A Conversation with Leon Botstein, President of Bard College and Champion of Liberal Arts Education
February 4, 2015
JAMES TRAUB: Good evening. I'm James Traub. Welcome to Ethics Matter. Our guest tonight is Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College.
President Botstein is the kind of academic leader one might have otherwise thought extinct—erudite, outspoken, unswervingly committed to a humanistic education. He has almost single-handedly made Bard into one of the nation's finest liberal arts colleges. He is also the conductor of a major national symphony orchestra. He belongs, in short, to a category of one.
Thank you so much for being with us, President Botstein.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Thank you very much.
JAMES TRAUB: Let me ask you a little bit about your own background, because I have read that everybody in your family was a doctor or a scientist. So what happened to you?
LEON BOTSTEIN: I myself was a child immigrant. My parents were both very distinguished academic physicians. They loved what they did. What I learned at home is the love of work. You know, I always feel sorry for children who grow up in homes where the parents come home and complain about their work. Then they wonder why their child doesn't want to go into the family business. For us it was different. We observed our parents deeply loving what they did. They debated and discussed medicine.
So my brother became a scientist. He wanted to show his parents that medical people were sort of barbers—what a barber is to surgery a doctor was to science. So he went into, and has distinguished himself, in the sciences.
My sister actually went into, in a way, my mother's field, pediatrics.
By the time it came to me, when I was in my first year at Bard, my parents came up for the weekend. My father hadn't retired; he was chairman at Einstein. He took a walk on campus with me. Then, at the end—I was 28—he said, "You know, if this doesn't work out, you can still go to medical school." [Laughter]
JAMES TRAUB: But at least you got your Ph.D., so you had the basic family credential.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Yes. Except in our family "doctor" meant something other than a Ph.D.; it meant the capacity to help someone, which is not true of all—
JAMES TRAUB: But you are in a helping profession.
LEON BOTSTEIN: I am in a helping profession.
I think you are right, joking aside. Two things we learned—my sister put it best, I think. Since we came from a family that can be described as survivors—and my aunt, in particular, was a righteous Gentile, rescuing hundreds of Jews and honored by Yad Vashem and by the Holocaust Museum and a very devout Catholic—we learned two things—
JAMES TRAUB: In what country, by the way?
LEON BOTSTEIN: In Poland. But they lived in Mexico. They couldn't get into the United States. America was essentially closed before the mid-1960s, as you know. So as DPs [displaced persons] they couldn't get into the United States.
My parents applied for an American visa in the 1930s. It came through at the end of 1949.
JAMES TRAUB: This is a case where "better late than never" actually doesn't mean anything.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Right. Talk about immigration reform. The chance of a Polish Jew, of whom only 10 percent survived, of being able to pick up the visa that they applied for was 90 percent against them.
In any event, the moral of the story is we learned two things which have stuck with all of us. One is that if you are ever in a position of privilege, which we as immigrants who come to the United States never expected ourselves to be, you have an obligation to do the right thing and to do the right thing now; that you cannot excuse not acting on behalf of what is right and what is needed; and that you have to imagine that what went wrong in the Second World War, among other things, was the failure of ordinary people to stand up for what was right.
So we never expected ourselves to be in a position of being able to help. We have turned out to be in a position. It informs actually what I do.
JAMES TRAUB: Since you became a university president at a ludicrously young age, did you feel, given what you have just described, that, unlike being just an academic, being a university president in fact was something more like a helping profession, that it had a moral dimension to it?
LEON BOTSTEIN: Yes. Look, when you are a young person and you're in graduate school—I had this dream of combining music and scholarship. That was my own dream, which I have been able to do. And I'm grateful for the college, that it is a college with a strong emphasis in the arts, and therefore was compatible with the idea of this mission, which was a very unique kind of idea. I formulated this idea when I was really very young, a teenager.
But necessity takes over. Life is never a function of planning. I'm always amazed when people say—parents particularly—"I don't know what my child is going to be doing. He or she doesn't have a plan. How are they going to earn a living?" and so forth and so on.
JAMES TRAUB: That's because we want our children to have better plans than we ourselves had.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Yes, but we all never tell the truth about our own adolescence.
JAMES TRAUB: Certainly not. My wife is here. She has instructed me to never do that.
LEON BOTSTEIN: That's right. And the children know that. They never actually confess to how they actually behaved—certainly their private lives. They know that the kids probably don't ask, and better that they shouldn't know.
But it also includes the way your life unfolds. People often say, in retrospect—the most accurate optical instrument is a "retrospectoscope." They are always right, after the fact. I was in the generation that was faced with the draft, at the end of that period. I'm a little younger than Bill Clinton.
JAMES TRAUB: So you were of the period when there was a lottery.
LEON BOTSTEIN: There was a lottery. You couldn't get out of it. I went on an urban fellowship—one thing led to another—on the assumption that your local draft board would be kind to you if you were doing public service. So I ended up working for the city of New York. One thing led to another.
So a series of accidents led me, at the age of 23, to accept an offer to run a college in bankruptcy—in real bankruptcy, not in metaphorical bankruptcy. It was run by a judge in bankruptcy, who insisted that we pay 100 cents on the dollar. I never understood the advantage of the bankruptcy law. In any event, there was no discount for the debt.
It was a college that Dartmouth wanted to protect. John Kemeny, the then-president of Dartmouth—a wonderful man, a great mathematician, Hungarian—recognized that this fledgling college, which was really a safe haven for failed upper-middle-class kids—that whatever absence of virtues it might have had, being killed by the right-wing element in New Hampshire was a bad thing for Dartmouth. Even if Dartmouth was very conservative, the idea that they could undo a college through political pressure and bad publicity was considered a bad idea.
