The Politics of Education
An Interview with Benjamin Barber
By Scott London
WYSO-FM December 14, 1992
It's been nearly a decade since A Nation at Risk appeared, warning that "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people." These findings have been echoed in a steady stream of reports in the wake of A Nation at Risk which spell out, in no uncertain terms, that the crisis of America's schools and the education of our fifty million young people is probably the most critical challenge facing the United States today.
But how do we grapple with the problems of education today and what are some of the issues at stake? One of the most thoughtful observers of this question is Benjamin Barber, one of America's leading political scientists and the author of a profound and controversial new book tackling the question of public education and what it means for American democracy -- An Aristocracy of Everyone. Some critics have called it an answer to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.
Benjamin Barber is the author of numerous books on democracy, community, and American politics, including Strong Democracy, The Conquest of Politics, and The Challenge of Democracy. He writes regularly for Harper's, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and various other publications. He teaches as Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he directs the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy.
Scott London: When did your ideas about community and democracy first fully come alive for you? What prompted your interest in these questions?
Benjamin Barber: Back in the 1950s I went to a small, international, progressive, co-educational,
interracial boarding school in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, run by a refugee from the Nazis. It flew the U.N. flag. This was 1952. It had a 10-12 percent black enrollment. (That was two years before Brown vs. Board of Education when no private schools had that.) And we had a civic agenda as part of our studies. So from a very young age I was exposed to that. I went to college in Switzerland, and then in England for a couple of years, before I went back to Grinnell College in Iowa. So the combination of my early schooling and the international experience I had I think gave me a commitment to citizenship and democracy and civic education that has been with me since.
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London: Have you explored questions of democracy in an ongoing way, or is this something that has gained urgency over the years?
Barber: I think that like everything else it travels in cycles. We've just come through a cycle of torpor, quiescence, narcissism, selfishness during which those of us who were struggling to talk about citizenship, about democracy, about activity, about taking responsibility for our lives were in a kind of minority and we felt we were speaking against the current of our times. Anyone who listened to Bill Clinton's speech on accepting the election to the presidency could not fail to be impressed by his use of words like "community," "responsibility," "citizenship," and "democracy," in a way that has not been part of public rhetoric for a number of years. So I think that we are now swinging back into an era of extraordinary opportunity for people who care about and think that democracy and citizenship are the key to the American future.
London: Is this merely a cyclical phenomenon, or can you take some credit for its reemergence?
Barber: I don't think you can flog a dead horse back into life. I don't think that citizenship is something that a few people by talking about it can create. I think perhaps we kept a spark alive, as it were, when for a number of years not many institutions or people were talking about it. David Mathews and the Kettering Foundation, Harry Boyte out at Project Public Life in Minneapolis, Frances Moore Lappe at the Center for Living Democracy, and Ernie Cortes at Industrial Areas Foundation, and a number of other Americans, who were engaged in not just talking about citizenship and democracy, but working on practical experiments to empower people in their own lives, I think helped keep alive sparks that set a raging flame in this election that I hope will illuminate all of America in the coming years.
London: In the wake of the elections, I think that many Americans are a bit hungover now with the rhetoric of democracy. Yet there's a lot of fuss about it today and I think that Americans are feeling that maybe they are losing their grip on democracy, that the world is changing in frightening ways -- not just economically, but in terms of the old power structures that are giving way. What do you see? How would you diagnose democracy here at home today?
Barber: The great danger in any democratic republic is the danger that people think democracy is an automaton -- that is to say, an engine that goes of itself without any effort and that like the battery in the advertisement, it just keeps going and going and going. But, in fact, democracy doesn't keep going and going and going. It requires the fuel of active citizenship. America's been at it for a long time. There is a sense on the part of some Americans of being burned out, of apathy, of not caring. And even now with this extraordinary turnout -- and I was delighted to see the much larger turnout in the elections -- I think that a lot of Americans maybe think that now that they have voted in a new party, a new administration, two new young men -- Bill Clinton and Al Gore -- that now these men on their white horses will save us and we can all go home and go about our business. So there is always that sense that democracy doesn't have to be worked at, when the fact is that in a democracy, like a good marriage, a good relationship, a good job, you've got to work at it all the time and the minute you stop working, no matter how good it's been, it starts going downhill.
London: What kind of work are you talking about?
Barber: Civic work. Civic activity. And that means much more than just voting, maybe doing jury duty once in a while. Citizenship is in a certain sense a full-time occupation. Which is why it is hard, because Americans also have other jobs -- they've got families, they've got to earn a living. Citizenship is, at its best, a full-time job. It means taking ongoing responsibility for all of the communities in which you live: your family, your neighborhood, your church, your school, your synagogue, the town, the state, the nation, and of course increasingly now we talk about a genuine responsibility to the whole globe environmentally as well. Those are tremendous responsibilities and they do exact a real price. People get tired out, they don't want to have the time for it, so it takes that kind of civic work. It's a work that is not discharged by voting -- people think somehow "Now I've been a good citizen, I voted, now I can go home again." But voting is the first step towards citizenship, not the last step.
London: How did the idea of writing a book about education occur to you? What, aside from Allan Bloom's book...
Barber: Well, you know Bloom was an obvious foil for some of my ideas. He's an interesting character to argue with, (and I'm sorry that he died recently which means I won't have an opportunity to debate these issues with him -- I would have like to have done that because he raised profound issues).
