Robert George Transcript
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONSERVATIONS. I’m very glad to be joined today by Robert George, longtime Professor of Politics at Princeton University, Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Did I get that right?
GEORGE: You got it right.
KRISTOL: “Ideals and Institutions,” we’ll have to talk about that. Robby, obviously, you’re one of the most prominent faculty members at Princeton, but also certainly one of the most prominent conservatives. And not terribly abashed about being conservative who’s a faculty member at a major American university. Let’s just begin with that. Everyone thinks universities are bastions of liberalism and worse. What is it like being an outspoken conservative faculty member at Princeton?
GEORGE: Well, you described me as one of the most prominent, but it’s easy to be prominent when there are only six of us.
Actually, there are more of us than people know. Now, some people are in the closet since you get a good bit of grief at a contemporary academic institution for being a conservative. Some find it advisable just to keep a low profile about it. I don’t have the personality to do that. Bill, you and I have known each other long enough that you know that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about things that I really care about and believe in. So I’ve been outspoken from the moment I began my academic career.
I finished graduate school and started at Princeton, and to Princeton’s credit, I must say, they hired me knowing exactly what they were getting. I wasn’t flying in under the radar screen. I was quite outspoken in my opinions even as a graduate student.
KRISTOL: And you teach courses where politics is very much involved – moral philosophy, Constitutional law.
GEORGE: Yes, that’s right. So in our courses we discuss affirmative action, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, marriage, and sexual morality. All the hot-button, morally charged issues of law and public policy.
I have to give credit where it’s due, and really, Princeton hired me, they promoted me, gave me tenure, installed me in the chair that I now occupy, which is the chair once held by Woodrow Wilson. It’s an important chair in the university, and I’m very honored to have it.
They permitted me to start my own program, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, which you were kind enough to mention. We’ve been going now as a program for 15 years. I’ve been teaching for 31 at Princeton – the program has been in existence for 15 years. It’s a program really devoted to enhancing our students’ understanding of the basic principles of American constitutionalism in the hope – in my hope, that it will also enhance their appreciation of the value of what we were bequeathed by our Founding Fathers and by the men over the many decades who gave their lives to preserve freedom for us in the United States.
So what can I complain about, Bill? Princeton has been very good to me.
KRISTOL: That’s good. And that’s to Princeton’s credit, actually. As you say, it’s not a trivial thing. So over 30 years.
Of course, the universities have been liberal a long, long time. I’ve been out of the universities for 25 years – maybe 30, now that I think about it. I do have the sense that it’s gotten worse or the uniformity of opinion has gotten a little more stultifying. The pressure to conform, a little strong. The deterrence against being a dissident, a little more daunting, or I guess, more imposing. Am I right, or how is it in general, do you think? How worried should conservatives be about the state of the academy?
GEORGE: I honestly wish I could say you were wrong, but alas, you’re not. You’re right, the situation has gotten worse.
If there’s anybody who can claim to be a founding father of liberalism, it’s John Stuart Mill, the great 19th-century British writer, who among other works gave us the work On Liberty, which is a kind of charter of liberalism. And Mill’s great worry was exactly what you put your finger on in contemporary universities – uniformity of thinking, conformism. Universities pride themselves and style themselves and present themselves as institutions that provide a forum for the vibrant, robust discussion of the spectrum of points of view that are held by reasonable, responsible people.
No one imagines that you need the Nazi point of view or the Stalinist point of view necessarily represented. Laying aside extreme and deeply pernicious ideas, like Nazism or Stalinism, there’s a broad spectrum of responsible opinion. Universities claim that they provide the forum for people to engage that range of ideas, but the reality is that they don’t.
Some institutions are better and some are worse, but not very many really live up to their own publicity, providing a forum in which the range of ideas can be discussed. The phenomenon we’ve now come to know as political correctness, it’s present, it’s a powerful force, and it does what Mill worried that conformity of opinion would do. It stifles not only speech – that’s bad enough – but thought. People, students, sometimes even scholars are afraid even to consider different ideas for fear that they will run afoul of the norms of thinking that are in place.
So one of the big projects that I think we need to have when it comes to academic reform is cracking through conformism. Stimulating people actually to think about the range of ideas that are on the table for serious discussion.
