Why is Tony Blair at Yale anyway?
Friday’s Woolsey appearance aside, he’s not here to bewilder hundreds of Yale students in massive lectures. (We’ll leave that to certain Cold War and Con Law professors.)
Friday’s buzzing media presence aside, he’s not here (believe it or not) on an elaborate PR campaign for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. (OK, well that’s part of it.)
And Friday’s rhetoric aside, he’s not here to plug for the Beatles over the Stones. (Paul McCartney already got his honorary degree.)
Blair, for his part, says he is here for a few reasons: to learn; to meet students; to spread a message; to pass on hope; to keep himself busy.
But there is something else: a purpose the former British prime minister articulated in an intimate editor roundtable following the Woolsey Hall discussion. His hands clasped, his eyes a tad dreary from sleep deprivation, his chair a few inches too far from the table in the center of the President’s Room, he articulated a tangible purpose for Yale’s newfound Faith and Globalization Initiative.
“The reason for teaching the class,” he told the News, “is that when you’re dealing with really smart young people, you can learn a lot — from the questions and the interactions — and we need to build a corpus of facts … of understanding … of research.”
Although Blair wouldn’t call this corpus the start of a “movement” — “we just started,” he noted — the initiative, he predicted, will “develop in time.”
If there is anything brilliant about bringing Blair to Yale, it is just that: His seminar has the potential to achieve much more than the intellectual simulation of 25 students. It can, rather, directly influence international relations and the Middle East climate — if, that is, participants (and the rest of us) constantly consider how essential an “end goal” is to rendering the experiment a success.
Blair’s proposal of developing something concrete — papers to be published; an ovearching thesis; even a book or documentary (think An Inconvenient Truth) — over the course of the semester is, in our view, what makes his fellowship at Yale worthwhile.
Sure, the glitter associated with having a former prime minister roam campus fills our Eli hearts with pride, but it pales in comparison to the potential of dozens of Eli minds thinking critically about how faiths must interconnect, peacefully, in a globalizing world.
Politicians, of course, make unfulfillable promises daily. And Blair is, still, a politician. While uplifting, his statement at the roundtable that deep-rooted religious discord, such as Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, can be solved “quite quickly” by drawing on the principles of his initiative, ultimately rings improbable.
But Blair’s second, and more plausible, promise — to encourage the creation of a compendium of innovative solutions to the faith-and-globalization crisis by drawing on the fresh ideas and inspirations of youth — is something else altogether.
This, he promises, can be completed before the semester is over. And why not? Although it’s a politician delivering the rhetoric, Blair has left fulfilling the task in our hands.
In a sense, then, we gain the most from Blair’s visit not if we hang on his every word, but if we allow ourselves to be stirred by his conviction that an epic classroom project can make real impressions in the fabric of our world.
If we let him, Tony Blair is at Yale to inspire us.