Forum on Current Events
Princeton Professors Emeritus Hildred Geertz (Anthropology) and George Kateb (Politics) joined P-ROK editor Professor John Borneman and graduate student editor Chris Darnton in June 2005 on Prospect Street to discuss the ends and means of pedagogy in the university. Participants asked whether professors should attempt to build character, impart basic knowledge, or inspire critical thinking; they proposed new ways to organize knowledge and learning in the university, and they assessed changes in their teaching over time; finally, they considered their own impact as teachers on students and the world.
- The editors
(Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Princeton University)
(William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus, Princeton University)
(Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University)
(Ph.D. Candidate, Politics, Princeton University)
Character and Pedagogy
BORNEMAN: Let's start with the first question on teaching.
DARNTON: Is there a relationship between teaching and knowledge, what is the purpose of teaching - is it the provision of knowledge, and if not, what are the purposes of pedagogy?
BORNEMAN: You can start wherever you want with responding, but let's start with your teaching here and with the question of the kind of balance you sought between critical thinking and building character given that the idea of character is something Princeton espouses.
GEERTZ: That might be so, but certainly when I read that question I was astonished. Never in my life did I try to build character in my students, and I've asked several people since, did you try to build character? The other balances are many; that between critical thinking and for instance basic knowledge is a much more interesting one to me. That has nothing to do with the classroom, it seems to me.
BORNEMAN: And you felt in your time here no pressure to mold your teaching to this idea of character?
GEERTZ: No, no, never. Because I didn't read the public relations stuff of Princeton - I was just teaching.
KATEB: It is an interesting question you ask, and the emphasis varies from time to time as regards whether it should be a more characterological relation to students or a more impersonal or impartial relation to one's knowledge and hence to them. This question seems as if it comes from a more recent change in the atmosphere in the academy. I began in 1957 at Amherst College which is a liberal arts college and still is and gives no degree but the B.A. and is devoted, wedded one might say, to the enterprise of teaching smart undergraduates and devoting - if you're a teacher - devoting yourself primarily to your teaching though latterly there has been some emphasis on scholarship. However, with that emphasis on teaching at Amherst College, old, proud, perhaps too proud, liberal arts college, the notion of building character never entered into the discourse though it may have been secretly or inwardly present on the part of a number of the faculty. There was no doubt that there was then, perhaps more than there is now, a devotion to the task of unsettling the students. Amherst is proudly an Emersonian college, and as Emerson said there is no hope for you unless you can be unsettled. Well, Amherst devoted itself to unsettling its students with a rigorous required course dominated I thought by positivist philosophy and therefore always insisting on the question: what do you mean, have you examined your terms, do you really know what you're saying, what is the relation that you have to your own words, do you parrot unknowingly the words of others, are you immersed in the common culture unreflectively? Well, we assumed to begin with that you are unreflective basically though well-intentioned, and what we mean to do in most of our courses by effort in those subjects that don't normally do this, we mean to unsettle you. Was character-building implied by being unsettled? To be unsettled doesn't necessarily dictate any particular character that you become, so there wasn't one model of character. To say that we want you to engage in critical thinking, to have said that then wouldn't have caught quite the tonality of the situation: we want you to be more nervous about what you think and what you say. It is only by beginning in nervousness can your responsibility, the responsibility you take for your words, be enhanced.
BORNEMAN: What about Princeton? Does this change at all, or not really? Is it not radically changed at Princeton, this commitment to critical thinking at Amherst, did you have to make adjustments here?
KATEB: I came to Princeton in 1987 as an old man even then; I taught on the faculty actively for fifteen years and have been in retirement for three. Is Princeton devoted to the mission of unsettling? I think parts of it are, and perhaps the most important parts of it are not. The parts of it that are include freshman seminars, writing the senior thesis, occasionally involvement in a precept, and above all, above all, teaching graduate students.
GEERTZ: I agree with your point of view here. I came to teach at Princeton in 1970 and I never felt any pressure about building character. I taught as I conceived myself from the outset as a teacher and I came from a small liberal arts college, called Antioch College, which was dedicated to the principle of unsettlement, and of course I'm in the discipline of anthropology which always comes at things from outside and so there was never a notion of being conventional in any possible way.
