Politics, Aristotle wrote, is the master of the sciences because a city’s rulers determine what citizens study. Study, especially the sort practiced at universities, involves uncertainty and a suspension of final judgment. Study is blissfully free of decision. And politics involves terrifying decisions. The differences between study and politics should persuade Yale not to open a public policy school, which University President Peter Salovey is reportedly considering.
A public policy school tries to teach its students the science of how to amass political power. It does not teach them to govern in the service of one principle and against another. This seems strange given that politics cannot become, say, more conservative and more liberal at the same time. Politics — even moderate politics — is zero sum. This is always true, but is more urgent now that our political options are more extreme. Perhaps a devoted Bill Clinton LAW ’73 supporter and a devoted supporter of George H.W. Bush ’48 did not actually have to disagree on very much. But President Donald Trump’s America and Sen. Cory Booker’s America do not resemble one another — in demographics, policy, public morals and faith, culture and national mission. To endorse one seems to involve rejecting the other.
And so it is strange that a public policy school, which trains its students not just to endorse but also to effect their preferred political world, would not take a position on what constitutes the best political world. Perhaps the University’s commitment to intellectual pluralism would render such an endorsement improper. But absent such a position, the public policy school would aim simply for its own distinction, rather than the improvement of the country. If it restricts itself to imparting efficacious methods, prescinding from the moral questions intrinsic to politics, then its final goal must simply be that its graduates — not the graduates of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Government School nor those of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — are the ones to hold office. Such a public policy school would seek distinction and honor for itself, but nothing more noble.
Just imposing the Yale name on the world or wagging our bulldoggish tail into history earns headlines and even donations. Achievement is either commendable or contemptible depending on whether it is virtuous or vicious. It would be irresponsible for Yale to equip its students to wield power unless it attempts a meaningful answer to the question of how to use it well.
It is not so simple for Yale to take a position because a principal discussion at any university concerns what it means to act well and to do good — in private life and in public life. It is not necessarily wrong to endorse a view in the public policy school that is just one controversial view in the Philosophy Department. All people, philosophers included, have to act in service of principles they endorse only reluctantly or tentatively. But the price of action — which we all pay — is to endorse a principle, and therefore to reject others. Total humility and liberality, two of the constitutive virtues of inquiry, exist in the purely contemplative mind and, to some degree, in the University as well. Those are the two homes of real freedom, in which inquiry needn’t be suspended or impaired by the vulgar necessities of life.
Political necessities are perhaps the most oppressive sort. Politicians respond to the diverse demands of coalitions, as well as the principles of their consciences. And principles, by the way, do not vote. So it is always easier to acquiesce to the majority, and to ignore the dissenter — or to name her an enemy. In inquiry, the dissenter is the indispensable participant. Politics loves orthodoxy and consensus: A sharp mind is faithful to the truth alone, friends be damned.
Yale sometimes has to participate in politics to defend its central principles. But to do any more is to offer answers to questions that the University’s central mission — honest and unceasing inquiry — says must always remain open questions. There is no need to invite such cognitive dissonance to a refuge of thought in a conflicted society.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .