’re not used to, is that American campuses are far more international. So, there’s
not only segregation within American society, but then the student on the university campus
encounters people from places in the world about which they have only read or seen in
pictures. Now, having said that, let me, in a way, as a devil’s advocate, try to make
the best sense. There’s been so much journalism about this, being against free speech and
confrontation of ideas, so let me put it a different way. And before I do so let me say
that my view is that, very similar to Fareed’s on one point. I’m opposed to the falsification
of the past, to the best of our abilities. Our view of the past changes. What we evaluate,
what we think, but there are certain hard facts that remain. And we have to be candid
about them. So, instead of people removing people’s names, tell the truth. I think of
it from a very narrow perspective, and I apologize. So if I had to protect myself from anti-Semitism,
in literature, music, and politics, I’d have very little to play, very little to read,
and I wouldn’t live in Stuyvesant Town, because I would get up in the morning and realize,
here was a real anti-Semite, and so my point is, and if I actually hadn’t learned to survive
microaggressions… My mother tells a wonderful story when she was in the seminar with Carl
Gustav Jung, in Zurich. She was the only Jew, and she was already an assistant professor,
and she took the seminar especially, and when she made a comment, he would turn and he would
say, “You see, that’s Jewish way of thinking.” She stayed through the whole seminar. Now,
she didn’t have a lot of respect for Jung in the end, but not because of his anti-Semitism.
She thought most of what he thought was fanciful. But my point is that what we need to do on
campuses is tell the truth. So, instead of… Princeton has been hoisted on its own petard.
It has been selling Woodrow Wilson as emblemantic of how terrific they are, without telling
the truth about him, which is not very pretty. You know, he was a president of the United
States, and he had great things about him, but he became their mascot, if you will, and
they named a college to live in after him, and they named the school of public affairs,
well that may be a little bit more legitimate, but they never told the truth the way in a
museum, where you would say… The way I’m inclined, if I have to do a piece by Richard
Strauss, I’m going to say that he was a collaborator with the Nazis. He was a great composer, and
a collaborator with the Nazis. I’m not going to hide the fact. When people loved to sing
Carmina Burana, which is official Nazi propaganda, but they don’t tell you that, that’s dishonest,
that’s airbrushing history. And, so the students are right to say, history has been airbrushed,
not to our benefit. As to the safe spaces, there is something to this. So, if you want
to have a real, honest conversation, and what you said is very important, I don’t think
there is one way to construe being black, being Indian from India, or to be Native American,
or to be Hispanic, or Mexican-American. When Donald Trump talks about Mexico, the most
amazing thing is he has no idea what he’s talking about, because Mexico is a very complex
and very multi-faceted, many different civilizations and cultures, it’s not one thing. So the reductive
use of identity is so offensive, but the fact remains that when you go to college and you
really want your ideas to be challenged, that’s very vulnerable. That’s a very vulnerable
moment, when someone says, you’re wrong, and what you believe, and what you learn from
home, is wrong, or maybe not right, and maybe there is no God, and maybe… So things you
confront, the radical confrontation which you believe, you have to feel assured that
that attack on what you believe is not personal, it’s not racial, it’s not reductive. This
safe thing, the fact remains that racism is real. We elected an African-American President
of the United States. But we now, as white people, have resented that he actually has
ruled and been a reasonable president. No president has suffered such a opprobrium merely
because he’s not white. So the fact is the killing of a lot of black males, brutal killing
of black males, is a reaction to this otherwise very positive event. You go to a college campus…
I can take anti-Semitic humor easily, because I’m white, and in the end, the racists are
going to come to me after they get to a lot of other people. On the food chain of hate
in the United States, I’m pretty low down. So the fact remains that I feel very safe,
so, you want to be an anti-Semite, be my guest. I was once at a dinner party trying to raise
money, and the woman said, I don’t want to talk to you, and I said, why, and she said,
you’re just a pushy Jew, and I don’t like pushy Jews, so I said, do me a favor, I’ve
never had an opportunity to talk to someone who’s a real anti-Semite. Please tell me why
you don’t like Jews, I would like to learn. I had the most fascinating conversation of
any dinner party of my life. But I didn’t feel threatened. I didn’t feel threatened.
There was nothing she could do to me. If you’re a black student on an American campus, that’s
not clear. And you have faculty members who are naturally snobs, so they naturally treat
students with contempt. The number of great teachers who know how to teach a young novice,
and make them feel confident, even though they can do nothing, that’s a gift. Now imagine
if that novice is black, and you’re white. You don’t even realize, and if you’re a white
liberal, and you want them to like you, you reduce your expectations and standards. They
read you right away. The worst racists are those that have the rhetoric of, “I’m not
a racist.” So the fact remains, the safety issue is not as dumb as it’s been reported.
And, finally, as to Yale and the costumes. I agree with you that Erika Christakis did
not deserve what she got for writing. But, I am embarrassed, I have to say, I didn’t
send out an email to Bard undergraduates, not to dress up in… because, thank God,
our vulgarities are a little different. Yale knows its own people, and there probably was
a moment where, on Halloween, some lost kids ran around with Hacidic garb and bikinis,
and they thought that was funny. Final anecdote, my first year as a college president, I was
invited by John Kemeny, the president of Dartmouth, student of Einstein’s, inventor of BASIC,
to the only football game I’ve ever attended, on the 50-yard line, was Dartmouth vs. Cornell.
