Logo

An Interview with Jim Sleeper on the Future of Liberal Education

June 15, 2015

CREDIT: Don Harder ( CC)

ZACH DORFMAN: Hello, and welcome to another episode in our special Ethics & International Affairs interview series, sponsored by Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs. I'm Zach Dorfman, senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council's quarterly journal.

With me today is Jim Sleeper, whose essay "Innocents Abroad? Liberal Educators in Illiberal Societies," appears in the summer 2015 issue of Ethics & International Affairs.

Welcome, Jim. Good to have you with us.

JIM SLEEPER: Nice to be here.

ZACH DORFMAN: Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale, teaching seminars on journalism, liberalism, and democracy. He is the author of Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism. He is a former editor and columnist for the New York Daily News and Newsday, and a member of the editorial board of the venerable quarterly Dissent. His reportage and commentary on foreign policy and other subjects can be found at www.jimsleeper.com.

Let's begin.

Jim, in your essay for Ethics & International Affairs, you analyze the long-term trends in liberal education, many of which you find worrisome, both domestically and abroad. Can you first describe what you mean by "liberal education"? What are its defining characteristics? How did they come into being? And what, broadly speaking, are these potentially deleterious trends to the foundations of liberal education?

JIM SLEEPER: I think of liberal education on three axes or having three dimensions, Zach. One obviously is the pedagogy, the open inquiry. You want students to join what I think Michael Oakeshott, the political theorist, called the great conversation of the humanities across the ages. You want them to know some of the texts that have raised these basic questions about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit, and you want the open inquiry that flows from that, following reason wherever it will lead, and all of the critical thinking skills that come with that and all of the virtues that go with that, like being a little forbearing, listening to other opinions. A liberal education is definitely about inculcating that.

The second dimension—I call it the collegium in the article for Ethics & International Affairs. It is the self-governing company of scholars. That is to say, the educators, the teachers have to be independent in their research and their thinking. They have to govern themselves in that sense. The rights and privileges of a faculty are essential to liberal education.

So in addition to what they do with the students, they stand somewhat apart from markets and states in order to be able to serve them better by criticizing them sometimes, by keeping some distance, as well as sometimes just to challenge them. That independence is essential to a liberal education.

The third dimension, I would say, is facing out to the public. I mention this in the article as well. The best American universities have tried to spread out these habits and virtues of open inquiry, of mutual forbearance, of listening to the other side. These are things we try to get the whole public to do. Of course, it's always just a certain important critical minority of citizens who live up to that. But that is the third dimension, the public face.

So I would say that's it: the pedagogy, the teaching of the students to have that; the independence of the faculty to provide it; and then the public face.

ZACH DORFMAN: Do you think that those three foundations are under threat right now?

JIM SLEEPER: Yes. That is the second part of your question. Absolutely. I am worried about some of the trends I see going on.

It used to be that we were worried about ideological invasions. Either the revolutionary left was going to divert the whole campus to some kind of throwing-everything-over—and that, of course, is what the '60s is in most memories, most stereotypes of people. Some of us participated in some of that. Then there has been a conservative inundation, partly through money and partly through a lot of propaganda and efforts not unlike that of the left, trying to make sure that universities don't tenure a lot of radicals and that they serve American national projects. These things are also at odds with the independence of liberal education.

The challenges used to be ideological. And they still are, of course. But I think there is also the challenge of independence being threatened, not by zealots, but by markets, by certain kinds of market forces, which are much more benign in their intent. Nobody intends to dismantle or to destroy certain independence of thought, but it does just happen. When universities have to begin to run like business corporations and think they have to begin to treat their faculty like employees and their students like customers, you lose the dynamic of the kind of teaching and the kind of independence that I was talking about.

That is what worries me. It was already happening at home here in the United States since the 1980s. It segues into, I guess, the question of whether going abroad, the way many universities are doing, helps that or not.

So I see liberal education as definitely being pressured from within in ways that it didn't used to be and also from without.

ZACH DORFMAN: Let's shift to some of those ventures abroad, because that really is the heart of this piece. It seems that American and, to a lesser extent, British universities have been at the vanguard of partnering with authoritarian states to open these kind of—some of them are satellite campuses; some of them are hybrid centers; some of them have lighter or heavier footprints. I think part of the difficulty in getting the lay of the land is understanding the differences between these kinds of partnerships.

Can you just lay out in broad terms what that lay of the land is? Where are these centers located? What universities are among the most prominent that are doing so? And I guess just as important, if not the most important question, is, how are they funded?

