Jason Schlude on “The Elusive Liberal Arts, Then and Now”

We may have lost already if initially you ask whether we really need another impassioned defense of the liberal arts. Can’t we just get over this time-honored intellectual model? Maybe disregard it entirely, acknowledge it is simply of less import, or fully redefine so that we can win over families with a predilection for professional skills?

One could be forgiven for the sentiment. For a decade, enrollments have been hurting, and budgets crunching, at liberal arts colleges across America. More students with financial need are seeking the right destination in the landscape of higher education. Institutions have responded with tuition discounts. They also have tried to maintain and strengthen their educational product by enhancement of facilities and expansion of staff to support incoming students, execute new educational priorities, and keep up with administrative trends. Meanwhile crises make things worse: a healthcare system straining college budgets, a recession draining endowments, and now a pandemic producing new healthcare and economic woes, inextricably linked. Each element has driven the cost of higher education further north.

Faced with a bigger price tag, families are rethinking their investment in college and increasing their expectation for easily marketable professional skills. Some schools can weather the challenges better than others; those with major endowments can offset the costs, and for those with names recognized in every household, the names are sufficiently marketable on their own. The Harvard and Williams colleges are safe.

The liberal arts and the quest for skills

The schools in danger largely depend on tuition to pay bills and families who want more than a name to ensure investments. For these schools, the liberal arts mission seems to ill fit the evolving landscape. The expansive enterprise of the liberal arts calls for discussion beyond skills—discussion of something less tangible. Perhaps less is more. Perhaps the best brand markets specific skills in business, nursing, analysis, communication, and the like, in the fewest words and with slickest packaging. Anything more is distraction. This deepening crisis is causing many schools to call into question the efficacy of their traditional mission.

But this poses a question: what are the liberal arts anyway? Perhaps we have not thought carefully enough about them in the past. Perhaps, upon reflection, we can conclude they are purely skills—and we missed that detail years ago. Do not the roots of the liberal arts go back to the ancient Greeks who believed a citizen with influence in a city’s political assembly should have an education that prepared him for that responsibility—an education that gave him key skills in critical thinking and speaking, not to mention the physical conditioning and fighting skills he might need to protect his city? If so, then it would be in the spirit of the old liberal arts if the new liberal arts simply focused on skills.

Conveniently, not only might this strategy attract families interested in early professionalization, but in the face of tough budgets and a desire to make strategic investments in what are perceived of as market-driven programs, it also solves a staffing challenge. Aside from the skills specific to such programs (e.g., business and nursing skills mentioned above), if the faculty of a liberal arts college are valued only for their ability to teach a general set of critical thinking and communication skills, then cannot any faculty teach what is necessary for a liberal arts education? If that is the case, in lean times an administration can prioritize staffing professional programs, since their faculty can prepare students for specialized career paths and theoretically cover the liberal arts, too.

Not so fast—the Greeks and the liberal arts

Socrates in the Trinity College Library. Dublin, Ireland. Courtesy of Bar Harel. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_Socrates.jpg)

But this approach deserves greater scrutiny. It is worth noting that education in the golden age of Greece was not so problem-free. There would have been agreement in many communities on the proper learning activities for what we call elementary education: learning your alphabet, how to write, the importance of great Greek literature, Homer above all, the traditions of your city, etc.

However, at advanced levels of education, fierce debate developed about the best interests of students and state. This controversy surfaced with the appearance of “sophists” in Greek society. Sophists were paid teachers who offered pupils a special rhetorical training. The goal was to develop nimble minds and capable orators and debaters. In this educational process, they were given various positions to argue, however they contrasted with norms. The result, in the eyes of conservative citizens, was an education focused on communication skills that demonstrated a disregard for the time-honored traditions of a community.

One sees the debate in its most famous and comic form in the play The Clouds by Aristophanes, the great Athenian comedy writer of the fifth century BCE. In this hilarious and occasionally disturbing play, a certain Strepsiades suffers mounting bills due to his son Pheidippides, who has a taste for things aristocratic, including horses and their races. To solve his problem, he ultimately compels Pheidippides to enroll in the local school of sophistry, whose headmaster was none other Socrates, here presented as both a natural philosopher and a sophist. The goal was not virtuous; he wished for Pheidippides to learn the tricks of the rhetorical trade. In this way, he would know how to make the weaker argument the stronger—and thereby, how to help the family weasel its way out of its debts.

Once enrolled, the youth experiences firsthand a debate between two figures, Just Argument (Δίκαιος Λόγος) and Unjust Argument (Ἄδικος Λόγος), who personify traditional education (focused on justice and piety) and new education (in pursuit of an easy life and armed with sophistry), respectively. In the duel, Unjust Argument’s victory over Just Argument becomes decisive, winning Pheidippides over to his way of thinking. In the end, however, the father got more than he bargained for: a son primarily interested in proving the merits of a different shameful act—elder abuse. Strepsiades, enraged that his son’s education would be turned violently against himself, leads a charge to burn the school.

As we read this work, we see clearly the intellectual currents shifting in Athens. The proper form of education was controversial enough to secure it stage presence in 423 BCE during Athens’ Dionysia festival, which celebrated the god Dionysos through competitive performances of several tragedies and comedies. As Aristophanes reveals in the pages of The Clouds, his play was one of the losers that year, and the version we now read was a subsequent revision. Why it lost is hard for us now to gauge—and makes any attempt to identify the sentiments of the Athenian people a difficult prospect (as if teasing convictions from comedy was not difficult enough since the principal goal was laughter).

What we can say is that Aristophanes saw traditionalists and sophists as worthy targets. He criticized the latter for their reckless disregard of established values, ideas, and customs. But Aristophanes refused to let the former off the hook; he placed on grand display their inability to outsmart a new generation of practitioners and their gross intolerance of fresh ideas. It is likely that this multi-directional humor indicates a populace sharply divided in its views and with at least a portion of citizens willing to criticize both old and new. At a bare minimum, we can conclude that this was a time of change in Athenian higher education.

There is irony of note here, too. Socrates proved the greatest victim of the play. He was neither a natural philosopher nor teacher of sophistry. Aristophanes, for a good laugh, not only included him among the ranks of these intellectuals, but also made him their spokesman. Socrates in fact was quite different—if we are to trust Plato, his most famous student. Plato was the pen behind the Apology of Socrates, in which he recorded his version of Socrates’ trial in 399 BCE. Indeed, Socrates was viewed as a subversive by many Athenians and was brought up on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth two decades after The Clouds.

In his defense, Socrates claimed no one had witnessed him take part in the sky lore of natural philosophy. Furthermore, he denied cultivating a formal group of paying students like the typical sophist. Instead, Socrates spent his time testing the truth of the oracle of Delphi who asserted he was the wisest man of Athens. To that end, he circulated the city gauging the wisdom of its citizens by interviewing poets, politicians, and craftsmen. As he did so, many young men followed him, taking delight in how Socrates publicly showed that their claims to knowledge went too far (much to their irritation). While these groups knew and produced valuable things, there were limits to their insight—a limitation Socrates recognized as universally human. Even he himself was subject to it. The difference was that Socrates understood and acknowledged his ignorance. What made Socrates the wisest was his admission that he did not have a monopoly on wisdom; he was comfortable with not knowing—and put that on display.

Rather than selling his rhetorical skills as a teacher, Socrates was an intellectual and citizen who grappled with the substance of ideas and sought truth. He employed rhetoric to powerful effect, but such a skill was subordinate to transformative insight. In this way, Socrates’ career may have been in part a reaction against sophists, and Aristophanes’ characterization of him as a sophist was a misrepresentation of this watershed philosopher.

The consequences may have been significant. The jury for Socrates’ trial found him guilty and sentenced him to death by hemlock. He died by this method not long after in 399 BCE. What is striking is that Plato has Socrates claim in the Apology that his unpopularity stemmed from Aristophanes’ presentation of him as a wacky natural philosopher and sophist with bankrupt principles. This may have led some to dislike and condemn him.

For others, different factors may have come into play. Some followers of Socrates, such as Critias, were members of the Thirty Tyrants, an oligarchic government imposed by Sparta upon Athens following the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. Already in 403 BCE, Athenians tired of the tyrants’ politically driven purges and overthrew them to reinstitute democracy. In the process, Critias was killed, and those associated with figures like him became vulnerable objects of revenge. This was likely a motivation for the prosecution of Socrates. Surely another factor behind the prosecution’s success was Socrates’ unbending, brash self-defense that underscored his wisdom compared to others. In his quest for truth, Socrates refused to back down from his discovery: there is a limit to human knowledge. This came at a cost.