BORNEMAN: Let me follow this up with a question on the honor code which you must have had some experience with here. So the honor code is one of the things that is used all the time at Princeton, the students themselves cite it as evidence of their integrity, institutional camaraderie, their esprit, and this of course is pre-Bush II. Any experience with this?
GEERTZ: No - I've really just assumed it worked and when I found people who were plagiarizing and so on they were the exception. It's just not an issue in teaching. It wasn't and it shouldn't be.
KATEB: It should be taken for granted.
GEERTZ: It should be taken for granted. Periodically at Princeton there were episodes where people began getting excited about, oh everyone's breaking the code, but usually a year later everything was smooth again.
KATEB: As far as the honor code, I think it is dishonorable to cheat, but it is not honorable to inform on someone who has cheated. This is itself a more complicated matter than the usual administration official is willing to allow. They see the two things as just the same expression of honor; I'm not sure informing can ever be honorable.
GEERTZ: Also I always thought that the honor code is not a matter of personal character, issues of that sort - it's a very practical solution. You can't have a whole lot of policemen watching everything; plagiarism is very hard to find and to see. It's just a practical device.
BORNEMAN: Another thing Princeton prides itself on for character is sports. Do you think that sport has in your experience had a particular influence on Princeton undergraduate education and undergraduates?
GEERTZ: As a person who's not interested in sport, I ignored it entirely. I do know that in the 1980s women athletes became very strong, and those women were the most organized, not necessarily the smartest, but they did all the work they should do, their smartness was over the whole range. One year we had all of the men's hockey team, and as everybody knows, the students who come in as hockey specialists are often not as smart as others, but they're allowed in. One did a senior thesis, he thought this was anthropological, it was on superstitions among sports teams, it wasn't a very good thesis but it engaged him.
KATEB: I think Professor Geertz and I both have been affected sometimes without our knowing it because a class of students isn't quite as topnotch academically as it could have been had athletics not been a consideration in the admissions process. At the same time, there's an ancient connection between athletics and academics. It goes back to Plato; the curious thing is that he wanted in the Republic budding young philosophers to endure the discipline of athletics because it tended to make them a little less extreme intellectually and he found intellectual extremism always subversive of the established order, though he is of course for us one of the most subversive thinkers that ever wrote. So there is some affinity maybe between loving sports and not liking academic work. It is a continuous, almost constitutive tension in American academic life between the jocks and the nerds, to use the slang terms. Can athletics harm the chances of students who are athletically ungifted but academically gifted to gain admission to prize universities in order to flourish? Probably to some extent. On the other hand I cannot resist thinking that for those who do athletics well, it may very well be the best thing they ever do in their lives, when they're young and when they're in college. There is a kind of intensity of involvement, a purity of involvement, a completeness of involvement that very little else in life has.
GEERTZ: You can't be unsettled and be going after the ball. You can't be skeptical.
KATEB: Absolutely. The two are in tension. I'm not an athlete myself, but I hope I have enough impartiality to see in athletics something productive of beauty to the spectator and productive of intensity of a certain kind in the athlete. I therefore would not want to see athletics abolished.
BORNEMAN: You wouldn't want to see a European university more devoted to training of critical thought. They're less directed also to occupational placement, although they're moving in that direction.
GEERTZ: I would say that there's a physiological worth in athletics that it makes the mind work better. I don't really see it just in the Princeton context of whether sport is a threat of any kind to what we do.
BORNEMAN: So for instance you don't see this aspect of completion and unity with the team as ultimately contributing to the anti-intellectualism of the American climate generally, that because Princeton is one of the few intellectual places because it has the money and the resources and prides itself on placing elites, that it should swing its weight in the direction of more critical thought, less having experiences of completion that then the rest of your life is by comparison a disappointment.
GEERTZ: I'm not quite sure where you stand, but I don't see that as an issue of any importance.