London: We're talking about The Closing of the American Mind.
Barber: Right. The Closing of the American Mind, the book written in 1986 which became a best-seller and sold hundreds of thousands of copies and altered the way many Americans thought about education.
London: Isn't that a rather extraordinary thing?
Barber: Yes and no. I disagree with Allan Bloom on almost everything he said about education. I agree with him on one fundamental premise, and that is that education is crucial to the life of our democracy. In that sense, anybody who has been thinking about democracy has to think about education.
Let me tell you a story about Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson, our great third president, president of the United States for two full terms, purchaser of Louisiana, doubled the size of the nation, founded the Democratic party. When he died he instructed that on his tombstone be written only two things. Nothing about his presidency, nothing about the Louisiana purchase. The two things were: Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Bill of Rights; and secondly, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Jefferson saw a profound connection between the Bill of Rights -- the document embodying the rights of citizens -- and education as the foundation which made democracy work and made the Bill of Rights work. The founding of the common school, the public school, in America was for Jefferson the foundation for an effective and successful democracy. I think we have lost sight of the connection between the schooling, citizenship and democracy.
I wrote An Aristocracy of Everyone in part to get back to the central connection between public education and public citizenship.
London: But we've changed; that was 200 years ago. Many people say that there's too much talk about the Constitution. America is a different place than it was 200 years ago. Is that a valid criticism?
Barber: Of course, America is a different place. By the way, one of the most extraordinary things about the Constitution, and one of the reasons we can talk about it all the time, is that it was one of the most flexible, open-ended documents ever written -- unlike some of Europe's legalistic constitutions in which every last policy issue is legislated by the basic constitution. Ours was a fundamental law that was open to change, was extraordinarily flexible, and has managed as a result to be a governing document for 200 years.
But I don't want to suggest that democracy and citizenship mean we ought to go back and monumentalize and celebrate the constitution and talk about the wonderful founders. The worst possible way to get young people interested in citizenship and politics is to go back and tell them all about Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington and Madison and how wonderful they were and how terrible the kids today are. On the contrary, talking about democracy means talking about the responsibility of this generation of citizens, this generation of children, this generation of young people, to the society in which we live, which in many ways is profoundly different from the society of the founders. For one thing, their society was a society in which white men with property voted. Lots of other differences too, obviously. So talking about democracy and going back to the Constitution as our roots is just a way of remembering that citizens today have to take responsibility today for their Constitution, and our discussion should be what citizenship and democracy entail for us today, not what the founders did 200 years ago.
London: In your book, you talk a lot about how history is changing. Not in the sense that history is coming to a screeching halt, as some people maintain, but rather that we are incorporating different stories into our history now. History today is seen as something that is not shared. There is no "universal canon" of accepted history, as you say; there are, rather, a multitude of different histories, and what we are trying to do now is to unite these into some form of shared history that we can all agree upon.
Barber: Yes, but, Scott, the problem is that history is a story we agree upon, and the agreement you reach is never easily reached, particularly in multicultural, complex, diversified, heterogeneous America. Multiculturalism and diversity aren't new. Even back in the 18th century, there were Dutch, British, there were farmers and industrialists, there were proletarians and farm-hands, rich and poor, Protestants and Quakers and non-believers. So we've had a quite extraordinary diversity by 18th century standards even then, and of course our diversity has only grown. So the problem we have is: what story do we tell about ourselves? Who's story is it? The story of the pilgrims coming from Britain? Is it the story of Germans immigrants coming fifty years later? Is it the story of black Africans brought in slavery and servitude and bondage and kept that way for 75 years into our so-called "free" constitution? Is it the story of women who, although they had certain rights of citizenship, had no powers of citizenship until this century, 70 or 80 years ago? Who's story is it? How do we tell that story? A lot of the arguments about the canon, about multiculturalism, about what you teach, is really an argument about what should that story be, who's story is it, and how do we tell it?
London: You talk at length about multiculturalism as one of the hallmarks of American society. But, you know, after the Los Angeles riots, many Americans were concerned that we too were splitting up into rival factions. So, I'll ask you the perennial question Rodney King asked: Can we all get along?
Barber: Not until we acknowledge and recognize our distinctiveness. Our motto, remember, is E Pluribus Unum, "from diversity, unity." What we share in common is diversity, that's the paradox of America. If you go to Germany, the Germans share a common German culture; if you go to France, they share Catholicism, a common language, a common heritage. What Americans share is a belief in the power of diversity to build a society, a tolerance of reciprocal respect for others, a set of constitutional principles that can hold us together despite our differences. The American story has to start not with the unified story of a single people, a single language, a single race, a single religion, a single god in which we all believe -- the American story has to start with the story of our diversity and how it was that a diverse group of people found ways to live together. Of course it's not an easy story and it's not an unbloody story. Part of the answer to the question of how we found a way to live together is the Civil War -- the most costly war Americans ever fought, more Americans died in the Civil War than died in all the subsequent wars, including World War II and Vietnam, put together. We've been through bloody times, and that's part of our shared story. I think that what's happened in Los Angeles, what's happened to many of our minority communities, is that they feel that they've been read out of the story because of the way that some people tell it. It's not sufficiently diverse. When Pat Buchanan got up last summer in Houston and talked about America as a small club basically of white men to which others didn't belong, (others who came from Asia, Latin America, or even people were good Americans but were gay or lesbian, or single women raising babies -- they weren't good Americans), that's a story of narrowness and exclusion and that's a story that's devastating to America. The story we need to tell is the story of diversity, of respect, and to do that we have to acknowledge, first of all, our differences.
