Sleeper: Yale lessons in ’69 and ’09

BERLIN

Forty years ago I spent the weeks between final exams and my Yale Commencement in Israel on an Arab-Jewish relations project. That country had recently won the Six-Day War and seemed morally and physically indestructible. But Yale had taught me to look for undersides, and I went to find them and help if I could.

As a graduating senior I, too, seemed morally and physically indestructible. So did New Haven, which always gets lovely just when you’re leaving. Here, too, appearances had undersides, and Yale would help me to face them.

Just after my last final exam, two friends and I stayed up all night and decided to go for a bike ride at dawn. We didn’t own bikes, but the Old Campus and residential college gates were unlocked then, as were most students’ un-fancy wheels. We borrowed some and pumped our way up Prospect Street and over to East Rock in a pearly dawn, ending at a Chapel Street diner before returning the bikes to their racks and ourselves to our Davenport beds.

We didn’t see any undersides then. Commencement season isn’t the time to see them. Yet Yale’s campus gates are locked now, as are Israel’s, in ways we’d never have expected. Here in America some speak of a criminal “underclass.” Others say it mirrors a criminal, dysfunctional over-class. Some take it all as inevitable and tell us to toughen up and take harder measures, especially below.

They’re half right: Some years out of Yale, I worked in inner-city Brooklyn and watched Rudy Giuliani force New York, that capital of liberal “root cause” explanations for every social problem, to get real about tough remedies that restore enough order for freedom to regenerate itself.

But I soon learned that such advances had undersides, riding on swift currents of wealth and power that weaken what they claim to defend.

The “toughen up” crowd thinks that the New Haven of my bike ride and the Israel where I roamed freely and conversed with Arabs are utopian fantasies, not realities I’ve actually lived and lost. Yet their War on Terror only produces more terrorists, and the fivefold spike in America’s prison population since 1969 brings no peace as the market riptides it rides push force and fraud up the social scale.

As a political science major here, I learned from James Patrick Sewell, Isaac Kramnick and a visiting Wilson Carey McWilliams, and from roommates and friends, that a good society, like a healthy person, strides on two feet: Without the “left foot” of social provision and education, conservatives’ cherished virtues can’t flourish. Without the “right foot” of personal responsibility and autonomy, liberal social engineering can reduce persons to clients, cogs or worse.

Yale College at its best teaches a civic-republican balance of left and right, of humanist truth-seeking and republican power sharing. It shows its students how to assert authority — and how to reduce the need to assert it. “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In commonplace terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger,” wrote Kingman Brewster Jr., Yale’s president in my time.

One can “assume the best” naively. Or one can come up with the personal, political and professional courage to assume it wisely. Yale teaches the public art of extending trust wisely enough to elicit it in return, as Brewster did.

Giuliani never got that balance right. George W. Bush ’68 finessed it but couldn’t deliver it. But many Americans learn it in civic cultures and centers that Yale graduates seed, lead and support.

This semester, the Yale course “Classics of Political Journalism,” taught by Mark Oppenheimer, read “The Closest of Strangers,” a book I wrote about obstacles to extending trust in 1980s New York. As I was gestating that book during my inner-city years, I got a call one night from a Yale classmate, a banker seeking my gift to the class fund.

I told him I was earning too little to contribute. (I didn’t tell him that I was deeply, darkly happy and that Yale seemed a million miles away.) “I think I understand,” he said, “and I respect what you’re doing.” I realized then that Yale wasn’t so far away; its tradition of balancing humanist truth-seeking and republican power-sharing was in me.

That tradition became morally and physically indestructible again the night of Nov. 4, as students poured into Old Campus. To my amazement, many sang “The Star Spangled Banner” spontaneously, reclaiming civic-republican patriotism from lapel-flag-pin poseurs, but reaching for them, too, with the anthem itself.

They did it a few yards from where I’d borrowed that bike in the trusting dawn of my 1969 commencement. They did it standing on both feet.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science and 1969 graduate of Yale College.

Comments

  • TD '01

    Great to see that Jim Sleeper continues to enrich the minds of Yale Students. As a student in his class shortly after 9/11, I remember so well the way he helped us understand the larger context of the issues of that day.

    The "civic-republican balance of left and right, of humanist truth-seeking and republican power sharing" you mention in the article, and preach in your class,is an ideal that if more pervasive, would no doubt better our current political state.

    Professor Sleeper, thanks for continuing to share your insights with Yale students and alumni alike!

  • Anonymous

    As I look back on my time at Yale, I appreciate the healthy sense of tension that was fostered there - that tension between embracing the traditionally-defined paths to success/happiness/fulfillment, and re-defining those paths to incorporate the the optimism and potential of the day.

    Professor Sleeper provides a great reminder of that tension in this column, and nudges current students and alums like me to not get too comfortable with either side of the "balance of left and right, of humanist truth-seeking and republican power sharing" - I appreciate Sleeper (and Yale) placing a responsibility on students, alums, and for that matter 'civic republicans' more broadly to engage with the current 'real' system (aware of its undersides) to amplify their impact without losing a pseudo-utopian drive to improve the system with an eye towards social justice.