KATEB: There may however be the need to think whether, not at Princeton, but perhaps at large public institutions, not just in the South and the Midwest but especially in the South and the Midwest, the prestige of athletics is so great as to turn actually anti-intellectual. I don't think that is, except to a slight degree and only in certain parts of the Princeton student body, a problem, and I think it's less of a problem than perhaps once it was. Snobbery is always a problem - the snobbery of the athlete for the non-athlete is a very deep snobbery and can turn vicious; to be sure there is the snobbery of the intellectual for the non-intellectual and that can turn nasty, if not vicious. So I think we are confronted with a tension that probably can't be resolved without great loss.
DARNTON: To connect this though to the first question that you raised, that the important distinction is really between critical thinking and the provision of basic knowledge, and you've raised this dimension of athletics as discipline and getting you to do the hard work even if you're not questioning yourself - does athletics give you a greater bent for the acquisition of the basic knowledge needed to pass exams? How would you explore the tension that you initially raised?
KATEB: I don't think it does. I don't think that athletics contributes to intellectual earnestness; I don't think that giving your whole heart to your team is continuous with giving your whole heart to the academic work that you do.
GEERTZ: But they're not in conflict.
KATEB: They can be.
GEERTZ: Yes, but normally they're not.
BORNEMAN: Do you think so, if they have to spend all weekend with their team and they come back and they have a paper due, isn't this at least a temporal conflict?
GEERTZ: I can only speak to my memories of a few women athletes, because I didn't know any men athletes very well, and those people learned to organize their life so well, they did superbly in their academics, and what they learned was that discipline, time management. They never messed up on their exams.
BORNEMAN: But doesn't that make a good administrator as opposed to a good thinker?
GEERTZ: Well, we're producing all kinds of students. Administrating is an intellectual activity, I believe. We're producing all kinds of intellects, that's another issue, but critical thinking and basic knowledge stand for such a variety of kinds of people that come through, and kinds of skills.
Basic Knowledge and the Institutions of Higher Education
DARNTON: Even aside from the athletic question, you had raised the possibility that unsettling the students might be the goal of education, especially in liberal arts colleges. Does that get in the way of trying to teach students actual material in a discipline and provide them with knowledge and then require them to regurgitate it in some form in exams and papers in addition to their own thought, where do you strike the balance on that?
GEERTZ: That to me is a more interesting question.
KATEB: That's a really good question.
GEERTZ: I think that's much more interesting than all of these other things that have been raised. Basic knowledge in the structure of the university is organized into disciplines, and I think that the organization of the university - and I'll talk about the social sciences and the humanities only - is detrimental to a lot of good thinking. If I were going to start a new college, I would have no history department, no English department, no politics department, no anthropology department, and I would organize it differently: one thing I would more like to do (this might not appeal to you) would be to organize it around regions of the world and introduce geography again. In the social sciences most of our advances are in understanding the history of particular locations and understanding the languages of particular locations and so the basic knowledge that I would start with is knowledge not of facts but knowledge of methods and approaches and one of them is basically language, and so I'd have everybody for four years study one language, and start out in Arabic or Chinese or something in freshman year, spend a year in an Arab-speaking country or in China, do their history and their geology and their economics and their politics (not in the theoretical sense) all at once. The theory people, and we have them in anthropology as well, I think are best pushed off to graduate school, I'm not so sure about Plato, but put off to a later and more mature student. This is my impression. I really don't like the idea of 101s, which are supposed to give you an encapsulated foundation for a discipline.
KATEB: I think we really do fundamentally disagree, but not across the board. I think the answer to Chris Darnton's question may depend to an important degree on the subject involved. I am haunted by the Socratic thought that your understanding proceeds by repetition which deepens rather than repeats, so that it is good to be introduced to and even assigned the same texts, or some of the same texts, more than once in the course of your college education. You could read, say, the Apology of Socrates once a year and still not plumb its depths, or exhaust its riches; at the same time, you can having read it just once say things about it that people who have read it many times have never seen before. So my sense is that with a college student it is never too soon to begin theory, theoretical inquiry, abstract inquiry, and that the basic knowledge, the introductory course, will resemble to a large extent even graduate courses in the field of political theory and probably in literature and some other subjects as well. If however a subject has progressive accumulation, the way say mathematics or economics, or at least economics pretends to and mathematics certainly does, and so do the natural sciences in general... if I could hum it I would hum a different tune, but in the humanities where prose is the medium and where of course learning does matter to begin with (you can always learn more, no doubt about it), but thinking hard about important questions, that can't be begun too soon, and it will never end, and you will have advantageous answers coming from the barely initiated to the mystification, bemusement, befuddlement on the part of those who have spent their lives on the subject. Basic knowledge can sometimes be the foundation for later knowledge, but not in the humanities.