Little did I know that in that time, they were debating the Indian symbol, which had
been the symbol of Dartmouth. Native American Indian symbol. And there were alumni, conservative
alumni, they were fighting. And he was the president. So I told him, I said, John, what
do you think of the Indian symbol. He said, just wait. Came halftime, and a group of men
came out on halftime, Dartmouth white WASP guys, dressed in headdresses and tomahawks
and bottles, whoopying it up on the 50-yard line, and he said to me, now Leon, imagine
that there’s a college some place with a Hacid as its symbol, and in the 50-yard line a bunch
of people run out in Hacidic, with Torah scrolls, you know, with bottles of Slivovitz and dancing
around, what would you think? I said I would be annoyed. So, let’s not make too much fun
on this. [Applause] Sam: Two great answers. Let me ask one more
of these two very brilliant speakers, and then we’ll go to questions. Does that sound
good? Are people, sort of, storing them up? Or would you rather just hear these two guys…
Oh is that what you’d rather? No questions? OK. So here’s mine, next one, which is, and
Leon you kind of touched on this, so I want to hear more about it, but we’ll start with
you again Fareed. What makes a really great teacher, and is that different from what might
make a really excellent scholar? And Leon, some of you probably know, as the many creative
things at Bard, and one of them is to bring in, what, for lack of a better term, we call
‘public intellectuals.’ Christopher Hitchens once said to me, what’s a private intellectual?
He certainly wasn’t one… who aren’t necessarily credentialed scholars, we talked about this
a little bit, and do they develop teacherly skills, or are they inherent? What’s your
idea, Fareed, of what makes a really good teacher, and might that be separate from these
other qualities we admire in people like yourself, who can do both things, yourselves? Fareed: Well, I was never a good teacher.
Everybody who gets PhDs and then drifts away from academia says, “But I loved teaching
the kids.” I didn’t. I enjoyed the seminars, and I enjoyed the lectures, but what I really
hated was grading. One of the great joys of most of life is when you’re reading something
bad, you can stop. Sam: So that’s Freud’s pain and pleasure principle. Fareed: Right. If, however, you are grading
25 papers, and they’re bad, you can’t stop, in fact you have to read the bad ones more
carefully because you’re going to give them bad grades, and then they’re going to come
to you, and then they’re going to contest the grade with the dean, and so you really
have to make sure you spend time figuring it out. Sam: But you were also an editor, and had
to do the same thing. Fareed: I could reject a piece if it was bad.
There was an area of foreign affairs, where you were getting a piece by the secretary
of state types that it fell into that category. You couldn’t quite reject it, but you had
to somehow make it palatable, and those were the nightmare pieces when I was editing, as
you well know. I’m going to leave it to Leon to talk more specifically about what makes
a great teacher, because he’s going to be so much more intelligent and articulate about
it, but let me talk about a piece of it, or look at it from another prism, which is, what
makes people creative? What makes people innovative? One of the things I worry about in our educational
system, and Paula and I have three kids, they’re going through the New York City private school
system, and I have to say, basically not to impressed. Because there’s an enormous amount
of conformity. Sam: How old are your kids? Fareed: Sixteen, twelve, and seven. There’s
an enormous amount of conformity, it’s like this factory where you’re on a conveyor belt,
you’re being thrown enormous amounts of knowledge, which you’re quickly being asked to assimilate,
reproduce on test, and the goal is to get you through this process into a good college,
which is really the only goal, as far as I can tell. They couldn’t care less whether
you like the stuff, you don’t like the stuff. The goal is to get you into a good college.
Now, what that does is it produces people who are very competent, very bright, work
hard, but fundamentally very unlikely to take risks, because taking risks involves potentially
failing, and if you fail, you’re going to have a very tought time. When I was on the
Yale Corporation, I asked Jeff Brenzel, who ran the admissions office, who’s a brilliant,
brilliant guy. I said to him, do we ever take kids who fail in a significant sense in high
school? And he said oh no. I said, but don’t you agree, how you respond to failure is probably
one of the cardinal features of figuring out whether somebody is going to do well in life,
it tells you a lot about people. He said, oh yeah. So I said, then what should we do?
And he said, well you’re the corporation. You tell me, if you want us to take those
people we’ll take them, we will slip on our rankings, we will slip on our win-draw-loss
ratios with Harvard and Stanford and Princeton, which are the only things that Yale really
cares about. We can do it if you want, but that’s what the consequence is going to be.
And then you look at what produces… So, what it seems to me, is we’re all producing
people who are going to end up being corporate lawyers and bankers, not that there’s anything
wrong with that, but that I think, my point is that they become that because these are
low-risk, high-IQ professions where you become the sort of, you become the service class
to the plutocracy. You’re not the plutocracy yourself, because that requires taking real
risks, innovating, being creative, being willing to fail, but you become the service class
to those people. Sam: What a great phrase. Fareed: Is that really what you should be
doing with this incredible resource of education that you have, and these incredible opportunities?
