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Athens in America
Professor Steven Smith on the university in politics and politics in the university ē December 1998

YFP: I guess the first place to start would be whether you think that one of the major purposes of the University is to make citizens, to fit people to be better citizens? 

SS: Well, yes and no. I think of course that you want the University to prepare people for the life of thoughtful citizenship in some way, but I donít think that the purpose or the end, the be-all and end-all of the University is to be civics training for good citizens. That might be one of the things it accomplishes, but I really think itís fundamentally much more about just education in some kind of broadly understood Socratic sense. And of course we all know that Socratesís relationship to his own city was a very troubled one. You wouldnít say after reading Platoís Republic or the Apology of Socrates that the major purpose is to make you a good citizen or a good citizen of Athens. They may show you, among other things, why Athens was a good regime and why it for different reasons might have merited someoneís obligation. But I donít think thatís the fundamental purpose of the University, although I know there are a lot of political theorists who do, who write about democratic education and believe that the purpose of education whether in the university or in the high schools is education for democracy. I resist that kind of view of education which I think is ideological training. Even if the end is a good one I think itís too narrow a description of what the university is about.

YFP: Would you consider that Socrates was a good citizen of Athens?

SS: Not particularly, no. Otherwise I donít think he would have been tried and executed. I donít think the city was simply wrong to have done that. I think they understood that there was something very problematic about the example that Socrates set and the kind of philosophy that he practiced, that it was really in its own way at odds with what Athens was, at odds with any particular regime. So Iím not of the view that Socrates was simply unjustly condemned. I think the people who condemned him understood what the nature of the crime was, so to speak, and of course while today we donít typically imprison or execute or exile the people who practice philosophy, even of the kind that Socrates practiced, it does in fact have a deeply problematic relationship to oneís own regime. 

YFP: Do you think that universities here, American universities, still stand in a somewhat oppositional relationship to society?

SS: No, I donít. I donít think so at all. First, there are so many different kinds of universitiesóI donít know how they understand their relationship to the wider society. My own sense is that students are today not so much driven by either a desire to be in opposition or a desire to find grounds for citizenship. I see students as very much driven by professional and pre-professional desires to succeed in the world and in the different professions, even at the expense of the aims of a liberal education. I donít get a sense that the universities or the education that students receive is an oppositional education in the way that you might have thought that in the 60s the universities seemed hotbeds of the counterculture and of opposition to society. Things are very different now, and I think the education and the interests of the students certainly reflect that. 

YFP: So you think there has been a change this century. How do you describe the arc of the change? Starting from where and going where?

SS: Well, Iím not an historian of the American university. There have been, particularly, since World War II, huge demographic changes in the populations that go to university. Particularly universities like this one, which was obviously then a bastion of the elite of society. And today this is no longer true. Just in the obvious sense, if there is a kind of demographic center to the elite universities it is the American upper middle classes, kids who went to either private or good suburban public schools. This is not the old or traditional elite of society. And I think the universities have come more and more to cater to the needs and the interests of that class, which I think is for successóeconomic success, social mobility, all of the things that the middle class in our society has come to expect. And perhaps itís not so surprising that the university, particularly in a democratic society, comes to be a reflection of or an expression of the interests of its dominant social class. One result of that is, whereas the older elites were more or less guaranteed a leadership position or a position of social prominence no matter what they did in college, a student today can hardly expect that. Which I think to some degree explains the importance of disciplines in the university like economics, like biology, things that have a pre-professionaló

YFP: Things where you can be sure you wonít be wasting your time... I was wondering, related to that, whether you thought America was basically an egalitarian society and how that affects what the university does. It can be described as egalitarian or as meritocratic or as any number of things, but I was wondering which you thought was most prominent.