Choosing the right liberal arts quest

To return to our own quest for the essence of the liberal arts, we must conclude, based on these events, that the liberal arts education of ancient Greece was not a simple skill-driven enterprise. While some advocated a focus on skills in their embrace of sophistry, others questioned this approach. Aristophanes viewed it as a dangerous concept. Socrates happily used his rhetorical skills but subordinated them to something fundamentally more important: a serious examination of ideas and desire for wisdom that alters the way we see ourselves and how we operate in the world. And in this process, while he identified the limits of different areas of inquiry and profession (poetry, politics, and trades), it is central that he acknowledged their wisdom and value. So, then, when it comes to the character of a true liberal arts education, one cannot but conclude that different models were available in ancient Greece.

Educators and administrators of today must choose. A world often falling short in ethics, justice, and vision needs colleges to do more than teach immediately recognizable professional skills. They also must engage students in a search for what ethics and justice look like, sound like, feel like, and truly are, in a search for ideas that transform how we see our material, intellectual, spiritual, and human landscape. In the process, we must engage them with teachers who are highly trained in different disciplines, so that students can circulate amongst them, learning different ways of seeing the world and the benefits (and limitations) that define each. We need philosophy, economics, biology, music, languages, anthropology, mathematics, art, history, English, theology, political science, psychology, communications, chemistry, theater, and more. Just as important, if our interests go beyond skills, we need professors with more than a passing acquaintance with such fields. They need the training and experience to open the complex world of ideas in each to students. While the parallel is not perfect, those in this camp count Socrates as company.

Perhaps in the landscape of higher education today, one may be reluctant to bet on Socrates. His end was tragic, after all. He did not give the people of Athens what they wanted—at that moment anyway. Will an apology and embrace of these liberal arts lead to a modern form of higher-ed hemlock?

Not necessarily. Many students continue to attend liberal arts colleges for their more expansive mission. For vulnerable colleges looking to win more professionally minded students by focusing only on a skills-based education, the abandonment of their previous mission likely will alienate those students who want both skills and transformative ideas. Meanwhile, their continued identification as liberal arts colleges (despite modified priorities) may not resonate with this newly sought-after pool of applicants who still see them in the traditional mold. In other words, the shift may bring a net loss rather than gain of students.

In this way, the Socrates analogy may cut in the other direction. Will a liberal arts college, despite its attempt to distinguish itself from traditional liberal arts schools, still be lumped with them by students seeking professionalization, much as Socrates was identified with natural philosophers and sophists? Facing this dilemma, such a school takes a major risk. While these colleges need to rethink how they articulate themselves and make real attempts to address the needs of students especially interested in skills, it is better to do so genuinely guided by an expansive liberal arts mission. We need to believe in our product, in the value of skills and ideas, and we need to reinvest in the diverse disciplines and faculty who can provide them.

Jason Schlude on “A Minnesota scholar shows how we could find common ground with, and through, Shia Islam”


* This article was originally published on September 18, 2020 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


Polarity is palpable at the present time. Whatever the causes, large swaths of American society are deeply alienated from one another. The issue does not matter: pandemic, racial equity, education or the upcoming presidential election. Whatever the result of that election, we are at risk of facing an even deeper divide in our society. It is likely that people will die as tensions and violence escalate. The reality is, they already have.

There is no shortage of problems we face. Each prioritizes them in an individual way, but I place our inability to conduct civil discourse high on the list. How can we talk to one another — without fear of irreparably alienating the other or even provoking violence? Is it possible that we together can gather evidence, interrogate it, identify critical issues, envision possibilities and their consequences, and reach solutions?

If anything, sheer necessity leads me to hope we can. If not, our future as a functional democracy is shrouded in darkness.

While contemplating this darkness, I recently had a remarkable encounter with empathy. I stumbled upon it in a new book on Middle Eastern politics: “Shia Islam and Politics: Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon,” by Jon Armajani, professor in the Peace Studies Department at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota.

The book documents the relationship between religion and politics across Middle Eastern history, with particular attention to the Islamic sect of Shi’ism.

Shia Islam is practiced by most people in Iran and Iraq and by many in Lebanon. It is the religion of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Also central to the investigation is the United States’ relationship to these nations.

Knowing even a few details of this relationship’s history, some may be tempted to think that Western empathy for Shias is impossible or out of place. Yet Armajani begins his book by embracing it: “I wrote this book not as a defense of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and its regional consequences, but as a way of explaining that revolution’s reasons in a manner which is empathetic to some of the Shia Muslim revolutionaries.”

Such scholarly empathy enables Armajani to understand the world of Shi’ism on its own terms, resulting in a balanced picture that recognizes its positive potential even as it acknowledges its political failings.

Similarly, he offers an assessment of the U.S. role that is sympathetic, but unflinching.

In the late 1970s, Iranian Shias faced a repressive monarch in Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a shah driven by personal interests in power and wealth and all too willing to brutally censor his own people with secret police and military crackdowns. Iran’s Shias overthrew the monarchy in early 1979 and formed a democracy defined by Islamic ideals that many hoped would bring succor to the victimized.

The new government more effectively distributed land to the needy, expanded literacy, critical infrastructure, and health care, and offered subsidies for food and other resources. But it was also a government that carried out its own strong-arm elimination of dissent. It was capable of endorsing a takeover of the U.S. embassy in November 1979 and holding its occupants hostage for more than a year.

The U.S. had reason, then, to distrust Iran — a lingering unease that makes the prospect of a nuclear weapon in its hands terrifying. Still, the U.S. must remember that it helped to organize a 1953 coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and supported the shah’s subsequent creation of a secret police. America was willing to abandon its democratic principles for what it thought was in its narrow security interests.

Armajani offers us something deeply needed: a willingness to recognize complexity in our political world. This leads him to a valuable middle ground — not a middle ground in which we all come to the exact same conclusions on how best to proceed, but one in which we all must consider the same facts and genuinely wrestle with them in terms designed to enable meaningful discussion, not to inflame and short-circuit it. It is an approach that as a citizen body we need to embrace if we are to build that more perfect union imagined long ago. **

** On September 22, 2020, I interviewed Dr. Armajani about his new book at the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. The conversation can be viewed here.

Nick Hayes on Stephen F. Cohen

Stephen F. Cohen (November 25, 1938 – September 18, 2020)

In the fall of 1978, a young, unknown historian made a cold call from his office at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to Stephen F. Cohen, a professor of Politics and Russian Studies at Princeton University. At the time, Cohen was arguably the most influential and well-known scholar in the field of Soviet Studies. The young historian was undoubtedly the least known scholar in the field. I was the young historian. As I stumbled over a sentence or two of my clumsy introduction, Cohen interrupted me. He had read an article that I had just published. He lavished praise on my recent article, asked to read other examples of my work, and accepted my invitation to come to my university (UTEP) as a visiting scholar. My telephone call was the start of a friendship that lasted over decades until last Thursday, September 18, when Cohen died of lung cancer.

The story of great scholars always starts with a book. In 1973, Cohen had published “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography 1888 – 1938.” Critics and reviewers called Cohen’s biography of the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin “revisionist.” It was an understatement.  Cohen’s study of Bukharin represented a complete re-thinking of the Russian revolution, its aftermath and the potential for meaningful reform within the Soviet Union and its post-Soviet successor, Russia. Cohen went on to publish nine more books that analyzed the struggle for reform in Russia, critiqued the field of “Sovietology” in American academic life, and placed the blame for the tensions in U.S./Russian relations on Washington, not Moscow.

His books sold. He packed the house when he spoke at scholarly conferences. He counted among his friends two presidents – George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. He was a consummate public intellectual as an editor and contributor to “The Nation,” a consultant to CBS News, and the Founding Director of the American Committee on East-West Accord.

In our latter years, we often joked that we had reached that age when men write memoirs. In my last conversations with Cohen, we discussed plans for conference on the memoirs of  our generation in Russian Studies and Sovietology.  He told me that due to health problems he would have to withdraw from the project.

A decade ago, I published an interview and profile of Cohen’s life and career. For more information on Cohen’s legacy and influence,  visit the interview at this link.

Nick Hayes is a Professor of History and holds the University Chair in Critical Thinking at the College of St. Benedict/Saint John’s University in Minnesota.  His second memoir – Looking for Leningrad: Memories of my Soviet Life will be published this spring by Nodin Press.

Noreen Herzfeld on “”I Can’t Breathe”: Bonhoeffer, the Bible, and the Death of George Floyd”

“I can’t breathe.”  These were the last words of George Floyd, suffocated on the streets of Minneapolis with a policeman’s knee on his neck.  Floyd’s death has sparked more than a week of protests, first in Minneapolis, and then spreading to cities across the nation, including Washington DC, protests both peaceful and violent.