Because I think that, you know, we fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be happy, to
be fulfilled, that’s one side of it, but also to just be creative and innovative. So, we
all now think, if everybody does coding, that’d be great. So you go out and get a degree in
computer science, and you go and work at Intel, and you will work on some chip, and you’ll
keep making it a little bit better. Maybe that makes you very innovative and creative,
because it sounds cool and you’re in the tech industry, and everyone thinks that that’s
super cool, but I think the guy whom I regard as more creative from a business point of
view, is this guy who walked into a coffee shop one day and he noticed that you were
paying 50 cents for a cup of coffee, and he said, you know what, I can make you pay seven
dollars for the same cup of coffee, and it will totally transform the way you think of
yourself when you enter that store, and you will thank me for paying seven dollars for
that coffee, and you will think of yourself as a different human being. Now, to do that,
is to understand human beings much more than it is to understand chips, and that’s what
I think our education doesn’t spend enough time trying to teach you to do. [Applause] Sam: Leon, what makes a great teacher? Leon: Before I get to that, I do want to second
Fareed’s mistrust of the private schools in New York. So if we were not in a democratic
society, what I would do was outlaw prviate schools, force the upper middle class back
in the public schools, and then the people who really need a good education would get
it, because the parents wouldn’t put up with the mediocrity, and the private schools do
a terrible job, particularly in science, where the area of innovation and creativity is absolutely
crucial, misunderstanding of science as facts. So, I don’t have any brief with that. I have
no brief for the admissions policies that are driven by rankings. The admissions policy
at a place like Yale reminds me of, if you measured hospitals by mortality rates, the
way you would have the best hospital is simply admit people who aren’t sick. So, this is
an offense to common sense, I agree. So, in answer, very simple, I am a believer in scholarship,
you know I edited a scholarly journal, and I believe that real knowledge is about detail.
Knowing something in real detail. I have great admiration for great scholarship, archival
scholarship, people that do… I have great admiration for Tony Grafton. There are historians
and, in my field, the musicologists, that really do the really important, detailed,
look at new archival material, that kind of scholarship is indispensible, and you need
academic training for it. The problem is, we have to make the connection between the
intellectual tradition and the conduct of life. Is the study of philosophy, the study
of literature, the study of history, transformative about the decisions I’m going to make in my
private and public life, as an individual and as a citizen? Is it going to influence
the way I spend my time, what I think about, and what I do and what I choose to do? How
do I act when faced, as a citizen, with the opportunities to exercise or not exercise
my freedoms? So, implicit is a connection between education and the quality of our democratic
and public life. Therefore, if you are a great scholar, I believe, you have to ask very big
questions, and fundamental questions, and you have to be able to communicate the importance
of that question to young people. You have to explain to them why it’s important to know
something and to get it right, and to not know what something is, and to pursue or to
contest views that are held. And, in doing so, a great teacher is someone who invites
a new young person into the enterprise without excerising authority, or teaching by fear.
And I disagree about the bad papers. I’ve learned more from the mistakes people make,
the errors they commit, than from… if I studied closely the work of Mozart, and I’m
a composer, I would be driven to silence. But if I look at not such a good composer,
I think, I can do better than that. So, a great teacher, I think every day, the last
thing I want to say about great teaching, I am in the work I do because of the teachers
who taught me. If I think back on the great people who took me seriously at an age where
I was obnoxious, insecure, impossible, I wake up and think, those people were saints. So,
the idea of seeing possibility in someone, and treating them with dignity and equality,
and their capacity, not trying to impress them how much you know. You know, Heifetz
was a terrible teacher. Someone would play, unlike [inaudible], and then Heifetz would
say, yeah, and he would tap the [inaudible], and play the same piece much better – that
was the lesson. Whereas Kazals(?) would play with you, and urge you, and stop and look
at what you’re doing, and find ways to fix it, and give you the sense that you could
be an artist. So, it’s that empathy, and the belief that what you know is transformative,
even if it looks entirely irrelevant, and it’s arcane, and the joy of doing it… Too
many of our academics don’t actually show the wonderment that they have in the material.
I feel privileged. I open up a Brahms second symphony, and I have to work with [inaudible]
Brahms’ second symphony, I died and went to heaven. They know that. They can feel it.
I may be a terrible teacher, but they know I care deeply and love the subject, and for
me it’s a matter of life and death. So, it’s the empathy, the respect, the presumption
of adulthood, the presumption of competence, and also, to learn… I don’t mind grading
the bad stuff. So, great teaching is a real love of subject, and a love of the person,
an affection for the communication of it, and the belief that it’s important for the
conduct of our collective life. Sam: Do we have time, Andre, for one more?
Or are we running kind of late here? Andre: We’re opening it to the public. Sam: Oh, we are? OK. Andre: Let me just say this: two things. There
are microphones on either side of
the hall, and so you should ask your question there, and please one more thing, a question
is a desire to get an answer. [Laughter] It is not a deliberation, it is not a meditation,
it’s not a message. Sam: No filibustering either. Andre: So, go ahead sir, you’re the first
one there. Audience: Thank you. And if I violate your
rules, tell me about that, and tell me to be quicker(?). The thing is that someone observed
that a fish doesn’t realize it’s in water, so I would say that people inside academia
may overlook one problem with liberal education that is easy to see outside. The thing is
that, I think that proof of liberal education is in its perpetuation. What I mean is that,
they said in antiquity that a student is not a container to fill with knowledge, it’s a
torch to lead. But the trouble is, as soon as a young person leaves academia and gets
to the workplace, he gets surrounded by fire extinguishers. Andre: And the question, sir? Audience: The question is, whether we don’t
have gathering places where those people can continue their liberal education, can do it.