So he decided to protect it. He put a bunch of his people on the board, and they and the bankers ran this thing. They were going to close. Then they gave me the job, on the theory that the most gifted person would have been 12. It was an inverse relationship. Anybody with a real career would have never taken this job. So I took it and learned a lot in the process.
That's how I got into it. I certainly did believe that we had an obligation. We are very patriotic. Immigrants are very patriotic. What the anti-immigrant forces never understand is that the sense of gratitude is enormous and patriotism is visceral. Yes, I think all of us thought—for my parents, America was a miracle, a miracle of opportunity. They could remake their careers in their late 30s. Their children all did fantastically well. They didn't know anybody. They had no connections. They had no money. They were paid for by the Hebrew immigration service, which bought their tickets for them and for us.
Yes, I absolutely think it was my obligation. When I was at Tanglewood in 1967, I think I was one of two people who read the newspaper. This was the height of the Vietnam War. The idea of everybody talking about shop and music seemed—not that I wasn't a musician—it seemed incongruous.
JAMES TRAUB: When you think about the moral enterprise that is Bard College, it's not as if you are rescuing poor kids from a life of disadvantage. We will talk about some of the activities you engage in—
LEON BOTSTEIN: We do.
JAMES TRAUB: Okay, we'll talk about that, then.
So what do you think of as the core of the moral enterprise?
LEON BOTSTEIN: It's a good question. There are two answers to it, two fundamental answers.
One is the one you alluded to. We run public, not charter, school, high-school/early colleges that reach underserved populations, two in New York City, two full high schools, a one-year college prep program in Harlem, Children's Zone, a full high school in Newark, one in Cleveland, and we're opening one in Baltimore and a one-year program in New Orleans. We are a private college, unendowed, and we are running these public institutions—
JAMES TRAUB: By the way, just as a practical question, is this an affordable expense for a school like Bard that is barely surviving?
LEON BOTSTEIN: It's the wrong question.
JAMES TRAUB: Because?
LEON BOTSTEIN: Precisely because you have nothing to lose. The people who are risk-averse are the rich, who become like Fafnir in The Ring. In Wagner's Ring, the gold is cursed, and the two brothers fight each other over the gold. Fasolt gets killed. Fafnir gets the gold. And what does he do—from the viewer's point of view, for another 12 hours, which is all of Walküre and most of Siegfried? But in real life, for a long time, until Siegfried becomes mature, he sits immobilized, having turned himself into a dragon guarding the gold. So what was the gold for?
JAMES TRAUB: You have the great advantage of not being weighed down by all that excess endowment.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Yes. But I think the credit goes to the trustees, really, who said one thing to me when they hired me: Either make this a great institution or it has no reason to exist. It's not a country club. It has alumni, and growing alumni are very loyal. But it never had wealthy alumni that supported it, the way many institutions in the United States have thrived.
It's not affordable, but we have had many good philanthropic partners, in Cleveland and Baltimore particularly, and in Newark as well. We are beneficiaries of the Zuckerberg money. We have raised a fair amount of money. In the city of New York alone, we have raised about $30 million for the city. Now, a portion of that we have had to fund ourselves, which we can't afford to do. But it's the right thing to do, and we are better for it.
We have thousands of young people coming to the 9th grade and then finishing, at the end of the 12th grade, two full years of college with a degree from us.
JAMES TRAUB: And do many of them, by the way, go on to Bard, or some significant number?
LEON BOTSTEIN: Very few. About eight.
JAMES TRAUB: So it's not as if it's a kind of feeder institution.
LEON BOTSTEIN: No. That would be self-interested. If you do a reform, it's like printing money. That you believe your money has value is just self-delusion, but if someone else takes your money and converts your currency into their currency, then you know it has value. These kids go to all kinds of institutions all over the country. So we do that.
We also have the largest prison education program in the country. We have 300 prisoners getting BA degrees. We have spawned prison programs all over the country, not only in New York State, but with Notre Dame in Indiana, on the West Coast, Connecticut, and Iowa.
JAMES TRAUB: My understanding is that those are pretty rigorous programs.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Very.
JAMES TRAUB: You're not saying, "Well, we know these guys can't do the work, so we'll just give them something that they will pass."
LEON BOTSTEIN: If I did a quiz—we just had a commencement where Cardinal Dolan spoke in a maximum-security prison in New York. We gave 25 BA's. We give A. degrees, too. Half of them graduated in mathematics.
JAMES TRAUB: Really?
LEON BOTSTEIN: Yes.
JAMES TRAUB: How gratifying.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Now, if you want to really puncture liberal prejudices, ask the question: What would maximum-security prisoners, most of whom are African American and of color—what field would they graduate in? The choice would not be mathematics. But it is. These are excellent programs.
Part of what the college does is indeed dealing with the underserved—
JAMES TRAUB: Let me stop you for one second, because the giant universities we know of that have $10 billion or $20 billion or $30 billion endowments—maybe they do these things and I don't know about them. My sense is they don't do these things. Do you feel like that actually should be part of the obligation of a university, especially one with all that money and fame?
LEON BOTSTEIN: I do, but it's hard for me to have credibility because none of those institutions, precisely because of what I believe in, has ever dared to ask me to run them. So it's very hard for me to give advice across a barrier that I have never crossed.
The ones I'm most critical of are the private colleges that do not have research agendas. If you take Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford—these are research universities. One can argue that their wealth and the endowment is an essential portion of what they need to do in the research side. We give as much financial aid as almost all of the rich institutions. We run a much tighter ship, if you will, that concentrates on education. But it's the colleges that have large endowments that don't have a graduate infrastructure that I'm probably more critical of.
