With his class roster finalized and his syllabus printed and ready to go, Yale’s most famous rookie professor will make his long-awaited debut in the classroom today.
And while former British prime minister Tony Blair does not break a sweat when staring down world leaders, facing a class full of overeager Elis may prove more unnerving.
“I’m sort of a bit nervous for it, really,” Blair confided Thursday in a telephone interview with the News. “I was never a star student, and I’m coming along mixing with a whole lot of people who I’m sure are a whole lot more clever and smarter than I am.”
For Blair, 55, today marks the beginning of a three-year teaching appointment, one that will add a palpable dose of celebrity to the Yale faculty. After leading his seminar on faith and globalization in the School of Management and Divinity School, to which hundreds of students applied for admission, Blair will address Yale students, faculty and staff in a conversation with University President Richard Levin at Woolsey Hall this afternoon.
In the interview, Blair said he was particularly excited for the chance to teach, something he has not done before, and to be able to do it on a topic for which he cares deeply.
“These issues have to be explored in depth, not just through making speeches but through interacting with young people who are interested in the same topics,” Blair said. “The chance to actually come to such a great institution as Yale and be able to interact with students — for me, it’s a tremendous privilege.”
The two-hour class, held in the Law School, will include an introduction by co-teacher and Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf, remarks by Blair and an open discussion with the students. The topic is the stakes of faith and globalization.
If adherents to a religion form exclusive loyalties oriented against practitioners of other religions and against globalization, Volf said in an interview Thursday night, conflict and violence will ensue. But if religion promotes respect for others, it can be a source of peace and help humanize the effects of globalization, he said.
The course aligns with the work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which was launched in May. Blair said he hopes the class will be a model for teaching elsewhere around the world on the topic of faith.
“There’s an opportunity here to do something that is really new and different and far-reaching in its effect,” he said.
Volf, who has already taught one meeting of the seminar, said the students are excited about the perspective Blair will bring.
“There’s … a lot of anticipation in terms of how he will bring both his experience as one of the major leaders on the world stage to bear on the class discussion, as well as his own view of faith and in particular how, from his vantage point, what the stakes are in getting right the relationship between faith and globalization,” Volf said.
Few other details about the class have been revealed, although one of the students in the seminar, Robert Li ’10, said the course’s syllabus was clearly designed to give Blair as much flexibility as possible to discuss whatever he pleases.
Blair, for his part, vowed to do his part to make sure his students aren’t starstruck and that treat him like any other professor. The former prime minister won’t merely be lecturing to students; he emphasized that the small size of his class — 25 students, including six undergraduates — will be particularly conducive to discussion.
“I’d like to make this quite lively and thought provoking,” Blair said. “The important thing is with a course like this where you end up teaching with a relatively small group of people, you get the chance for interaction, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Blair will be the second former head of government teaching at Yale, joining former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, the director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. His teaching post comes by the Howland Distinguished Fellowship, which was created in 1915 to honor a “citizen of any country in recognition of some achievement of marked distinction in the field of literature or fine arts or the science of government.”
Past fellows have included the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, journalist Sir Alistair Cooke and stateswoman Indira Gandhi.
But the fellowship is not Blair’s first introduction to Yale. His eldest son, Euan Blair GRD ’08, graduated in the spring with a master’s degree in international relations, and the former prime minister said he was in part drawn to Yale because of the positive experience his son had at the University. Blair said his son reported that Yale “was a fantastic place,” and that he thought his father would like it here.
But the elder Blair said he does not want to be treated as merely a VIP when visiting campus, as he was when he spoke at Class Day in May. He said he hopes his talk today, scheduled for 4:30 p.m., and other public events on campus would help him become part of the fabric of the University. He pledged he will also root for Yale to win The Game. (“I guess I better!” he quipped.)
But don’t expect to see the former prime minister at Toad’s any time soon. Blair said he didn’t ask his son for advice on campus hot spots.
“I think the places that he thought it was really great to go to would be better for people his age than mine,” he said.
—Isaac Arnsdorf, Zeke Miller and Raphael Shapiro contributed reporting.