One of the ways I like to do that is by co-teaching. Teaching with a person who represents a point of view different than my own. So for example, I regularly teach with Cornel West, the great left-wing intellectual, who sees things rather differently from the way I see them. But Professor West and I, on a regular basis, every couple of years, get together for a seminar. Because it’s a seminar, we can only take about 18 students; we have to turn away several hundred who want to be admitted.
KRISTOL: But the example of it is important, I think.
GEORGE: That’s what we do.
KRISTOL: The fact that it shows something –
GEORGE: So we’ll start, maybe, with Sophocles, read The Antigone, read some of Plato’s dialogues, St. Augustine’s writings, maybe Machiavelli, all the way up through the 20th century. So we’re reading John Dewey or C. S. Lewis, Gabriel Marcel – someone you and I discussed very briefly recently – Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And in the context of those readings, we’re able to engage some of the most important and difficult and controversial issues of the time.
And this way students get to hear two people with two very different perspectives engaging each other. I’ve worked with other colleagues as well. My colleague Michael Smith in the Philosophy Department and I have on a couple of occasions taught philosophy of law together. I regularly make appearances in colleagues’ courses to defend my point of view, which, ordinarily, is radically opposed to their point of view. And I invite scholars who have a different point of view into my classes so my students can be exposed to arguments that are critical to the positions that I hold.
That’s Mill’s idea, and although there’s much in Mill that I reject, that I think Mill got absolutely right.
KRISTOL: Where do you think the pressure comes from? So it’s not just in the atmosphere – the administrators, the faculty, the students themselves? What is the heart of the problem in the modern college or university, or can one not separate it that way?
GEORGE: I believe it began with faculty members. Certainly not with administrators. I think the generation of the 60s and 70s was a highly politicized generation, and when that generation became professors and deans – and many of them did gravitate to the universities where their careers as radicals had begun when they were students – it led to a strong politicization of the university. And I think eventually to the phenomenon of political correctness.
Now, of course, what is happening is what leftwing revolutions do tend to produce, whether they’re talking about the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution, and that is students – the next generation of revolutionaries – become not only more radical than their radical professors, but they turn on them so the revolution tends to consume its own. So now people who think of themselves of impeccably leftwing will say something that offends some group of radicalized students – perhaps students that they themselves helped to radicalize – and suddenly they are the ones under fire for not conforming sufficiently to the contemporary orthodoxy.
KRISTOL: And which parts of the orthodoxy are most authoritarian or most insisted-upon do you think in the universities? Are all parts of conservatism equally vulnerable?
GEORGE: No, it’s race, class, and gender. About the safest area in which to be a conservative today and academic institutions is economics. Now that doesn’t mean it’s easy to be an economic conservative in a mainstream, contemporary, secular academic university, but you’re less likely to draw the real, ferocious ire of people on the Left if you’re talking about economic ideas.
If you’re talking about sexual morality or if you’re talking about abortion or even euthanasia, things get pretty hot pretty fast for you if you’re a conservative. But, my advice to my own students, to my graduate students, to my younger colleagues is refuse to be intimidated, refuse to be bullied.
What your father and my father told us, “Bullies are cowards, and if you stand up to them, they back away,” has certainly proved to be true in my experience. The phenomenon we know as political correctness thrives on people’s permitting themselves to be intimidated by the people who are the enforcers of these norms and orthodoxies.
KRISTOL: And you say that even to junior faculty who don’t have tenure –
GEORGE: Even to my own graduate students. And it’s difficult for them to do because everything in them – as they are trying to get through the PhD program, get a job, once they’ve gotten a job, trying to get tenure, be promoted – everything tells them to lay low. Hang back. Then, someday when they get tenure, when they’ve been successful, they can hoist the Jolly Rodger, as our friend Harvey Mansfield says. I actually don’t think that is the way to go.
And I say this for two reasons – I think, first, it’s bad for the soul. The one thing we’ve got control of –
KRISTOL: A word you’re not supposed to use in the modern academy, but you can use it here on our conversation –
GEORGE: It’s bad for the soul, it’s not good for your character, for you to enter academic life, to enter the realm of ideas and decline to say what you think and why. There’s something that is enervating of the spirit. There’s something that, in some circumstances, even corrupting about keeping your mouth shut about issues you’ve been thinking about and writing about and have opinions about when those positions, the positions you hold, turn out to be controversial or risky.