London: The trouble with multiculturalism, it seems to me, is that by recognizing the divisions between people we erect barriers between them and lose our common ground. How do we move from a recognition of diversity and of our different groups to finding common ground that we can act from?
Barber: I think, Scott, the question is whether the diversity is a result of people insisting on their different origins and roots, or whether the diversity and the differences are already there but in demeaning forms. It's kind of like saying to African Americans, "Don't talk about your heritage in Africa, you should consider yourself just like every other American." Well, their rightful response is, "That's funny, because for 75 years after the Constitution was enacted, we were kept as slaves -- white people made us a separate people, we are not the ones who insisted on our Africanness, you insisted on our Africanness. Now we're returning the favor by trying to take some pride in our roots, look at our distinctive identity, accept ourselves as people. And then we can talk about our place in the American constellation, in the American rainbow." But it's not African Americans who first insisted on their distinctiveness, it was those who brought them here as slaves and kept them that way. The same thing is true of women: people say that women are accentuating gender differences. It's not women who accentuate gender differences, it's the men who rape, violate, and demean them who have created an issue out of difference. And women now are saying, "We will take our difference and make it a source of pride, a source of strength, a source of cohesion, and then perhaps be in a position to not just join the larger American community, but to fight the prejudice and discrimination that the male gender bias has led to."
London: It's a very delicate issue.
Barber: It's very delicate, indeed. But all I'm saying is that you can't say to women, or to African Americans, "You are responsible for dividing up the country, before you made an issue out of it we were just common citizens like everybody else, blacks were just common citizens." The white power structure, the male power structure, created a set of divisions that were demeaning, distinctions that were debased, and the groups that were traditionally debased are now taking pride in who they are and what they are and creating a strength from which I think will flow a genuinely integrated society -- but only over time, and only if we afford the space to those groups and peoples to develop those strengths.
London: There's a lot of talk about community in you book. You say that our lives are inextricably linked with our communities. What do you mean by this?
Barber: Well, I mean by this that individualism, separation, the idea that we live lonely, solitary lives, is to start with simply a myth. It doesn't capture how almost everyone around the globe, certainly everybody in America, lives. We live in families, we live in neighborhoods, we live in churches, synagogues, mosques, we live in work places, where we hold jobs and interact with other people. We are embedded, in other words, in groups of people whose lives and whose fates impinge on ours, and ours impinges on theirs. To pretend that we are the solitary clients or consumers or individuals that market economics or legal personhood has to impose on us is really to misunderstand the starting place for how we live. We live in communities, whether or not people prefer to or not. We live in communities, we are embedded in them, and democratic citizenship is a way of trying to make our relationships to the communities we live in equitable, fair, judicious, and equal.
Democracy is a form of community. There are other forms too: hegemonic, patriarchal, boss-relations where someone tells someone else what to do. Democratic communities are ones in which we make decisions together. But I want to say that we need to start with a simple acknowledgement that the reality is that whether we like it or not we are embedded beings, are communal beings, which means nothing more than saying that we all live in families, we live in neighborhoods, we go to churches, we go to schools, with other people. The old saying, "no man is an island" is not some kind of an aphorism of the ideal, it's a way simply of describing reality for all of our lives.
London: Increasingly, though, I think people are feeling the very opposite of this, that America is becoming a very independent and lonely society.
Barber: I think people want more community than they have, although I would argue that those who yearn for more probably have more than they realize. Not enough, of course. Robert Bellah has written a book about the yearning for community. People do yearn to belong to communities. One thing you can say is that if you don't provide legitimate, fair, equitable, and healthy communities for people to live in, they'll find unhealthy communities to live in. A lot of people complain about fraternities -- racist fraternities and gender discriminating fraternities on campus -- and I hate them, but fraternities develop because college administrations didn't provide community residences where young people felt that they were members of small student families. So they created their own and in time they weren't very healthy kinds of communities, but they were created in the absence of healthy communities. And the same can be said for our larger community: unless we create healthy democratic communities that we belong to, people will find ways of creating unhealthy communities to live in. But we all need community, we all yearn for community, we all probably have a little more of it than we even realize, and want still more, and part of the challenge of democracy is finding healthy, equitable forms of community for us to belong to.
London: You have said that community really begins when you're a teenager and you fall in love. You expand your self-interest. This in turn may lead to the creation of a family which further expands your self-interest becuase now it includes the members of your family, and so on.