Fearing protesters around the White House, President Trump retreated to a basement bunker.  In a gesture meant to counter this unflattering image, he and his advisors decided on a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House on Lafayette Square, a church that had suffered minor damage from a fire in a prior demonstration.  A half hour before curfew, the square was crowded with peaceful demonstrators (image, Rosa Pineda), among whom circulated clergy from St. John’s, giving aid and handing out bottles of water.  Police were ordered to clear the square, which they did, using pepper spray and rubber bullets.  Trump gave a brief speech in the Rose Garden, then marched across the square, posed briefly in front of the boarded-up church, awkwardly holding a Bible as cameras clicked, then returned to the White House.

Episcopalians were outraged.  The Reverend Gini Gerbasi, who had been in Lafayette Square when police cleared it, noted the violation of the demonstrators’ Fourth Amendment rights of peaceful assembly, adding, “They turned holy ground into a battleground.”  Episcopal Bishop of Washington DC, The Reverend Mariann Budde, told CNN, “Let me be clear, the president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. . . We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”

Many Evangelical Christians, however, hailed the symbolism of the moment.  Franklin Graham wrote on Facebook:   “President Donald J. Trump made a statement by walking through Lafayette Park to St. John’s Episcopal Church that had been vandalized and partially burned Sunday night. He surprised those following him by holding up a Bible in front of the church. Thank you, President Trump.  God and His Word are the only hope for our nation.”  Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, praised Trump’s visit: “His presence sent the twin message that our streets and cities do not belong to rioters and domestic terrorists, and that the ultimate answer to what ails our country can be found in the repentance, redemption, and forgiveness of the Christian faith.”

Other conservative Christians were less impressed.  Many noticed that Trump never opened the Bible, nor offered words of either prayer or comfort.  Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention regretfully noted, “More important than politics and optics is that all of us should be listening to what the Bible says — about the preciousness of human life, about the sins of racism and injustice, about the need for safety and calm and justice in the civil arena, all of it.”  The American Bible Society issued a statement on the Bible being “more than a symbol.”

Clearly, Christian responses are divided, and not merely on denominational or right-left lines.  Was Trump’s walk to St. John’s a pious or a self-serving act?  To get some perspective on this, I turn to the words of pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, like George Floyd, died as a young man at the hands of his government.   Bonhoeffer would tell us that judging Trump and his motives is asking the wrong question.  He would have us turn our eyes back to George Floyd.  In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes, “While we distinguish between pious and godless, good and evil, noble and base, God loves real people without distinction.”  For Bonhoeffer, “[an] attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race.”  While Trump told governors “if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time,” Bonhoeffer, writing from his cell in Tegel prison, called on both Church and government to exist “for others…not dominating, but helping and serving.”

Christianity tells us we cannot put our individual selves first.  Jesus, according to Bonhoeffer, calls us to follow him in espousing a solidarity in which we “see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”  From the perspective of George Floyd.

“I can’t breathe.”  These words are not among the seven last words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels.  Yet they could have been, for this is precisely how one dies when crucified.  The stretched-out arms hyper-extend the chest, making inhalation difficult.  The victim needs to pull himself up, using either his arms or pushing up with his legs, at each breath.  Exhaustion eventually occurs, followed quickly by asphyxiation.  This is the death Jesus died.  The grace we are all given by virtue of this death is, and was, for Bonhoeffer, costly:  “Costly grace . . . is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. . . Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”  Incarnated in George Floyd, and in each of us when we suffer and stand in solidarity with the suffering.

Jason Schlude on “The Art of Liberation: Life in the Liberal Arts”

Every year at colleges and universities across the United States, the spring is a time to induct new students into Phi Beta Kappa, the longest standing academic honor society in our country. Phi Beta Kappa celebrates talented students who have chosen to pursue a liberal arts education, rich in its study of the humanities, languages, natural science, mathematics, social science, and fine arts. The idea is that there is something special about a liberal arts education that makes for deep understanding, incisive thinking, clear and compelling communication, and ultimately personal growth, leadership, and success, broadly defined. At the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, we, too, celebrate these students, and in doing so celebrate the liberal arts mission that drives our community. Given the opportunity to address these students and our community at such an unusual time, I asked myself an important question: why does a liberal arts education matter, especially at such an imperfect moment?

One can hear my answer in this recorded address. It was originally posted on CSB/SJU’s Phi Beta Kappa Facebook page on May 4, 2020 (https://www.facebook.com/CSBSJUPhiBetaKappa/). The full text follows below.


Greetings to you, students, faculty, staff, and family of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. And congratulations to the new members of Phi Beta Kappa. My name is Jason Schlude, a professor of Classics and chair and of the Department of Languages and Cultures, and I have the honor of addressing you today. Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest and most widely known and respected academic honor society in the United States—and we are proud to welcome you to it. It is a society whose mission is to promote the study of the liberal arts and sciences and to highlight their vitality in our world. In this way, the occasion at hand is also a celebration for our whole campus community—a campus community that in this present moment is flung far and wide, but a community that remains united in its vision for the world. Whatever drew each of us to St. Ben’s and St. John’s, we have all come to appreciate how important it is to become whole scholars and whole people. By growing in every direction at once, we know we offer the world the best of ourselves.

To begin, I wish to acknowledge our present circumstances. I know this is not the address you were expecting. This is anything but a perfect moment. We are not together in person, in a hallowed hall, surrounded by friends and faculty, literally feeling the warmth of so many jolly bodies sitting together on a warm spring afternoon. I am not standing before you in my doctoral gown from the University of California, Berkeley, a gown trimmed in gold, striking in its deep blue, a color so distinctive it is called, in fact, “California blue.” There is a serious public health crisis at hand, with students seemingly cast to the winds too early, each of them—each of you—living in so-called isolation, likely lonely, wondering what the future will hold. This was a decision made out of concern for your safety and for your community’s safety. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we made it out of our love for this community. Before I say anything further, I can assure you the professors, coaches, and staff of St. Ben’s and St. John’s prize your welfare above all else and remain steadfast in their commitment to helping you envision and realize your future, step by step, wherever you may be at this time. Even so, that fact cannot erase the disruption, disorientation, and distress you are feeling.

It is hard to know what to say in these circumstances. And I certainly don’t feel like the perfect person to address you in them. Who am I to speak to you? We are all complex in our own ways—impossible to neatly sum up. I’m a father, a husband, a friend, a teacher—more, too, I suppose. These are important roles—ones I would not give up for the world; they are my world—but they don’t distinguish me as particularly unusual. Most important for this occasion is my identity as a teacher. I am a professor of Classics, the field that studies the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East, especially Greece and Rome. It is the original interdisciplinary field of study, the original liberal arts major, involving study of language, literature, history, philosophy, religion, anthropology, art, architecture, archaeology, and geology. In this way, my daily life is the pursuit of liberal arts education. To that, I can speak. So let me speak with you today as a teacher in the liberal arts who would like to offer a few humble reflections on this tradition, however imperfect these reflections may be.

To fully appreciate the power of a liberal arts education and how it can be an anchor for us in the turbulent waters of this historical moment, we need to begin with the roots of the  “liberal arts” and the freedom to which they point. These English terms arise from the Latin language. “Arts” come from the noun ars, artis, meaning “art” or “skill.” These arts then involve practical skills, a detail sometimes lost in translation. But they certainly also are bound up with the idea of an art, a finely tuned craft with creative power, with aesthetic beauty.

The “liberal” element has been politicized in modern society. Whether that is accurate is not for me to judge today. But the root of the word signifies something else. In Latin, the verb liberare means “to free.” This is a crucial concept for the liberal arts. Students who pursue them develop their arts and skills to “free” themselves. This freedom may look a bit different for each of us—but there is surely a freedom to be found in the liberal arts, and we hope you have found it in your time at St. Ben’s and St. John’s and will continue to enjoy it throughout your lives. On the one hand, this is a freedom from a narrow perspective. Whatever your primary academic and professional interest, you have embraced a broad course of study, including the humanities, sciences, mathematics, multiples languages, fine arts, in addition to courses in religion and ethics, where multiple fields are brought to bear on questions of meaning and morality. In this work, you have been freed from seeing the world from a single point of view, freed from ignorance, freed from a poverty of ideas, we might say. And for many, there is an additional liberation. A liberal arts education gives you the ability to improve the physical circumstances of your life as well. Anyone, no matter what one’s socio-economic background, can find a salvation in the liberal arts: the ability to use their arts and skills to move beyond an upbringing limited in its tangible resources and pursue a life with greater financial opportunity and security. In other words, the liberal arts offers a liberation from a poverty of ideas and a material poverty. We were all poorer, in one way or another, before we pursued a liberal arts education.

