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F R O M   T H E   E D I T O R
Leaving Babel
Joseph A. P. De Feo • The speech President Levin should have given February • 2001 Freshman Issue

President Levin devoted a large portion of his baccalaureate address to the class of 2001 to the subject of China.  His reason for doing so, he assured his mildly fidgety audience, was not so remote from their present concerns.  He pointed to globalization, a term that he, like most people who use it, never bothered to define or demonstrate that he even possessed its meaning.  He explained that the East is eager to share “the best of what we have in America.”  He pointed to increased attention to international trade, the changing times, and the like.  These concerns shaped the determination that just as Yale should become a “global university.” 

Just what President Levin was driving at remains unclear.  He could not have been saying Yale has been operating on narrow grounds and has only recently discovered foreign cultures; that is patently false.  If by that phrase President Levin means a university that welcomes students from all nations and engages in exchange programs with the entire world, then Yale is already a “global university.”  President Levin mentioned in that very speech the “expansion of financial aid for international applicants to Yale College, the creation of new interdisciplinary professorships of international studies, the establishment of a new Center for the Study of Globalization and the launching of the Yale World Fellows Program for emerging leaders.”  If President Levin means that the fruits of Yale’s intellectual labors should be shipped to all parts of the globe, then too, Yale already fits the description, through international programs, travelling, fellowships, and exchanges made possible by the internet.  What more do promoters of the “global university” want?  The only way that Yale could become more global in this geographic sense is by its continued voracious appetite for real estate, or by its relocating entirely to cyberspace. 

If by “global university” President Levin does not mean merely an ethnically diverse school in communication with the wider world, then what sort of globalization does he have in mind?  In truth, the globalization of the university is an absurd notion.  The university, by its name and its definition, should already concern itself with universality.  It should aim at universal truths, the sciences of man (the humanities) and the natural sciences.  To consider the university to be anything else is to emasculate it, to lend it a sham universality. 

Perhaps what needs globalizing is not the university, but the student. President Levin made mention of preparation for “world citizenship.”  Perhaps by world citizens the President merely meant international businessmen, or people who can profit from their training on a global scale.  This, however, is not the end of the liberal arts.  A liberal education is free, and serves no real end; it is an end in itself.  As a healthy body is to be preferred, so too a healthy, or educated, mind.  Too many in the university lose sight of this, and instead embrace the servile arts.  These are subjugated to another end, be it the acquisition of a job, the performance of the work of an economist, or the like.  People whose pursuits are limited to such concerns could just as well go to a vocational school.  Too few pursue knowledge as its own end here, and fewer can explain how Yale differs both in kind and degree from any given vocational school.  This is not to say that the true scholar spurns success, or that liberal knowledge is not useful in the “real world.”  On the contrary, it is likely that one with a mind made vigorous by an expansive education will not only attain his objectives, but will have consulted his philosophical underpinnings to determine them in the first place.  Both a healthy body and an educated mind, while goods in themselves, can also be made to serve other ends more effectively than unformed bodies and minds. 

However unlikely it is that President Levin intended such a thing, the interpretation of his “world citizenship” comment in light of and in support of the liberal arts entails much more far-reaching corollaries.  President Levin recalled a question posed to him by the mayor of Shanghai.  He wondered, “why is it that every schoolchild in China can identify the author and date of our Declaration of Independence and so few of ours can identify when the Qing dynasty fell, when the Long March occurred, and when the communists took power.”  Briefly, Chinese schoolchildren know about the Declaration of Independence because it has affected them, a westernizing nation with a form of government that grew in part out of the intellectual tradition of the West.  It has become part of their history.  Events in the East may have politically affected us, but have not contributed so much to our intellectual tradition.  They have been moving closer to the West intellectually since the nineteenth century; we are not responding in kind. But what does this have to do with “world citizenship”?  Did President Levin by globalization mean preparation for “world citizenship,” and does such a thing entail greater study of the East, or the other ends of the earth? 

Yale already pays much attention to the East’s history, thought, and language.  In fact, Yale has non-western areas covered fairly well, not to mention minority cultures in the West and the United States.  One can hardly conceive further “globalization” of the curriculum.  Nevertheless, the study of a hodgepodge of foreign cultures has little to do with “world citizenship.” 