So, am I right that there is no such gathering places? And my idea is that groups that can… Andre: No, no, no, wait sir, you have to ask
a question. Audience: My question is, confirm whether
we don’t have such places or have them, and whether a discussion group for serious periodicals
might be a solution to this problem? That’s all. Leon: So, quickly, there are actually some
programs, the Clemente Program, that do provide opportunities, and many sectarian groups,
churches and synagogues, there’s a lot of adult education, and adult conversation. There
are a lot of opportunities, but I think one thing you said is very interesting. I would
disagree. I think that something Fareed said is true. Those of us who actually got, in
our opinion, a good education in the university, discovered that when the people came with
us with extinguishers, your metaphor, the fire won out, that I owe whatever success
I have, from the courage I had to break the rules that they wanted to impose on me. Do
you follow me? So, to think for yourself, without cliches, and think independently,
and stick by it, is something that does work, and that has to do with the innovation. Fareed: I would add that I actually think
that, and this is an area where I’m very hopeful about technology, because I think that online
education, online lectures, you know, just YouTube by itself, has produced such an extraordinary
explosion of knowledge. You are able to watch the greatest lectures in physics, in English,
in philosophy, in history, you’re able to interact with people. It’s all in its infancy,
and it’s not entirely clear how it will all sort itself out. But I think that we really
are at the beginning of an extraordinary explosion of access, so that that danger, which I think
happens to many people, they feel like they, I’m sure you’ve had friends like this, they
seem very interesting in college, and twenty years later, they seem to have lost that interest.
Well, now you can maintain it, you can nurture it, you can cultivate it more easily and more
cheaply than ever before. And I think that we’re actually going to see something very
interesting and important. If you look at Coursera and EdX, which are the two big online
courses, right now about 50% of the people taking those courses are taking essentially
trade-type courses, you know, introduction to computer programming, and things. But 50%
are not. Which I regard as enormously hopeful, because it tells you that 50% of the people
there are taking classes because they want to know stuff. They want to learn about art,
history, culture, music, whatever it is, and so maybe that will mean that you will be able
to keep this idea of a liberal education going for the rest of your life. Audience: Thank you. Do you mean that Socrates
– Sam: No, sir, somebody else has to have a
turn. You sir, gentleman. Audience: To what extent is there a proper
role for big-time sports at a university? Sam: Good question. Fareed: In my opinion, essentially none. [Laughter]
[Applause] I think that what has happened, you know, it’s two-fold. First of all, at
major universities, what is happening now is scandalous. These large universities are
essentially multi-million dollar sports franchises that happen to have a small college attached
to them. They’re really… If you read the book about the Duke hockey scandal, what becomes
very clear in the first twenty pages, is that the hierarchy of power, at a place like Duke
– Sam: Now, was that hockey or lacrosse? Fareed: Sorry, lacrosse. At a place like Duke.
The hierarchy of power was such that the athletic director and the lacrosse coach were a lot
more important than any of the academic officers involved there. So, this part of is, I think
scandalous. At the level even of elite colleges. Here’s what happens, the problem, which is
you end up recruiting very highly specialized, almost professionalized young student athletes,
you drop your standards, whether they’re the right standards or not, but you drop them
very substantially, I can tell you without question that the single largest drop in average
SAT scores to fill a class at any Ivy League school is not legacies, it’s not blacks, it’s
not Hispanics, it is the football team, by far. And, what you do is you crowd out this
very rich athletic and sports arena for normal students. Because you could be a very good
tennis player, you’re not even going to remotely be on the team of any of these places, which
have selectively recruited quasi-professional tennis players. So, the students I think get
shafted both ways – first, they’re getting this group of people who, in my opinion, shouldn’t
be at these universities – Sam: And don’t get educated there. Fareed: – right, and secondly, you are now
denied the kind of competitive athletic environment that people from the time of the Greeks thought
was a core component to an education. Sam: Now, I know Leon that Bard has big-time
football, basketball programs, so let’s hear your take on it. Leon: So, the incident at the University of
Missouri was not a triumph for the conversation about race, it was another triumph for football,
because the crisis really caused the turmoil because the football team decided to side
with one side and the penalty was severe. So, where I think, Fareed, I agree with. I
think the really most criminal arm, the smaller colleges and Ivy League institutions that
don’t play really professional sports but act as if they do, where sports is the defining
aspect of the culture, and with it fraternities, the vulgarity of the confusion of the identity
of a university with its sports teams, which the alumni are credited with continuing, is
an embarrassment to the United States, as one very smart university, state university,
president said to the legislature, “Don’t you want a university of which the football
team can be proud?” So, my point is that it is crucial that we return to a Greek notion
of the relationship of sports and mental activity, in which there is not a gladiatorial Roman
aspect. And it’s the gladiatorial Roman aspect where we are reduced to spectators, watching
a few representing us, in some ridiculous way. So, the way to do it, it’s very important
to have facilities on a campus for exercise, for competitive sports, for team sports, what
people learn playing a sport well is usually important. The problem is that it is an imbalance
emphasis, and it is corrosive not only of the big ten, of Stanford, of Harvard, of Yale,
of Amhert, but it’s corrosive of smaller colleges – Lehigh, Lafayette – but, the truth is, we
have the colleges we deserve. I cannot blame the institutions because their support base
is more interested in sports than ideas. More Americans are interested in the sports teams
of their high schools than what the students in their high schools learn, public and private. Fareed: And we haven’t even talked about the
issue of mental damage from football, where you have this extraordinary situation where
universities that are meant to be dedicated to the idea of building your brains are celebrating
funding and encouraging an activity which we now know neurologically destroys your brains. Leon: And the way to solve it is for the universities
to change the rules, and return to playing football without protective gear. And if they
played without protective gear, they actually would pay attention. It would look a little
more like rugby, which is not my favorite sport either, because there’s a lot of injury
in rugby as well. Sam: Quick question for you both, with a follow-up
I think probably. I’m guessing Leon will have the sure answer for. First, is there any other
nation on the planet that does this? Any other country that makes its universities minor
league farm systems? I’ve just never heard of it. And second, given this remarkable and
frightening incidence of brain damage, which has led some high schools, I think, selected
high schools to abandon, stop doing competitive football, will that reach, with all the money
that’s there, you know the University of Missouri, I think it was a million dollars they were
going to be sued for breach of contract if their team didn’t play the game, which is
why they caved in, will this concern be great enough to overwhelm the financial interests
in football? Fareed: I’ll leave the second part to Leon.