In any event, it creates an environment on the campus that is different. The one public service is the reaching of the constituency that is underserved. We do that through several programs. We do it internationally, too. We're in places not like Abu Dhabi, [Editor's note: James Traub is a member of the faculty of NYU Abu Dhabi] but we're in places that really need help—on the West Bank, in Kyrgyzstan, and in Russia as well, and in Burma.
But the other thing we do is, we have a college in which the atmosphere on the ground for students is different because of what the institution stands for. Instead of being a bastion of white privilege in the middle of nowhere, which most New Yorkers think Red Hook is—we live there, so we don't think it's the middle of nowhere—the students who are there have a sense that the institution is committed to both the advancement of learning and the application of learning to the betterment of society. So it informs their own conception of their leadership and their obligation.
The other thing that institutions like our own do is create leaders. I'm not afraid of that somewhat elitist notion that you are really training leaders for democracy. I believe, as John Dewey did, that there has to be a connection between education and democracy. Although we have given more degrees than ever before and the political discourse is less good than it was when most people didn't go to school, so we don't seem to have proven this point, it doesn't make the argument false.
JAMES TRAUB: It sounds like, in several different ways, you are pushing against what seems to me to be the growing trend of a kind of shallow utilitarianism which governs so much of higher education, which takes the form not just of "I'm here to get my degree and then I'm going to go have a rich life," but also the increasing marginalization of the humanities, of things that are not seen as being easily exchangeable for professional success.
LEON BOTSTEIN: It's a tragedy. The marginalization of the humanities has, in my view, two sources. One is ignorance. That ignorance is of what scientists and engineers hold valuable. You will never hear serious scientists or engineers diss the humanities. Quite the opposite.
Who does it? It's some kind of an easy sell to an unwitting public by a managerial class that has dominated the university.
The other thing, of course, is the notion that you can quantify everything in a university, the cost-benefit analysis. The fact is, what makes a great university is inefficiency, not efficiency. People who sit around thinking about nothing, looking for an idea, looking hard for an idea, are what we support. When you fund 25 laboratories that are working on the same problem about cell function, you don't know which one will come up with a result beforehand. You can't predict ahead of time.
One of the great things about the Higgs Nobel Prize is that it was a triumph of basic research. All the biotech that we talk about is based on discoveries made by generations of scientists who had no idea there was a practical value. You ask Francis Crick or Max Delbrück or Salvador Luria, all winners of the prize in biology, did they ever think they could make money from it? It never occurred to them in a million years. They wanted to know, how do living organisms work? They are interested in the intellectual problem.
We need to fund that. The tragedy is that the American Congress, American politics, does not have a serious advocate for basic research.
JAMES TRAUB: It's funny. You remind me that my son came very close to applying to a college only because they had a pamphlet there that was called "The Usefulness of Uselessness." He thought, "That's the kind of school I want to go to."
But my fear is that most students don't. When somebody will say, "What should I major in?" and I'll say, the way we all do, "Major in what you love." I'm now told that's naïve, that if you don't major in government or economics or business—if you go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, fine, but if you don't, then it's going to be bad for you in the job market.
LEON BOTSTEIN: The fault is the majoring system. First of all, undergraduate curriculum should not be based on a graduate curriculum. These majors are completely artificial. In that sense, the critics are right. In a way, we are victims of the defenders. The professionalization of English and all the other fields is problematic. Most of the great books we teach were not written for other professionals. They were written for the general public.
There is a certain amount of laziness about the way we run undergraduate institutions. I'm a real believer in general education. The major shouldn't be the dominant experience of college life. It should be balanced with a general education in which we don't ask the student, "What do you want to study?" we actually have some normative idea of what they ought to study. We require our students to do citizen science, to have three intensive weeks in the conduct of science. We require them to do a great-books sequence. We require them to do all kinds of things in order to provide them a sense of orientation from which they can then specialize.
JAMES TRAUB: That also pushes against the consumer mentality, which is also, I think, increasingly common, which is the parents and the students feel, "We're paying all this money, and it should be our initiative to decide what to do, not yours to tell us what to study."
LEON BOTSTEIN: Right, and that is counterintuitive. We are a little bit closer—I hate to say it—to a religion. We have an ideology. We don't go into a church and say, "This is my theology. Preach it." We expect them to tell us, and then we decide not to follow it. But at least we know about the error we have made.
It seems to me that going to college is not a consumer activity, and it shouldn't be seen as such. Students respect us for that.
JAMES TRAUB: But it seems it is increasingly so. Students feel like, "Who are you to dictate to me? Who are you to say you know more than I do?" They have very much been infected with that consumer mentality.
LEON BOTSTEIN: I don't think they have. I have much more regard for the students. They are much smarter about this than you think. It's the absence of leadership in the American university. We don't have leaders of the kind—I remember Ted Hesburgh from Notre Dame, even Clark Kerr, people who really had a voice in public policy.
JAMES TRAUB: Why is that?
LEON BOTSTEIN: Because the job is terrible.
JAMES TRAUB: Again, my wife [Elizabeth Easton] says all the time, why is there nobody who speaks out from that perch, in a way that was true at least until, I don't know, 20 or 30 years ago?
LEON BOTSTEIN: Because anybody who wants the job is morally disqualified. The fact is that the job is a managerial, bean-counting, compromised, political—it's chosen to select against a real point of view. No one would have ever hired Robert Hutchins to be president of the University of Chicago had they found out what he really was going to be like.
I got called years ago by a place that was interested in recruiting me. They had a large endowment. The chairman of the board called me. I said to the chairman, "Listen, I don't want to waste your time. Really, I'm not interested. Not only am I not interested, but you're making a mistake even thinking about me." He said, "Oh, you're too modest." I said, "Let's not play 'the girl you can't get.'"