SS: Well, itís a society that thinks of itself as being democratic. I donít think I could describe the regime. Those are all true. We have deeply meritocratic instincts and meritocracy implies inequality, it entails a certain inequality, as people are rewarded according to their merits. Our merits are unequally distributed. So thatís certainly true. I think those are all fair descriptions, although they are obviously at odds at some level. Thatís part of our mixed regime. There are elements of equality and elements of inequality. Aristotle said about his polity itís treating equals equally and unequals unequally. Now what the mix is, of course, is the rub; but itís not a bad description.

YFP: Do you think that happens at university, that the equals are treated equally and the unequals unequally?

SS: Itís more evident across universities. Within the university I donít think itís quite so clear. In some ways, seen from the inside, Yale is a very egalitarian institution. Students are treated equally. The more egregious symbols of inequality that used to exist have all but disappeared. Today you get students every year, you can almost count on it, someone will write a letter to the Daily or write an editorial, ďWe have to abolish some institution around here thatís thought to be a symbol of old elitism.Ē But when you look at that institution, itís usually so transformed today that it bears little resemblance. Itís an example of the tyranny of small differences. When something looks to be a little bit elite, it becomes an object for suspicion. It makes me more aware of it as a master of a college than I was before, [of] the way in which there is an enormous equalizing mechanism. Differences between public school and private school, all these things disappear because youíre all at Yale. I know that they exist but still, I would say, within the institution itís much more egalitarian.

YFP: How would you describe the content of a liberal education? You mentioned some things which were outside of that content, like pre-professional education, but what remains in it?

SS: Well, the examples I used were biology and economics. Iím not suggesting that biology and economics are outside a liberal education. What I think is the content of a liberal educationóthere are different ways of putting it, but as a first cut at what it is I would say something like the curriculum of the Directed Studies program. Thatís very close to what I think of as the core of a liberal education. Obviously thereís no science in Directed Studies, and science is certainly a part of the liberal education. But a lot of it turns not on what you study but on the spirit in which itís undertaken. Certainly the study of literature, the study of philosophy, of history in its various dimensions, all of those things constitute a core of the liberal education.

YFP: What holds those things together? What makes them the core of a liberal education?

SS: My own approach to these things tends to come more from the study of texts, the study of books. Sometimes people think of liberal education in terms of certain great books. Maybe thatís what holds it together. I ask students, ďWhatís your favorite book, whatís the most important book to you?Ē And Iím usually disappointed that this question takes them totally by surprise and they donít usually have an answer to this. And I say, ďWell, you have to get one before you leave here,Ē because that seems to me what a liberal education is about. You should find books or texts which shape the way you look at the world, provide the lens by which you look at the world. I donít mean by this any kind of exclusive view of what the great books are; Iím prepared to be totally capacious in terms of that. But itís very important for students to have a sense of the importance of books and using books as a filter by which to understand the world, to understand different types of human beings, different kinds of psychologies. And this is what I donít see enough of at Yale. I donít think we have a sense of the importance and the integrity of individual works and of the authors who put those together.

YFP: How do you go about choosing the book that is your favorite? Are there lenses that are better than others, lenses that you would prefer that students chose?

SS: I donít think itís possible to answer that question, because I think it will be different for different people. For one person it could be Plato, for another Shakespeare, for somebody else the Bible. It could be Darwin. I donít think itís possible to confine this to the 15 or 24 or whatever number of great books there are.

YFP: I was more asking, if books lead you to particular conclusions, it seems like most people who take Darwin as their favorite book do not also take King Lear as their favorite book. What do you do when these two lenses show vastly differing pictures of the world, that both seem extremely powerful pictures but that canít be reconciled or cannot at least easily be reconciled? If there were anything that you would prefer in that respect that students gravitate toward, anything that you find more reasonable or better?

SS: No, I would suggest thatís really the point of a liberal education. Iím certainly not going to say students should gravitate to the more wholesome, or the more this or that. Part of an education is giving people a sense of vastly different conceptions of the world and these books embody them. And to live by one is necessarily to be at odds with another one. And learning to appreciate the range of different human beings and human ways of life that we see best through the examination of the great works of literature and philosophy and art, and balancing that, and coming to an appreciation of those differences, I think thatís what itís about. 