The liberal arts world is one I have a personal history with, as we all do. I was one of those students with a more modest background. I grew up in St. Louis, MO. My father was a stone mason, my mother a secretary and then nurse’s aide. They had four children, among whom I was last. While they were preparing for my arrival, they had to find a new home under unexpected circumstances. They had to buy fast and cheap. And the result was a house over 100 years old with plaster disintegrating before our eyes. We had to take the walls down ourselves, the plaster and wooden slats dragged out bucket by bucket and dumped in the backyard. Then we tried to put them back up. That took money and energy, and my parents were short of both at the end of long work hours. Practically as long as I can remember, at least one, if not multiple, rooms of the house had no walls. Often you looked upon rough boards into which old asbestos siding was tacked. The walls were only closed up following my undergraduate years. It was a home I loved—and sometimes hated. It was all I knew, and yet I rarely brought any friend there, out of sheer embarrassment. The best man in my wedding went to high school with me (I was his best man, too). He still drives past my old home every day on his way to work. But in our friendship of nearly 25 years, I bet he entered my house fewer than five times. I was too good at listening for his car so I could meet him on the street—or porch, if necessary.

My parents, however, also knew the importance of education—a broad education. They had an absolute faith in it that seems increasingly hard to find today. In fact, since we lived in areas where public education was underfunded, and the only affordable private option was Catholic education, years before I was born my family converted to Catholicism just so we could attend a Catholic grade school (a requirement apparently). Even so, it was a sacrifice for my parents—but they made it. And I knew what a gift it was. Already at 10 years of age I knew that education was my ticket out, my ticket to more. This proved the beginning of my path to a liberal arts education. I went on to attend a Jesuit high school, where I learned just how much I loved learning anything and everything, and how growth was to be found in pursuing the unknown and strange, rather the familiar and comfortable. So I next went to Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where I pursued my liberal arts education. When selecting my majors, knowing I wanted to study everything, and that would make me a versatile thinker and citizen, I picked the most interdisciplinary fields I could find: Classics, religious studies, and geology. And then, knowing the power that teachers had in my life, I wanted to be one. And so four years later, I found myself driving my dad’s old Ford F-150 pick-up truck to California, to pursue graduate study in ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology at Berkeley. It was a place I never thought I would live. California was an alien world to me.

Why I went there is a story that suggests a liberal arts education can offer another, third form of liberation to its students as well. When I was thinking of what graduate school to attend, a dear college professor who had attended Berkeley gave me an important piece of advice. She said, “Yes, you want an excellent university. But make sure to look at what their doctoral gowns look like, because you’ll be wearing that gown for a long time. There is nothing like California blue.” I laughed. But I did know what her gown looked like. Beth wore it to every convocation at Macalester—and it was gorgeous. So I went to Berkeley.

I started this address today mentioning that Berkeley gown, which I now share with Beth. I absolutely love it. I love it because of all that is wrapped up in it. Even if you were seeing me today in that California blue, you likely couldn’t guess at most of it. You might not know that every year of graduate school—for the first four years—felt like my last. I didn’t know all the languages that were needed, whether those were additional foreign languages I had yet to learn or the polished and specialized English vocabulary that seemed required for graduate seminars. I didn’t come from a major research university where scholars lectured to you at length, giving you a grand vista of antiquity, connecting all the people, places, and dates so that you were left with an interconnected mental map. I mostly knew islands on the map and the ocean that separated them was unknown and formidable. I had my liberal arts education—and I applied it like a scrapper using every last survival skill, deliberately crisscrossing the new geography and creating my own map. Still, I felt hopelessly behind, year after year, wondering if I could keep up, if I had another year in me.

As these anxieties filled my mind, routinely when the academic year was drawing to a close, I would walk across campus, through Sproul Plaza, for those who know it. Most of you have seen pictures of it, from the 1960s, filled with the students who launched the free speech movement—another freedom that sprung from liberal education. This was a unique place in the world that played its part in liberating us from the past. It was an imperfect achievement, to be sure. Not all have freedom of speech yet—not fully. And yet the freedom was real. While I only attended Berkeley in the 2000s, the various products of free speech were still to be found in the plazas, some serious, others far less so. A political comedian set up shop to heckle the educated, reminding professors and students alike that we did not have all the answers. We didn’t even have all the questions. A man showed up most days around noon to blast John Lennon from him boombox and broadcast a conspiracy that led to his death. Student groups ran all manner of stunts, the most memorable being a pine-wood derby race. But this was unlike any pine-wood derby race I had seen. The vehicles had been purchased from adult specialty stores and were unusually aerodynamic, every color of the rainbow, and did not roll down the track, but rather vibrated at adjustable rates. Another man stood on a stool atop a bucket, denouncing the brutality and injustice in the world, while shouting, “Happy, happy, happy.” At times, instructors and staff put up picket lines to win living wages and better health benefits, strikes temporarily preventing undergraduate education and key student services. In another standoff, students hoisted themselves into giant oak trees and set up tents in the canopies to prevent their removal for a new construction project. This led to a lengthy standoff that ran up security costs and produced violent exchanges with police officers tasked with safe removal of the “treesitters.” Sometimes it was hard to know when justice crossed the line.

As I would stroll through this bizarre world, I made a point to stop by the bookstore. There, year after year, I would pause to look at the Berkeley doctoral gown, draped upon a confident mannequin. And I wondered whether I would ever wear that gown. I wondered if I would abandon graduate school and disappoint my professors. Of course, I knew that was rubbish. I knew those teachers would be proud of any choice I made, as long as I gave every task my all, determined what was my next and best step, and then took it. What was most important for me in those moments and what stayed with me, before I passed by the gown again to return home, cook dinner, and then crack the books once again, was that my past professors believed in me. They helped me to grow and make it to Berkeley. They had the confidence that I could do it. Beth, Andy, Nanette, and Calvin were always with me—and still are.

Several years later I did finish. And graduation came, providing another illustration that life was not perfect. I found out that the official Berkeley doctoral gown was nearly $1000. At that point, I was still a graduate student, and my wife and I had our first baby boy. The gown was certainly not an essential need—and the expense could not be justified. This was the cost of food that would feed our family for two months. In addition, I learned my parents could not attend the graduation, which was hard to bear; ill-health and anxiety springing from it prevented that. And yet it remained a day I will never forget. My father-in-law and his wife did not attend the ceremony, but they generously purchased the gown for me as a surprise—a very sweet surprise. And while my own parents could not come, my amazing mother-in-law made a point to be there. She and my wife stood behind me, and I held in my arms my new son who played with the gold tassel on my cap. It was imperfect, but it was beautiful—a charmed day in my life, if ever there was one. The gown still represents the many imperfections of my life.

So here we sit—or perhaps you are standing. I’m in one room of my house, my two kids are in another room, sometimes playing happily, sometimes arguing and trying to pry the prize of the moment from one another’s hands. Maybe they will break through the door at any moment. My eleven-year-old son is writing a song with a friend called “What a weary little world,” my five-year old is sad since he can’t see his friends anymore. He longs for the day that he can drive on the highway in sight of our house. I’m tired and my patience is short—and there is still so much isolation, frustration, and pain in the weeks and months ahead. You are where you are, most of you far from campus, not with those friends and faculty I talked about earlier. Maybe you are alone right now—in one way or another. I hope you and your family are secure in your food, shelter, and health. Or maybe you are experiencing uncertainty in your life in one or all these ways. That thought pains me. But I know this is true for many of you.

Yet I would suggest your liberal arts education has prepared you for this, too. It offers you not only liberation from ignorance and liberation to achieve a better life, but a third liberation: freedom from the perfect. Despite what some may say, the liberal arts have prepared you for the imperfect, for the real world. The real world is a place of poverty and abundance, pain and pleasure, anxiety and anger but also hope and gratitude, loneliness and love. It is a world disorienting in the complexity of its problems and experiences. In preparation for that world, have you taken a course of study that has offered you only oversimplified problems with perfect, uncontested answers? The questions you have faced at St. Ben’s and St. John’s have been far more difficult to understand and articulate, with answers even harder formulate. What is the right balance between individual freedom and national security? What about individual freedom and public health? How can we balance national and international interests? How do we find and understand God in a world of so much pain—and yet wonder and joy? How should we approach economic development while protecting the environment? How can we push the frontiers of science and technology and be ethically responsible? What is the proper balance between freedom of speech and protecting the dignity of every human being? How do we cherish our own familiar traditions and embrace different, unfamiliar traditions of new community members? How can we correct the grave injustices of racial and gender discrimination in a world where one person’s gain is perceived as another person’s loss? How important is the relationship between history (however ancient or difficult) and our increasingly modernist world? And how can we as poets, potters, painters, pianists, photographers, how can we as artists best engage, represent, challenge, and shape this world? This is your liberal arts education—an education that eschews the perfect, and values the hard, the intractable, and the imperfect.