Adolescents misunderstand. There's no such thing as unrequited love. It's only misplaced narcissism. If she doesn't love you back, you are better off not having her. When people are stunned when they are divorced, my general view is to say that they got lucky. Why hang around with someone who doesn't want to be with you? It needs to be reciprocal.
I said to this chairman, "Don't feel bad that I'm not recruitable. You need to be persuaded that it would be a catastrophe if you succeeded in recruiting me." He said, "How do you propose to do that?" I said, "Give me five minutes. Let's have a conversation." He said, "Okay."
I said, "Your institution," and I described the institution pretty fairly. "Do you think that's a fair description of the institution? Your institution is intellectually moribund and mediocre. Therefore, in order to get it to its real excellence, you have to set aside a third of your endowment, which is excessive anyway, to invest in a new reinvention of the institution and extension of its mission, beyond doing the same old thing, blessed by the alumni for generations."
There was silence on the other end of the telephone. Then he said, "You're right. You're the wrong guy." Case closed.
JAMES TRAUB: That reminds me of a thought, which is, I wonder if a large fraction of American colleges, the private ones that charge a zillion dollars, but are not among the—
LEON BOTSTEIN: By the way, we charge a zillion dollars, but we don't actually collect.
JAMES TRAUB: Yes, that's a very important point.
LEON BOTSTEIN: You should know that college is cheaper today than it was 30 years ago. The net cost to the consumer is less than it ever was. The fact is, if you charge what the consumer pays for college, it has steadily gone down.
JAMES TRAUB: That is the most counterintuitive thing I think you have said this evening, because it is now a fixed shibboleth that students are drowning in debt and college is unaffordable. Why is this specious belief out there?
LEON BOTSTEIN: Just go to Bloomberg News. They have a list, which I love, which is called The Most Affordable Among the Most Expensive. You will discover that the net cost to the majority of consumers—it's a progressive income tax on the very rich. Those of us who are very privileged and get well-paid, pay full tuition, which I have done—which I'm very proud to have done, by the way; the best money I ever spent. That being said, the rest, who cannot afford it—the middle class and so on—are subsidized at an increasing rate. In our college, for example, two-thirds get financial aid. So the sticker price goes up, but the percent that pay it either declines slightly—at Harvard I think it's 30 percent that pay the full price.
There are some colleges that have a lot of legacy and they have a higher percentage of what we call full payers. But the cost of tuition has been compensated. Brookings did a study of this, so it's not only our own opinion, but there has been some real data. A number of third-party sources and institutions are now investing in financial aid.
JAMES TRAUB: This is a very important point, because that question has so worked its way into higher education policy that one of the great foci of Obama's recent speech was the idea of making community college free. He has talked a lot about the unaffordability of higher education. I wonder if what that leads to is an emphasis on more of it as opposed to better of it.
LEON BOTSTEIN: It may be. There are two things. First of all, we have missed many opportunities. The state universities in America need to be reinvested in. Their tuitions are too high. No university actually is a place where people get rich. It's labor-intensive. The efficiency that can be created in a university is marginal, and as I said before, a great university is by definition inefficient. It supports people who the rest of society wouldn't tolerate—theoretical mathematicians, students of Greek and Latin, art historians, people who are about the human imagination that can't do anything practical. We support them. We support their teaching, their research, their communication to the next generation.
The university is not too expensive, but the financing of it and the people going to it is absurd. The state universities, many of the great ones, are now not supported by the state—Michigan, Berkeley. They are essentially private institutions. That has to change.
The country has a false priority, and I think the president, whom I greatly regard, whom I voted for and would vote for again, happens to be slightly wrong on the question. I think high school has to be fixed. The community college doesn't have to be strengthened. I think too much of community college is remedial. The performance rates are too low. This is why we entered the early college field. Our feeling is that young people can start college earlier. Shorten the years of secondary and elementary schooling, and let young people start college early.
So we have an alternative—it's very admirable—to the community college idea. I think the president is too tied to a utilitarian definition.
I agree completely that a good education in the humanities and in history and in foreign languages and literature, all these kinds of things, is hugely important to the crafting of a conscience and of an agenda politically. Why is it that we insist that people read Achebe and Toni Morrison? Is that not a better way to confront what is distinctive about the African American experience or the African experience than reading some lousy textbook in even the economics of poverty? They are not mutually exclusive.
It seems to me that we do not have proper defenders. I think your point is very well-taken. It's really pathetic when you think how little defense there is of what we do and how inarticulate that defense is.
JAMES TRAUB: I wonder if there's another stream of kind of subversion of those humanistic values. Another very erudite Leon, Leon Wieseltier, wrote a piece a month ago or so in the Times book review in which he wrote about the idolatry of data and wrote about the fact that it is increasingly the case that people feel like only that which can be quantified is actual knowledge, and the increasingly hegemonic application of quantifiable methods—I think he was probably thinking mostly of the fact that he just lost his job because a high-tech guy who didn't understand the humanistic values of his own institution had just destroyed it.
Do you feel also that there is that kind of attack on all that is not quantifiable?
LEON BOTSTEIN: It's an interesting thing. The reason people love quantification is because it has the appearance of fairness, and we are very frightened of contesting our opinions. We hide behind numbers, because we are really frightened of making judgments, whether it's on personnel or on people's work. We are frightened of being accused of varying prejudices against certain types of people, certain religions. People are frightened about the exercise of subjective judgment, and most of the humanities are about subjective judgment and about opinions, informed opinions, and about interpretation and conflicting interpretation.