But the second reason that I have is really more practical. I think you’ve actually got a better chance of succeeding in the academic world as a conservative, or even if you’re not a conservative, but you’re a questioner of the orthodoxy – you’re heterodox in some way or another, you’re a heretic. I think you’ve got a better chance of succeeding, if you step forward, present your ideas and arguments, defy people on the other side to actually retaliate against you in unfair ways when it comes to hiring or promotion, make arguments against you in faculty meetings that are discussing your tenure case or something.
I think you’ve got a better chance of surviving than if you try to hide. Inevitably, you get found out at some level. People get suspicious. Then, the hit job comes at tenure time or promotion time, and you know that you’re being victimized because of your conservative or heterodox viewpoint, and yet when you complain about it, when you say anything about it, people will say, “I didn’t know you were a conservative. It can’t really be a hit job because of your views because who even knew that you were a conservative?”
I myself practiced what I preach, and it worked for me. Now, it’s not a guarantee that’s it’s going to work every time so when I give this advice to my graduate students or my young colleagues I do it knowing that not everybody is going to succeed, but I just think the odds of succeeding are better if you go ahead and fly the flag boldly from the beginning than if you try to remain in hiding till someday you get tenure.
And I think it is much better for your soul. If you’re not going to say what you think, if you’re not going to reveal the content of the beliefs that through your rational inquiry you have arrived at, my goodness, there are lots of other things you can do with your life. The insurance business is a great business. You can sell cars. You can practice medicine. There are lots of things that you can do where you’re not really required as part of the enterprise itself to say what you think. But if you’re going to be in academic life, you should say what you think.
KRISTOL: That’s strong. Now, of course, the students are in the different position because most of them aren’t going to academics, and they are trying to get a degree and get good grades and have a pleasant time at Princeton or anywhere else and go onto a professional school or wherever. They do seem to me to have more incentive to not pick fights.
If you’re in the academy, anyway, I kind of agree with you. At least, that’s also just my temperament, though. Kind of pointless to be a professor and not enjoy the play of ideas. But if you’re a student, you could easily tell yourself, “Why am I going to get in an argument with some professor who seems very intolerant and short-tempered? I’ll just keep my head down in this class and do well and move on.” Do you see that a lot?
I’ve been a little struck – I met with the Hertog Political Studies students this summer in Washington who are very good students – you’ve taught them, too – and from all kinds of colleges and universities, not just one place. I’ve generally been a sort of, little bit of a debunker of excessive conservative alarms about political correctness, in terms of “It can’t be quite as bad as people say, and people need to have the nerve to speak up, and it’s good for you anyway to be in the minority,” as you and I have been for all these years.
But I’ve got to say these were very good students, and, I’ve got to say, personally quite courageous ones, I would say. And they were spending six weeks studying really great books with great teachers. The degree to which they said that they personally had to really think in some classes before offering an opinion that would be viewed with disfavor by the professors or just generally on campus, getting known as someone who had certain opinions – I was a little spooked by this. And I think that is sort of new in the last few years. Do you think that’s the case? Maybe Princeton will, maybe, be better than most places?
GEORGE: It’s gotten worse in the past few years. And I do think that Princeton is better than most places. I don’t think I would have survived, given my views and my outspokenness, at a lot of other universities. But I have at Princeton. And not only survived but really flourished. I can complain about nothing when it comes to the way that I’ve been treated at Princeton. But I do think this situation has gotten worse nationally, and students are more frightened about speaking their minds and stating their opinions even on examinations, which I think is a terrible shame.
And I think it’s something that faculty members have to do something about. My colleagues and I at Princeton, not just my conservative colleagues, and I have more than a few conservative colleagues at Princeton, actually. Not just a few of my conservative colleagues, but some of my colleagues that are old-fashioned liberals, the liberals of the old school. I’m thinking, for example, of my friend and colleague, Stanley Katz from the Department of History. He’s a very eminent Revolutionary War historian, former President of the American Council of Learning Societies. Or John Burgess in our Philosophy Department.
We’ve sort of joined together to defend freedom of speech on campus, freedom of thought on campus.