Each of us at this moment, seemingly on his, her, or their own island, lives with an imperfect world. We accept that—and yet we must cling to the beauty that it still offers. This beauty includes your many accomplishments to date, academic, athletic, and otherwise. I hope, too, that for many of you your family is at hand—maybe a mother or father, if they are in your lives, maybe a grandparent, aunt or uncle, brother or sister. I bet if they are with you, and you pause a moment to look in their eyes, you will see a pride and love born of a lifetime—your lifetime—spent feeding you, bathing you, dressing you, listening to you, supporting you in every way possible, watching you take step after step, proud at every one, now seeing you fully as adults, ready to go out and change the world that needs you. I wager you will see gratitude in their eyes because you have let them be part of your life. And remember, too, you are in the hearts of so many who are stretched across the American landscape and world—and those hearts can be a shelter as well. The group I know best are teachers. My teachers’ hearts held me—and still hold me, adult that I am. And our hearts at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University hold you at this imperfect moment. We spend our days wondering if you are okay, wondering what you are feeling. We are frustrated at how unfair this is for you. We try to do our best to give you what you deserve, as imperfect as it is at this time. But as we do this, know that we do hold you in our hearts every day. I can guarantee the pride, love, and gratitude that we all feel when we reflect on your time at St. Ben’s and St. John’s. We cherish that you have spent this part of your life with us. In it, we have come to know you. We have learned your fears and seen your momentary failures. But we also have witnessed your talent, tenacity, accomplishments, contributions, and hope. And we love you for all of this complexity.

A perfect world would be welcome perhaps, but a life blind to all else would be very small. I prefer freedom from the perfect, because the imperfect is a central part of life, because struggle is our companion. But we must never forget the beauty that is in the world. Today the beauty that it offers is you, wherever you are, however you may be. You are beautiful. And the art of liberation, offered by the liberal arts, only helps us to see it more clearly, no matter what the circumstances facing us. Congratulations and thank you.

Nick Hayes on “Lara, Pasternak, and the Mystique of Doctor Zhivago”


By Lara Prescott
Knopf. 368  pp. $26.95

 She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call things by their real name.

                                                Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak in Peredelkino

I belong to a generation of men now of a certain age for whom hearing the slightest mention of  “Doctor Zhivago turns on an old LP in our heads and automatically we start to hum the opening  tune of “Lara’s Theme” while our imagination transports us across Siberia to join Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Varykino. We feel for Boris Pasternak’s novel a sense of ownership, not unlike what my neighbors in St. Paul feel toward F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”


We argue over the translation of every word. Controversies over new translations of the novel have broken up friendships. English readers of my generation know the story from the 1958 translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. Hayward and Harari would admit that theirs was a loose translation. They had staked out a higher ground– success in rendering into English the melodic beauty and lyricism of Pasternak’s text as if he had written Doctor Zhivago with a balalaika. I would agree. In 2010, a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky appeared. Pevear is a Professor Emeritus of the American University of Paris; Volokhonsky is from St. Petersburg (or Leningrad as the city was known in her day).  Together they have collaborated on new translations of Russian classics and have taken the liberty of trashing the translations of Constance Garnett and, of course, Max Hayward.

It’s an old quarrel among translators that pits the advocates of the literal against the advocates of the liberal interpretation. The vast majority of Pasternak’s readers on the English side with Hayward and Harari and their gift for capturing the lyricism of Pasternak’s writing. Pevear and Volokhonsky give us a literal translation that has about as much of the romantic beauty of Pasternak as does a Russian-English dictionary.

You can imagine that I took with skepticism the news of the publication of Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, her novel that depicts Pasternak’s life in the years when he struggled to publish Doctor Zhivago. Warily, I picked up Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept at Minneapolis’ Magers & Quinn bookstore. Writers whose agents do not return my phone calls can be intimidating. I, nevertheless, judged her book by its cover. It presents a clever variation of Nathan Alman’s iconic 1914 portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova. There was a time when virtually every student in the U.S. who studied Russian language, literature, or history had a print of Alman’s portrait of Akhmatova on their wall. I flipped through the front pages to Chapter 1, read the first three paragraphs and immediately signed up for the ride through the full 300 plus pages.

Prescott places her novel in the defining years of the Cold War, 1949 to 1961, and shifts the setting back and forth, between Washington, D.C. (“West”) and Moscow (“East”). Her eye for the details of the time and place tricks the reader into forgetting that The Secrets We Kept is fiction, not history. Numerous other authors of spy fiction, detective novels, and diplomat’s memoirs previously worked over this territory and theme. You would have thought that there was no room left on your favorite bookstore’s shelf marked “Cold War.” What sets Prescott’s novel apart from the rest is that The Secrets We Kept is unmistakably a women’s story exclusively told by women. Consider who and what is not in the novel. In Prescott’s account of the early years of the CIA, Allen Dulles has only a small part and no lines in the story. Just one more suit with a corner office and a womanizer with immunity, Dulles exists in the story only as a piece of gossip within the conversation of the “girls” in the CIA’s typist pool.

Pasternak called her his “Muse.” Olga  Ivinskaya met Pasternak in 1946 and remained his inspiration and lover until his death in 1958. She was the other woman in the Pasternak story who conveniently lived in a small “dacha,” or the “Little House,” near Pasternak’s house in Peredelkino where he lived with his wife, Zinaida, and son. Ivinskaya was an editor, poet, translator, literary agent, and in later year’s Pasternak’s secretary. In The Secrets We Kept, her character  tells the Pasternak story in sections labeled “East.”  Ivinskaya’s voice takes the reader into the brutal world of Russian literary politics. She describes Pasternak’s struggle with the Kremlin from its attempts to suppress  Doctor Zhivago to Pasternak’s triumph as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. The award only intensified the Kremlin’s attacks on Pasternak. The Kremlin coerced him into refusing the award, broke his health through a relentless barrage of threats, and precipitated the writer’s fatal heart attack in 1958.

Ivinskaya paid a price for her loyalty to Pasternak. In 1949, the NKVD (a predecessor to the KGB) charged her as “an accomplice to a spy” and in 1950 sentenced her to the Gulag. She was released in 1953 after Stalin’s death. Her crime was her refusal to provide or fake evidence of anti-Soviet material in Pasternak’s writing. Ivinskaya unfolds the story of the brutalized life of a woman in the Gulag. After Pasternak’s death, the Soviet authorities in 1960 sentenced her a second time. This time, her children Mitya and Ira were sentenced with her. They were released in 1964.  Despite a few glitches in the relationship, Ivinskaya always spoke with deep affection and pride for her “Borya.” Yet, Pasternak emerges in The Secrets We Kept as a rather weak and vacillating character.  Prescott’s Pasternak was no Yury Zhivago. The opposite is true for Prescott’s Ivinskaya. As she declares in her last statement at the end of the novel, I have become Lara.

The sections of Prescott’s novel labeled “West” center on what the CIA calls “The Pasternak Affair.” In the mid-1950s, the CIA launched a plot to publish Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. The CIA recognized that the Cold War was above all else an ideological battle of freedom versus totalitarianism. The circulation of Pasternak’s novel in Russia and Eastern Europe would bring the ideological struggle to the doorsteps of the Soviet Empire. Toward this goal, the CIA assembled an unusual cast of characters including Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an affluent Italian publisher and  Lamborghini communist, and the onetime American communist and CIA friendly publisher, Felix Morrow.  Both Feltrinelli and Morrow had a habit of going rogue.

The plot was simple: In Moscow, Feltrinelli obtained a copy of  Pasternak’s manuscript, translated it into Italian, and published it. After Feltrinelli’s publication, translations of Doctor Zhivago appeared in virtually every European language which made the novel an international bestseller. The Vatican allowed the CIA to place copies of the Russian version of Doctor Zhivago inside the Vatican’s Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair for Russian visitors to pick up. The copies moved quickly from Brussels to Moscow. Copies in English, Russian, and East European languages soon turned Doctor Zhivago into an international bestseller.