Plutarch quotes Socrates as saying “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”  Epictetus posits Socrates’ statement as a recognition of the communion of living things, but particularly rational ones.  Rational beings are especially worthy of communion with God, whose relationship over all of them unites them and makes nationalities pale.  A citizen of the world has expanded his mind beyond the bounds of nationality, and probably by means of philosophy and not mind-altering drugs.  If this be President Levin’s point, it stands in unmistakable contrast to Yale’s current state.  And therein lies the problem. 

If President Levin wants to call Yale’s purpose the making of citizens of the world, that is an improvement over the mere making of sophisters, economists, calculators, and basket-weavers.  If it is in any way comparable to John Henry Newman’s notion of the university-created “gentleman,” whose mind has been expanded by a liberal education, then it is admirable.  Such a goal requires a disavowal of the multicultural university, with its self-segregated cultural houses and its cultural studies departments.  Before the university can groom citizens of the world, it must foster a community of scholars, and not ghettos of specialists.  How true does the phrase “I am a citizen of the world” ring when pronounced by someone who has shunned Plato for statistical analyses or African-American Studies?  How much more ridiculous is it when uttered by one who prefers to be cloistered only with those of his own ethnicity?

The liberal education of a citizen of the world must be more broad than deep. One should remember that at a university there are researchers, teachers, and students.  While the former two often coincide in one person, the student is there to learn, to absorb truth, and not to attain great depth too early; there will be time for that later.  Breadth prevents any one discipline from overstepping its bounds; to interpret the world solely from the point of view of physics is just as silly as to explain it all by economics.  One who can view humans only as moving bodies, according to physical formulae, is as ludicrous as one who can only view them as consumers, operating on economic formulae.  Having an extensive education renders a truer picture of the world, with each branch of knowledge checking the advances of each other. 

The natural sciences give knowledge of the world, and the humanities, particularly literature, impart knowledge of man. Just as one would shun wholly discredited sciences and unproven ones as well, such as phrenology and new-age medicine (inasmuch as that could be related to strict science), one should be as scrupulous about the humanities.  The Canon has said more numerous and profound things about human nature, and seems to constitute the best science of man, yet encountered.  At Yale espousing the Western Canon is sometimes called narrow-minded; on the contrary, it is the most mind-broadening body of knowledge in man’s possession. Experimentation in less-proven areas is commendable, as long as one has a firm grounding in the basics that have done so much to form great men of the past.  Relying solely on one’s own judgement is untenable; life is too short to read all that claims profundity.  Hence good teachers are needed to guide one, and give one a foundation upon which to build. 

And as it is nearly impossible to obtain an education sufficiently broad to keep all disciplines in check, one must rely on a surrounding culture of scholarship.  Living on campus and interacting with scholars and students is not a negligible part of a liberal education.  Cardinal Newman proclaimed a school that threw men together for a few years and left them to their own devices to be better than one that merely administered an exam in all sciences to all comers on a given date.  But we have built a tower of Babel here; we speak only as psychologists, historians, or physicists whose respective branches of knowledge have run rampant, taking over our worldviews and often rendering us mutually incomprehensible.  Real intellectual discourse requires some common ground, and at least a common language.  By choosing specialization and depth over breadth we have impeded this. 

While breadth is to be desired, a glut of information in the mind amounts only to clutter without a principle of organization and evaluation.  This is the role of philosophy, the basis, matrix, and culmination of one’s intellectual work.  It is philosophy that can make normative claims, and thus give real direction and value to one’s study. It is only philosophy that can make Socrates a citizen of the world; without it he is floating in a void of sensation and thought.  It is the principle that draws relations within the knowledge one gains, and integrates one’s knowledge of the world, of man, and oneself. Only it can lift him from quotidian concerns to contemplation of the whole; he is not merely a citizen of the world but a citizen of the cosmos. 

There is danger here, of course. Philosophy may place one in the world.  That is, it may allow one to stick a pin labeled “you are here” on a philosophical map, in relation to other things or concepts.  But there is no guarantee that philosophy will moor one, and it may well set one adrift.  Some people run aground, and some are never heard from again.  Such are the risks of the examined life of a real globalized citizen. 

Joseph A. P. De Feo, Editor-in-Chief


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Designed by
Joseph A. P. De Feo

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