Where we mean not simply encouraging and protecting students when they speak their minds, but actually sending a message to our colleagues that we’re watching. If students complain that they’ve been treated unfairly because they’ve stated an opinion that crosses a professor or contradicts his point of view, that we’re going to be there to advocate on behalf of the student. You can’t just take a student’s word for it, right? Student gets a C, which these days is a very bad grade –
KRISTOL: I’m amazed you even have them at Princeton.
GEORGE: If a student gets a C –
KRISTOL: Harvard has totally given up on them as far as I can tell.
GEORGE: We still hang onto them, at least I do. If a student comes in and says, “Look, I got a C, and my liberal professor discriminated against me.” Well, the first thing I want to do is to look at the work on which the student was evaluated, if it’s within my area of competence, or have someone else have a look at it, if it’s outside my area of competence, and see if I think a plausible case exists that real discrimination occurred. And it doesn’t always.
Sometimes, the kid deserved a C or, at least arguably, deserved a C. But, on occasion, even at Princeton, a student has been given a grade far worse than the student deserved or given a bad grade when the student actually deserved a good grade. Then, you narrow down the explanations pretty quickly to the professor just doesn’t agree with this. So the professor is offended that the student would have a view.
Then, I think that’s when good old-fashioned liberals and conservatives alike need to join together to be advocates on behalf of that student. And I think you can create an environment at a university, even with a relatively small number of faculty participating, you can create an environment in which faculty members just internalize the idea that students should be graded fairly without regard to the point of view that they’re defending.
KRISTOL: This is where I think your personal prominence at Princeton – maybe Princeton, in general having a certain old-fashioned view of these things, which is good – and the Madison Center, which has created kind of a critical mass, perhaps, of heterodox thinkers and other figures on campus. I always – people ask me, “How important can you be?” You teach a couple 100 students a year if you teach a big lecture class, and you bring in guest professors and they teach another hundred or two and there are thousands of students. But I think people underestimate the importance of the effect of having something there. There, I do think Princeton is maybe a minority, unfortunately. It’s also a bigger university, which means – it’s a very good university – so it’s just enough people, it’s a little hard to suppress every idea.
I really – I’m a little shocked, and you go to a smaller college or actually a less good one, the better schools are less politically correct than the second- or third-tier schools. Do you agree with that?
GEORGE: Sometimes, the second- or third-tier schools think that they need to be even more ferocious in their political correctness in order to live up to their image of what’s going on at Harvard or Williams or something.
KRISTOL: Having the Madison Program, and therefore, just having sort of the visible symbol on campus or sort of “this isn’t quite in the mainstream of current liberal academic thinking,” is so important. But places that don’t have that, the students can feel more alone, I think.
There’s no Robby George, there’s no guest professors, or visiting speakers even coming in. There aren’t debates of the kind you host or classes of the kind you teach with Cornel West or whatever. And there is a way, I think, where you kind of do get the real what Mill and Tocqueville really feared, which is the genuine suppression of freedom of speech, which can spill over to – which you said, I think it would be interesting to hear more about this – not saying what you think, but deciding you shouldn’t even think about certain things because it’s too risky. Or in any case unprofitable. What’s the point?
GEORGE: A particular view on sexual morality, for example, or abortion just can’t be questioned. You don’t even permit yourself to think about the possibility that, say, the pro-life position is correct because that would make you such an outsider. You would even experience yourself as an outsider, you would be creating alienation between you and your friends and fellow students. But, you know, Bill, in my own experience, you’d be surprised at how few professors can make a big difference. It really doesn’t take a hundred professors, it takes five to make an enormous difference on campus.
The other thing that I’d note is sometimes the smaller colleges, the small liberal arts colleges, which when the academic world is healthy, are the very best places to get an education because of the close contact students have with faculty. Where academia is not healthy, where you have conformism, and imposed orthodoxies, they end of being the worst places because they’re just hot-houses of political correctness so often, and any dissent is immediately squashed.
One thinks of what happened to Professor Gilbert Meilaender at Oberlin. Oberlin is a very distinguished small college, but the ethos is very leftwing, it’s very politically correct, alas conformist, which was proven by the Meilaender episode. Meilaender’s one of the most distinguished bioethics writers of our time. He and I served together under Dr. Kass – who’s been subject of one of these CONVERSATIONS with his late wife Amy – on the President’s Council on Bioethics, and he’s a person that I have enormous admiration for.