Since the publication of Peter Finn and Petra Couvee’s The Pasternak Affair (Pantheon, 2016), the story of the CIA’s hand in the publishing of Doctor Zhivago is old news. Prescott appropriates the story as a stage to tell another, lesser-known tale. Her protagonist Sally Forrester unfolds the secrets the “girls” of the CIA’s typist pool kept. They had been heroes. In the Cold War, they were. . . 

Leftovers from the OSS. Where they’d been legends during the war, they’d become relics relegated to the typing pool or the records department or some desk in some corner with nothing to do.

Don’t take seriously Forrester’s official job as a part-time receptionist.  In the jargon of the CIA, she is a “swallow,” a seductive femme fatale. She takes pride in her ability to manipulate and draw information from men. “These men thought they were using me,” she tells us, “but it was always the reverse, my power was making them think it wasn’t.”  She plays a crucial role in “The Pasternak Affair.” The “swallow” exposes a double agent who would have preempted and upended the operation. Forrester’s co-worker in the typist pool, Irina Drozdova, a Russian immigrant, also plays a role in the Pasternak story. Dressed as a nun in the traditional habit, Irina piously welcomes Russian visitors into the Vatican Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair and graciously passes out over three hundred copies of the Russian version of Doctor Zhivago. Drozdova and Forrester comprise a love story within the story. The “Agency” banned homosexuals from its ranks. A mole exposed Drozdova and Forrester, triggering their abrupt termination at the CIA.  

 Not every CIA operation in the Cold War warrants our condemnation. “The Pasternak Affair” did some good. What is more, the story has a moral. Both the CIA and the KGB understood something that eludes today’s partisans of cultural wars – the power of literature. Our universities might reflect on this as they threaten to ax English Departments. What gave the poetry and prose of an aging Russian poet with a heart condition such power?  Pasternak put the answer in his portrait of Lara: She had the courage, he writes, “to call things by their real names.” Russians take poetry seriously. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” Pasternak’s contemporary, the poet Osip Mandelstam had said, “here it gets people killed.” The KGB took Pasternak’s poetry so seriously that it drove him to the grave.

Pasternak’s House in Peredelkino “Dommuzejpasternak”; Photo credit to the Pasternak Museum.

P.S. Here’s a sample of Pasternak’s poetry at its best. Pasternak’s “Zhivago” is ultimately a voice  of nostalgia for the end of what Russians call “byt’,” or a “way of life.”  Listen for this voice in one of Pasternak’s poems – “The Earth” from the “Poems of Yury Zhivago” at the end of the novel. The poem speaks to that moment between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. . .


Зачем же плачет дал и тумане,

Игорько пакнет перегной?

На то вед и моё приэванье,

Чтоб не скучали расстояния.

Чтобы за городскою гранью

Земле не тосковать одной.

Для этого весною ранней

Со мною сходятся друзья

И наши вечера-прощанье

Пирушки наши – завещания

Чтоб тайная струя страданья

Согрела холод бытия.

That is why the horizon weeps in the fog

And bitter is the scent of the land,

And I am called to see

that the distances do not feel lonely,

and beyond the edge of the towns,

the land does not mourn alone.

That is why in the early spring,

My friends and I gather,

and our evenings are farewells,

and our parties are testimonies

So that the secret stream of suffering

Warms the cold of life.

                        The translation is mine

Nick Hayes is a professor of history and holds the University Chair in Critical Thinking at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota.

Jason Schlude on “Infectious Nationalism: Pericles and Public Health Crises”

A powerful state sits on the verge of a public health crisis. An infectious disease threatens to ravage its population. Meanwhile, its principal leader addresses the public. Some hints are dropped suggesting its international outlook, but the main theme is something different: our state is the greatest in the world, the teacher of the world, immune to failure.

This was the circumstance 2,450 years ago in Classical Athens. Pericles, Athens’ most powerful general and politician, the famed promoter of democracy, principal driver behind the Parthenon, addressed the Athenian people in his eulogy over their recently deceased fellow citizens. They did not die from disease but from battle in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, the lengthy war fought between Athens (and its Delian League) and Sparta (and its Peloponnesian League) in 431-404 BCE.

The speech comes to us through the historian Thucydides, an Athenian participant in that conflict, who produced a history of the war that we still recognize as a masterpiece of historical analysis. The speech, often called “Pericles’ Funeral Oration,” remains one of the most famous political speeches of all time. In Thucydides’ version (2.34-46), Pericles does not call out particular individuals among the dead for praise, as one might expect. Instead, the lion’s share of the speech is an ode to Athenian life—as compared to that of other Greeks—and a justification for the sacrifice made by the brave men of Athens. In this form, it is a sweet swig nationalism. As Pericles outlines, the Athenians were lovers of freedom, dedicated defenders of their city and empire, a people who respect law and active democratic citizenship, the “school of Greece.” For Pericles, Athens was no imitator; it was the model.

As political descendants of the Athenians, we cannot help but pause over certain descriptions in the speech that many of us, as participants in our own democratic experiment, would happily apply to ourselves. But there are unpleasantries here, too—as Thucydides readily recognizes, and these apply to us as well.

The same Athenian men who cherished freedom, law, and democracy would rob their allies of their independence of action, even to the point of devastating rebellious (read: neutral) lesser states such as Melos; faced with the Melians refusal to abandon neutrality in the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians killed their men and then enslaved their women and children (Thucydides 5.84-116). This was a brutal consequence of blind nationalism.

The damning verdict of Thucydides can be seen in other ways, too. Immediately after Pericles’ celebration of Athens, Thucydides recounts an infectious disease that began its onslaught on the city of Athens only months later (2.47-54). It arrived around the same time a Spartan army returned in the spring of 430 BCE to besiege Athens for a second season. Holding out in its walled city, the Athenians found death from the plague everywhere. Their society initially tried to cope, its members caring for one another, until order and solidarity eventually broke down, with many Athenian citizens avoiding one another and selfishly indulging in life while it still lasted.

The disease’s cruel symptoms worked from the head down to one’s intestines, assaulting the body till it eventually gave out, according to the historian, who carefully documented it for future recognition by his readers. Thucydides knew what he was talking about; he himself suffered but survived it. Pericles, on the other hand, perished from the plague. Constructing his narrative in this way, Thucydides wished for his reader to see Athenian folly. Its single-minded nationalism led it into conflicts that isolated it, leaving it to suffer on its own.

The craftsmanship and insight of Thucydides is arresting. The precise circumstances of our present moment are of course different from 2,450 years ago. The U.S. is not engaged in a conflict on the scale of the Peloponnesian War. This is not to say that we are without conflicts driven by national interests. We are nearly 20 years into our war in Afghanistan. The better comparison is our tension with emergent China, but this has not yet burst into armed conflict. Furthermore, the corona virus is not the plague—though in facing what may be the greatest public health crisis in a generation, it would be judicious to reserve final judgments. Nor is there a speech from the present U.S. administration like the oration.

Still, President Trump expressed sentiments in his press conference on February 26 that find parallels in Thucydides. One wonders if, coming off the nationalistic high of the public funeral, Athenians initially faced the plague with similar confidence. Were they convinced of their intellectual superiority? Were they certain they could handle it unilaterally? Did they receive calls for assistance, similar to those acknowledged by President Trump, only to primarily focus on Athenian interests, trying to limit who could enter the city? American interests are absolutely vital, but if the president’s initial assessment is accurate, and his tendency is to eschew robust international aid and to pursue reactive wall-building as the main remedy instead, one wonders whether this is another instance in which extreme nationalistic interest is self-harming.

The evidence so far available is less than heartening. Not long ago the Trump administration proposed more than $3 billion in cuts to U.S. contributions to global health programs, including shrinking by half its contributions to the World Health Organization. There have been simultaneous, ad-hoc boosts in funding to organizations like USAID, but nothing yet on a scale as to offset this dramatic overall reduction. The recent House bill passing $8.3 billion will help, allocating $1.3 billion for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Still, the crisis widens and deepens.

Our world is a global system, and we need to see beyond ourselves more than the President is inclined. Stronger international collaborations would pay off. So also would a good dose of humility in face of the corona virus.

What can we as citizens do in this situation? This is, of course, a moment to pull together—but to pull together at all levels of community: neighborhood, city, state, nation, and world. We must not fall prey to extreme forms of nationalism that encourage international antagonism and division. We will find greater success in the common cause that binds us all at the present moment, wherever we call home on our globe: helping one another to limit the spread of disease, develop medical solutions, and support all community members in these hard times. Fear and suffering are without borders—hope and goodwill should be, too.

