“It is evident,” declared Aristotle, expecting no argument, that “two ways of life are the ones intentionally chosen by those human beings who are most ambitious with a view to virtue, both in former times and the present; the two I mean are the political and the philosophic.”
The strange word here is “virtue,” which carries a lot of baggage for the modern reader. Anyone too preoccupied with virtue is, by contemporary standards, presumably guilty of something until proven otherwise, and maybe not even then.
So it bears keeping in mind that, in Aristotle’s usage, “virtue” is almost a piece of technical jargon. It refers to a form of excellence that, as you pursue it, leads toward profound happiness and a richer life – a condition of human flourishing.
Being “ambitious with respect to virtue,” then, is not as grim as it may sound. Likewise, we have to shed a little cynicism in order to understand why Aristotle would single out politics and philosophy as ideal venues for pursuing that ambition. He understood them, not as professions, let alone as rackets, but rather as activities manifesting and enhancing our nature as social and rational animals.
At the same time, politics and philosophy pull in different directions -- one toward civic engagement, the other into deep and prolonged reflection. Aristotle was all about finding a happy medium, but in the final analysis he thought that intellectual contemplation was the highest form of virtue/excellence. (This is hardly surprising. He was a philosopher, after all.)
Mary Ann Glendon’s The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt, published by Oxford University Press, is a meditation on this theme from Aristotle by someone who has served as both an academic and a diplomat. (Glendon, a professor at the Harvard University Law School, was a U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican during George W. Bush’s second term.)
The book consists of a series of biographical essays on figures who moved between scholarship and statecraft, or at least desired to bring them together. “History provides few examples of prominent political actors who, like Cicero or Edmund Burke, are remembered for important contributions to political thought as well as for distinguished public service,” Glendon writes. “As for political theorists who have ventured into politics, some of the most eminent – Plato, Tocqueville, and Weber, for example – were strikingly ineffective in the public arena.” She devotes a chapter to each of these figures, plus a few others, drawing as much on their memoirs and private papers as their books or speeches. In style and spirit, The Forum and the Tower is much closer to a book like Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy (1926) than to a monograph.
The author describes the essays as “loosely linked,” which seems fair a fair description. Unlike Aristotle -- who is forever generating categorical distinctions, weighing alternatives, and lining things up neatly – Glendon is not particularly driven to analysis. Her examples from history converge on a simple point: the politician and the serious thinker embody distinct capacities, seldom found together in a single person. That principle was already recognized in ancient Athens. And Max Weber had pretty much the last word on the subject in two lectures, “Science as a Vocation” (1917) and “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). Glendon's discussion of Weber, near the end of the book, epitomizes her concern with the difficulty of bridging the distance between “the forum” (where political decisions are made) and “the tower” (as in, ivory).
In particular, Weber’s thoughts on politics as an “ethics of responsibility” seems framed as a warning. The political actor “has to be able to deal with the world as it is,” she writes, “taking human frailty into account and even using it for his purposes. He must be able to bear the irrationality of the word in which evil sometimes comes from good and good sometimes comes from evil. He has to understand that the attainment of good ends may even require using morally dubious or at least dangerous means, and that if one chases after the ultimate good, then the good he seeks may be damaged or discredited for generations…. What is decisive, said Weber, ‘is the trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life and the ability to face such realities and to measure up to them inwardly.’”
She seems to be saying in response to Aristotle that no matter how highly you rate contemplation, the political leader's task requires the rarest virtue.
A few words about the politics of the author, and of the book itself, seem in order. In 2009, Glendon declined the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame when she learned that the institution would be granting an honorary degree to President Obama at the same ceremony. I read The Forum and the Tower without knowing this, though with hindsight it is illuminating.
Glendon names two exceptional cases of leaders who also produced lasting works of scholarship, Cicero and Edmund Burke. Both, as it happens, were conservatives. She identifies Henry Kissinger as another “statesman-scholar,” which is certainly one thing you can call him, if not the one I find springing to mind. The citations from secondary literature are infrequent and tend to come from figures such as Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Paul Johnson – all of them reliably conservative.
Eleanor Roosevelt appears in the subtitle of the book, rather anomalously. She makes a brief appearance in the final chapter, which is devoted to the Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik’s role the United Nations committee that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The former First Lady chaired the committee; its work is the subject of an earlier book by Glendon. But the whole chapter feels a bit tacked on – almost an effort to impose some balance at the last possible moment. In a way the book really ends with Max Weber’s brooding thoughts on the good and evil that men do.
But that leaves me wishing that Glendon had ventured beyond popularized history and rather broad points about the gap between statecraft and the life of the mind. It would be a better book for addressing her own experience in shuttling between forum and tower -- and for posing questions about the relationship between conservative thought and action. "If one chases after the ultimate good, then the good he seeks may be damaged or discredited for generations" would serve as a critique of various right-wing luminaries, but it's never clear whether or not Glendon means it as one.
