Leon Botstein
President, Bard College & Music Director, American Symphony Orchestra
41:38

Big Think Interview With Leon Botstein

Big Think Interview With Leon Botstein

A conversation with the President of Bard College and the Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra and Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein is a conductor and academic known for his innovative programs and interest in contemporary and neglected repertory. He was a violin student of Roman Totenburg and studied conducting with James Yannatos, Richard Wernick, and Harold Farberman. He pursued dual careers in academics and music and became a teaching fellow in general education at Harvard University from 1968 to 1969, and then a lecturer in the department of history at Boston University in 1969. Meanwhile, he began conducting and from 1973 to 1975, and he was the principal conductor of the White Mountain Music and Arts Festival. In 1975, he became president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, a position he still holds today.

Transcript

Question: How did you first get interested in classical music? 

Leon Botstein: Classical music was, as is always the case in middle-class European Jewish homes, a requirement. Everybody sort of played an instrument. My mother was an amateur pianist. And the interesting part was that she was a physician. A very distinguished physician and she lost her hearing through a very strange disease where she lost hearing on both sides. The disease that Jonathan Swift had called Meniere’s. And it destroys the inner ear, so you lose not only volume but pitch. And when I was a little boy, I have no real memory of my mother ever hearing, so she lost her hearing gradually in fits and starts. 

And the thing that was most tragic, it seemed to me as a child, was that she was no longer able to play. So I think that was a kind of psychological motivator for me to study music. So they were very encouraging and I started out on the piano then switched to the violin. 

Question: What was your musical training like? 

Leon Botstein: Well, we started out in sort of varies of ignorant context. That is to say my parents knowing nobody, through some recommendation through other immigrants we ended up with an immigrant piano teacher and then I ended up with a violin teacher, again through recommendations and finally I was lucky. When I was an adolescent, my grandparents live in Mexico City, and so I spent the summers there and there was an immigrate German Austrian violin teacher who actually set me straight and through him I was then recommended to my major teacher, Roman Totenberg, a very distinguished violinist who is alive today at 99. 

Fantastic violinist and fantastic teacher. So I studied with him for seven years. But then during my late adolescent I already thought I wanted to be either a composer or a conductor. So I tried my hand at composing and I didn’t write music that I found memorable myself. I was more interesting in other people’s music, so I then got interested in doing conducting. Then when I was in college, I began to study and do conducting. 

Question: What is the role of the conductor? 

Leon Botstein: In the most basic sense, conducting is the art of organizing music through a kind of pantomime. Using your hands, your face and your eyes in order to shape and control and deliver a musical performance that requires a lot of people. When there are a lot of people on stage, each of whom knows his or her part, are terrific musicians, they have to have some sense of coordination because the piece that they’re doing involves so many different moving parts, you need one person to try to keep it all together. So there’s a basic traffic cop part of being a conductor. The most obvious place where conductors are needed is in an opera pit. So you have the conductor in the opera pit, you’ve got musicians in a pit, that’s the orchestra. 

Then you would maybe have an off-stage band. You’ve got a chorus on stage. You’ve got a bunch of people in costumes shouting at each other, running around, going crazy and you have to keep all of this machine, it’s a very complex machine, keep it going where everybody comes in at the right place, gets out at the right place. Everything happens in an organized way. That’s the traffic cop part of conducting. That’s why so many great conductors come out of the opera pit. Because that’s the place where coordination of things is very important. The other area where conducting is very important is in music that doesn’t in a way seem very easily understood. So let’s say a complicated piece. In the 20th century would think of “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky, where it’s complex rhythmically, there are a lot of things happening at the same time but not in the same place. Let’s say the “Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives,” which has many different rhythms like a geological layer, one on top of the other. So, you know, how do you keep track of your part? 

Well, you need someone there who, again, is organizing the traffic cop part of it. But the traffic cop part of it is the most basic aspect of conducting. And it’s needed just for efficiency’s sake. In other words, you could, there have been histories, in the Soviet Union, for example, there was a very famous orchestra that had no conductor that did some of the Prokofiev premieres. It was a communist idea, you know, it was a collective. There would be no boss, no owner, no, no guy in front who was going to tell them what to do. So it was a collective experience. First of all, everything took 16 times as long to prepare because they couldn’t agree. They argued and debated and disputed and so one point of view never won. 

You know, it was kind of a mish mosh. And Prokofiev describes these endless rehearsals of trying to figure out who is right, who is keeping the right rhythm, who is with the other person. And so he wished suddenly for a conductor to help it out. Orpheus today is a very fine ensemble that works without a conductor, but it needs much more rehearsal time, so there’s an efficiency issue. And then finally the most sophisticated part of it probably is an interpretive issue. So, you need someone who comes in with a point of view who shapes an argument. It’s like a director in a play. You could ask the same thing. You’ve got a bunch of these actors, they come out on stage. There’s “Hamlet,” there’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and they know their lines, they’re literate. What do you need a director for? But we think they need a director, even though the director is invisible. 