DARNTON: Even though both of you have set forth very different visions of the sort of materials with which you would confront eighteen-year-olds entering college it seems that you both might agree that this is really about exposing the students to a set of materials and then it's about giving them the tools and either giving them more language later on more regional exposure, or recursively pushing them through the same texts, but just getting them into the process at the beginning.
GEERTZ: I would agree with that aspect of what you said. One wants to have everything.
DARNTON: I'm curious then, if there's a difference; one of the ideas of 101 as a gateway course, as an exposure...
KATEB: Much overrated. Much overrated.
GEERTZ: The freshman seminar is a much better idea.
KATEB: That's a much better idea. That's the best teaching you can do at Princeton, except for teaching graduate students.
BORNEMAN: Although you know the 101s are the main recruitment tools in the disciplines.
GEERTZ: That's the way it works, but it really need not be that way.
KATEB: And everybody hates teaching them.
GEERTZ: And the students don't like them.
KATEB: No, they resent being compelled.
BORNEMAN: But they're still influenced by them, tremendously.
KATEB: Are they really?
GEERTZ: Well, they are influenced by the first course they take, and that is not necessarily a 101 course. Some students elect into taking a 300 or even a 400 level course and they do marvelously.
KATEB: They do indeed, because they're fresh to it, absolutely. That's one of the great experiences at Princeton, teaching a freshman seminar in a subject that you and the students like. It stays with me; I did it twice, it's marvelous.
GEERTZ: I said languages and geography, but I'd also add in confrontation with close reading with texts, one of the things that is really vital, the questioning of texts, which is something that they don't get in high school and they need right away.
KATEB: That's right. Close reading, and then intense, brief writing assignments, five pages, seven pages. They go together very well.
BORNEMAN: Let me ask you about this idea both of you have about proceeding into more depth. With your idea Hilly, that one studies geographical regions or languages, the tendency in the United States of course is to study the geographical region of one's ancestors, usually grandparents, and so it's a form of self-study, where I think the goal is really to get people to reach out, but this is not, empirically so, the tendency is always, for example, to learn the Spanish that my parents always didn't speak to me. Most people who study Hindi are from India or Pakistan. How would you think about this, is this an obstacle first of all, and how would you think through that and encourage people to move outside for depth to something they're not familiar with?
GEERTZ: On that particular question I don't see it as an obstacle at all, to study oneself but to do it in a disciplined and serious way. Take the Spanish thing, somebody from a Puerto Rican family, in a program such as I am envisioning they would learn an awful lot about Mexico and Spain and people from different classes and they would discover things about not-self, other, that were very illuminating.
BORNEMAN: So the idea of radical change, that they would go and study people in say New Guinea or Japan, is that not important?
GEERTZ: No. Especially in the present globalization.
KATEB: But you're both anthropologists, so you have a mission not to make difference just like oneself but to hold out the possibility that difference is both deep and valuable to the student and I agree with that anthropological perspective as long as it avoids two things: tourism and condescension. I think condescension is the besetting sin of anthropology as a discipline, that's been my experience of it. Every discipline has at least one besetting sin.
GEERTZ: Not so much any more. Early anthropology was connected with imperialist colonialism indirectly.
DARNTON: Would you say that the pendulum has swung the other way, that it's too much criticism of one's own culture, and that the other is actually superior?
GEERTZ: I don't think you could characterize anthropology as a discipline or a field either one way or the other way - we're too diverse, we're extremely diverse.
BORNEMAN: Are you concerned with the tendency in the United States to not be interested in any radical difference and therefore even radical historical difference, that the nineteenth century is enough, don't go back further, or in the United States if we go to the West Coast that's enough if we're on the East Coast.