Just one quick thought on the first one. There really isn’t, you know, if you go to Germany’s
best university and say, “I want to play football,” they’ll say, “Great, there’s a sports club
across the field. Best of luck.” Oxford and Cambridge have a slightly different amateur
system, they’re the only ones. But Amanda Ripley had a wonderful book about the best
schools in the world, and tried to figure out why American schools were bad, and what
were the characteristics of some of the best school systems in the world? And what she
found was that, she pointed to one or two characteristics that would really override
everything else. One was quality of teachers, you know, if you recruit from the top twenty
or thirty percent of the graduating class, no matter what your system was, you ended
up having good outcomes. The second was, the absence of this kind of quasi-professional
competitive athletics in schools, and that it’s not just a college phenomenon. High schools
in America are so obsessed with sports, and in that case it comes entirely at the detriment
of academics, because you don’t have this separate group of people doing it, it’s overlaid
onto the entire experience. Leon: And this is not to underestimate the
very positive aspects of teamwork, working together, learning a skill, time spent alone
practicing, there are a lot of positive aspects to this sports thing. In answer to your direct
question, Sam. So, no, [inaudible] do I know about it, I would suggest there are two outcomes.
One, longterm, that football could have the same fate as boxing, which is that finally
the public walks away from the brutality. The other is that the sport reforms itself,
in other words, that the sport, I don’t know enough about the sport to know whether the
head-bashing and the kind of damage is a requirement to make the sport exciting. In other words,
do the crowds cheer because the gladiator has to get killed in the ring, or is it the
skill of wielding the sword, and that death is not essential? I don’t know enough about
the sport. But I do think that – Sam: I wanna see that sport! Leon: – it could go the way of boxing. Andre: We have to ask another question. Yes. Audience: So we often treat liberal arts and
STEM separately, and don’t hear much about combining the two. So how do we make sure
that science students are getting enough art, and that art students are getting enough science? Leon: Repeat the question, and speak into
the mic. Audience: Sorry. The question is just, how
do we make sure that science students are getting enough art, and that art students
are getting enough science? Fareed: How do you make sure that science
students are getting enough arts, and that art students are getting enough science? How
to think about science? Look, in my book I try to make this point very centrally, which
is, the word “arts” in liberal arts does not refer to humanities in its origins. It means
arts, as opposed to crafts, as opposed to trades. So, at the core of a liberal arts
education was always a very deep commitment to science. Particularly to mathematics, and
what we would now call physics. So, it is absolutely crucial that it be part of it.
It’s absolutely crucial, in a sense, that we rescue it from being seen entirely in terms
of being a trade. I think that’s one of the problems that’s happened, that has befallen
science, which is that people assume, when you’re studying science, you’re doing it because
you want to become an engineer and go and work at Microsoft. Whereas you might be doing
it because you think physics is the most fascinating subject in the world, and can explain the
mysteries of the universe, and that that is actually a more elevated reason to be studying
physics than because you want to go and work at Microsoft. I think it’s certainly true
that humanities students need to learn science more, but most important I think we need to
come back to the idea of studying these subjects because we want to understand the world. We’re
going to have a lot of time to figure out what to do with jobs, and how to work well
at jobs, and how to train for those jobs. This 18-22-year period is a rare interlude
where you have the time to ask yourself, who am I? What do I think about these big questions?
And, they centrally involve science. But it’s very important, I think, that they also be
thought of as these big questions, not small ones. Leon: So, you put your finger on one of the
practical, the Achilles heel of the rhetoric. Because, you’re precisely right, there’s no
separation between the sciences and humanities. However, to really get a good, basic general
education in science, you have to learn mathematics, and things that take a little bit more time.
It’s much easier to bring the humanities to the scientist than to bring the science to
the humanities. You can teach a very sophisticated Shakespeare class to a bunch of physicists.
It’s very hard to teach serious physics to a bunch of English majors whose last high
school mathematics was algebra, which they hated, because they were taught by people
who didn’t know what they were talking about, so the math anxiety was transmitted from one
generation to the next. So, the problem is, universities, faculties, especially in the
sciences, are jealous of their time, and the last thing they want to do is teach some unwashed
artist physics. Whereas the artists are only too happy to have a few physicists. Maybe
they’ll make a lot of money and buy their work. [Laughter] So, it’s easier to do the
other. So we, as leadership of the university, we actually force this on our students. Every
science major has to take studio art and make art, and everybody has to take science, both
quantitative science, history of science, and also, there’s a common core on citizen
science, where they actually learn the basic outlines of the scientific enterprise. It’s
not popular, but it’s required. And universities are simply too gutless to put in real problems
of general education which bring to the non-scientists a real understanding of the conduct of science. Andre: Sir? Audience: Hello. How are you doing? I must
say, Fareed, I was very bothered when you mentioned, saying how students of color are
very anti-intellectual when it comes to wanting to have conversations, because you might read
all the stuff in the news, but then you don’t really know if they’re having conversations
on campus. So, I’m wondering if you’ve ever had a thought or to be one to sit down and
talk to students of color, to find out about the work that they do on campus, because coming
from a poor background myself, having gone to a private, liberal arts college, I know
I led conversations like this on the N-word and stuff like that. So, I think it’s unfair
to discredit students like that, seeing all this stuff in the media, but at the same time
you don’t know what’s actually happening on campus. Andre: And the question is? Fareed: No, it’s fine, I get it. Audience: I gave the question, you must have
missed it. Andre: I might have, yes. Fareed: The gentleman asked if I had spent
time talking to students of color on campuses to try to understand what it was that was
driving their concerns. So, the first thing I’ll point out to you if you don’t mind is
I am actually a student of color myself. Audience: Of course, I know that. Fareed: So, you know, unless you have a very
restrictive definition of what that means, I was, when I was an undergraduate, when I
was in graduate school, I was usually the only person of color in every class I ever
took. I was certainly the only person from India. I think Yale had three students from
India when I was there. And I was almost always the only Muslim in any class I ever took.
So, I am familiar with what it feels like to be an outsider in those circumstances.
The point I was making was actually not about students of color. The point I was making
was that anyone who is participating in a discussion who says, “I can’t have this conversation
with you because, since you do not share my ethnic, racial, or religious background, you
won’t understand,” is being anti-intellectual, and the point I was making was whether that’s
a Trump supporter who, as a matter of fact will tend to generally be white, or a Hispanic
kid at a college, it’s the same thing. You have to be willing to engage, you have to
be willing to communicate your outrage, your pain, your anger, and be willing to hear somebody’s
counter-argument. Look, we’re going through one of the great moments of what I would describe
as bigotry right now, with regards to anti-Muslim rhetoric. I don’t think as a result of that,
people should shut up. I think people should say what they want to say, and people on the
other side should try to counter, as I do, and explain why they’re wrong. I don’t think
the answer to that is for there to be a censorship on these issues. I think the answer is to
have an honest, engaged, passionate conversation. Sam: Let me just say one thing. I think if
I understand, a point you also made was that you’re saying those conversations are going
on on campuses, is that right? And that there’s a misrepresentation maybe in much of the media,
that people are being shut down, or that conversation doesn’t happen, when in fact often it does,
is that right? Leon: Yeah, but, I think the gentleman is
right, but I think Fareed does speak about a phenomenon on campus which is, I think,
a marginal phenomenon and has been exagerrated. There are people who argue that I should be
protected from things that will offend me. There are people who think that is right.
As opposed to saying, look, to make the person learn how to deal with those. So, if you encounter
anti-Indian, or anti-Muslim sentiment, you are prepared to counter it, to deal with it,
or to shut it out. I was observed as a guest at a college, a very fine, very famous college,
a discussion of trigger warnings. And the subject was, chemistry. That, should a veteran
of a war be alerted ahead of time that the class would have explosions because the explosion
might trigger post-traumatic distress memories. Fascinating. Now, on the face of it, you can
understand, it probably makes sense to tell the veterans – are there any veterans here?
– this is a class where there will be a lot of explosions. But if you want to study chemistry,
you cannot avoid explosions. So, basically, as opposed to, delete the explosions from
the curriculum. You see, that’s the issue. And our job is to make the student able to
confront the reality in the world where there are people who are going to be prejudiced,
they’re going to be hostile, there are going to be people who think you’re wrong, and people
who think not only that you’re wrong, that you’re a heretic, and how you intellectually
sustain that conversation, how you unravel the other person’s argument, and those conversations
on campus are good conversations. Sam: And are there many at Bard? Is this an
issue of any kind, would you say? Leon: Yes and no. I think, you know, unfortunately,
the most common thing on American campus is staying out of the fray. What’s good about
the current is that it has involved more students than have been involved in a long time, in
certain kinds of discussions, but most people don’t tell you what they really think. Fareed: I’ll tell you what is the real embattled
minority on collge campuses, is conservatives. There are virtually no conservatives, on the
faculty, in the administration, and among students, and to the extent they exist, they
do experience a hostile atmosphere, both from the professors and from their fellow students.
They’re the ones who need special deans and special programs. Leon: There, actually, there is a lot of political
correctness. So, the program we do that tries to, is we have the institution that we try
to do the most exchanges is with West Point. Because what our undergraduates need to meet
is their contemporaries of the same age, who have chosen a radically different path. Sam: Let me give a brief example, an experience
I had with students. One of my colleagues at the New York Times, when I was there, and
just for the record, I left the Times about a year ago, was the columnist Frank Bruni,
whom some of you may read, and he had taught a course at Princeton, and he brought in a
group of students. He was doing one of these special classes Princeton has where journalists
often, it’s a writing class, meet with a small group of students. It’s a seminar that lasts
a semester. He, Frank in this case, was doing, he used to be a food critic, dining critic,
some of you may remember, before he became a columnist, and so they wrote food reviews.
But he also wanted to introduce them to other forms of journalism, and asked me to meet
with them, and they came into the Times, because as it happens, I write a fair amount about
conservative politics, and he thought it would be interesting for them to hear about this.
So, at the time, I was working a very long project with a great colleague at the Times.
We did it together. It was a long story on Rand Paul, if you remember him, he was supposed
to be frontrunner for the presidency a couple of years ago. So, one or two of the students
in the group, there were about a dozen, they came into the New York Times and went up to
the editorial page on the thirteenth floor, met in a conference room there, asked a little
bit about Rand Paul, and what I thought of him, and about his ideology, his libertarian
ideology and all the rest, and then afterwards I felt embarrassed in the way that we older
people sometimes will, because I had not thought to ask him why he was interested in this,
because it seemed so unusual. And so, I sent a note to Frank, and said, I felt bad about
this, I would have liked to know why, as it happened, these two students, undergraduates,
probably twenty years old, were interested in libertarianism and Rand Paul. And Frank’s
response was, you know what, it was just as well, they never would have spoken up and
told you because it’s not polite to talk about politics at Princeton. So people don’t do
that. And the conversation actually doesn’t happen so much as you might think. And I think
particularly when it touches on these conservative topics. Andre: We have one last question. Audience: Oh my, that’s a great privilege.