JIM SLEEPER: Yes. Contextually, it is important to understand. There are hundreds and hundreds of universities that have gone abroad, but it is true that most of them are from the United States, Britain, and Australia. So there is definitely an Anglo-American push outward in this way. Maybe that reflects the old British imperial tradition, a certain kind of feeling that you can just go out and traipse around the globe, and, of course, the American sense of expansion and world culture and so on that we have been the progenitors of so much. That is part of the impetus. But it is true that other universities around the world are doing some of that as well.

As to the different models, first of all the receiving countries are very interesting—China, India. And some have been especially assiduous in courting these campuses, the Emirates, countries of that kind, Singapore—small countries that want to become education hubs, partly as an industry in its own right. So you have this kind of push and pull going on. I try to argue in the article that some of what I think is behind the Anglo-American push, the more idealistic side, the more traditional liberal education universalist side, is at odds with two things. It's at odds with what some of the recipient countries are intending, and it's also at odds with some things going on within the Anglo-American societies themselves.

Which brings us to your question about money. A lot of the impetus for going abroad for an American university now is definitely the cash cow, the tremendous burgeoning market of the rising middle classes in Asia and some other countries—the Emirates. Their governments are willing and able to heavily subsidize and pay for this.

The paradox here, I think, is that the very thing that makes American universities so prestigious is the principles that they stood for. I think what made them attractive around the world, why so many foreign students wanted to come to them and still do—800,000-something a year now from around the world coming to American universities—is that they are drawn to some of the best of the liberal education I was describing a minute ago. The students are drawn that way, but the recipient countries abroad want the branch campuses for the prestige of the name, without necessarily replicating the principles.

That is part of the push and pull here that I think is going on.

ZACH DORFMAN: Is there a kind of irony there? Are these Western, American and British, universities kind of sowing the seeds of their own destruction by undermining themselves, by allowing their name and prestige to be co-opted by these illiberal states?

JIM SLEEPER: I do argue that they have overreached on this. I would be willing to agree with anyone that it is a delicate balance and that each case is unique and that it depends on the administration of that university and what their intentions are. It depends very much on the leadership. But I suspect that too many American universities have been captured by a kind of ideology or a worldview about what they are doing that says, okay, it's going to be all right for liberal education; that's fine; here are all the incentives. What they don't see is that the material incentives are overwhelming or, indeed, corrupting or subverting the principled intention. So there is kind of a gap between their rhetoric of "we're spreading liberal education to the world" and the reality, which is that they are contracting themselves out to regimes and to markets, to students, whose expectations are quite different and sometimes very much at odds.

The consequence is that some of these ventures abroad wind up training kids for what I think of as a global managerial kind of elite or class that no longer really answers to the principles of liberal education or to a particularly democratic polity, since in many cases they are not coming from democratic countries anyway. They are not signing up for NYU [New York University] in Abu Dhabi or Yale in Singapore or Duke in Kunshan [China] in order to become better liberal citizens of the world.

ZACH DORFMAN: It appears that these ventures are appealing to this kind of new class, but they are also simultaneously creating this new class to some extent. They are encouraging the expansion of this new class. I think in the essay you talk specifically about an NYU program that allows MBA [Master of Business Administration] students to go abroad for, I think, at least half, if not more, of the entirety of the MBA. They are going to Abu Dhabi and I think they might be going to Singapore. You have to correct me—

JIM SLEEPER: I think they do. NYU now has three portal campuses and 11 other centers in other countries. Anyone who takes the NYU business school course as an undergraduate—they have an undergraduate business program—can spend five semesters of that abroad, if you want, in five different countries. I suppose you can learn a lot about different business practices and come away with something, but it sounds a little bit too diffuse for me to work in a way that serves anything but a kind of facile business goal.

ZACH DORFMAN: I think the word you used to describe some of these programs was a kind of "administrator's dream." Let's talk a little bit about the role of administrators in this process, because it seems—talking about new classes, there is a kind of rise of this administrative class in universities.

JIM SLEEPER: That's right.

ZACH DORFMAN: And they have their own interests and their own ideas.

JIM SLEEPER: They sure do.

ZACH DORFMAN: This administrative class is often cited as one of the driving forces behind rapid increases in tuition prices in the United States. What have the administrators done to facilitate universities' expansion overseas? Is there any relationship between these ventures abroad and increasing costs of education at home?