Numbers have an allure of objectivity. Clearly, anybody who knows anything about statistics and about numbers—these quantifications are also highly contingent, and how we understand them is very contingent. So it's not clear that that is any more objective.
I think that beauty, goodness, which are simple categories—complicated issues—are clearly not quantifiable. We are prisoners in higher education of rankings. These rankings are done usually by idiots.
JAMES TRAUB: You are thinking of a particular set of rankings, I take it.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Yes. Let's say U.S. News & World Report, which was always a third-rate news magazine, has terrorized the university community. How is this possible? Why don't the presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and Caltech say this is ridiculous and come out and get rid of the thing? They have been so pusillanimous that now the federal government is going to put its own numerical ranking in to protect itself—from what I don't know.
JAMES TRAUB: To protect its investment, they would say.
LEON BOTSTEIN: It makes me more sympathetic to the Tea Party. I suddenly see that the Tea Party may not be so off the rails as I used to think, now that I see big government on my back.
JAMES TRAUB: Why is it that the super-powerful institutions, who could stand up to something like that and actually do hate it, if they would tell you privately what their opinion is—why are they unwilling to say this is just horrible?
LEON BOTSTEIN: Because it's good business for them.
JAMES TRAUB: Because they win in those ratings.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Yes, they are winners. They are in Las Vegas and they are pulling the lever and the money is coming out.
JAMES TRAUB: I take it Bard doesn't have the kinds of qualities that automatically win in that rating system.
LEON BOTSTEIN: We do fantastically well, given how poor we are, since the criteria have nothing to do with the quality of education, the quality of teaching, and the quality of the curriculum. They have categories such as "Retention." If you had very high academic standards, you would be proud of the number of people you flunk out. Now there is a premium to hold on to every student and make sure she graduates, because you don't want your retention figures—for example, you turn students down to show that you are more selective, on the theory that the club that is hard to get in must be the best university.
The truth is—
JAMES TRAUB: U.S. News loves that, obviously. Your admission rate is a big part of that.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Caltech is a great institution. So is Julliard. They are not as selective at Harvard. A lot of morons will apply to Harvard. Nobody who is illiterate will apply to Caltech. You have to be good in mathematics or science, actually, to have any sense that you might apply to Caltech. So it's really not true that selectivity makes a better institution.
But this numerical calculation has terrorized the industry and affected decisions by institutions of where they are going to invest and how they are going to invest. It is a corrosive thing.
U.S. News & World Report ranks all kinds of things. I have this idea that they should rank churches. It would be really interesting. What would be the criteria? How big are the pews? How often does God show up—
JAMES TRAUB: I think "What fraction of the souls are saved" would be a perfectly—
LEON BOTSTEIN: That's right. How big is their endowment? Therefore, the richer church obviously is the better church—clearly.
I mean, it's so absurd. The rankings—but we don't want to have a conversation. People will ask, "What are 10 ten best 'this'?" The Times did a "10 Best Composers." Any musician would consider that to be idiotic, totally idiotic. I prefer Leonardo to Picasso. That's perfectly reasonable. But to say that Leonardo is number one painter and Picasso is number seven, as if this were the 100-meter dash—
JAMES TRAUB: More like an American Idol kind of thing.
LEON BOTSTEIN: It's extremely bizarre.
What I find depressing is that there isn't enough defense of these institutions that is plausible. The people we do hire to run them really are like our own politicians. They speak at length and say nothing that would offend anybody. So they don't have real opinions.
When Kingman Brewster—it's a long time ago—was made president—he was president of Yale and then he became, I think, ambassador to the Court of St. James—someone asked him what qualified him to be ambassador to England? He said, "I was a university president in the United States and I had a lot of experience speaking at length about nothing."
JAMES TRAUB: And that was Kingman Brewster.
LEON BOTSTEIN: That was Kingman Brewster.
JAMES TRAUB: We haven't talked at all about the musical side of your life. I do want to ask you one thing, but it really goes to broader cultural institutions. The American Symphony Orchestra under your leadership has set itself the task of reviving forgotten pieces or pieces that really deserve to be played more often.
That points up something else, which is that cultural institutions these days, I think, are highly conservative. Both musical institutions and art institutions are uncomfortable with precisely that kind of thing. Do you have the sense that there is that kind of conservatism? If so, is that caused by the same thing that is causing the things we have talked about in terms of higher education?
LEON BOTSTEIN: I think the conservatism of musical organizations, the Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, is fear. They fear losing an audience. They think they are going to go a tried-and-true route—another Ring Cycle, another Tosca, another Bohème.
I think they are making a mistake. My view is that for the future of our own discipline, which is music-making, the riches of the past are crucial to the vitality of the present. What music is heard will inspire new composition. If you simply strip history and falsify it by simply providing a few masterpieces that are played over and over and over and over and over again, you actually distort the history in a way that will stem the flow, if you will, of blood to the future.
What we do is, we don't do works that need to be dusted off some shelf or dug up by some errant archaeologist. No. We are doing works, especially in opera, that have had a real history and are terrific. WQXR this month had this thing about "if you like this 'chestnut' piece, what else should you listen to?" They asked several of us for examples. If you love the Brahms Requiem, why not listen to the Dvořák Requiem? If you like the Dvořák New World Symphony, why not listen to the Suk Asrael Symphony?
So we do, and we have terrific audience response. People love to hear something new. Imagine if our movie life was only going to see Casablanca and Gone with the Wind over and over, every year, five times a year. You would get very bored. So this is really exciting for an audience, in my view.