KATEB: Well, I think students have always been more inclined to favor the present over the past, and to favor the near over the distant and the familiar over the unfamiliar. Part of the unsettling would come in an effort to mitigate the I think natural universally present habits of response, but having said that I then would also say that yes effort has to be made to deepen appreciation for difference although again not too grimly.
GEERTZ: Or not so extremely. You have to appreciate similarity as well, and that doesn't come from the slogan.
KATEB: I'm not wild about the thought however that Asian Indians tend to study India much more than other people do, or whatever the ethnic or religious or regional grouping may be. That is the whole mystique of Roots, which I really don't like at all.
GEERTZ: I don't think it's totally pervasive.
BORNEMAN: Not totally, but very dominant. If you take a language class here, they're just dominated by people of descent.
KATEB: Has that always been true?
BORNEMAN: I don't know if it's always been true, I doubt it, because there wasn't that much diversity among the student body until recently, so it couldn't have been true but today because of the diversity it's increasingly true.
KATEB: Thoreau did say in Walden that he had traveled in Concord extensively, and I think that is a rejoinder to those who think you have to go great distances to come across the exotic, the unfamiliar, the strange, the contemplation-worthy, it's right under your nose.
KATEB: Trenton, Camden, where Whitman died...
BORNEMAN: Would you say the undergraduates have taken that to heart, as have most Americans, they don't want to leave anymore, even for a year, the idea of the year abroad...
KATEB: They don't want to spend terms? Isn't that flourishing?
BORNEMAN: No, it is not flourishing, people, if they want to spend a year abroad, it's usually in Europe, they don't want to go other places, which are often considered too dangerous
KATEB: Well, the world is much less friendly to the United States than it was even five years ago. 9/11 has changed everything and everything for the worse.
DARNTON: But interestingly, maybe they're not going abroad, but students are now interested in Arabic language and the Middle East, and attendance is shooting up in those areas, students are electing to study those regions perhaps from a distance, but...
GEERTZ: These civilizations are hard to root out.
Fads, Experiments, and the Professor as Student
BORNEMAN: Let me now ask you a series of questions specifically about your teaching. Have you ever taught a subject in which you were utterly unqualified?
GEERTZ: Yes. The first course I taught at Princeton was on economic development. So I read up on economic development, it was a course I was asked to teach to fill in for somebody who had abruptly left.
BORNEMAN: And no problems?
GEERTZ: No, no problems. But that's anthropology, and of course I did know a lot.
BORNEMAN: George, ever teach a course for which you were utterly unqualified?
KATEB: No, I don't think so. However, I've never taught a course in which I felt adequate to the texts I teach, none of which I could have written and all of which are above me, so political theory may be an aberrant kind of subject--I do think it's an alternative political science. Not a supplement, and not a preparation for, but an alternative political science, and if you have spent a lot of time studying the texts of political theory you can teach anything in politics, provided you spend some months boning up on particulars. I speak hyperbolically of course, but I think I'm closer to the truth than may appear at first sight. On the other hand, the underside of this is that I will die without thinking that I have understood properly Plato's Republic or Hobbes' Leviathan or Locke's Two Treatises or Mill's On Liberty, a work in my language closer to me in time. There is such a thing as the inexhaustibility of genius and non-genius is inadequate in its face. Am I therefore unqualified in one sense, yes; utterly unqualified, being an ignoramus, and teaching a course, no I've never had to do it, I've led a privileged life! I never had to teach the equivalent of economic development as an anthropologist.
DARNTON: On the other hand do you think that had authors of these texts been professors in this environment, would they have taught their own material as well as a political theory professor is prepared to get students to engage the texts? This may be very different from writing them in the first place.
KATEB: Yes, you're right, but Plato lectured to his own students about his own philosophy, he founded the Academy as you know, and Aristotle founded the Lyceum. He taught his own stuff, Aristotle did. I could imagine Mill teaching a course on others. He wrote books on other philosophers, most of them disparaging.