JIM SLEEPER: First of all, how they differ from the rest of the university's mission—if you think of what I was saying before, that liberal education is the pedagogy, the independent scholarship, and the public diffusion of virtues, the administrator's job used to be to keep the lights on, to provide the setting. That is a big job, and a very honorable one. But the mechanics and the economic imperatives of keeping the lights on have made them more and more decisive. The old sociological principle here is the iron law of oligarchy. I think that was Michels'—those who administrate wind up running it and those whom they are supposedly serving wind up serving the needs of the bureaucracy, the administration.

There is no question that, because of the economic pressures that American universities are under, there has been a burgeoning of this administrative class. Clearly the costs of keeping especially the elite, but even the large state universities going, require more administrators and more time.

So you do have a group that is not really participating in any of the other three dimensions of liberal education, the main three dimensions that I mentioned: the collegium, the pedagogy, and the public. They are just running a corporation.

The trustees—this is very important; it is not just the administrators—the trustees are, themselves, very often administrators by background. That is to say, they are CEOs of major corporations. They are entrepreneurial people, who deserve a lot of credit for what they do as market actors. But they suddenly find themselves presiding over a university that they may have attended as an undergraduate, but their whole worldview now is completely different.

I think that's what happens. They sort of say, "How are we going to increase our brand name, our market share? How are we going to grab the new markets of students? How are we going to plug this hole in our budget by doing that?" Along comes a rich foreign government bearing a couple hundred million dollars or whatever it is, at least down the road, and their eyes light up. They don't ask the questions that need to be asked.

ZACH DORFMAN: It seems like a panacea, right? It seems like all of a sudden somebody has come in and offered you an incredible kind of win-win situation for both parties. If you don't understand these kinds of deeper practices and purposes of liberal education, like the three that you have mentioned, you are not sufficiently aware of the dangers posed by this money, which seems like too good of a deal to be true. And in that sense, it is too good of a deal to be true.

JIM SLEEPER: Absolutely. It seems like manna from heaven, except it's not from heaven. It's from people with expectations.

ZACH DORFMAN: And people expect returns on investments. The economist language goes both ways.

JIM SLEEPER: That's right. The person who is providing the service may have a missionary intent and may feel that he is the progenitor of something wonderful and new, and he's going to bestride the world. I think administrators get caught up in that rhetoric, and the trustees and the presidents of these universities. They feel like they are sailing out on a great venture. But they are no longer doing the same venture that ideally the university came into being to sustain. They say that they are. They say you can't have one without the other. Conceptually that's true. It's all in the details. It's in the balance.

ZACH DORFMAN: Let's talk about some details, then. One case you write about in your essay quite a bit is that of your own university, which is Yale. Yale entered into a major partnership with the authoritarian city-state of Singapore in 2013. It founded a new hybrid institution there called Yale-NUS College. It bills itself as a liberal arts college. It explicitly does so. Yale faculty went abroad to teach at the new college. Some also serve in its administration. Much of the Yale faculty, however, seems to have some very serious misgivings about not only the structure of the institution itself, but also the process underlying the founding of this new school.

Can you talk about that process a little bit for us, and also about the consequences of it for Yale-NUS, but then also just for the home institution, for Yale University?

JIM SLEEPER: Yes, sure. First of all, I should say, Singapore is an unusual country, no question about it. It's hard to type, but it is definitely authoritarian and illiberal. It has a meticulous legal system and all the appearances of transparency, but it's a small island city-state of 6 million people. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing among the elite, so that a supposedly independent judge or a university administrator—you can't do anything without the prime minister knowing about it.

Singapore has tons of money. It's a major capitalist entrepôt (port) like Hong Kong. It has been reaching out to lots of universities. Its goal is to become, as they have often said, "the Boston of Asia," a hub for lots of universities, a center of the education industry.

Why was Yale interested in this? Yale has a longstanding tie to the Far East. We have three trustees—not all of them are currently on the Yale Corporation—who had been longtime investors to and advisors to the sovereign wealth funds of Singapore, the Government Investment Corporation and the Temasek Holdings fund. Three of our old Yale trustees were deeply into Singapore for years, and they admired the way in which this kind of top-down state capitalist entrepôt was organizing things. They had a romance with it.

Another member of the board of trustees of the Yale Corporation was Fareed Zakaria, who in his book, The Future of Freedom, praises Singapore to the skies as the kind of illiberal democracy that is a foundation for later development. This was a very popular idea, which has some validity.