Barber: Yes. You're born into a family, so you're born into a community. But sometime during adolescence you become individuated and alienated and you kind of see yourself on your own. When you're a young man or woman in your early twenties you tend to see yourself as a person operating on your own -- you're Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, you can go anywhere, be anything, do anything, move anywhere, your parents don't count anymore so you can move from them, your siblings don't count anymore. You really see yourself as a solitary individual who can do anything. That is the point where there is the least community in your life -- the ages of 22, 23, 24, somewhere in there. At that point, when someone asks you "What do you define your interests?" you say "My interests are what's good for me, and I'm going to go where I can get a job, I'm going to work in the field that I want to, I'm going to do anything I want, so to hell with anybody else." But then, as you say, you meet someone, you fall in love, you marry them. Now, suddenly, your not an individual anymore - you're a spouse; you have a wife or you have a husband. It's not that you "cut a deal" with them or make a contract with them, it's rather that your understanding of who you are and what your needs are and what your interests are have grown and expanded to include the spouse. So now a woman who is a lawyer might say "Well, you know I was going to go to Chicago to take that job, but my husband is still in school so I don't think I will." And when she does that she is not sacrificing her own interests, she is redefining her interests to include those of her husband who is still in school and still a student. Then the two of them have children, and now they are parents as well as spouses and the sense of community to which they belong -- the orbit of their interests -- has increased still again. Now they think of the needs of their children; maybe their kids are in school and the wife gets an offer to go to a powerful corporate firm in New York and she thinks "No, I don't think I'll do that because my children are in eighth grade and it's a crucial year of transition, I don't want to pull them out of the schools; and it's in my interest as part of this family, as the parent of these children, that that not happen." Now take that another step: they move to a neighborhood, and the neighborhood becomes of concern because safe and clean streets and a good environment is important for their kids and of course the neighborhood can't be clean and safe unless the town is, and the town can't be unless the state is. Before you know it that flamboyant your woman, with a law degree and ready to do anything she wanted in the world, is part of large set of communities, she has responsibilities, and she sees her own interests as tied in to those other interests in ways that on the one hand can strain her a little -- she's no longer as free in a certain sense -- but she has become a much better citizen; she has come to understand her own interests in terms of the interests of the larger community out there. That is the character of citizenship. That's what it means to belong to communities. And that's how we learn, I think, to be citizens.
London: I think you have just given a marvelous definition of family values. [Laughter] You say at one point in An Aristocracy for Everyone that Americans have never lacked in hubris. Can you describe what you mean by that?
Barber: I think that Americans have never lacked in hubris. The Americans have been an extraordinarily ambitious people. You know, from the beginning they started with what some people called the "myth of conceptualism" -- the Americans said "We're different from the Europe we can from, we're different from the England we came from." The normal laws of history and development that have created tyrannies and bigotries and religious persecution in other countries don't apply to us. Thomas Paine said "America is as it was at the beginning of the world -- we are starting over again." They used the metaphor of the second Eden, the City on the Hill, starting over again. (They were a little colorblind, they didn't notice the red man who was already here, and they didn't notice the black African slaves they brought with them.) In their own eyes they were starting in a virgin land, they were starting in a new Eden where everything was new. That gave them a certain hubris, a sense that Americans could do just about anything. That had effects that were dangerous, pernicious -- a certain blindness to our own imperialism and a blindness to our own vices (somehow we couldn't have any vices, we were an eternally innocent people). But it also had virtues: it meant we dared to try new forms of government, we dared to think democracy was possible, we dared to think that a multicultural society actually might be possible. The Europeans thought it was impossible; you had to speak the same language, worship the same gods. Americans said, "Not necessarily." So our hubris was a double-edged sword, a source of problems but also the source of our democratic strengths.
London: You've just gotten back from Europe, I understand. You spent a year in Paris?
Barber: I spent a year in Paris writing a book about the American and French revolutions, comparing the two revolutions. Of course what's interesting is that the French Revolution was the more notorious and celebrated of the two -- but, in the short term at least, much less successful. The American Revolution, relatively unheralded -- the shot was not heard around the world, by the way, it was not heard much beyond Lexington -- turned out to be the revolution that has to this day gone on to inspire people. But part of what I was looking at there was looking at a distance, from across the sea, at the American story and remembering that seen from abroad it is a difficult and problematic story. We say our revolution was not very costly -- the French Revolution had the terror and the civil war of the vende where hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen slaughtered each other, the guillotine with its terror, and so on -- and that America had a relatively peaceable revolution (not the war of Independence, but the revolution itself -- which really wasn't much of a revolution). But if you remember that it actually took 75 or eighty years to make good on the promise of the American Revolution -- to free the slaves, and to create a union without slave territories -- then the American Revolution took a hundred years, not a few years, and it was even more costly than the French Revolution, because that terrible struggle of the Civil War which Lincoln thought tested the American soul and was a kind of punishment for the slavery that we had endured, creates a much more complex and problematic American story. It's always useful to look at your own country when your trying to get a hold on which story be told about it from the outside.
London: You went to school in Switzerland, is that right?
Barber: I went to school in Switzerland in the late 50s for a year. That vantage point was fascinating. You know, some of the clearest witnesses to America's great democratic strengths, and some of its less visible democratic weaknesses, were visitors from abroad. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great author of Democracy in America, came in the 1830s and toured around. He came as a visitor to look at the prisons and he stayed for six months, got interested in the whole system, and wrote what in some ways is the most remarkable account of American democracy in its youth. And we've had other foreigners who have come and looked at us through foreign eyes and seen us, in certain ways, more clearly than we see ourselves. So I must say when I go over there... I wrote a book about Switzerland which the Swiss said "I saw them more clearly than they often saw themselves." And I'm writing about the French the same way. So there's a great virtue in looking through the lens of another culture at your own, or looking through your own culture's lens at another. It's a very useful way for someone who wants to see clearly their own strengths and weaknesses.