GEERTZ: I would like to say in connection with that that I share what you said about the feeling of inadequacy in teaching your subject. That's marvelous to feel it and what I do is teach especially my graduate students that sense of who are we in front of that knowledge that we would like to have. In my case, it's not understanding Mill or Plato, it's understanding the island of Bali or Morocco, to understand even a little corner of that knowledge is very satisfying. What I try to get across to the graduate students is the distrust of any kind of generalizations, to suggest that I know what Shakespeare said in Hamlet, to be able to write a paragraph that was supposed to cover Hamlet or Bali or something, you have the wrong idea of what knowledge is about.
KATEB: But mathematics is, up to a certain point at least, really different. Math and the sciences are different.
GEERTZ: And there are some social sciences which would love to be natural sciences.
KATEB: Economics for one, political science...
DARNTON: Well, there are corners of our discipline...
KATEB: Corners of our discipline, nice phrase...
GEERTZ: And I think they are misled. And they would have a different conception of 101 and 102 and 103.
KATEB: Yes indeed. They would give you building blocks and so on.
GEERTZ: But that's because they use the natural science model.
BORNEMAN: Can you say something about academic fads, or alternatively, sustained developments in your teaching experience?
GEERTZ: I was thinking of the 1970s when I came to Princeton, Levi-Strauss was the fad, it offered to mediocre minds a technique of saying something that sounded profound, and it faded after awhile. The other side of this is: I'm not sure that there is sustained development in the field of anthropology.
BORNEMAN: Is there something in between sustained development and a fad, then?
KATEB: Sure there is, I think. Humanist knowledge is not progressive; it is cumulative simply because there is always more that has happened or that has been written or that has taken place in the present than there was in the past, there will be less now than there will be in the future, if the world continues to be the world. So, what's in between a fad and sustained development? The middle ground is the humanist, or the humanities ground. Take the analogy of works of art. Really, there's no progress between Giotto and Raphael, and between Raphael and Rembrandt. There is an incredible proliferation, an incredible accumulation. No one would want to destroy one to preserve the other; no one would say that Rembrandt is greater than Raphael, that Raphael is greater than Giotto. However there will be differences in ranking from time to time, differences of interpretation, there will be fads of interpretation and fads in ranking, but not every interpretation and not every ranking is a fad, so that's the large and to me interesting middle ground.
BORNEMAN: Can you say something about fads in political theory? Have there been some?
KATEB: Yes. Postmodernism is a fad. Is it in anthropology?
GEERTZ: Absolutely. My consideration from my point of view is yes. What happens when you have people teaching these fads is that undergrads don't know anything about them. Graduate students, this would be true in any decade you want to name, have a notion of what is the best knowledge that they want to have and that almost always is what I would call a fad because it's the latest thing out, so you have to fight that at the graduate level. At the undergraduate level it's just not an issue.
DARNTON: What about fads not just in the material, what's published and what you teach, but in how you teach? You both seem to have very strong opinions about what the educational path should be, how you start off teaching, and what the essence of teaching is; have you experimented with other ways of presenting the material over the course of the decades and how did you find that experience?
BORNEMAN: Just name one, if you've got many...
KATEB: My answer is no, I don't experiment. What is teaching for me? It is a more formal kind of conversation, even if there are a fair number of students in the course. You always hope it will, if not at the beginning of the period, turn into a conversation, but a conversation that respects certain formalities: think before you speak, try to speak in sentences, and always be mindful of the seriousness of the subject and one's inadequacy to it. But for me, teaching is closer to conversation than it is to preaching, which I don't despise, and I have been accused myself of being a preacher at times, but only when it was in a large lecture course! It seems to me that you inevitably become self-infatuated.
GEERTZ: It's hard to have a conversation with a hundred people.
KATEB: It is. Easier at Amherst than at Princeton, for me. I never was able to do it here, never. But at Amherst where there are no precepts and no graduate assistants to teach precepts, their only contact was with you and they would speak up in class and interrupt the most glib flow of my language, and it was fabulous. That's one thing I really missed leaving Amherst for Princeton.
GEERTZ: One thing about Princeton students, I do want to make a generalization here, is that they are too polite, en masse.
KATEB: Is it politeness or uninterest?
GEERTZ: Well, both, really.
BORNEMAN: It is a question we wanted you to explicate on, if you could: if success depends on knowing your audience, who were your students? You just started to get into this, but who are the students at Princeton? Who did you think you were speaking to?