Together, they and the president of Yale, Richard Levin at the time, who was a neoliberal economist, a very nice man, talked themselves into a very idealistic thing. Even though many other American universities had rebuffed Singapore's appeals, had turned it down, because they saw that it is a little too authoritarian, a little too tight—they didn't want the person who pays the piper to call the tune, because Singapore was offering to build everything and pay everything—Yale said, "Well, we can withstand all of that. We're big. We're Yale." So they went into it.

We on the faculty—not everyone; as you mentioned earlier, several of the faculty became involved and were recruited to be involved. The president of the joint venture, of the college there, Yale-NUS College, Pericles Lewis, is a comparative literature professor from Yale. Some of the other administrators, the inaugural dean, and several of the faculty—I think Yale has over 20 yearly faculty appointments to Singapore where people go for a semester or two. That is time taken away from working with their New Haven students on senior essays or dissertations or whatever.

So there is definitely a heavy investment. Yale's name is right there on the thing.

What disturbed us was not only the way Singapore handles liberal education—which is that it doesn't; it puts it in a bubble and doesn't allow it anywhere off campus—but it was also the way the Yale Corporation itself went about this. It overrode the collegium. It overrode any sense that the Yale faculty as a deliberating body could have any say in whether Yale's name belonged on this venture.

The compromise that they reached, incidentally, is that Yale-NUS, this new college in Singapore, does not grant bona fide Yale degrees to its undergraduates. Their degree is from the National University of Singapore, although Yale's name is somehow still on it. But they are given immediate admission to the Yale alumni network. So they can take their business clients to dinner at the Manhattan Yale Club, the elegant club. There is this meshing of business purposes and identities.

Singapore gets to stem its brain drain to the West by having Yale there, or so it seems. It is impossible to exaggerate the allure of the names of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and so on in Asia. There is a fanaticism about it. You think that American kids—it's nothing like—I can't explain it, really, especially when Asia is rising and proud of itself. But it still wants to certify itself. The closest thing, I would say, is what it meant for some American kids to go to Oxford or Cambridge in England—the biggest thing in the world.

Yale has that magnetism, the name. I honestly think our trustees, through a mix of myopia and idealism—genuine, sincere idealism—and economic incentive, decided to satisfy that appeal, that allure.

They refuse to disclose the full terms of the contract with Singapore. I think and I have reported that I thought that Yale got a lot of money under the table through independent, anonymous donations. Three hundred million showed up as an anonymous donation in an endowment campaign. But there are no fingerprints.

We do know that Singapore is doing the following: It's paying for the whole new campus. It's paying the salaries. On the governing board is the deputy minister of education of Singapore.

ZACH DORFMAN: Singapore, as I think you mentioned is an extraordinarily tightly controlled city-state. Lee Kuan Yew was the kind of foremost proponent of an alternative set of values to the West, so it's not like one can be surprised when the situation unfolds as it has in Singapore. They have always advocated for a different path to development and wealth, and they in many ways have succeeded. Singapore's standard of living is among the highest in Southeast Asia. But there has been quite a cost.

I understand why the administration and some of the board of trustees believed that by bringing a liberal arts college to Singapore, they could help create a kind of beachhead for those liberal values. But it appears that that hasn't worked out quite the way that they initially conceived.

I guess my question for you is, how have they tried to deal with these obvious limitations on free expression? Have they been any more successful in doing so than other American universities, such as Johns Hopkins in China with its Nanjing Center or NYU in Abu Dhabi? If they have been relatively unsuccessful, if they have found insuperable roadblocks, are there other kinds of models from other universities that have been attempted that have been able to be more flexible to these kind of difficult choices that have to be made with these overseas ventures?

JIM SLEEPER: To the first part of the question, they have been relatively successful, precisely because Singapore is so tiny and tightly run and the Yale name is so big. They have carved out exceptions. For example, a documentary film was made called To Singapore with Love by a Singaporean filmmaker showing the repressive tactics that Lee Kuan Yew had used against communists, but against lots of people who were not part of any communist insurgency. The film is banned in Singapore. The Media Development Authority there, the MDA, won't allow it to be shown. What did Yale do? It immediately went and asked for an exemption to show it in the classroom, and the exemption was immediately granted. So Yale-NUS students can see the film.

Except then the filmmaker spoke up and said, "I don't want it to be shown. If it can't be shown to all Singaporeans, I don't want this special—you run to the government." So she exposed and discredited, and Yale immediately said, "Okay, we won't show it."

You see, that's the way—you could call it successful in the sense that they carved out a number of these little exceptions for their little bubble, and the Singapore government is bending over backwards to handle that with kid gloves. That is clearly not a model that other universities can follow in other places that have larger influence to throw around and the university is not quite that important.

