Million question

A $20

March 23, 1995|By Jonathan Lear

THE ENTIRE drama of Lee Bass' generous $20 million gift to Yale for a program in Western civilization, Yale's administrative fumble, Mr. Bass' subsequent request that the money be returned and Yale's accession to that request is a drama poorly understood.

As one who believes that the great works of Western literature, philosophy, history and art are among the most wonderful things humans have ever created, I think that a truly distinctive program in Western civilization would have been a genuine contribution.

But the sorry tale of why this program never came to be bears little relation to what I have read in the press.

First, political correctness played no role in the delay in setting up the program.

Of course, there are a few professors whose quotes do fit a certain caricature, but the idea that political correctness has taken over the faculty is absurd.

Conspiracy theories are fascinating but the reason for the delay is obvious and banal: Benno Schmidt's abrupt resignation as president caused administrative chaos from which the university is only now recovering.

Second, though tardy in implementing the course, Yale was willing to honor every aspect of the original agreement with Mr. Bass. The deal fell through, finally, because of Mr. Bass' recent demand that he be able to approve the faculty who would teach in the program.

I sympathize with Mr. Bass' frustration. Yet if Yale had acceded to this demand, it would have abdicated any claim to being a great university.

One of the achievements of Western civilization has been the attempt to create in its universities a free market where ideas can be tested solely on their merits. Universities often fall short of this ideal; but the answer cannot be to intervene and try to control the market by other means.

Indeed, generations of donors have given in the hope and trust that Yale would promote freedom of thought and learning. To accept Mr. Bass' additional condition would have been to violate that trust.

Finally, one did not have to be in the grip of any particular political outlook to think that there were serious flaws in the original plan.

Administratively, there was a decision that senior Bass professors be appointed primarily from within the existing faculty. Anyone trying to balance Yale's budget would have been delighted with the influx of money to pay for existing expenses, but Yale thereby sacrificed the opportunity to attract great scholars working elsewhere to its campus.

In design, the course was going to be yet another survey, which I have come to think is a tired way to introduce students to Western civilization. Yale students are asked to read too much.

Philosophy, Aristotle said, begins in wonder and awe; it also, he said, requires leisure. Students need time to think about that which inspires them. Survey courses tend to degenerate into that cliche of a European tour. If this is Tuesday, it must be Plato. Yale already has nearly 100 courses that survey periods of Western civilization.

In spite of that, I think a distinctive introductory course would have been great.

If I had been given $20 million and asked to design a program -- and who can resist an occasion like this to fantasize -- I would have designed a year-long course in which students read four, maybe five, books: in philosophy, Plato's "Republic"; in history, Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War"; in literature, "Antigone," "The Odyssey" and, perhaps, "Oedipus Rex." That's it.

At the end of a year, students would have been introduced to some fundamental works around which the West was constituted. More importantly, they would have learned to read carefully and to think for themselves.

As the curtain goes down, there are bodies lying all over the stage. One can't help but think that everyone involved is worse off.

Yet if I were to teach this drama, it would be as a comedy, not a tragedy. And surely the restorative moment, even in this act, is Yale's refusal to cede control of faculty appointments to outside pressures.

Jonathan Lear is a professor of philosophy at Yale. He wrote this for the New York Times.

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