KATEB: I think you don't know whether you were successful, and some classes that I thought bombed, undoubtedly of those some were bombs, did bomb. Others apparently meant something to at least a handful in the classroom. At other times, again, full of myself, I thought I was just absolutely revealing, and nobody cared.
BORNEMAN: You're saying you can't know your audience.
KATEB: You can't know your audience; your audience can know you, however, in a kind of a base, low-grade kind of way.
GEERTZ: Well, they're all watching you.
GEERTZ: And you're not watching them every minute.
KATEB: Right, and you may not even be watching them, exactly right. "Nothing works" is the old adage at Amherst as far as teaching goes, nothing works. You just have to keep trying as hard as possible, that's all.
BORNEMAN: So did you learn from your students, or is that just an empty homily?
GEERTZ: Often. Even freshmen who didn't know what I was talking about would often ask a question that would set you off. I have to say I learned more from the undergraduates than I learned from the graduate students, who already had put too many limits on themselves.
KATEB: I think you can distinguish between learning from what students say (in class, outside of class, in office hours, after class), what they say in flat declarative sentences, and second, learning from their questions, which they can't answer, they hope you can, and they get you going, third, you learn maybe above all from the expectation of teaching, preparing to teach, hoping that what you say will be received, and discovering as you prepare that there are certain things that you now know that you didn't know you knew, and if you hadn't had the pressure of preparing a course perhaps these things never would have occurred to you.
GEERTZ: In terms of my own education, I learned more after I started teaching than in all the years before that, when you get to be an assistant professor then your education begins, really, because you're forced to find out things.
DARNTON: Professionally, if you feel a moment when the field advances, a pathbreaking work comes out, the way faculty approach a subject changes, how do you translate that if at all into the classroom or does that not affect the basic knowledge and the basic tools and it's just something that the initiated experience?
KATEB: You know, we're back to fads again. Sometimes there are new developments in a field, say political theory; the fad would be a way of looking at old questions and raising perhaps, though not always, new questions. How do you transmit knowledge to students which at the same time is novelty to yourself? That's very hard. All I can say to you, not having thought too much about this, is that occasionally I would introduce a writer I had never taught before even when I was well advanced in years. I remember the first time I taught a philosophy text of Martin Heidegger: not easy to read even in English translation, a real unsettler if ever there was one, in the twentieth century at least. I struggled and struggled, went in very anxious, really anxious, and for some reason, one student loved it and sort of took over the class, and thereafter I was emboldened to go on teaching Heidegger because of that one student not being cowed by the difficulty of the language.
GEERTZ: I made a change within my own research, but not a qualitative revolution. I didn't know anything about the anthropological study of art, and I decided I was going to teach a course in that, but that was deliberate and I carried my students along with me.
DARNTON: This is almost saying that the best way to learn something is to decide that you're going to teach it.
GEERTZ: That's exactly right.
BORNEMAN: Where is higher education going, with respect to the transmission of knowledge, reproduction of elites, role of money and credentialing, and the relation of disciplinary knowledge to economic markets and politics?
GEERTZ: I think a harder question is: where has it been? I really don't know the answer to that.
DARNTON: To some degree this gets back to the earlier question about admissions criteria, although it doesn't end with that, but the transition to coeducation, or later the decision to dramatically ramp up financial assistance, and I'm sure any number of other changes that have happened at Princeton, to what extent does that relate to the institution's purpose of educating and reproducing a ruling class or an intellectual group?
GEERTZ: I can only say that from my position down in the mines that I couldn't see what the larger picture is.
KATEB: But Hilly, did you not have the sense that just by teaching at Princeton you were taking part in one of the important rituals of transmission of two things, high culture on the one hand and the system of privilege on the other?
GEERTZ: Well, the students we get in anthropology department, or got, were all self-chosen people who felt that they were somehow marginal. You go to the Woodrow Wilson School if you're going to get into politics, or you take economics if you're going into business. Over and over we got parents that said you can't major in anthropology, what can you do with it? We had all the, I don't want to say losers, but the ones who weren't expecting to be winners.