That goes to the second part of your question. No, I think other universities have not been as successful, for the most part, even in that sense. We know that NYU in Abu Dhabi not only has had these horrific labor problems—and I gather they have just come out with their report on that, in which they do a certain amount of mea culpa. But a lot of terrible, terrible abuses went on. Virtual indentured servants built that campus under terms that none of us can countenance, even the most conservative economist. I honestly think that there is no leverage over that. There, too, Abu Dhabi is paying everything—the tuitions; they built the campus. There is not much there.

In Shanghai, NYU is involved in a lot of complex deals. The Communist Party, which is the ruling party, is very deeply honeycombed into the running of all universities. That is one reason that Yale, I think, did not do a deal with China. In the Emirates, there is a little bit more independence, despite what I said about Abu Dhabi. Some of them, like Dubai and Qatar, which is not an Emirate, have created these education cities, these free zones, where they kind of say, "We'll give you the space. We'll turn on the lights. Do what you want, but just don't do it off campus."

ZACH DORFMAN: A free-speech zone is not a country with free speech. It's far from it. It's like a free-speech camp of some sort.

JIM SLEEPER: That's right. That is the other part of your question and my earlier point about the public face of a university. A liberal education does not flourish in a bubble. It requires a civic culture. If you are going to have open inquiry, open inquiry into what? If it's particle physics, it doesn't really impact what goes on in the street.

ZACH DORFMAN: The Soviets had—

JIM SLEEPER: They were great in the sciences.

ZACH DORFMAN: Great in sciences. The more abstract, the better.

JIM SLEEPER: That's right. And it should be emphasized that a lot of what these American campuses abroad are doing are science and business programs, very focused, very technical. Who can say whether that will have some liberalizing influence if Americans are doing it or not? What I worry about there is that instead of that, we have an all-too-smooth convergence of their kind of state capitalism and ours.

Yes, I think you are putting your finger on a real difficulty, which is that you cannot have the kind of free and open inquiry into sociology or history or literature and then say it stops at the campus door, that the civil society around it has no relationship to it. If most of your students are, in fact, from that home country, it's a damaging fiction to hold to that you can flourish while denying it.

That is what the Johns Hopkins experience, I think, was in Nanjing. It was a graduate student center in international relations. One of the students there, an optimistic American kid, decided to start a journal and invite kids to contribute, and they did. Some of the Chinese kids contributed and—

ZACH DORFMAN: Exactly what you would hope for under the circumstances.

JIM SLEEPER: Exactly. And, boy, did they shut that down fast. And, boy, did the Johns Hopkins administration capitulate fast. They just shut it down. I mean, there was some fig-leaf accommodation, but—and they wouldn't let them show a documentary about Tiananmen Square in a student lounge, where others could come and see it. It had to be shown in some private classroom or in some dormitory room. China had its fingers right into everything that moved on that campus, and Johns Hopkins capitulated.

There I think they didn't have Yale's clout to go and carve out a more acceptable exemption.

ZACH DORFMAN: Let's keep talking about China for a little bit, because there are some really important, I think, underlying geopolitical issues related to these universities' ventures abroad. They don't exist in a bubble. They are a function, in some ways, of China's increasing global clout. You write that in 2014, China's Ministry of Education claimed that there were 223 programs and partnerships with American universities alone operating within that country.

Yale might have more clout in Singapore because Singapore is a smaller city-state. It's a financial center, but it can't throw its weight around in global affairs in any sense like China can, obviously.

JIM SLEEPER: Right.

ZACH DORFMAN: Has China been forced to make concessions to liberal universities, or have the liberal universities, like you said with Johns Hopkins, more often made concessions to China? How has the situation evolved since the accession of Xi Jinping? My understanding is that he has instituted a kind of neo-Maoist program to extricate all traces of Western liberalism or universalism from Chinese educational institutions. Is there spillover effect to these Western institutions?

JIM SLEEPER: I think definitely. The short, brutal answer I would give to your question is that Americans are making the concessions and China is calling the tune. But I wouldn't want to settle for that, because this is a lot of smoke and mirrors with a lot of crosscurrents. Xi Jinping comes out and says this stuff. Some of this is for domestic political consumption against certain enemies that I can't pretend to parse, not being a China expert. But I have been told that a lot of this is posturing.

On the other hand, in every university, every program that Americans have where there is teaching, there is a Communist Party cog sitting in the class listening to the lecture. That doesn't mean that anything automatically follows from that, but that is just the truth.

ZACH DORFMAN: That's still deeply disturbing, though.