And as we as a nation contend with foreclosures, high unemployment and an increasing cost of living, it's hard to predict when we will see true economic recovery. Many long-term solutions -- from Democrats and Republicans alike -- have been proposed, but the key to maintaining our economic edge lies not with politics, but with science.
Science is our way out.
Consider this. The chemical industry alone creates 2 percent of U.S. GDP and exports over $145 billion of products per year, according to the American Chemistry Council. Not convinced? Think about the major challenges that face our society today. Answering the country's energy needs, climate change problems, and the increasing costs of health care will require new advances in science -- which, in turn, will create jobs.
The idea isn't new. Politicians and academics have been calling for a renewed national commitment to science for years. In 2008, Princeton University’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman, hosted a roundtable with business and political leaders to address "why now may be the most important time in the last three or four decades that we make a very serious investment in the kind of innovation and creativity that have always fueled this country and this economy." And, earlier this year, President Obama's State of the Union address highlighted the importance of research and development in science and technology. "This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said. "We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people."
Clearly, science demands our attention now. And as educators we have a special obligation to our future leaders. Now is the time, despite limited resources and uncertain economic conditions, to make science a priority -- at every level, from preschool through graduate school, and every type of institution. It may seem counterintuitive in the midst of today's economic turmoil, but now is the time to make significant investments in science education, with long-term sustainability as the ultimate goal. In other words, to be competitive in a global marketplace, where American children are lagging behind in science and math skills, we need to find ways not only to educate scientists, but also to ensure that teachers are well-equipped. To that end, further science funding cuts are not acceptable. In fact, now is the time when we should be investing more in science.
Instead, we're waiting for details of a new debt deal that could dramatically decrease financial support for science beginning in 2013. While it is still uncertain exactly how, and which, science agencies will be impacted, it is clear that $900 billion in federal discretionary funds, which includes support for science agencies, will be cut. What's worse, if the super committee fails to reach an agreement by the November 23 deadline, across-the-board cuts would be made. According to a recent article in Nature, that would mean an 11-percent reduction in funding for federal science agencies, and single-digit grant-acceptance rates from places like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It's easy -- and frightening -- to imagine the impact of such devastating cuts on opportunities for students and faculty at colleges across the nation.
It is important for colleges and universities to promote better public policy on science – and also to push ahead with improving their own programs. At the College of the Holy Cross, a small, Jesuit, liberal arts institution in Massachusetts, where I have taught for 27 years, we're preparing for changes in federal funding for science, but we're not willing to let them profoundly affect what we do. We believe that liberal arts colleges, in particular, have a special role to play in the future of science. For decades, scientists have benefited from the liberal arts curriculum, which exposes them to multiple disciplines -- essential for a future where complex issues will continue to cross the narrow confines of a major or specialized field. We recently completed a $64 million dollar, state-of-the-art Integrated Science Complex. We're expanding summer research opportunities for undergraduate students through support from our alumni, and we're hiring tenure-track faculty.
Some have criticized the value of a liberal arts education, particularly in a bad economy where jobs are scarce. But the skills students gain from a liberal arts education transcend fluctuations in the market. Others have dismissed the importance of science and research -- often the same people who carry cell phones, use computers and benefit from advances in healthcare.
What’s more, the country has several leading Republican presidential candidates — from Texas Governor Rick Perry to Minnesota Congresswomen Michele Bachmann, among others — who cast doubts on things like evolution and man-made climate change. And their opinions are upheld by an increasing number of Americans. For example, a Gallup poll released last week showed that 11 percent fewer (50 percent) Americans think humans are partially responsible for global warming now than in 2007-8.
At a time when the influence of science and technology, and the potential for life-changing breakthroughs, has never been greater, American society seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
As we look to the future of the sciences at Holy Cross, we are confident that we will see returns on our investments for years to come: We'll attract the best student scientists, we'll recruit talented and highly respected faculty, and we'll graduate well-rounded students who have experience in the lab, understand the value of collaboration and are poised to be leaders in their field. With a liberal arts-based science education, our graduates will emerge as active and informed citizens, fully prepared to solve tomorrow's important scientific problems. Will yours?
And more importantly, will America be ready for them?
Richard Herrick is a professor of chemistry at the College of the Holy Cross.
Toby (not his real name) flunked a graduate course I taught last year. He failed the in-class assignment (a mid-term essay exam) as well as the out-of-class assignments (a couple of case analyses and a take-home exam). Reviewing Toby’s work was excruciating; extracting coherence from his paragraphs was a futile exercise, even with repeated readings. Theoretical analysis in his writing was virtually nonexistent. Put simply, this was an academic train wreck.
As I interacted with Toby over the course of the term, I kept asking myself, “How did this pleasant young man ever manage to obtain an undergraduate degree?” He certainly had one, awarded by a regionally accredited institution (not mine). And how did he get into yet another institution (my institution, but not my program) to pursue a master’s degree?
Welcome to the world of Lower Education. Toby’s case may be extreme, but it underscores a fundamental reality that shapes a major segment of higher education in the United States: Colleges cannot survive without students, so colleges that have a difficult time competing for the “best” students compete for the “next best” ones. And colleges that have trouble securing the “next best” students focus on the “next-next best” ones, and on and on and on, until a point is reached where the word “best” is no longer relevant. When this occurs, students who are not prepared to be in college, and certainly not prepared to be in graduate school, end up in our classrooms.
This is not startling news. It’s a rare college or university that does not have an academic remediation/triage center of some kind on campus, where an enormous amount of time is spent teaching students skills they should have learned in high school. To be sure, many of these unprepared students drop out of college before graduation, but a significant percentage do make it to the finish line. Some of the latter will have indeed earned their degree through great effort and what they’ve learned from us. But others will have muddled through without displaying the skills we should require of all students. My 35 years of university experience tell me that in these cases faculty collusion is often a contributing factor.
What is the nature of this collusion? In far too many instances, little is required of students in terms of the quality and quantity of their academic work, little is produced, and the little produced is, to put it mildly, graded generously. Some might argue that the mind-numbing proportions of A’s we often see these days, along with the relative scarcity of low grades, is a reflection of more effective teaching strategies being employed by professors, coupled with a growing population of bright students committed to academic excellence. Unfortunately, this uplifting scenario strikes me as much less persuasive than one that implicates factors such as transactional/contract grading (“5 article reviews equal an A, 4 equals a B,” etc.), faculty who wish to avoid arguing with increasingly aggressive students about grades, faculty who believe that awarding high grades generates positive student evaluations, faculty who express their philosophical opposition to grading by giving high grades, and the growing percentage of courses taught by part-time and non-tenure-track faculty members who might see the assigning of a conspicuous number of low grades as a threat to their being re-hired.
One of the most pernicious consequences of this state of affairs is cynicism toward higher education among those most directly responsible for delivering higher education -- the faculty. Research suggests that one of the most powerful sources of motivation for outstanding employee performance is goal/value internalization. This occurs when espoused organizational goals and values are “owned” by organizational members, who then strive to achieve the goals and live up to the values in their work. Colleges and universities have traditionally been in a privileged position with respect to drawing upon this type of motivation, given their educational mission. The beliefs associated with this mission can include a sizable chunk of myth, but as societal myths go, the ones embraced by higher education (e.g., the ability of research, knowledge, and analytical skill to enhance the public good) tend to have high social value.
In the current zeitgeist, however, many faculty are dismayed to see the provision of educational credentials trumping the actual provision of education. (Fifty might not be the new forty, but the master’s degree is certainly the new bachelor’s.) This perception is enhanced by a proliferation of curriculum-delivery formats (weekend courses, accelerated and online programs, etc.) whose pedagogical soundness often receives much less attention than the ability of the formats to penetrate untapped educational markets. It is difficult for a strong commitment to academic integrity to thrive in such environments.
Faculty who are distressed over all of this should not wait for presidents, provosts and deans to rescue higher education from itself. Moreover, regional accrediting bodies, despite their growing emphasis on outcomes assessment, do not typically focus on courses, programs and admissions standards in a way that allows them to adequately address these issues. For the most part it is faculty who teach the classes, design and implement curricula, and, at least at the graduate level, establish admissions policies for programs. What should faculty do? I offer three modest suggestions:
At the departmental level, work to develop a culture where expectations for student performance are high. When faculty members believe that teaching challenging courses is “the way we do things here,” they are less likely to offer non-challenging ones.
Advocate throughout the institution for the centrality of academic quality to policy making, program development, and program implementation. The question “What are we doing to ensure that X embodies a commitment to academic excellence?” should never be left implicit.
Create opportunities for faculty and administrators to come together in small groups to explore the issues raised by Lower Education. These two constituencies need to find a way to collaborate more effectively, and the mutual stereotyping that frequently characterizes their relationship represents a major obstacle. If we want our conversations relevant to Lower Education to change, let’s experiment with changing the structure within which some of those conversations take place.
Contemplating Lower Education reminds us that faculty members will always face pressures to compromise their academic principles. But explanations of unethical behavior should never be confused with justifications for such behavior. Ultimately, it was the faculty who gave Toby his credential of a bachelor’s degree. They shouldn’t have.
Michael Morris is professor of psychology at the University of New Haven, where he directs the master’s program in community psychology. Since 1998 he has served as an evaluator for NEASC, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.