YFP: Do you think then that thereís a contradiction in a religious university trying to present a liberal education?

SS: Yeah, insofar as thereís a contradiction or a tension with liberal education whenever thereís a pre-existing orthodoxy to which everything else must somehow conform. Iím strongly resistant to all orthodoxies; I mean, we have our own secular orthodoxies as well, itís not just a monopoly of the religious groups. And these orthodoxies are always at odds with the spirit of liberal education. 

YFP: Would that be as much a problem for religious students even in a university which was presenting them with a good liberal education? Can religious students be educated in that way and still remain religious?

SS: Well, yes, sure. I donít think that liberal education is hostile to religion or carrying on a religious way of life. Again, a lot of it depends on what the spirit of it is. Most students come to Yale from secular high schools; relatively few come from deeply religious schools where certain kinds of secular learning had been shut off to them. If they do go to those schools they tend not to come to Yale to begin with. But certainly college is about learning different perspectives, and it doesnít necessarily mean rejecting the one that youíve been brought up with, but it does mean coming to see other alternatives to it. And then you weigh and consider the alternatives, and presumably you choose whatís right for you. Now maybe to say you choose whatís right for you already presupposes that you are outside a religious point of view, because it seems to put a lot of emphasis on the autonomous individual and the capacity of the individual to choose their own way of life and set of values. That very language seems outside the language of orthodox religion. And in that respect orthodoxy and liberal education are at odds, in tension, although I donít believe thereís any reason why you should not be able to continue to practice your religion, having considered or weighed the alternatives. If you donít want to do that, youíre in the wrong place. 

YFP: It seems that if you say a liberal education is openness, an education which is totally open, then one of the things which it is totally open to is going to be [totalitarianism]. I donít see any way within the model of liberal education to get around that. 

SS: I see the point, that if liberal education implies a certain openness of mind the universities will be open to even the most horrible alternatives. But it seems to me that if it values a kind of regime, it values the regime that values openness as a virtue. And in that respect it would help form a resistance to tyranny or some kind of totalitarianism of the left or the right. Openness is not simply indifference to the many alternatives, but a value on freedom of thought, freedom of discussion, freedom of information. Regimes that seem to close off those possibilities would be in contradiction to what I understand as the spirit of liberal education. 

YFP: Itíll preserve itself and will recognize those things which are most a threat to it?

SS: It should; thatís what it should teach people to value most of all. This in a way gets back to your question, Is an education about citizenship? Well, yes and no again, because a citizen who values freedom of discussion, the free flow of information, the willingness to consider different alternatives, is a certain kind of citizen. Itís a citizen of a liberal democracy. Such a citizen will not be a great member or a good citizen of a Communist or a Nazi regime. So while Iím not an idealist in the sense that the one thing that will maintain a regime is its education, it should provide citizens or educated people with a resource for valuing certain ways of life and certain kinds of regimes. I think thatís what the difference is between liberal education as I understand it and the kind of openness which you describe, which is a kind of relativism. 

YFP: So would it be misunderstanding or really simplistic to say that the citizens that a liberal education is attempting to create are Athenians who arenít going to kill Socrates in the end? 

SS: Thatís not a bad description, Athenians who wonít kill Socrates. Obviously it would have to be unpacked at greater length.

YFP: What it means to be Athenian in America might be a place to start. What do you think the position is of someone who is a believer in liberal education in America now? Are there particular things that you would identify as being against that? 

SS: I think the politics of various kinds of multiculturalism, the politics thatís sometimes associated with postmodernism, the hardcore gender politicsóthese are all, I think, deeply antiliberal philosophies insofar as theyíre based on various dogmatisms. Positions that present themselves as liberal ones but are in fact based on dogmatically held premises. All of those are at odds with the way I understand liberal education.