JIM SLEEPER: Yes. The universities are run by the Communist Party. The president of the university is a nominal—is certainly an academic. All the forms are preserved. But the actual operations are honeycombed with the party. Not only that, most Chinese believe in that. They recognize the legitimacy of that.

A Chinese economist who signed a petition called Charter 08 calling for the end of one-party rule in China was immediately fired by the university. It's called Peking University, the old name. It's the Harvard of China. It has partnerships with tons of American universities. Yet they fired this guy without blinking because he went against the party line. Then the American universities had to decide what to do, and most of them just shut up and swallowed it. A couple tried to do other things.

But to stay with your question for a moment, I think that China is definitely going to go through a phase of powerful nationalism, and its nationalism is going to be like nothing since the United States' in 1898, say, with the Spanish-American War. They really feel that they bestride the world, that they are the center. They don't necessarily want to have an empire in which they rule other countries, but they are going to be twice the size of our economy. They are going to pull the strings in international finance, as we see happening with this new bank, the beginnings of efforts to do that. They are going to create an illiberal—I don't want to say anti-Western civilization, but devotedly different from the West.

ZACH DORFMAN: It will not be the Washington Consensus, that's for sure.

JIM SLEEPER: Not only will it not be the Washington Consensus—the other part of your question, the statements they make about respecting liberal education—it will not be a liberal-education civilization. It's just not. We owe it to ourselves to understand it. I admire the kids who go there and learn Mandarin. I am totally in favor of scholarly exchanges and all of that. I don't believe in reinstating some kind of Cold War Iron Curtain. But we should not fool ourselves as to what we're getting into. I would say that American universities have been very wishful in thinking (a) that we are going to liberalize them or (b) that they are so eager to get our knowhow that they will respect our principles.

ZACH DORFMAN: Not only wishful, but it seems also deeply ahistorical, insofar as China through its very long and very impressive history has gone through these periods of expansion and contraction, and it has this—and you mention this in the essay—kind of deep self-understanding as the kind of summit of global civilization and that there are kind of concentric circles of vassal states that surround it. To enter a partnership with an ascendant empire such as China seems to be excessively romantic, in the negative sense of the term.

JIM SLEEPER: I agree. I would add a footnote to that. We forget that at the height of American expansionism, right back there during the Teddy Roosevelt/Spanish-American War time, one of the biggest things on American campuses was a missionary movement to evangelize China, to Christianize China. Hundreds of thousands of Americans went to China, and thousands of missionaries went to China, a lot of them from Yale. There was a Yale in China program that was devoted to Christianizing China. It was part of the mission of Yale University, to bring Christianity to China.

The Chinese remember this. They remember it as a time of humiliation and of unwarranted incursion. When Xi Jinping, whose own father was a participant in the revolution with Mao—he was one of these princelings—when he evokes those sentiments, there is something strong in them, even though, again, it's partly for show and partly for political reasons. He is too realistic. He is not going to evangelize us. But when you see the outreach that they are doing here—that does bring up the Confucius Institutes

ZACH DORFMAN: Yes, and we should absolutely talk about that.

JIM SLEEPER: I would be happy to talk about that. But to answer your question, they are definitely not about to be liberalized by us. Anything that we do there is as contractors who have been hired to give them certain knowhow.

ZACH DORFMAN: It seems that with these Confucius Institutes—and let me just give a little bit of background on that. There has been a proliferation of these institutes. You write in your essay that there are 97 within the United States alone and there are 350 institutes in other countries. I believe you also mention that their goal is to have 1,000 worldwide.

JIM SLEEPER: Yes, they are shooting for 1,000. That's what they say.

ZACH DORFMAN: And I believe them. It seems that there is a kind of evangelizing that is going on. This is a show of Chinese ascendance and power. Can you talk about what kinds of services and activities and functions these Confucius Institutes fill on American campuses?

JIM SLEEPER: Yes, I certainly can.

ZACH DORFMAN: What have they done that has been troublesome?

JIM SLEEPER: Let me just mention that there are counterparts from other societies. For example, a lot of the oil states in the Middle East fund centers and things on American campuses that are probably somewhat equally suspect. But this is really unique because of the power of China and the size of it.

On its face, it's benign. If I had been a university administrator 15 or 10 years ago, I would have said, "Wow, this looks great." They say, "We will provide a center on your campus with the best Chinese-language instruction by people who really speak the kind of Chinese that the rising powers in China are speaking. You want your students to know how to deal with China, to do business with China. We're going to do that. We will give you some cultural context and background. You will learn about Chinese society. We will provide the instructors. We send them over from China, but they speak English. They will provide the instruction and we will pay for it all."