Well, some years ago, he signed a perfectly reasonably statement questioning the Oberlin orthodoxy – it wasn’t directed at Oberlin, it was a general statement questioning the demands of the homosexual movement. The statement was called “The Homosexual Movement” in the pages of First Things.
Well, there was an uproar on campus. He was accused of being an enemy of humanity, being a homophobe, being a bad person, being someone unfit to teach. His life was made miserable, and eventually pretty quickly, actually, not long after this all began, he just decided that it wasn’t worth trying to put up with pariah status at a small place like Oberlin, where everybody knew everyone, where there was no place you could just retreat to and lead a normal academic life.
So he left the place, which was an enormous loss for Oberlin, which needed his dissenting voice on the campus. And of course, was tough on Professor Meilaender himself, who loved the college, who devoted many years and had many friends there.
KRISTOL: Federalist 10 was right, if you have a larger sphere, minority interests have an easier time sometimes.
GEORGE: That’s absolutely true. Madison was right on the mark there, as he was in so many things.
KRISTOL: Good point. That’s right – you’re pro-Madison, being from Princeton. Insufficient appreciation of Hamilton due to your Princeton bias, probably.
So what should people do? Let’s just talk about that for a minute. There are a lot of people, perhaps watching this conversation and who would like to help foster genuine diversity, diversity of thought at colleges and universities. And especially, leaving aside colleges and universities, for young people.
So there’s an inside strategy, it seems to me, that’s what you’ve done at Princeton, and you’re helping do at other colleges and universities. That’s sort of what we’re trying to do with these kinds of conversations and the websites that the Foundation for Constitutional Government puts up to make the thought of people, including you, much more accessible to everyone, obviously, since they’re online. But especially to young people who might not otherwise hear about you in some course and maybe you being derided by some leftwing professor at Oberlin, thinking, “Oh, that guy may be interesting,” and look it up and go around the universities in a sense. Together, can these things make a difference, do you think? How overwhelming is the forces of consensus on colleges and college campuses among young people against various forms of conservative or heterodox ideas?
GEORGE: There’s a lot that can be done, Bill. Let me say, the first thing we need to do is not give up on the universities. Some conservatives and others that are disgusted at the political correctness and monoculture and the conformism and the enforced orthodoxies just want to wash their hands of the universities and say, “Look, we’re going to support the think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.” Which are great and very important part of the outside strategy. We’re going to support the Intercollegiate Studies Institute – again great thing to do – but we’re just going to give up on the universities. Well, that’s a bad idea.
Because the universities have the students. AEI doesn’t have them, Heritage doesn’t have students. The students are going to go to universities. So we need to be about the business of reforming universities, which is basically a matter not of turning the universities into conservative institutions or institutions that have a conservative orthodoxy. But making them a place where there’s a vibrant dialogue between people representing the spectrum of reasonable, responsible points of view.
The question is how do you do that, obviously. First, support programs or even individual faculty members on campuses who are doing something to ensure that there is a vibrant marketplace of ideas on these faculties. Financial support can make an enormous difference. If people are building an institution that’s going to create vibrant thought about the economy, and really be a place that, in which Keynesians and disciples of Hayek or Friedman can have a debate, well, that should be supported financially. And the same in any other area, whether it’s sociology or political science or constitutional law or whatever. Financial support can make a difference.
I’ll bet there are some viewers of CONVERSATIONS that are religious people. If you’re religious, you believe in the power of prayer. Well, pray for those of us in the academy who are trying to make a difference. Trying to cause these academic institutions to live up to their highest and best ideals, their stated ideals.
Support the religious organization, for example, both through prayer and financially at these institutions that are calling into question some of the campus orthodoxies, especially about things like sex. I mean, one of the worst things about contemporary universities is the so-called hook-up culture. The culture of promiscuity and really narcissism and selfishness that is dominant in so many places. Well, there are Orthodox Jewish communities on these campuses, there are Catholic chaplaincies, these Evangelical chaplaincies, these Muslim chaplaincies. People from all the different traditions can support the kind of defiance that is represented by those religious organizations on campus.