Jim Read on “Peaceful Ballots” or “Bloody Bullets”: Democracy, Elections, and Violence

Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) famously asserted that war was the continuation of politics by other means. He was undoubtedly correct. But it makes an enormous difference which methods one employs to pursue a political goal.

What principally distinguishes stable democracies from unstable democracies, dictatorships, monarchies, kleptocracies, and other undemocratic and anti-democratic regimes, is the institution of procedurally fair, rule-governed elections whose results are respected as legitimate even by the candidate or party who lost.

This does not mean that unsuccessful candidates and parties must change their minds and renounce their aims. It means instead that unsuccessful candidates and parties do not resort to violence to reverse their political fortunes, but instead limit themselves to peaceful methods aimed at persuading voters to change their minds and perhaps win future elections. The winners of an election must also respect the rules. A regime that jails its opponents, suppresses voting rights, and uses or threatens violence against the opposition, cannot reasonably expect the opposition to continue respecting those rules.

In this sense, an election is a substitute for civil war, precisely because the methods one uses to pursue political aims in electoral competition are systematically different than warfare. We often assume that societies fall into civil war when their social and political divisions become too deep to resolve peacefully – the divide over slavery in the United States, for example. But many societies have descended into murderous civil war over differences much less marked than slavery – Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for instance, where Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims had lived and worked side by side in relative peace for decades.

All societies, including the contemporary United States, are marked by social and political conflicts that could produce civil war under the right (or wrong) conditions. What distinguishes a stable democracy is not that its political divisions are small, but that political elites as well as ordinary citizens are committed to peaceful, rule-governed elections as the principal means by which those differences are resolved, or at least contained.

When citizens with deeply-opposed aims can agree to play by the same set of electoral rules, they tacitly recognize that they share at least some common interests with their political opponents, and therefore are not at war.

Lincoln Portrait February 1861

I am currently writing a book on Abraham Lincoln’s defense of majority rule, and his hope that slavery could be gradually and democratically abolished in the United States through “peaceful ballots” rather than “bloody bullets,” as he phrased it in an 1858 speech. American history did not take that path. Slavery was ultimately abolished in the United States in the course of a horrific civil war. The Civil War began five weeks after Lincoln became president, and ended a week before his assassination.

But the tragic irony is that Lincoln above all believed in elections. He did not want a war. He was convinced that even so divisive a question as the future of slavery could be addressed through “time, discussion, and the ballot box,” as he phrased it in his July 4, 1861 Message to Congress in Special Session. What triggered the Civil War was not the sudden eruption of sharp differences over slavery, for those had existed since the earliest years of the American republic. The immediate cause of the Civil War was a powerful faction’s unwillingness to accept the results of a fair, constitutional election.

I have discovered that, though most Americans know, or think they know, a fair amount about the Civil War, many are surprised when I tell them that the seven states of the Lower South (South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded from the Union before Lincoln had even taken office. Secessionists’ larger purpose was to defend and perpetuate the institution of slavery. But their immediate purpose in seceding before Lincoln took office, rather than waiting to see what he would do once in office, was to deny the legitimacy of his election. They did not dispute that Lincoln had won the 1860 election according to the constitutional rules. Nevertheless, they argued that Lincoln was an illegitimate president because he had been elected almost entirely by Northern votes, and because they believed Lincoln’s aim of stopping the further spread of slavery was unconstitutional.

Most of all, I would argue, the slave states of the Lower South seceded because their leaders recognized that Lincoln’s aim of abolishing slavery peacefully, democratically, and constitutionally stood a good chance of succeeding in the long run. They wanted to prevent his taking even the first step. By seceding from the Union, they signaled their refusal to accept the legitimacy of Lincoln’s election, even at the risk of civil war. Of course, if the slaveholders’ preferred candidate, John Breckinridge, had won the 1860 election, slaveholders would have stayed in the Union and demanded that Northerners respect the election results.

Yet the states that seceded before Lincoln took office (on March 4, 1861) soon discovered that the secession movement had stalled. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, all of which later joined the Confederacy, had chosen not to secede in response to Lincoln’s election. They decided instead to wait and see what Lincoln would actually do. Lincoln plan was to wait out the crisis peacefully, refusing to recognize secession, but avoiding any military assault upon the states that had declared themselves out of the Union. He made clear that the first shot of the war, if it came, would not come from the Union side.

Fort Sumter

A Confederate States of America consisting only of the seven pre-emptively seceding states would have been weak and vulnerable. “Peaceful ballots,” in short, had not delivered the powerful and confident new proslavery nation the secessionists envisioned. Only “bloody bullets” could do it. The principal reason for the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, was political: to put an end to “time, discussion, and the ballot box” in the slave states of the Upper South. In effect, the Fort Sumter assault sent a message to Virginia, North Carolina, and other fence-sitting slave states: Now that Lincoln will march an army against us, whose side are you on? Will you support the abolitionists marching against us, or will you join us, your fellow slaveholders?

The secessionists calculated correctly that initiating war would bring other slave states to their side. They were radically incorrect, however, in believing that the war would be a short one because Yankees were cowards. Both sides, in fact, tragically underestimated the other side’s willingness to fight. And in the end, the war destroyed the very institution – slavery – that secessionists sought to perpetuate.

Political scientists agree that the United States is more politically polarized today than at any time since 1860. But there is less agreement on what is causing our pathologically deep divisions. It is not difficult to see how disagreements over slavery could trigger civil war in 1860, even if (as Lincoln believed) civil war might have been avoided. In the contemporary United States, our most contentious divisions – over abortion, immigration, health care policy, race, to name a few– have existed for a long time. Objectively considered, none of these would seem as difficult to manage as divisions over slavery. And yet our current politics is characterized by levels of animosity, distrust, and outright fanaticism that, to me, disturbingly mirror American politics of the late 1850s.

I don’t pretend to know the causes. But I can point to the most characteristic symptom: loss of faith in elections as a fair set of rules by which all parties play and whose results all parties respect as legitimate. Instead, we are heading into the 2020 presidential election at a moment when increasing numbers of Americans, on both sides, act and speak as though they cannot and will not tolerate the other side’s victory – even if the opponents’ victory occurs through regular constitutional processes.

First and most obviously, there is the recent upsurge of civil war talk, especially among some of Donald Trump’s most committed supporters, who vow that any attempt to remove Trump from office – either through impeachment, or in the 2020 election (which they claim Trump can lose only if the election is rigged) – will mean civil war. Trump himself has encouraged this violent talk, repeatedly claimed without evidence that tens of millions of illegal aliens have been voting in U.S. elections, retweeted followers who advocate postponing the 2020 elections, and teased about remaining in office for a third term despite the 22nd Amendment’s clear prohibition.

On the domestic front, Trump has successfully persuaded several Republican-governed states to cancel Republican primaries and caucuses in 2020, even though – indeed, precisely because – he now has challengers within the party. Minnesota’s Republican Party just announced that Donald Trump’s name will be the only candidate on Minnesota’s Republican presidential primary ballot, even though three Republican challengers have announced their candidacy. In 2016 Trump announced to cheering supporters that he would respect the results of the 2016 election – “IF I WIN!” His public commitment to respecting election results is likely to be similarly one-sided in 2020, this time expressed from a position of enormous power.


Faith in and commitment to elections has also been eroded on the other end of the political spectrum.  After the 2016 elections, one internet meme among people horrified by Trump’s victory was to demand that members of the Electoral College pledged to Trump cast their vote for Clinton instead. Though this would not have literally violated the Constitution (Electoral College members do occasionally vote contrary to their pledges), in substance it meant calling for a massive rule change in the middle of the game – and moreover, a rule change that its advocates would denounce as corrupt and illegitimate if the tables were turned. This proposal had zero chance of success. It is worth noting, however, because it indicates weakened commitment to shared election rules.

More frequent, and still continuing, is the claim among many of Bernie Sanders’ strong supporters that he lost the 2016 nomination only because the Democratic primaries were rigged, and can only lose the nomination in 2020 if the primaries are rigged again.

This eroding faith in elections occurs against a backdrop of real attempts by Russia, and possibly other foreign governments, to interfere in U.S. elections. These efforts are not limited to opinion-manipulation in the sphere of social media. There have also been efforts to hack into state voting databases. One would expect that the two major parties, whatever else they disagree upon, would readily cooperate on measures to combat this threat. But so far they have been incapable of doing so.

One of the things I find inspiring about Lincoln was that he preserved his faith in elections under circumstances much more difficult than ours – not only in 1860, but also in 1864, when despite a raging civil war, he never considered postponing the 1864 elections. He accepted that he could be voted out of office if the American people lost faith in his leadership.