London: You mentioned Alexis de Tocqueville. He said of Americans: "Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions. They want to be led and they wish to remain free. As they cannot satisfy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once." Is this an accurate observation, in your view?
Barber: Yes, I call it the "white horse" syndrome. We want to be saved by men on white horses, but we want to be the ones to choose them. We don't want Napoleons, we don't want great men riding in on their own; we want to call them in, we want to choose them, and once we've chosen them we want them to be the heroes who solve our problems. It can be a dangerous tendency whereby the citizen becomes the voter and when the voter has discharged his or her vote their duties are done. I worry a little bit now, we have a new president, there was an upheaval of massive participation, a lot of civic and political interest where there hadn't been, but now that we've got someone, now that we've got a leader I think there is going to be a tendency to say, "We've got two beautiful young men on white horses, let's let them go to Washington to solve our problems; the rest of us can go home, back into the private domain, back to life as usual." And that is very dangerous because we wanted the freedom to choose them but now we want to be led by them and we want them to solve our problems. If I were Bill Clinton what I would be thinking this morning is, "Now I'm president of the United States, I've won it, and now the American people are expecting me to solve all their problems." And remember that President Carter got into a lot of trouble for saying the honest and right thing, which is "I can't do it alone; it's your job too, it's not just my job." And Bill Clinton needs in a sense to say, "I can't do this alone, I can't even do it with Al Gore -- I need your ongoing participation and help, I need the energy you brought to the election in the ongoing governance of this country; we have to govern the country together on an ongoing basis; you have to continue to be involved in your neighborhoods, in your cities, in your towns, and in your states." That is very hard for Americans to do because having exercised their freedom -- the glorious moment of the vote -- they are then ready for the leader to take over and to become followers again. That is the hardest thing in our democracy, the sense that citizenship is a set of daily chores, monthly chores, and unceasing activity. Oscar Wilde said that the trouble with Socialism is that it takes up too many free evenings. The trouble with democracy is that it takes up too many free evenings for most Americans. They don't want to give up their free evenings, they would rather be doing something else. But in fact, we do need to give up quite a few free evenings, and a number of afternoons and mornings as well, if we are to make this work. He cannot begin to do it by himself.
London: Speaking of free evenings and followers, have you been following the campaign coverage that has been going on all these months?
Barber: Sure have.
London: You've written a lot about television and its impact on our culture. Do you think that the media encourage and stimulate democracy, or do they have the opposite effect?
Barber: Well, it's interesting, television in a certain way is the most democratic of all media: it's the most easily accessible, it doesn't even require literacy for access, it's watched by everybody, it's open, (shows like the Donahue show, the Oprah show, shows that speak to vast numbers of Americans in a voice and a language they can understand -- you and I, Scott, only wish we had half of the Donahue or Oprah audience for our discussion here today on the radio). So in that sense it is a genuinely democratic medium. But, like all democratic media, it is open to demagoguery, to abuse, to manipulation, to leading people by the nose, to deformation and twisting of positions.
It's kind of appalling that Perot thinks being on a talk show and maybe thinking that chatting to maybe one or two citizens means that he is more in touch with the people of America than Bush or Clinton are. There is a pretense and an affect about television that somehow if you go on and you talk to one caller on the phone you are "in touch" with the American heartland, instead of just saying that you're having one conversation with one American out of 275,000,000 Americans. So it seems to me that television is very much of a mixed blessing: accessible potentially to all, but profoundly manipulative, distorting, and a perfect vehicle for a demagogue, a modern electronic Mussolini -- something that we really have to fear.
I don't think you can say that about Perot, but I think some people feared Perot was someone who might be capable of using television and the appearance of electronic democracy to actually manipulate the country.
London: What did you think of his use of "infomercials?"
Barber: That somebody gets on and talks for a half hour fairly seriously to America, the notion that that should be something that knocks us out of our socks is a little odd. I have friends in public television and, you know, Bill Moyers would certainly say, "My God, I've been talking to people for a half-hour, an hour, or two, seriously about lots of issues for many, many years." I think the most dangerous thing is this phrasing "infomercial" -- it's another attempt to merge several different things. Is it a commercial selling a good, or is it information, or is it some weird combination of the two. It suggest the possibility for demagoguery again, because here is somebody sitting here giving a lecture as if they're a civics teacher when in fact they're are trying quite literally to buy -- and I mean buy -- the votes of the American people with a personal fortune of sixty million dollars. "Infomercial" of course makes that point by talking about "information" and "commercial" at the same time. It's dangerous stuff, it's dangerous stuff. I think we need, if we are going to use the electronic media, if we are going to use television as a vehicle of democracy, if we are going to use the talks shows as a vehicle of democracy, then we better think very deeply about exactly how they are being used, how much deliberation, how much genuine civic participation there is, how tough the questioners are, (because Larry King and Ross Perot together are a deadly combination -- one throwing softballs and the other hitting them out of the stadium, and then both of them saying how they represent the American people and that in talking to one another they are doing something profoundly democratic together).