Then, there’s the outside strategy, not just the think tanks, although they’re very important and very good. It’s things like the CONVERSATIONS, that this is part of, this conversation’s part of. I learned from the ones I had seen before I became one of your interview subjects, especially the one with Dr. and Dr. Kass, Leon and Amy Kass. Now, Leon is someone I’ve known for decades and admired for decades, and I think I’ve ready pretty much read everything that he’s ever written, and yet I learnt new things from the conversation.
The effort to found institutions in university communities that are not necessarily within the university but have a lot freedom to expose students in the community to new ideas, different ideas, such as the Witherspoon Institution at Princeton or the Elm Institute at Yale, or the Zephyr Institute at Stanford. Those are great things to support. And if you’re a student, look for the resources that are made available to you in those types of institutions in your community.
So there are a whole lot of things that we can do.
KRISTOL: You’re not fatalistic and not too pessimistic?
GEORGE: The opposite. It takes 11 guys to change the world. It takes five to change a university. We can do this.
KRISTOL: I’m just curious you’ve taught at one place for 30 years so you’re a decent control – it’s apples to apples, so to speak, in comparing them. “Young people today,” I mean, conservatives are always so worried and wringing their hands, “It’s much worse than it used to be.”
What are – you’ve got 18-year-olds showing up, you had 18-year-olds showing up 30 years ago. Different? Not so different? How much has the culture changed them? How much has the country, growing up in a slightly different country changed them? What’s your sense? I’m just curious. Not many of us have a chance to kind of have this controlled experiment of seeing every year a new wave of 17-, 18-year-olds showing up.
GEORGE: I have no big news because students when I began in 1985 weren’t all that different from the students that I have in 2015. The majority are open to considering points of view different from the ones that have shaped them.
KRISTOL: You think, really? High school education, better or worse than it used to be, you think?
GEORGE: Probably not quite so good. Just the technical things like teaching people to write well – there certainly has been a decline there. So you can have students who, you know, have the top grades and very high standardized test scores who really don’t know how to write grammatically correct English or put together an essay coherently. So part of what we do – and liberals complain about this as well as conservatives – part of what we have to do is the work that one would think high schools would be doing. It’s remedial, in other words, when it comes to writing when students arrive.
There are a certain percentage of students who are not open-minded. They come in thinking they know everything. Everything turns out to be whatever the New York Times editorial board says is to be believed. They think they know everything, and that their job is to be trained to be a community organizers and social activists and Black Lives Matter activists and so forth. And they’re just not interested in hearing an argument or different point of view.
But that’s a relatively low percentage. Whether the students are conservative – and I would say 15 percent of the students who walk through the door at Princeton are broadly speaking conservative – or liberal – and that’s probably 40 percent who walk in the door – the majority are open to arguments. So that’s why so many students want to sign up for my seminar with Cornel West.
I hate that we have to turn so many away in order to keep the magic of a seminar working. But the fact that they want to come in and hear two guys argue about these things and consider what these two guys who have different points of view have to say. Although Cornel and I don’t always disagree as a matter of fact, but to listen to what we have to say is evidence that students are more open than, perhaps, people would think.
Now, is the same true of the faculty? Not so much. The faculties in general, I would say – with exceptions, notable, honorable exceptions – are less open to having their most cherished ideas challenged than students are.
Now, this is point actually on which Brother West and I completely agree. Someone asked us in an interview what we thought about safe spaces and trigger warnings and micro-aggressions and so forth. And Cornel responded by saying, “Well, if a student is interested in being in a safe space, he is best advised not to come into a seminar with Professors George and West, because we’re not a safe space. No matter what your cherished views are, you’re going to find those views challenged. Because we think that the way to move toward knowledge, or deeper knowledge, or greater understanding is to subject even your most cherished values to critical, rational scrutiny.” And on that point he and I are 100 percent in perfect harmony.
So yeah, our classroom is not a safe space. I mean, you’re going to have to think even about the things that are most important to you. Things that you might regard as identity-forming to you. We’re going to call those things into question, and we’re going to invite our students to call our beliefs into question. We’re going to call each other’s most cherished identify-forming beliefs into question. That’s what both of us, I think, would call the Socratic spirit. We want to put together a seminar in the Socratic spirit.