Our circumstances are very different from Lincoln’s. I don’t regard him as a font of wisdom on every political question we face today. But I do hope we can recommit to the principle of “peaceful ballots” as the legitimate means of resolving deep disagreements. For if we believe only relatively minor disagreements can be resolved democratically, then we really don’t believe in democracy at all.

Tony Cunningham on Walking Away, Heads Bowed

Tony-CunninghamBy all accounts, American Special Forces troops have worked well with the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), forging deep bonds of trust, respect, and loyalty in their fight against ISIS over the last four years in northern Syria.  Turkey’s military foray into Syria against Kurdish Y.P.G. forces, who together with their Arab allies comprise the S.D.F., presented the Trump administration with a hard moment of truth in recent days.  Would America abandon the Kurds?  Yes, and nobody knows the grave import of this decision better than the American Special Forces left feeling ashamed for abandoning their brothers-in-arms under orders.  Then again, the Kurds know it just as well, for they will pay the price in blood of what they can only experience as betrayal.

By nature, war and diplomacy are chaotic and complex.  Allies desperately need to believe that they always have each other’s backs, but sober-minded realists understand that circumstances can force difficult choices on leaders, sometimes leaving them with little choice but to let down friends.  I’ve never been to war, and I’ve never brokered deals between warring nations and factions, but I fully understand the idea of not being able to attend adequately to people you care about.  All it takes in everyday life is one of those all-too-human situations where you cannot be all things to all people.  Thus, someone needs you badly, but so does someone else, and there just isn’t enough of you to go around to give both people what they need.  Or perhaps you must take sides between people who mean something to you, thereby alienating somebody you care about in the process.  In such cases, decent people cannot escape the dispiriting sense that they have let loved ones down, even if they couldn’t help it.  Surely the American soldiers who have fought alongside their Kurdish counterparts suffer badly for abandoning them, just as the Kurds suffer so badly for being abandoned.  Soldiers who ordinarily refuse to leave their wounded comrades behind as a point of honor can only feel thoroughly dishonored by what is happening in northern Syria.

War can foist excruciating choices on leaders.  Abraham Lincoln felt the acute burden of sending brother against brother in the Civil War.  One has only to look at photos of Lincoln to see how those years aged him.  The men and boys dying at places like Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor, Antietam, and The Wilderness were not just numbers to Lincoln, pieces in some game of war with the wayward Confederate states.  They were flesh-and-blood Americans—on both sides—and he experienced the immense responsibility of having the ultimate say in prosecuting the war.  I dare say that the American Special Forces standing aside and leaving Syria likewise feel an immense weight of involuntary complicity in the undeserved fate of the Kurds.  Never mind that the choice didn’t belong to them since their job is to follow orders, not give them.  From their point of view, they are turned their backs on the very men they fought beside.  How could they possibly avoid feeling like they have betrayed their friends?

My guess is that all this means less than nothing to someone like Trump and his minions.  Dishonorable people can do dishonorable things shamelessly.  Should his actions come back to haunt him politically—a virtual inevitability as Assad, Putin, and Iran profit from America’s withdrawal in the region—Trump will feel the sting of criticism.  When military figures, statesmen, politicians, the press, and the public revile his rash moves on Syria, he will fume.  But the basic thought that he played a pivotal part in American forces letting the Kurds down will carry no weight at all with him because at heart, Trump is a shameless man, and such men can do shameful things and sleep soundly at night.  Hopefully, his days of falsely honoring himself will soon be at an end.  In the meantime, may the Kurds endure a fate they do not deserve.

Louis Johnston on Three-Minute Masterpieces


I always enjoy April 29. Duke Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, and I try to celebrate by listening to his music and reflecting on his legacy. Back in 1989 I got to see Joe Pass and his trio celebrate Duke’s birthday. I was in San Diego for a conference and the great historian Morton Rothstein, with whom I shared a love of jazz, asked if I’d like to join him for the concert. Of course!

April 29 this year found me thinking about Duke Ellington, Jimmie Blanton, Alexander Gerschenkron, and three-minute masterpieces.  You probably know the first name but not the second or third, so allow me to elaborate…

Jimmie Blanton joined Ellington’s orchestra in 1939.  According to Terry Teachout in Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, “Blanton left St. Louis with [Ellington] on November 3, and Ellington started featuring him at once… Less than three years later, he was dead (p. 202).”

jimmie blanton

Jimmie Blanton

In January 1940, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster joined the band and the result was the ensemble many consider the high point of the Ellington orchestras: the so-called Blanton-Webster Band of 1940 to 1942.

The first Blanton-Webster recording took place on March 6, 1940.  Two classic pieces came from that session: “Jack the Bear” and “Ko-Ko.”  According to Teachout,

Jack the Bear was a previously unrecorded Ellington instrumental that Billy Strayhorn had rewritten to feature Jimmie Blanton.  As if to proclaim to the world that all bets were off, Blanton launched “Jack the Bear” by stepping out in front of the band and tossing off a lighter-than-air eight-bar solo.  Because his style long ago became the lingua franca of jazz bass playing, the impact that this solo had on those who first heard it seven decades ago is no longer possible for contemporary listeners to fully appreciate (p. 207-208).

As for “Ko-Ko,”

From the curt trombone riff that sets the piece in motion to the spiraling bitonal crescendo that brings it to a charging close, “Ko-Ko” is the greatest of Ellington’s three-minute masterpieces, an exercise in motivic development as taut as Reminiscing in Tempo is shapeless (p. 208).

Soon the three-minute masterpieces were pouring out of Ellington:

“Jack the Bear” and Ko-Ko… ushered in a flood tide of new work that continued without crest for week after week. Nine days later came “Concerto for Cootie… In May the band cut “Bojangles,” “Cotton Tail,” “Dusk,” “Never No Lament,” and “A Portrait of Bert Williams,” followed by “Harlem Air-Shaft,” “All Too Soon,” “Rumpus in Richmond,” and Sepia Panorama” in July, “In A Mellowtone” in September, and “Across the Track Blues and “Warm Valley” in October (p. 209).

Teachout nicely sums up this period: Duke Ellington

The records [Ellington and the orchestra] cut in 1940 were setting a new standard, not just for him but for jazz in general, and today the recordings of what has come to be known as the “Blanton-Webster band” are generally thought to mark the summit of his compositional achievement.  Long before his death, that view was enough of a commonplace for Ellington to find it oppressive. “I find I have all these other lifetimes to compete with,” he said.

Ellington spent most of his life convinced that he needed to compose “serious” music (rhapsodies, concertos, operas) to be accepted as a great composer.  Three-minute masterpieces wouldn’t do the trick.

Alexander Gerschenkron felt the same way Ellington did.  Despite his Harvard professorship, despite writing one of the great articles in economics and economic history (“Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective”), despite adding the “Gerschenkron effect” to the literature, and despite writing an insightful book on democracy in Germany before World War I, he thought of himself as a failure.


Alexander Gerschenkron

Nicholas Dawidoff, Gernschenkron’s grandson, wrote a wonderful biography and put the matter well:

Editors from national magazines frequently tried to assign Shura [the name by which Dawidoff knew his grandfather] essays and articles and he waved them all away. Among the many publications he turned down were Esquire, the New Republic, and the New York Times Magazine. When Francis Brown, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, asked Shura to do some work for him, Shura astounded Brown by telling him, with some annoyance, that he had no time for an “extra-curricular” activity.

What did Gerschenkron think he should have been doing?

Therein lay the rub that vexed Shura’s professional life. The Big Book – “Za Beeg Buke,” as it came out in the Gerschenkron elocution – was Shura’s El Dorado, his holy grail, the pot of coins at the end of the scholarly rainbow. He goaded his students to complete “a large literary work,” making them feel that they were nothing until they did. Meanwhile, he never published one himself.

Why do so many people feel like Ellington and Gerschenkron? It’s so terribly destructive to a person’s psyche, not to mention it ignores how important is short, clear work.  (See Deirdre McCloskey’s interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education for a different point of view. McCloskey was a Gerschenkron student.)

I used to think that way. I thought that to be a true scholar I needed to write academic journal articles, work on deep statistical estimates, and go to conferences. I realized, over the past ten years, that this is a path for a scholar to take but not the path.  It’s important that dense, technical tomes that only specialists can understand be written. But not all of us must do this!

It’s just as important that some of us take what we know in the academy and connect it to what is going on in the world. This role goes by several names: public intellectual is one, thought leader is another. I like the way Nick Hayes once put the matter to me: “Be a journalist among professors and a professor among journalists.”

In other words, we need to write three-minute masterpieces.  Let’s get to it.