ZACH DORFMAN: Sounds good.

JIM SLEEPER: Yes. If you are the University of Wisconsin at Platteville—I'm picking a specific example of one—and your budget is tight and the state legislature has just cut your funding, but you have 50 students who would like to learn Mandarin because China is the rage, and here comes this offer cost-free, you are going to say, "Wow," and you sign a little statement of protocols that makes it look all nice, and then you find the following. Now, here I am not speaking about Platteville, the Wisconsin example, because I don't know exactly what unfolded there. I know there was some controversy. [Editor's note: In the audio version of this podcast, Jim Sleeper mistakenly refers to University of Wisconsin at La Platt instead of Platteville. Platteville does have a Confucius Institute.]

In some of the instances that have been cited, the directors of these Confucius Institutes did a couple of things. First of all, they restricted the kind of cultural instruction that their teachers were able to give. The people who came over were loyal party cadres who presented one view of China. That in itself, from the get-go, is antithetical to the way an American university should teach about anything. You don't hire a propagandist to come in and say—

ZACH DORFMAN: Let's function as an arm of the state.

JIM SLEEPER: That's right. So that was number one.

Number two, the on-site, on-campus directors of these institutes were watching carefully what anyone else at that university was doing in regard to China. So the resident China scholars, the American China scholars, on the campus—if they said something nasty about Tiananmen Square or about Tibet or about Taiwan, the director would immediately make sure that at no Confucius function could these people be speaking. If there is a panel on something, the Confucius people would refuse to participate on a panel with the American, and the American would suddenly find that they are not getting a visa to China for their next research trip.

The second dimension is that they were really pulling strings. And they would take these American administrators aside and say, "We would really appreciate it if your campus did not have this program that you are sponsoring over there in the Asian studies department on Taiwan."

ZACH DORFMAN: This must be extraordinarily troubling, especially to the people who specialize in Chinese language and history and literature. It's like a shadow department more or less.

JIM SLEEPER: That's right. They are up in arms. In the article for your journal, I indicate the website of Chinafile.com—I think it's mentioned in the text of the article—where there is a full discussion of this by a number of China scholars, who really run down what has been wrong with the way this is done and how offensive it is.

So there is this inherently controlling effort.

The other thing that has to be said, though, is that the American Association of University Professors and its Canadian counterpart came out with an open letter to all their universities saying, "Cut these guys out." And I gather that a lot of universities are doing that. I don't know how many American universities have decided not to renew their contracts with the Confucius Institutes, but a number have. I think the pushback is such that it will be regarded as an effort that failed.

One of the things that is worth mentioning—and I do mention it in the article—is that a professor of Chinese studies from California, Perry Link, testifying to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blew this wide open. This is a Republican House, and, of course, they are very anti-China on those levels, for their own purposes. There is going to be pushback, and it wouldn't surprise me if we don't see too much of the Confucius Institute problem.

But China is definitely reaching out and trying to pull as many strings as it can.

ZACH DORFMAN: For our last few minutes, I want to circle back around to the relationship between the American character, and the character of American society, and the proliferation of these institutes and campuses and centers abroad. In your essay you write that at least 83 of the world's 219 branch campuses are from American universities. You quote George Santayana, who, to paraphrase, said that Americans have a tendency to spiritualize material things and thereby materialize the spiritual.

How do you think this tendency to spiritualize the material has affected the work of American educators abroad? Have Americans' own deeply rooted missionary impulses blinded us to the dangers or moral compromises entailed by these kinds of ventures?

JIM SLEEPER: Wow. It's a good question. It's kind of a profound one. This whole thing about spiritualizing the material goes right back to the Puritans. On the one hand, they were piloting slave ships and very much involved in profit, and on the other hand, they were very conscious of sin. I think what has happened in America is—we spiritualize the material. We have forgotten the moral dimensions of it. We Americans do take delight in being inventive, and we feel that by being like John Locke, creating something out of the wilderness and so on, we are being virtuous just by doing it. So we're happy. I open the article with a portrait of these guys from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in Singapore. They are happy as clams doing these little gadgets and driverless golf carts. They are happy.

It speaks to a very buoyant and optimistic thing. That is the "idealist working on matter." That is what Santayana was talking about. There is a wonderful quality to that that cancels the illiberal underside, or that seems to. However, when someone else is pulling material strings and saying, "You can invent this, but not that," or "We are going to use this invention to repress people," then you are participating in something where you need the moral dimension.