BORNEMAN: So you're saying that anthropology is then marginal to the reproduction of elites, as not being primarily concerned with that.
GEERTZ: Another thing about the anthropology department, 99 percent of the undergraduates who took anthropology were not aiming for and did not go into anthropology as a discipline, not going on to graduate school, whereas if they take economics, they are aiming to not be academic economists, but to do what economics is about.
KATEB: They may want to go to business school, but not graduate school in economics.
GEERTZ: Or start out as an entrepreneur in a business.
BORNEMAN: So what you're saying is that the anthropology major was nonprofessional, not oriented toward the profession, it was preparatory, educational, and whatnot, but not like so much of Princeton that is oriented toward professional life.
DARNTON: This is also about knowing your students. Who are anthropology students, or conversely, who studies political theory, philosophy, classics? What are their goals and how do you reach them?
KATEB: I've always thought of myself in a certain way just because I never taught in a public university, and I didn't study in one, all my degrees are from Columbia, a private university, and I taught before Princeton only at Amherst with gigs at one or another place, all of them private. I don't know the mentality of a professor at a great public university like Michigan or Minnesota or the University of California, leaving aside Berkeley which has all the atmospherics of a private university, but then as a member of the private academy I have known really from the start that two things were going on: my hope was to contribute my mite to the well-being of high culture, on the other hand I knew what made this possible for me was the system of privilege and the reproduction of that system. Amherst depends mostly on private money, as does Princeton. Do I have guilt over either one of these things, or over the causal or instrumental connection between them, do you need to have the privilege to have the ongoing well-being of high culture, let's say? I don't know how to answer that question. Does the end justify the means? Does the end of high culture justify the injustice of the system of privilege? Would high culture exist without it? I don't know. Does it exist in other countries without the system of privilege? You know, I don't think so.
BORNEMAN: Have you had any impact on the world either directly or indirectly, for instance through students who go on, teaching anthropology and doing other sorts of things, and did you reach audiences broader than your own students and do you feel academics should?
GEERTZ: One would hope so. I can only give you a very concrete example. Near the end of my career (I'm 78) I've just published three books which took all of them together twenty-five years to write. And they're all in English and they're about Balinese religion, religion in Bali. And I've just now started a new project in which I am writing in Indonesian for an Indonesian non-anthropological audience, the sum of my - opinions, I guess it is really - about what Balinese religion is about. Now, the Balinese people are very diverse and some of them think about their religion this way and some of them think about it that way, but all of them will think, who are you to tell us what we think, but I'm just repeating what I have in my books that are published in English. I've tried to figure out why I'm doing this, and I would like some Balinese, maybe one or two, to start working on exploring themselves and their religion in a rational way, or an empirical way of finding out what's going on, what people really do that's meaningful. And I'm hoping to impact not the world but maybe a couple of people. That's the only answer I can think of.
KATEB: Well, there was a period in my life when I would write in journals, when they asked me, like New York Review of Books, American Scholar, or places like that, I knew that what I was writing... could not allow me to enter every refinement or qualification or subtlety that I thought I could enter - one. Two, if you take your teaching too seriously, something bad happens to your relation to your own field, because teaching always involves simplification, except, if you're very lucky, with first-rate graduate students. Three, why do these things? ...To affect the world? Why did I write in the New York Review of Books? Because of vanity. Did I affect the world? Of course not, and I soon learned that this was not something I was capable of doing in any case. Did I give up teaching because I couldn't produce always my best sentences for a student audience? No. But I wrote them down and kept them, and so as I've gotten older and older with the sense that there's less and less time, less and less capacity to work... I don't want to teach any more and I don't want to write for the New York Review of Books and the American Scholar any more, and if I reach students they must be graduate students and they must be one on one and they must be absolutely uninhibited and completely serious, and I will encourage them to produce their best sentences, and I will continue to try to produce my best, without any expectation of affecting anyone, even people in my field. Do I write then for myself only? No. I write with the scant hope that one or two, here or there, now and then, will see something in what I've written and improve it, make it better than I was able to do. Does that justify a life? ...I would say that the question I've put to myself is an impertinent one that should not be raised.
GEERTZ: That's a beautiful answer.