London: It occurs to me that you are not at all afraid of controversy -- not in your statements here and not in your books certainly. You say somewhere in An Aristocracy of Everyone that "with good teaching, as with good art, someone is always offended." Is that true?
Barber: I think so. I think that if you don't offend someone, you haven't even woken them up, let alone gotten their mental energies going. One thing that does bother me about so-called political correctness -- I don't like the term PC -- it's really an unfair word, it's kind of a slur in the way that it's used. But the true part of it is that there are some people who seem unwilling to be offended and provocative speech, free speech, and most importantly educational speech -- speech that makes people think -- has to be to some degree offensive. That's how you get people woken up, that's how you get people caring, that's how you get them reacting.
It's interesting, Tocqueville said: I knew I was in a democracy when I arrived on the wharves of New York in 1831 because of the noises that assaulted by ears as I stepped off the ship onto the wharf and my nose and my ears were assaulted by a welter of senses, by sounds, by chaos -- I knew I was in a democracy. And long before that the eighteenth century philosopher Montesquieu had said: you will always know when you are in a tyranny because you will be greeted by silence. Talk, angry discourse, people yelling at one another, people offending one another, is a sign of a healthy democracy. That part of it we shouldn't be afraid of. I was personally offended to hear President Bush call Gore and Clinton "bozos" -- but, on the other hand, who did it do any damage to except perhaps President Bush himself. We can't let names be the things that offend us, we can't let speech be the thing that offend us. Speech is how we educate ourselves, how we come awake to things, how we talk and, ultimately, I think we have to be willing to pay the price of even hearing offensive speech in order to guarantee that we can keep the faculties of democratic speech alive.
London: Yes, you say in your book that what we need to worry about is not the closing of the American mind, but the closing of the American mouth. [Laughter]
You devote a whole chapter to a discussion of political correctness. I wanted to follow up on that a bit. You call it the "new McCarthyism of the left..."
Barber: Well, I don't. It has been called that. I wouldn't want to call it that. The thing about McCarthyism is that the official powerful Washington establishment is going after a tiny minority of political dissenters and in a sense waging war on them, by using words like "red" and "pinko" and "guilt by association" and so on. McCarthy was a powerful agent of a powerful establishment. And, remember, in the end he started taking on the army, the State Department -- major American institutions. So secure did he feel in his power that he even frightened the president of the United States; Eisenhower was actually afraid of him and backed off. He was a powerful, powerful man.
The people who are saying that we should curtail our speech, we should use sensitive speech, we shouldn't use certain words, I think are mistaken. I think they are making a mistake to curb speech. But to say that they are the equivalent of McCarthy -- this handful of powerless African American studies professors, marginalized feminist scholars, and weak English departments (which, compared to literature departments, are never very important in universities anyway) -- to say that they represent a serious threat to free speech in America is just foolish. When you use terms like McCarthyism you have to think about the power that these people hold and the so-called PC movement is on behalf of people who are voiceless and powerless. What they are saying is that it's hard for us to find a voice when people on the other side are using a language that seems to debase and disenfranchise. I don't finally buy that line because I think that they need to take their chances in the lake of free speech and can't insist that free speech be curbed because it may make it a little more difficult for them. But I think that the parallels to McCarthyism is simply absurd.
London: I hate to bring up Allan Bloom's book again, but I had the feeling while I was reading An Aristocracy of Everyone that in fifty years it will probably stand side-by-side on the shelves of the library with his. This is a very impassioned book -- certainly from the other end of the political spectrum -- but it's a book about education, a book about the future of America, a book about American culture and where it's going.
Barber: It would not be wrong to see it that way, because in a certain sense Bloom and I are continuing a debate that started in ancient Greece, five hundred years before the birth of Christ, in which a handful of democrats who believed that at least the men who were born in Athens could govern themselves, and philosophers who believed that they were not capable of governing themselves, they started a quarrel. It was a quarrel between men like Pericles and Demosthenes and democrats on the one hand and philosophers on the other who thought only the aristocrats should be governing. In a sense the debate between me and Bloom is a modern version of that because Bloom really is saying our universities ought to be educating only the best of men (and when he says men, he means men, not men and women), and that there is a role for an educated elite in running America, and that America cannot afford to empower the "masses," and that people who want to talk about gender studies and African-American studies and things like this are a danger to America. On the other side, the democratic faith I think is there in my book An Aristocracy of Everyone, and in earlier works, and in the case I'm making now which believes that Americans are capable of self-government, that every American deserves the chance to an education, and has a capacity to be educated, (which is what I mean by that strange title "An Aristocracy of Everyone" -- yes, we need an aristocracy, but everyone can belong to it; we need the rule of the best and everyone is capable of being among the best if they are given access to education). So I think to say that Bloom and I represent two sides of an ongoing, longstanding debate is an accurate description of this ancient quarrel between aristocrats and democrats about whether men and women are capable of governing themselves.
London: You've written a lot of other books, of course, not just An Aristocracy of Everyone. In fact, I understand you've written a number of plays and a novel or two. Tell me about the process of writing -- what is the hardest thing about writing a book?