The second thing is that we try to link—the Bard Music Festival does this, and the Symphony Orchestra—we try to link music to the rest of life. Music has suffered. People will say, "I don't know anything about classical music." The answer is, you need to know nothing. You need to go there and find a way to respond to it. That's all you need. I know nothing about movies, and I have a great time. A movie expert would consider me to be a philistine and an idiot. But I'm not bothered by it. The same is true in classical music.
Classical music is part of life. We try to put concerts together that are connected to other facets of life—literature, politics, history, art. We have a series next year with the Metropolitan Museum where we look at a piece of music in relationship to a painting, so that people interested in other art forms can have access to music, so music isn't segregated into its own ghetto.
I never understood the traditional concert. You go to a concert. Nobody says anything. Somebody comes out and plays an Italian overture. Imagine a restaurant like this. Then there's silence. Then somebody comes out and gives you a French concerto—from different centuries, by the way. The first meal is uncooked, raw. The second one is microwaved. Then there's an intermission, and then there's a Russian symphony.
Why do these things fit together? What's the point? It's for a kind of silent connoisseurship that doesn't exist anymore.
You need to structure concerts the way you curate exhibits. You go to the Metropolitan or the museum and you see there is an exhibit about something, about late Romantic portraiture. There is some argument. We have to make that argument so that the public actually learns to like going to concerts and learns something from it about what they are interested in, as opposed to thinking that they are sort of ignorant and can't follow it—"Dummy, don't you know when to clap?" This kind of thing.
But it's an uphill battle, because people are frightened. The tragedy is that there are more young people out there learning to play classical music instruments, and play better than ever before in the history of our memory. People who think, "Oh, the great old days, the great singers, the great conductors, the great pianists"—baloney. The best players are now learning and playing. The level of play—the person who wins an audition in the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the L.A. Philharmonic plays better than the concertmaster of that orchestra 50 years ago.
QUESTION: You mentioned that people don't know when to clap. This has always bothered me, because I feel people clap at the most inappropriate times, in opera particularly, but also in concerts. What is your take on that?
LEON BOTSTEIN: I have a completely contrarian view of this. The more you clap, the happier I am. In the 18th century, people used to clap in the middle of a movement. If someone played a solo and they liked it, they would clap so much after a movement that you had to repeat the movement before you could go on to the next movement. This kind of sanitized, prayerful, "Shh!"—and also I was very influenced as a young man by John Cage. I sort of liked the ambient noise.
I hate recordings that are sanitized. Nobody's breathing. It could have been recorded in a morgue.
Music is a social act, so the idea of—I mean, the coughing violently as the heroine is being stabbed is probably a little bit of a distraction. But it doesn't really bother me.
There was a very famous moment when a cell phone went off in Mahler 9 in the New York Philharmonic. That's the most memorable thing about that performance. Alan Gilbert is a wonderful conductor. Don't get me wrong. But I'm saying that these pieces are played too often.
We have traveled on tour, and it's wonderful to go to a public where they just clap spontaneously after the movement. That's not ignorant; that's great. It makes us feel terrific.
It is a little distracting in opera, because people in opera are more interested in the diva and the singer than in the work. That is a little problematic. I'll never forget, Joan Sutherland had her last performance. Somebody invited me, and I went. She was in an opera in which she dies before the last scene. So there were 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes of standing ovation for Dame Sutherland. The opera wasn't finished. The hero had to weep on her grave still. I knew that. So after this explosion of love for Sutherland, the curtain rises; three-quarters of the audience is already streaming out. And this poor guy has to come and sing beautiful music, an aria, and he actually has trouble holding his voice. My heart goes out to him. That's bad.
In the end of Rosenkavalier, when she leaves the stage, Strauss is so aware and he writes the beautiful closing music and then the thing stops. People begin to clap as the curtain comes down. The most beautiful and touching music is—that's a little disturbing, but that's because the opera public often is more interested.
Now, smart opera composers who aren't as arrogant as Strauss allow for it. In other words, they write it in. They know that there is going to be clapping after a certain time. And in those operas, it's fine.
So I think, clap whenever you want. The more the merrier. [Applause]
JAMES TRAUB: You probably want to do it in an American Symphony Orchestra concert, for those who might not feel that way.
QUESTION: I took your advice recently and people said, "Shh!" So that wasn't a good idea.
My question is, with the high cost of live entertainment, particularly the opera, how can you get young people, families of modest income, to attend these performances? Are they going to die? Of course, HD [high definition] is a wonderful answer, but it's not the answer.
LEON BOTSTEIN: First of all, nice as HD is, I'm not a fan of it. I think it has cannibalized the audience. HD is not opera. The great thing about opera is that you, the viewer, make the story yourself. There are so many things going on on stage. You don't want to see the opera through the lens of a cameraman. The fact is, when there is a horn solo, they show the horn player. When she's dying, you show her dying. What's interesting about the opera is looking at the person she jilted and what he's doing while she's dying. There are many operas with subplots, conspirators on the stage who are not actually in the main event.
Opera is so terrific because it cannot be reproduced technologically. You have to see it in real time, in real space. It's three-dimensional. It has so many moving parts. It's fabulous. And you make the opera experience. If there are five people singing in a quintet, you want to look at the person maybe who is not singing, who is acting in relationship to the other, because they are all saying different things.
You're right, opera has to be the real thing.
We have to face in America—and this goes back to something you said—that not everything makes a profit and not everything that is worthwhile makes money, that money isn't the only yardstick of our society. If I have to compare today to my childhood, when I was a child, there was much more of a sense that there were other values.
Opera, symphonic concerts, many things require subsidies. They are not commercial. You can't pass on the cost to the consumer. There's no reason that the tickets at the Metropolitan Opera need to be $300 or whatever they are. It's outrageous. Nobody can afford it, and there is no reason they should.