I’d like to go back to the matter of high school, which seems to be the real underside
of the whole education. A friend who taught English in public schools on Long Island once
commented, the problem with the public schools is that they’re public, and what she meant
by that was, all the other things that flood young people’s minds, etc., and keep them
distracted. Then I learned here, from the first time, the problem with the private system
in New York City, and probably everywhere. So, would you comment on this problem some
more, which is an enormous problem? Leon: So, I didn’t quite understand the public-private…
So the problem is with the way the culture deals with the traditions of learning and
the coming of age in adolescence. That’s at least my opinion. So, for whatever reason,
that we do not put in front of young people, except maybe in sports, where this works,
in music, a little bit, and in dance, at margins, very talented kids, or kids in mathematics,
chess, there are pockets where this happens, but by and large, when a person begins to
presume his or her adulthood, either by maturation, is targeted by companies as a consumer, has
a lot of freedom of movement, that person is then treated like a child and does not
encounter someone they can look up to who knows how to do something, or really has,
kind of, the ability at a very vulnerable age, to make them excited about the conduct
of science, about the natural world, about literature, and we do not put in front of
them in our schools people who are capable of doing that, and that’s true in the private
schools, and it’s true in the public schools. And, the culture, the definition of manhood,
and of femininity, is separated from the life of the mind. So, I finally saw one Holllywood
film, this film Martian, in which actually the scientists were regular people, unlike
that impossible Big Bang Theory thing, in which the scientists, all presumably at CalTech,
are horrific charicatures of moronic… And the only nice person is an absolutely dumb
blonde. So they are reinforcing the worst stereotypes. So if you are a vulnerable male
adolescent in a public school, and you’re interested in ideas, and not football, and
not sports, and you’re a girl and you don’t know how to act and show your incipient adulthood,
and it’s not about your looks and your beauty and your makeup and whatever it is, or the
gossip, or the dating, but it is through learning to do things and think about things, we in
the culture have this streak of anti-intellectualism, and we don’t reward it. So the schools are
helpless when adolescence comes in, and they can no longer command by authority over little
children, and the authority has to be in the substance and character of what they do, and
the creation of a peer group value cultural system, is as important as whom they go to
school with. So, the fact remains that we could do it, because the age group can soak
it up fantastically, and we lose, and the problem is it begins in middle school. Andre: One last question. You’ve been standing
up there a long time. Audience: Thank you very much for taking my
question. Dr. Zakaria, you cited the quality and competitiveness of teachers in Finland
as distinct from the Asian educational system, and Dr. Botstein, you pointed to the weakness
of the American high school system, paradoxically stacked in favor of wealthier communities,
and the property taxes held by those communities. A good schoolteacher is invariably steeped
in a strong liberal arts education, but to go along with that education in the midst
of higher eductation costs, that students are really struggling with as they get to
their senior year in high school, and families are struggling with that. How do you make
a liberal education something appealing and useful so that when they get out of college,
they don’t feel completely overwhelmed by debt? There’s a balance that’s off here. Leon: The facts are, unfortunately, not on
your side. College is actually, because of financial aid, cheaper, on the average, than
it was ten years ago. Second of all, the employment and unemployment rates for liberal arts graduates
are actually pretty impressive, and the amount of loans are much lower than the kind of political
discussion is. I think we fail to finance our education properly, you’re right about
that. I don’t think college is too expensive. Nobody in any university is getting rich.
At a time when the inequality of wealth is as obscene as it is, to complain about the
university, and the university is inefficient because the university has to be inefficient
to do what it does. Inefficiency is part of its virtue. You don’t know which scientist
is going to get the breakthrough ahead of time. You have to have a lot of them who are
hitting their heads against dead ends. But, I don’t assume, your question assumes from
the start that we have to persuade you that the liberal arts are relevant. What we represent
by the liberal arts is the tradition of knowledge and inquiry, and the mode of intellectual
thought which has actually created whatever can be construed as progress in civilization. Audience: Specifically in the context of generating
quality high school teachers. Leon: In the quality of high schools, we’re
doing compensatory work. So, your question is probably, from my point of view, apt. Because
what we’re in the business, I believe, now this is a different subject, that we could
do what we do in college earlier. I would get rid of the American high school. [Murmur] Fareed: Again, here, I think that there is
a big shift that is probably about to take place. I think it’s true what Leon says, that
if you look at elite colleges, and the financial aid packages they have, and student loan packages
they have, you know, college is this very extraordinary thing where you have a bizarre
way of charging for the product. What other product is billed this way? You go to a car
dealer and you say, “I want to buy a car,” and you say, “How much does it cost?” and
the car dealer will say to you, “Give me your last three years income tax forms, and I will
figure out the price just for you.” Right? So, there is an exquisite pricing, which some
people might call cartel policies or whatever, so there is a very weird way that colleges
are priced, it’s certainly true that if you look at education costs in general, they have
gone up well over inflation. Education and healthcare have both gone up well in excess
of inflation, largely because you have very complicated systems, partly because what Leon
was saying, you do need some inefficiency, you know. It takes four people twenty minutes
to play a Mozart string quartet, as it did three hundred years ago, and there are certain
things you can’t get efficiencies there. But I do believe where you are going to get a
transformation is again the way technology is going to have an impact. What does the
internet and technology do more than anything else? It unbundles bundled products, so that
things that you used to have to buy all together, you can start buying separately. So, I think
that some of the things we’ve been talking about are going to turn into real live experiments.