    Sitting a few thousand miles and some years away from old campus (where it seems increasingly easy to see the 'real', or the 'undersides'), it is refreshing to pick up this column and be reminded of that tension first instilled in New Haven.

  • HB

    Sleeper's Yale and the 21st century version are certainly different. To grossly generalize, an environment that used to create public officials--trained (or groomed) to serve, question, and probe despite their personal flaws--now creates young investment bankers who fall in line, avoid undue attention, and go days without using a mouse.

    The work ethic and the drive are constant, but that dedication to the whole has waned. It is easy to romanticize about past "idylls" but the economic crisis of our generation shows the negative potential of unchecked individualism, lacking that civic complement. Sleeper's imagery reminds us that the current state of affairs need not be permanent.

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate HB's comment that my "imagery reminds us that the current state of affairs need not be permanent." A few years ago I sketched, more fully than in this column, a portrait of the "old Yale" that, while we can't (and shouldn't) return to it, gives us a perspective from which to see the present in a new light. That portrait is here:

    http://www.jimsleeper.com/articles/signature-pieces/Yale%27s%20Purpose.pdf

    For all the strengths I mention, Yale always turned out a lot of dray horses of the financial, corporate, and legal establishments. But that's not all it did. A lot of the people teaching here understood (and, let's hope, still do) that liberal capitalism depends on virtues and beliefs which the liberal state and markets themselves can't nourish or enforce, because the country recognizes a degree of individual autonomy that keeps "the authorities" from judging between good citizens from free riders.

    The counter-intuitive lesson of this situation, though, is that, somehow, strong leaders of a liberal capitalist regime have to be nourished all the more intensively. Yale did that. For every Yale free rider who became a national-security-state zealot, like George W. Bush or Dick Cheney (who dropped out in 1961), the college turned out many people such as those I mention in the piece linked above. we saw quite a few of them running at various stages in the 2004 election.

    Whether Yale will continue to do that depends on a number of factors I couldn't mention in the column or here but do mention somewhat in the linked piece.

  • Hmmmmm

    "Professor" Sleeper ???? The Yale Directory lists him as a Lecturer. Professors are elected and vetted by their peers and colleagues, and at Yale "are expected to stand in competition with the foremost leaders in their fields throughout the world." … Lecturers are simply appointed by department chairs when some teaching is needed and there are no professors available to do it.

  • Hmm, Hmm!!

    Had Hmmmmm read Sleeper's column, he'd not have gone to the Yale directory, since the column identifies him as a lecturer in political science.

    If Hmmmmm is a Yale student, he might be surprised to learn how many of the people he calls "Professor" are really lecturers, fellows, this-or-that "in residence," etc. He will then tell us what he probably knew already: that "professor" is a generic term used by all undergraduates to refer to almost all respected instructors at Yale.

    Back to your directory, Hmmmmm. Sleeper's column identified him correctly.

  • Hmmmmm

    The directory check was, of course, just a precaution against the (unlikely?) possibility that the YDN was (gasp!) not quite technically accurate. As for the generic use of the term, "Professor"… I guess it sort of undercuts the hard work, distinguished scholarship, and international recognition that distinguishs Yale Professors from "this-or-that" sorts of folks hanging around campus.

  • mark

    This is a nice topic A lot of the people teaching here understood (and, let's hope, still do) that liberal capitalism depends on virtues and beliefs which the liberal state and markets themselves can't nourish or enforce, because the country recognizes a degree of individual autonomy that keeps "the authorities" from judging between good citizens from free riders
    mark
    <a href= "http://www.fastrealestate.net"&gt; real estate</a>

  • Ha!

    From his response, Hmmmmmm seems more likely to be one of the capital-P professors to whom he refers--and likely envious of Mr. Sleeper's eminence, pragmatism, and perhaps (gads!) his popularity…

    "But, but, but…. *I* work SOOOOOOOOOOOO hard; WHY does no one take my work SERIOUSLY!!!!!"

  • TD'04

    "As for the generic use of the term, "Professor"… I guess it sort of undercuts the hard work, distinguished scholarship, and international recognition that distinguishs (sic) Yale Professors from "this-or-that" sorts of folks hanging around campus."

    Not so much. It's more that terms like "Lecturer Sleeper" or "Writer-in-residence Smith" just don't work well in casual conversation.

    I had two "profs" in my major (history) who were part-time, more or less retired and certainly not tenured. They also happened to be among the most renowned researchers in their field, as their published work showed.

  • A not-so-Old Blue

    Far more important than Sleeper's column here is the essay about Kingman Brewster's Yale which he links in Comment #4 above. This is a classic that ought to be given to every Yale undergraduate upon entering the college and again upon leaving.

    Its most important argument is that liberal societies depend on virtues and beliefs which neither the liberal state or markets alone can nourish or enforce, but that somehow, therefore, the leaders of such societies have to be nurtured all the more intensively. "Yale did that," Sleeper writes. I hope that it still does.