We need to face as a society, which we do not want to do—it's one of the problems of a democratic society—that we need to subsidize these institutions. They always were. Classical music, for one, was never a commercial enterprise. There was a brief historical moment—very brief—from about the late 19th century to after the Second World War, where a mixture of recording and publishing made it profitable at some level. But they were always subsidized enterprises, all the big orchestras, all the opera houses.
What we are facing is a crisis, not of the audience, not of cost, but a crisis of patronage. The rich, who once thought these institutions essential to the fabric of civil society—the new hedge fund owners, the biotechs—they don't believe that. The accumulation of wealth, which has been obscene in the United States, is in the hands of people for whom these art forms don't mean anything.
JAMES TRAUB: And also they have that market mentality. They think the thing that is good—the proof that it is good is that it makes money. If it doesn't make money, the public has basically pronounced it a failure.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Totally. Henry Higginson, who built Boston Symphony Hall, loved Beethoven. When he brought Gericke from Europe to conduct the Boston Symphony, his only question was, "Is it going to be good Beethoven? I don't care how much it costs." He was not a connoisseur. He was just a wealthy guy.
QUESTIONER: Do you believe that some of these things are over-produced?
LEON BOTSTEIN: Again, I don't want to be critical of anybody. I do think opera is expensive. We do one production a year. But I do think that I am critical of the amount of money that—and I understand why it's done—is spent on making opera somehow Hollywoodized. Yes, I think there are ways to save money—
LEON BOTSTEIN: They had too many people on stage. There is a kind of "production on steroids" which is not necessary.
But that being said, the Met should be defended. It's a huge house—much too big a house—and you need these big voices. It's hard to see anything when you are up there. An extravagant production can be very enjoyable. It's not totally necessary, and smaller opera houses are—the ideal size of an opera house is about 1,400, where you actually see the drama and hear the sound and you are actually in contact.
So I wouldn't criticize. Nobody at the Met, in this strike threat—to defend the Met, nobody in the Met was getting rich. If you are a player in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, you are as selected as if you are on an Olympic team or you are in Major League Baseball or the NFL. What do you make, at the end of the day, playing six nights a week? Two hundred thousand dollars? A beginning lawyer in a white-shoe firm in New York makes more, who knows nothing. And this is the most selected person.
The choristers, the stagehands—it's labor-intensive. Thank god you can't replace them with EZ Pass. The great thing about this art form is that it's human and you can't replace it with surrogates.
QUESTION: Madeleine Lynn, Carnegie Council.
I'd like to change the conversation a little and go back to the reference to Abu Dhabi and ask you about your philosophy about Bard's campuses overseas—why you chose the places you did, what you are trying to achieve there, and just a little about how they are going.
LEON BOTSTEIN: Bard has a very elaborate international operation. We have the largest Palestinian/American educational program. We have a master's program and honors college on the West Bank in Al-Quds University, with Al-Quds. We have probably the largest, most lasting, and most significant Russian/American collaboration with the University of St. Petersburg. We have a liberal arts college called Smolny inside the University of St. Petersburg. We also are the academic partners of the American University in Central Asia in Bishkek.
Those are three programs we have which reflect our philosophy, which is to bring the best of American liberal arts and higher-education practices, in collaboration with a partner, in a place where there is a real need. In Palestine, we are training high school teachers and middle school teachers. That's a crucially important thing to do. We are also developing a more critical and higher standard of intellectual work in an honors college to improve the intellectual aspirations of the university, by collaborating with a partner. But we respect the partner, and they are our partners in it.
The same in Russia. Many Russians think the Russian university system merits reform, and reform in a direction that is similar to what our best practices are—small classes, emphasis on writing, on critical interpretation, on close reading, on teaching science, beginning by doing experimental science, not learning by rote, not teaching by lecture—all kinds of practices which actually have made the American university the most competitive university in the world, and what makes our universities destination points for students from all over the world.
We have gone to places where we can provide a value-added in collaboration with a partner in the home country. We don't have Bard in St. Petersburg. We don't have Bard on the West Bank. We don't have Bard in Bishkek. We try to do this collaboratively, in places where there is real need.
We don't make money on it. Actually, this has to be subsidized. Our partners are USAID [United States Agency for International Development], private foundations, particularly the Open Society Foundations. We are actually dependent on philanthropy. These are not money-making operations.
QUESTION: Lynn Yen, Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture.
I know that New York City public schools, for example, the majority do not have a vibrant music program for its students. Could you tell me a bit about your experience with El Sistema and how we can address the issue of the extracurricular nature of musical education or practice and render it not disposable?
LEON BOTSTEIN: It's a very good question. As you probably know, one of the Bard family is the Longy School of Music in Boston, which has become sort of the center of El Sistema. El Sistema is a Venezuelan program that was started by José António Abreu 40 years ago. It is a program that goes into communities and takes children and involves them in ensembles, orchestras, choruses. They make their own instruments. It's a fantastic program.
I have some experience there. I took one of the El Sistema orchestras to Japan. I have conducted in Caracas. I have had good contact with them.
There is some controversy about them, but I have a strong view that they understand several important things. One is that young kids can work in ensembles and they learn a lot from it, on different levels. Older kids teach younger kids.
They perform from the very start. It's not studying a violin in your closet until you are good enough to be presented in public. For example, in Japan—there was an El Sistema program in Japan—little kids to grown adults who are beginners joined us for a part of the first movement of Shostakovich 7. They came up on stage in front of the whole public, and we made room for them. There was a little girl. I made her concertmaster. I told the concertmaster to move over. She was so proud. What she had learned in this movement is to play just the downbeat, because the theme is in straight 4—[hums music]—that's all she had to play, the same note. The person next to her played all the other notes. But she was able to play that note.