Barber: Having the time. Some writers I guess have a hard time writing, they sit down and have the time but maybe they have too much time. My problem is finding sufficient time to be able to write. I have many more hours, days, and years of books I want to write in me than I can possibly have days and years left in my life, you know, even if I didn't eat and sleep or do anything else with my time. So the problem really is to find uninterrupted time where I can to that. One of the consequences is that I've learned a technique of writing drafts in my head, on airplanes, on the back of napkins at the end of dinner parties, while I am talking a walk or running my dog, while I'm playing with my little daughter Nellie. What I find, in other words, is that in a certain sense I never stop writing; I'm not punching out words on a computer or writing them longhand but in my head the questions go on. I often at night when I go to sleep work through things in my mind in a way that I then have to turn on the light and jot something down because I may have solved a particular issue that stands in the way of the next paragraph of an argument that I want to make.
London: I heard fiction writers say this from time to time, but you write predominantly works of non-fiction. Aren't you ever going to reach a point where everything will be said, where there will not be anything left to say because you have said it well enough?
Barber: Well, two things. First of all, fortunately we have the faculty of forgetfulness, so as you get older you forget that you said some things twenty years ago and you write them again. So that way, you may be right, there's only about twenty years worth of things to say, but you've forgotten some things you said in the first twenty years, and by the time the twenty years are up you say them over again in a slightly different way.
But the other thing is, you say "you write predominantly works of non- fiction." But it's funny that the one novel I published back in 1981 was about an imploded marriage -- a failed marriage. It wasn't my marriage but everyone claimed that that piece of fiction was true to life, and many of my critics suggest that all of my non-fiction is entirely fictional, not to be taken seriously. [Laughter] So those distinctions between fiction and non-fiction are rather...
London: What about your plays?
Barber: They've been produced off Broadway in New York and in regional theatres. And I just finished the libretto for an opera about the Civil War. Like Gary Wills -- I think an extraordinary writer -- who just wrote a remarkable book about the Gettysburg address and Lincoln, I ponder the Civil War a great deal and I wrote a libretto for an opera set during the Civil War and trying to deal with some of the issues of the War.
I guess my mentors are all dead seventeenth and eighteenth century political philosophers and they did it all -- you know Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, wrote plays, wrote novels, wrote essays, both fiction and non-fiction. My sense is that language and the facility to write knows no barriers, and most of the barriers that we have today are artificial ones. John Updike writes marvelous essays, Philip Roth has written wonderful essays, Erica Jong has a new non-fiction work on Henry Miller coming out which is an extraordinary work. Those distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, or between one genre and another genre, tend to be the contrivances of academic departments in universities trying to narrow down their field of study. I've never met a writer who didn't finally say, "I'm a writer, I have thoughts and feelings and notions and I put them down and sometimes it comes out as fiction, sometimes as poetry, sometimes as non-fiction."
London: But you've managed to combine a career of writing with a tremendous number of other activities as well: you're teaching at Rutgers, you have a community service program going, plus you're a family man. This is impressive. Most people barely manage to hold down a nine- to-five job plus have a family.
Barber: Some people complain that I don't hold down a nine- to-five job. [Laughter] I do all these other things instead. I guess I'm lucky that I have a lot of energy and I don't need a whole lot of sleep. And I'm lucky because sometimes I think that the ideas I care about are motivators and movers. I mean, if you care a lot about citizenship and democracy, then those things move you. They don't let you stop, even when you get tired and want to stop. They kind of push you on. Gosh, I feel absolutely lazy compared to, say, Clinton, or Bush, or politicians who spend all their time campaigning and developing policies and so on. We're back to Oscar Wilde, I think the "world" takes up a lot of free evenings and it's taken up many of my free evenings.
London: About An Aristocracy of Everyone, this is clearly a book that bridges many different subject areas. This isn't common for academics. In sitting here and talking to you, you don't sound like an "academic." Do you consider yourself one?
Barber: An "academic" is a technical definition, somebody who is employed by the academy. Since I am employed by Rutgers University, and I have a chair there, and I direct the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, I am technically an academician: I am a professional employee of the academy. But if you mean, does that require that I bring a set of academic distinctions between this and that field, and a specialty, and a sense that I'm in the political science department so I can't talk about education or novels or theater, then the answer is clearly no. The academic mind, in that sense, is one of the things that I think is wrong with modern education. The over-specialized, narrow, research-obsessed, mind that refuses to see the larger context, the larger world, into which a particular specialty fits it seems to me has done a real disservice to not just teaching but learning as well. The gradual erosion of liberal learning, of humanistic learning, of a widespread learning, I think is one of the great catastrophes of the modern academy, the modern university. I've certainly tried in my own life to resist it, but it's hard because you don't get rewarded, you know, tenured and promoted. Twenty years ago I had to do a good deal of work that was narrower than I would have liked, and I was lucky that the work I did that was broader was decent enough to win the approval of my colleagues. But, on the whole, a young person who comes into the academy today is told you have to do narrow specialist work or you won't get tenure. And the kind of person that gets tenure for that narrow specialist work is often a poor teacher, someone with no interest in the civic mission of the university, someone with little interest in undergraduate teaching.
A funny story: Princeton University, one of our so-called "great" universities, had a teaching prize for the best teacher of the year in the 1980s. Do you know what the reward was for the person that won? A course off in the following year, one course less to teach. [Laughter] That tells you something about the academic mind at work.
London: Do you find that your works are pigeon-holed, are you quickly labeled?