The great thing about Socrates – at least as he’s presented by Plato, he’s presented less favorably by others as you know. But the Socrates we have from Plato is a Socrates who questions everything. That doesn’t mean that he’s a moral skeptic or a relativist or thinks there’s no truth. Quite the contrary, you question everything because you want to deepen your understanding of the truth – you want to correct your errors and deepen your understanding of the truth.
KRISTOL: I think your point about how it doesn’t take many – you said 11 or five or whatever. That’s really an important point because you can have eight courses where you have, you know, foolish dogmatic interpretations of the history or political philosophy or anything, but it only takes one good teacher to open you up.
It’s unfortunate that you wasted your time in eight bad courses, and that’s one reason we have these CONVERSATIONS but also the Contemporary Thinkers and Great Thinkers websites. You’re one of the Contemporary Thinkers. We’ve been pleased to be able to put it up there. But so many others, Leon Kass and Harvey Mansfield and James Q. Wilson. People who are no longer with us also, Lionel Trilling and Leo Strauss.
I think sometimes conservatives despair because, gee, there are 46 in the Sociology Department, and 43 of them are not very – some of them probably aren’t very good and a lot of them are probably teaching a certain kind of liberal dogmatism. The good news that you don’t have to have 43 – it would be great if you had 43 great teachers, but you don’t need that. And that’s where having the websites and having access to the thought, I think, is so important.
It just takes a little bit to open things up. As long as it’s just not too – having one or two on campuses is really important, I think. You can still get to students when there are no good professors on campus. We all know people who have learned on their own and read a book and said, “Wow, look at this.” At least there, we make it easier for them to find other books by the same author and other authors that that person has cited – you know, that’s where it’s so important I think to –
GEORGE: Read the footnotes. See what’s in the footnotes.
KRISTOL: And then you get led to someone else and suddenly you see a whole world that you didn’t know existed. But it is great if you can have one or two actual professors, no question.
GEORGE: I think that’s right, and this again is the value of the Contemporary Thinkers program, the online Contemporary Thinkers websites. They do give students who would otherwise not have access to these thinkers – perhaps, professors wouldn’t even assign them.
You’d have professors that were so biased against Leo Strauss even though they’re political theorists, and Strauss is obviously one of the most important political theorists of the 20th century. You can go through a whole modern political theory course without ever encountering Natural Right and History or any of Strauss’ works. So having the Contemporary Thinkers website is important.
Again, if I can speak to students who may be viewing: gosh, if you’ve got professors on the campus who are questioning the campus dogmas, the campus orthodoxies, regardless of what side you’re on, whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, seek out that professor. That professor is potentially your very best friend. He’s going to cause you to think. He’s going to cause you to question some things that you’re taking for granted that really ought to be questioned.
And I don’t think it takes, in any particular student’s life, more than two or three professors to really liberate the mind in such a way that from that point on you can do it on your own engaging with your fellow students and engaging with others. The mentorship of a Paul Cantor, for example, or a Harvey Mansfield can launch you. Even if, you know, you’ve just gone sleep-walking through 20 other courses by 20 other professors.
I have been the beneficiary of the work that’s done by people, especially like Harvey Mansfield. I’ve had students who are undergraduate students of Harvey’s who Harvey has transformed. Just the engagement with Harvey has opened them and liberated their minds to make them nascent scholars, true scholars. And then they come to me to work on their PhD at Princeton, and it’s easy work and a pure pleasure. I’m thinking of one right now, Melissa Moschella. I’m not sure if she’s someone you’ve run into. She’s terrific. She was a student of Harvey’s; as an undergraduate, Harvey turned her onto thinking. To thinking! She came to work on philosophy of law and political theory with me at Princeton, wrote a brilliant thesis on the basis of the rights of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children, and she’s now an Assistant Professor, tenure track, at Catholic University, here in Washington, DC.
KRISTOL: I hope we haven’t damaged her prospects by referencing her here. But this – you’ve cheered me up; this is good.
GEORGE: An undergraduate teacher can put somebody on the road, and then they can look for a graduate supervisor, if they do want to stay in academic life, look for a graduate supervisor who will continue working with them in a way that is in line with the way they were shaped by their undergraduate mentor. It can turn out really beautifully. I just want to see more of it.
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