So, you don’t want the sports? Well, guess what, there will be ways that you can access
elements of a liberal arts education, without the sports. You won’t be able to get all of
it, because you won’t get the college, you know, the personal flavor, but there are places,
Minerva is a place on the West Coast, which is trying to provide some of that, so that
there will be in-room classes, people sitting down together, using some online material,
but no sports team, no extra-curriculars and such. There will be some pure online education.
But the effect of these things is also will be to force colleges to ask themselves, what
do I do really well? Because we can’t all do everything. And so if you are a place like
Bard, and I mean this genuinely, which has created a truly unique experience, where being
there physically is regarded by almost everybody who goes there as well worth it, you’re going
to be fine. But if you’re in a very different situation, and you’re charging about the same
tuition as Bard, maybe you’re not going to be able to do that. And that process of sorting
itself out I think has just begun. So colleges will have to ask themselves, what are you
really good at? If you are really good at providing the in-person, social-communal education
experience, you’re going to be fine. If you’re really good at the brand, you know, Harvard,
Yale, Princeton will be fine, because there essentially, you’re paying membership to join
a country club, because you want to meet the other members of the country club. That’s
what you think you’re getting there. They’ll be fine. But what about the places that, just
for simplicity’s sake are 100 or 150 on the U.S. News and World Report list, and charge
about the same tuition. That seems to me highly unlikely to be sustained, and most importantly,
what is going to change is that somebody is going to go to Proctor and Gamble five years
from now and say, I did not have any, neither the education nor the background, to go to
a good college, but I have taken thirty-six classes at Coursera and EdX and whatever,
and here are my diplomas, and I have constructed, essentially, a liberal arts education for
myself, and it cost me four thousand dollars over three years. Would you hire me? That
will be the moment when the pricing power of colleges changes. Because why are they
able to do what they do? Because employers regard them as a very efficient sorting mechanism
for hiring. So that it’s much easier than going around looking at every 25-, 22-year-old
in America, to look at graduates from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc., etc. So, once that
starts to change, what happens at those universities? What are they required to ask? I would hope,
the good case scenario here, is that you return to a focus on education as opposed to the
brand, as opposed to the football team, as opposed to the college you come from, and
if that happens, then the technology will have played a useful role. In some ways, it
returns you to something that always existed. Leon: So, I’m going to say something outrageous,
if you don’t mind. Number one, the net cost to the consumer for college, despite the sticker
price, has gone down. Two, even at the full sticker price, it’s an unbelievable bargain.
Thirty weeks, housed and fed, with a health club, endless entertainment, a wide variety
of potential social partners, and unlimited access to the full-scale knowledge of the
natural world from the genome to the Bible. And, if you amortize that over thirty weeks,
and you try to unbundle that – join a health club – FareedI don’t know what health clubs you’re
joining, but there are a lot cheaper than that. Leon: – check into a motel, have three weeks,
and hire as tutors all of the potential entertainment which we call the faculty, and all the extra-curricular,
like in an assisted-living home, all the other entertainments you have, the glee club, and
the orchestra, it’ll cost you more than the sticker price of the university. [Laughter] Andre: Sam, do you want to say something? Sam: Yeah, I just want to quote a couple of
sentences here from Barzin(?) in 1968, just to show you how little things have changed.
He says, he writes about loans: “A survey at one university showed that some 75% of
the undergraduate body took out loans in the form of deferred tuition payments. Of those
75%, 80% defaulted at the first payment.” [Laughter] Andre: Thank you very, very much for being
here. Thank you again.

5 Replies to “The Value of Liberal Education: Fareed Zakaria in Conversation with Leon Botstein”

  1. I think Fareed is correcting in stating that colleges should be places for intellectual airing of differences, however I think Fareed is mistaking intellect as the criterion for understanding racism, when in fact empathy is what is required for someone to be perceptive and sensitive to the harm they inflict on a minority person with cultural insensitivities and thus be inclined to amend their behaviour in reaction to new understanding of the effects of their behaviour.

    Fareed is also missing the point that asking students not to wear racially insensitive clothing does not equate not allowing them to participate in a discussion on racial differences. Wearing racially offensive clothing is akin to calling someone a racial epithet, which colleges should not tolerate.. However, they should promote discussion on racial epithets.

    As for creating a safe space in universities- the issue is that minority university students are NOT equipped to deal with micro-aggressions of racism, precisely because they find themselves somewhat isolated in universities by virtue of being a minority. Therefore they do not have the balance of having a group of people in their position that would give them the comfort of not feeling threatened. Its easier to say that wearing racially insensitive clothing will be moderated by the reaction of intellectuals' reception of that kind of display when you are in an environment that is racially balanced, unfortunately that is not the case in many universities. I would also like to add that Fareed's experience as a minority muslim in University however many years ago, would be quite different (less direct, harsh, violent) than the racism that muslim students would experience today. That goes back to the comment of a hierarchy of racism that Leon was speaking about. When Fareed was in university, muslims were not perceived by racists as a threat, now they are. I think muslim students today in an environment where Trump is calling for a ban on muslim immigrants would feel very wary as immigrant scholars at an elite university.

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