I think that Americans always had an unusual way of balancing the material and the spiritual, which kind of worked out. But we had a lot of wiggle room. We had a lot of blunder room. We could do a lot of reckless things as a country and still sort of come out being moral, or thinking we were.

We don't have those margins when we go abroad. We are working for regimes that don't like this kind of messy "aw, shucks" "we'll try this, we'll try that." They want to know where it's going. They are much more controlling. They don't have the same openness that we have. I do worry that we are losing that openness at home anyway because of the kind of big corporatization or even the casino finance stuff. The kind of looseness in our regulatory and financial system is taking the element of wise judgment out of things that brought us the 2008 meltdown. We have to cope with this internally. When we go abroad, we are totally ill-equipped to stand up to other people who think they know how to control it.

We aren't so confident anymore in our idealistic American model. The old New Englander in me says we have to do a little introspection here, we have to do a little moral reckoning, before we assume that that idealistic American character that Santayana described is really ready to go into the jaws of these places that have completely different ideas about where it is going.

ZACH DORFMAN: One gets the sense from reading your piece that this is really your overarching worry, that by making these concessions, American universities are going to lose what made them historically world-renowned, rich centers for the contestation and dissemination of uninhibited knowledge—the John Stuart Mill ideal about the marketplace of ideas—and that in so doing, American universities themselves will become increasingly illiberal.

Some of this is, as you say, a result of domestic phenomena—the rise of economistic ways of thinking, the loss of our moral compass. But some of this could actually be a result of this integration. You are hinting at that in the piece.

JIM SLEEPER: Absolutely, absolutely. One of the reasons I'm so glad you are publishing this piece, frankly, is that I am very eager to see what kind of response or pushback we may get from university leaders, whether they be administrators, faculty, or others, or observers of this, to that very question.

Basically, the way I phrase it is that it's not so much that we are going to see explosive conflicts of values between us and Singapore or Abu Dhabi or whatever. We are going to see an all-too-smooth convergence. They will liberalize a little bit on the surface, a few grace notes. We will become more controlling. We are already wrestling with those problems at home, need I say, surveillance and so on. We will become more like them than they will become like us. That is what I really worry about.

I feel that certain weaknesses in liberal education here that we have mentioned are going to be reinforced and legitimized by our all-too-smooth convergence with powers there. That's my worry. I would love to hear the opposite from people who claim, no, that's not happening.

ZACH DORFMAN: The evidence seems to be pointing toward that. I don't know—and maybe you have some thoughts on this; this is a very broad and difficult question—what faculty, students, educators, the concerned public can do to attempt to prevent this kind of convergence from occurring. I know that these long-term trends are so multi-causal and they are structural on all these different levels. But at least in the universities, is there anything that students and faculty and others can do?

JIM SLEEPER: I can tell you, we faculty at places like the so-called elite universities, the selective ones, look at our students and we see them coming in with a lot of these attitudes that worry us. We wonder whether there is something in our teaching that could rattle them a little bit. That's what liberal education is supposed to do. It's supposed to disorient you. It's supposed to make you question your premises, let you confront the tragedian history. The times when people thought they knew what they were doing and didn't. It goes back to Adam and Eve, it goes back to Prometheus, the over-assumptions about knowledge. I think that partly is that we need a reintensification of liberal education at that deep level. That's why I support core curricula and other kinds of classical groundings that revive that.

There is some support for that from the conservative side and even from some on the liberal side. I hope it will happen without any ideological agendas.

Other than that, I think it is going to take some confrontation. I think what we tried to do at Yale—we weren't able to stop the project, but I think we put them on their toes. We have to wake up these administrators that we were talking about and say, "Hey, you're actually not running Pepsi Cola here. You are running a place that has a different purpose and a different style. Get with it. Don't just think that money is going to solve it."

ZACH DORFMAN: I'm afraid we need to stop here.

Once again, we have been speaking with Jim Sleeper, whose essay "Innocents Abroad? Liberal Educators in Illiberal Societies," appears in the summer 2015 issue of Ethics & International Affairs. That essay, as well as much more, is available online at www.eiajournal.org. We also invite you to follow us on Twitter at @eiajournal.

Thank you, Jim, for joining us. It has been a fascinating discussion.

JIM SLEEPER: Thank you, Zach. A pleasure.

ZACH DORFMAN: Again, this is Zach Dorfman for Carnegie Council and the Council's journal Ethics & International Affairs. Thank you for listening.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less