Barber: I think that I've probably stymied and frustrated a lot of my critics, because they can't do that -- I think they would like to, and that's an easy American way, (you know, to put somebody in a pigeon hole: "He's conservative," "he's liberal," "he's progressive," "she's Marxist," "she's psychoanalytic;"). You've got lots of pigeon holes; mostly, by the way, from the academy again. The academy is in the business of providing pigeon holes in which to stuff other people. But I think it is hard to do that because I have been influenced the great British conservative Edmund Burke from the eighteenth century, the modern British conservative Oakeshotte, but I've also been influenced by liberal and radical democratic thinkers, by communitarians, but I find that that is true of most people who are thinking for themselves and trying to address problems in a fresh fashion. You do them a great disservice if you stick them into a category. It's the lazy man's way of disposing of someone you really don't want to deal with; "Oh, that's another Marxist,""that's another conservative,""that's another Tory,""that's another liberal -- the L word, that's a liberal, so we don't have to think about him." Well, it is a way of avoiding thinking about what might be new and fresh. I think we should try not to label people.
This book is critical of Bloom in many ways, but it's also deeply sympathetic to certain problems Bloom has with the twentieth century in America.
London: Tell me about some of your upcoming projects.
Barber: Well, the two things that I'm working on right now that I think are particularly interesting are... One is the book I mentioned that I was working on in Paris comparing the French and American Revolutions. Let's go back to the revolutionary source of democracy in two great Western nations and see how the different character of the revolution in each country effected the growth of democracy in those two countries. It's also another way to approach the American story: how do you look at the American story when seen from the perspective of France.
The other book is an attempt to look at the new democracies. In An Aristocracy of Everyone I'm looking at problems here in America. But having spent a fair amount of time abroad I also am concerned about the state of democracy beyond these shores. I think one could even say that the fate of American democracy depends in part on there being other supportive democracies elsewhere in the world. I'm concerned about what's happening in Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe, the ex-Soviet Union, China, Latin America -- I'm working on a short book about the forces of tribalism on the one hand and global integration on the other hand that are at work in societies elsewhere in the world -- and looking the prospects for democracy elsewhere the world. As it turns out, the prospects for democracy elsewhere in the world are as problematic, as fragile, but also as hopeful as they are here in the United States.
So in both cases you might say these other works are attempts to continue a discourse, a conversation, with democracy.
London: Where do you think we'll be in ten years, globally speaking?
Barber: Well, I'm a little depressed right now, globally, because I think people have the notion that democracy is easy. The great French philosopher Rousseau once said: liberty is a food easy to eat and hard to digest. We've kind of been through the eating stage in East Europe -- it was easy to swallow, easy to make the revolution -- but it's turning out to be much, much harder to digest. Lithuania and Romania have voted communist governments back in just a year or two after the revolutions that threw them out. Democracy isn't easy; it's a hard and difficult and exacting form of government. It requires a civic culture, not just free institutions. It requires civic education not just free markets. I think a lot of people there, and a lot of Americans who in good will tried to help them thought it was a lot easier than it is. The result is that I think there is a lot of struggle ahead before you are going to see anything resembling genuine democracy in a lot of the so- called "new democracies" around the world.
London: You've been speaking in very broad and sweeping terms about democracy, countries, institutions, and citizenship in general. But, of course, citizenship depends on citizens. As individuals, do you see us moving into a new phase in history? There is a lot of talk now about us moving into a "new era" in history, as individuals. Is there a changing state of mind among people today do you think?
Barber: Well, there is, and there isn't. (That's a typical evasive answer.) But it's true, just look at Yugoslavia. On the one hand, the tribes and the nations of ex-Yugoslavia were on the verge of joining the new Europe, Sarajevo and Belgrade were becoming great consumer centers, they wanted to join the Common Market, Bosnians and Herzegovinians and Croats were becoming Europeans, and many young people saw themselves as Europeans -- that was just two years ago. And yet in the last year or so we see them slaughtering one another in the name of tribal identities that most people would have thought were dead before the second World War. Young Croats giving Nazis salute again, Serbs engaged in a program of exterminating Croats, both Serbs and Croats coming together to exterminate Muslims, all of which suggest that yes there is a new man, a new woman out there, but scratch the surface of the new man and the new woman and maybe you'll find all too close to that surface the old man and the old woman of the warring tribes, the bloody factions, the willingness to kill one another...
London: But maybe digging in the dirt and discovering some of these resentments that we've harbored for an awful long time is a necessary prerequisite to moving into a different "space," on both the political and the personal level?
Barber: I think that works if you're talking about a classroom of kids in which they explore their antagonisms, their anger and their bigotry a little bit. It's hard to say that it works in a society where the exploration of tribal resentments leads to the extermination of side or the other. I don't think that you can say to the Muslims of Sarajevo, "Oh, this is just a worthwhile kind of thing you're going through so that later on the Croats and the Bosnians will allow you to integrate," because there won't be any Muslims left there -- they are literally being physically exterminated. I think that when it comes to that kind of civil war where people begin to destroy each other, no that is not a price you can pay to discover new forms of consciousness.
London: Ben, thanks very much. I've enjoyed our conversation very much.
Barber: Scott, a great pleasure to be here and talk with you, thank you.
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Copyright 1992-2000 by Scott London. All rights reserved.