When you go perform in Venezuela, the place is packed with kids and families. These kids—their lives have been transformed. There is a lot of evidence that participating in ensembles—it doesn't have to be classical music. It can be mariachi bands. It can be gospel choirs. It can be choruses, but orchestral stuff particularly. From the beginning, this kind of group music education that is tied to the community, is rooted in the community, hugely benefits school performance. It is an alternative to gang-joining. They provide all the emotional support system that gangs do.
Americans do not understand that this kind of arts education is not frivolous decoration. Abreu—he is, himself, an economist—defends the program as a social program, not as an artistic one. The fact that Gustavo Dudamel came out of it is great, but the reality is that the majority of people who go through El Sistema do not actually end up in music. They are doing something else.
It was made possible with huge government subsidies. That's the problem. In America, there is no government will to do this. There was, after the Second World War in New York City, in some of the schools, a very active music program. That had huge benefits.
It goes to a point you made. We are not able—and we don't have political leadership, not our governor, not our president, who actually can speak articulately about the centrality of the arts and the humanities, of reading, of writing—we teach writing the same way. The kid from the start writes, writes poetry and literature. That act is so significant to a sense of self-worth. It's not decorative. But getting that message across is hard.
I think El Sistema can be adapted. We have several programs. We train teachers in it in Los Angeles, in a program with the L.A. Philharmonic. Longy does that. There are a lot of El Sistema sites around the country doing pretty well. We think there is now some recognition that this has real benefits.
But the reason we have to argue it is that we have to show that it has cognitive, measurable improvement, which is, by the way, easy to do. It happens to be an artifact. Whether it's causal I don't know, but I'll take it. There is some evidence that it makes a difference.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mariel Davis, with Education for Employment.
So much has been said about the disruptive dynamics that are changing the future of work. At the same time, so much has been said about the unique attributes of a Millennial generation. From your position as an educator, what do you see as the opportunities and the challenges in transitioning this generation of young people into a changing workplace?
LEON BOTSTEIN: I haven't kept up with the characterization of generations, so what "a Millennial" means is blank to me. But I think the question is very good. There's no doubt that the nature of work is changing. There are two things that worry me. I'm not an expert in this, so I apologize.
Number one is that there is less and less work that does not require an education. I worry about what we are going to do in a society where a high percentage of the population is fundamentally not employable in a profit-making way, which is why—this is going to shock everybody—I have a certain nostalgia for what used to be called socialism and communism. I love the idea that in the summer in the Soviet Union they paid people in the theaters to be coat check people, in the heat of the summer when nobody had a coat. But they paid them. They were in a uniform and they went to work every day.
Every time I see an EZ Pass, I think that could have been a job. Every time I see an elevator operator, I think that could have been a job. Every time I pick up and try to dial something and I have a pseudo-voice giving me various menus I can't get around, I think that could have been a real person. The definition of the profit margin and the expansion of the profit margin to the expense of employment is a mistake for the society. I think, actually, business should be pressured to be measured by how many people they employ at the lowest end, people who could do things where they don't have to be replaced by a machine. A toll collector is a perfectly reasonable thing. With drones, there won't be delivery people anymore. They will come to your house and drop the package right there.
JAMES TRAUB: There will be drone operators.
LEON BOTSTEIN: The drone operators will require some intelligence. It's different—and many fewer drone operators per package.
My point is that the work is changing.
The other comment—the question is, in the end, we have to confront the notion that living in society and being a citizen cannot be defined only by one's work life. That is reconsidering how we interact as citizens in public spaces. It isn't a choice between leisure and work. Leisure seems lazy. You don't measure yourself by the bank account or the paycheck, but by some other set of values, which is not only domestic—childrearing or something like that.
Amateurism, let's take that. We were talking about El Sistema. That is someone who has spent his or her life doing something they really care about. They don't, maybe, have a degree in it.
I was reading the biography of Jim Watson's father, who won the Nobel Prize. He was a real committed amateur intellectual. He read. He was a birdwatcher. He had a full life, but it wasn't necessarily related to his job. You know what I mean? And he participated in a community. Churches sometimes provided that.
But we as a society face a real problem about how we define how our life is to be understood and the measurement. It cannot only be done—and I say that with a certain amount of fear, because I live to work. I actually love to work. There will be some more emphasis—there is now—on entrepreneurial work, people inventing their own work.
I fear also a destruction of the local. That's the other thing I fear. You travel now around the world—there is this wonderful story about Barcelona. The rent control has ended, and all the local shops in Barcelona are being destroyed. You go to cities and you see the same Vuitton store, the same Gucci store, the same god-knows-what store. You don't want to buy any of it, even if you could afford it. The local baker, the local hat-maker, the local tailor, the local craftspeople—this appearance of a commerce that isn't local.
I love to go to a city and think, what could I buy here that can't be bought anyplace else, that isn't a standard item? The idea of local economies, artisan economies, this is something we have to think about, because globalization, which is a meaningless word in a way, has some very negative attributes. The nature of work, and the economics of it, is something that is of very great concern, particularly if we are in a society that does not share a view that we have an obligation to support the people who cannot work or cannot gain employment.
I think it's my obligation as a citizen. I enjoy paying taxes. I actually should pay more taxes than I'm paying now. The government may be bad, but that is a problem we can fix, a problem we ought to be able to fix. It's not a problem of—and that taxation is really required to benefit the people who are most at risk. That is going to be a growing population, not a shrinking one.
JAMES TRAUB: President Botstein, I think no one will accuse me of grade inflation of I say that was A+. Thank you all so much for coming.