In this case, because it’s a different kind of art form, the director is visible. Now, the most important part is that conducting is about communication with a bunch of people about a work of music. Now there’s a lot of nonsense theater in conducting. A lot of dancing around, a lot of show and tell, a lot of Hollywood biz, which has nothing to do with conducting. There’s a lot of marketing personality stuff. There’s a lot of fakery in conducting. The reason conductors are always help in suspicion is because if you are going to the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and you’re doing a Mozart Symphony, they probably don’t need a conductor to get through the piece, so the conducting becoming decorative, supplemental. It becomes a cult of personality. So in a certain limited arena, there is a lot of bogus conducting. You know, someone plays the piano, plays the violin, it sounds out of tune, they don’t play very well, it’s hard to fake. 

A pianist, you know, he can put the petal down, but you really can’t get away with not being able to play. So conducting is a little more elusive because it doesn’t appear to make any sound. 

Question: Is there any room for the conductor to insert his or her own artistry? 

Leon Botstein: I think there’s a big misunderstanding. Some people think, well, the composer wrote the music. Well, that’s true. And there’s a score. But depending when the score was written, the number of indications of what to do are very few. So in the 18th and 19th centuries, you know, first of all before conducting was a profession, conducting didn’t exist until somewhere in the mid 19th century in an independent way, the score tells you a minimum number of things. Consider a map, right? You can buy several kinds of map. You can Google several kinds of maps. One kind of map tells you just where everything is, but very little in between. Another map gives a lot of details. Another map tells you where the restaurants are. 

There are all kinds of maps. Some maps can tell you how crowded the roads are. But the map won’t tell you actually how to drive. It may tell you where it’s going, where to go. It doesn’t tell you what to do when it rains. It might tell you when that windy road, you might have elevation, so it might show you that it’s going to be a long time to get from here to there, even though the two places look very close together. The score is a map. It doesn’t tell you how to drive, how well to drive, how to take the turns. It doesn’t tell you how to make the trip. It only tells you where you’re going. So the score is a minimum number of instructions. 

Now, Toscanini, after the Second World War invented a marketing ploy. That marketing ploy was I only do what the composer’s intention. Who knows what the composer’s intention? The composer’s dead. First of all, his or her intentions may not be the most important. He may have misunderstood his own music. There are a lot of composers who had strong ideas about their own music, which really were at odds. It’s like writing a book. Is the best interpreter of a novel by Tolstoy Tolstoy himself? No. In fact, it’s much more interesting to hear what other people say about Tolstoy. Tolstoy wrote the book, but he doesn’t own the interpretation. 

So the fact is that this hype about doing only what the composer intended is a nonsense because nobody knows what the composer intended. And the composer can change his minds. For example, Beethoven wrote a bunch of symphonies before 1817. In 1817 he fell in love with a gizmo called a metronome. So he said, well, I’m going to put metronome markings on the compositions I wrote ten years ago. Well, he changed his mind. Schumann reedited music he wrote when he was younger and changed his mind about it. So intention is not a stable thing. Maybe he thought this way about it. Later he thought another way. So putting a piece of music on the stage is always about intention of the interpreter. It’s never really about an honest historical representation of what the composer intended. That’s a marketing ploy. 

Question: What are the keys to good leadership in conducting? 

Leon Botstein: The first is you have to know what you want to say. Most important thing in music, as in everything else, is having a point of view. Knowing the text and having an argument. So you’re going to play “Hamlet,” you’re going to turn him into a cranky Midwesterner? You’re going to turn him into a kind of a new-age adolescent? You’re going to turn him into a disappointed former evangelical choir boy? I mean, whatever are you going to turn him into, you have to have a point of view about the meaning of the text and the meaning of the role. The second thing is you have to have the technical capacity without speaking, just with your hands to realize that intention so it’s read by the musicians. 

Conducting is an international language, which means a good conductor can go anyplace in the world, get on a podium, not say a word, and give a down beat and conduct a rehearsal or a performance and get what he or she wants done, done. You have to have the technical capacity in your hands, your eyes and your body to communicate how you want it to go. And the third thing is you actually have to be a persuasive person. You have to win the respect and the affection of the players in front of you. They have to say this person isn’t wasting my time. Musicians are very highly trained and intelligent people. 

And they sit in orchestras where their individuality often is suppressed. They really can play their instruments, and here’s this person up there, often incompetent, a narcissist, an arrogant person, telling them what to do, and their attitude is, "Wait a minute, I can do that better." You know, it’s as if, in a religion you had a bishop conducting a bunch of priests. Well, the priests think I should be the bishop. Or you’re a rabbi giving the speech and there are rabbis in the audience. All the rabbis think, well I should be up there talking. So you’re always dealing with people who are competent, sometimes maybe more competent than you in certain respects, so why should they listen to you? You know? Why should we listen to the president of the United States, even though we elected him? You know, somebody says I’m smarter than the president of the United States, why should I listen to him? I know more about foreign policy than the President of the United States, why should I listen to him?