YFP: Although it seems that all of those are positions you could come to through investigation, through questioning. Multiculturalism seems to be one of those. Why is it that those are the things that are antithetical to a liberal education necessarily?

SS: Well, itís not that theyíre necessarily the ones, itís just that these are the ones that are on the agenda today. Thirty years ago it would have been something very different. A hundred years ago it would have been certain racialist ideologies which were once powerfully held and even propagated within the universities. But for reasons historical as well as intellectual, most of these views no longer have credibility, at least within the universities. And the views, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences, which I see as oppositional to the study of important books and so on are these more extreme forms of multiculturalist and gender politics.

YFP: So youíre talking not only about intellectual trends but about wrong intellectual trends or harmful ones? Could [there] be intellectual trends which although they are the prevailing orthodoxy of the university would not be harmful, or would they also quash exploration?

SS: Give me an example.

YFP: could say democracy. The propagation of the idea that democracy is the best form of government might be a prevailing intellectual trend which is not harmful to the university. Or is it, insofar as itís possibly harder to explore other options if youíre already set on the idea that what we do is best? Do you think thereís a danger in that, or is it only in these other intellectual trends which attack the education itself? 

SS: I think that if all we had in the university was the relentless drumbeat of democratic ideology it would become very quickly boring and one-sided. To some degree, as politics increasingly converges on democratic ideals there is a tendency for that to become the case. The study of politics in the university, the study of politics simply, increasingly becomes the study of democratic politics. There may be perfectly good civic reasons to support that view, although it doesnít give students a really good sense of what the alternatives to democracy have been, good as well as bad. It precludes any sense that history has been good and bad to democracy at very different times. It leads us away from what the arguments both pro and con about democracy have been; we come to think simply that politics is in one way or another the study of the functioning of democracy, just like anything becomes rigidified in that way. This is why for me the canonical text on democracy is Tocqueville, in part because heís always juxtaposing democracy to an aristocratic alternative. And also trying to look at, even within democratic regimes, regimes that maintain freedom within democracy and those kinds of democracies that crush freedom and tend towards collective mediocrity. Itís really a wonderful example of the comparative study of democracy, and to me that would be a good example, maybe the best example of how we should think about democracy.

YFP: But for other places there would be good alternatives [to democracy]?

SS: Right, I think every regimeís going to adapt to its history, its traditions. Iím not of the view that we have to export democracy or impose democracy on every other place in the world to make it run effectively or freely. What seems more important is that a regime respect the freedom of its citizens. I think that can be done in a variety of political mixes and institutions; they wonít all necessarily be democratic ones although they will have a strong or an important democratic components. At least to me, the most important feature of political institutions is their capacity to enhance the freedom of [their] citizens.

YFP: Bill of Rights-type freedoms, not the freedom to involve oneself in the political process itself? That is, the ends, not the means, are what you consider to be the important freedoms?

SS: Certainly the freedom to participate, whether itís in voting or in other ways, is a fundamental freedom of citizens. But freedom of opinion, freedom of association, freedom of informationóthese are, I think, the most important freedoms of citizens.

YFP: To loop back around, [are religious universities dying]? I donít think any of the top ten universities are religious ones. There are good ones, obviously; but do you think [the] debate is in the process of being lost by the religious schools?

SS: You mean places like Notre Dame or Yeshiva... What have they lost?

YFP: Well, more: Are they losing? Or are they necessarily just filling a different role? Is there always going to be a place for Catholic U., or is it trying to straddle a divide between a religious school and a liberal arts school that canít actually be straddled for all that long? Is it going to be totally secularized or totally religious?

SS: Can it remain half and half or will it have to be totally one or the other? Itís kind of what Lincoln said, ďCan a society remain half free and half slave?Ē It has to be one or the otheróďa house divided against itself cannot stand.Ē Although I donít know why these universities cannot retain a kind of religious identity. There seems to be an important constituency for places like B.C. or Yeshiva; they do a perfectly good job at doing what they do.

YFP: Thank you very much.

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