So his or her powers of persuasion are terribly important. And that leadership function, to win the affection and respect—not only the affection. Many conductors, because there’s a tension between players and conductors, go overboard. Leonard Bernstein early in his career wanted everybody to call him by his first name. Not call him Maestro or Mr. Bernstein. Lenny. You know, he was friendly with everybody because he wanted to break that barrier. You can go overboard in that as well. Curry too much popularity, but you have to also demand and gain respect. 

Question: What is one of the more challenging pieces you’ve ever conducted? 

Leon Botstein: One, the most challenging things to conduct is the thing you’re working on now because all the anxiety about getting up on stage and doing it is located in that one piece, so the piece you are learning is always the uppermost in your mind. The other two very important challenging things in conducting are new music, so music that’s never been played. Music that doesn’t have a reputation. Music that nobody's heard before. So the question is, what do you make of it? You’re sort of the first person to put it on stage. And as the first person to put it on the stage, the question becomes how do you give this piece its best shot, its best chance? 

Its best chance when it is maybe the first performance, or the first performance in a long time, a revival. And the third probably most challenging one is a very well-known piece. Recently I did, for example, with Dawn Upshaw here in New York, the Fourth Symphony of Gustav Mahler with the Bard Conservatory Orchestra. And it was a challenge not only because it was a young orchestra, very gifted young musicians with a great soloist, who has done the piece many times, but also because we are doing in New York a piece which has been done over and over and over again. And the question is, the burden of such a long tradition of interpretation is a very heavy one, so either you give in to it or you try to break it. 

And if you break it you can make enemies. You can anger people because most people come to a hall with well-known repertory already in their ear. They’ve listened to the same record over and over and over and over again. They don’t know that there’s actually a little book, a printed notated book that has the music. So it’s really like “Hamlet.” So you look at “Hamlet.” You read “Hamlet,” I read “Hamlet.” We can have a discussion for days about what you think Hamlet is about, what I think “Hamlet” is about. But if the only thing we had was a video of Jack Nicholson playing Hamlet, you know, then somebody else shows up, you know, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hamlet, suddenly we’re comparing John Gielgud and Leonardo DiCaprio. We’re not talking about Shakespeare anymore. 

You know, because in our minds eye we have a mental picture of John Gielgud as Hamlet. So I’m offended by Leonardo DiCaprio? I don’t like it because I have in my ear somebody else’s voice. So most people come to a concert with their favorite recording or two recordings of very famous works, so if you do it differently you can anger them. For the audience member who realizes that there’s no standard interpretation, there’s no right interpretations, there are different interpretations. None is better or worse, and that you could respond differently to the same work in different ways. You would want to hear it differently. I don’t want to hear it the same way. 

But in the classical music business, because of recording, people get used to hearing it the same way. It gets slower, then it gets faster. They’re used to a certain tempo. And they’re used to it because they’ve listened to it, they’ve learned it by repetition, not by learning the text, but by having in their ear in a way imprinted one version of it, and that audience is very hard. 

Question: Walk us through your idea for declassifying classics. 

Leon Botstein: The idea of "Classics Declassified," this series we have at Symphony Space, which we’ve been doing for a long time in New York. We did Miller Theater and Cooper Union in years past. Basically the idea is to try to give the audience an idea of the context and the character of the piece in a way which would inform their listening without guiding it. There’s a whole generation of music education videos or programs, Leonard Bernstein pioneered them with the young people’s concerts. Michael Tilson Thomas’ series with the San Francisco. A lot of those programs tried to explain the piece—take a Beethoven’s symphony, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—and to... which everybody knows, and try to explain how it’s put together. So it’s as if you had a video on audio mechanics and someone took the car apart. They showed you here is the, here are the pistons and here is the wheel and here is the tire and here’s the starter and here are the electronics. This is the transmission. And this is how it works, and teach you some basic physics on why the car moves so that you can learn something about why the car actually moves and works and how it works. So that’s one way of doing it.

We don’t do that. What we do is something different. We don’t try to simplify a complex subject like music theory and music form, which... a lot of technical vocabulary, which most people don’t know. Once upon a time everybody went to, you know, piano lessons in a middle class audience and they knew a little bit about, could read music sort of and they could play the piano so they knew the difference between major and minor and you could use some technical vocabulary. 

That’s gone. Most people who grew up with pop music and rock music, they play, they do it by ear, they improvise. They don’t know any theory, they don’t know any lingo. So what do you want to talk to them about? They’re educated people. You want to talk about the things that they are interested in that connect to music. So we talk about the politics of the period in which the period the piece was written. We’ll talk about the relationship to literature; to art; to the problems in the composition; what the piece did for the composer biographically; where it comes from in the composer’s lifetime; what their relationship between music and other issues—they can be philosophical, they can be political, they can be poetic. 

Also what’s innovative; so in a case of a very well-known piece, like the 5th symphony, you want to show a little bit how the piece is put together in order to show why Beethoven is special, what has made this piece so famous, and what’s the key to his popularity. Why do people think the piece represents victory? Why do they think the piece represents something that’s military? Why did Peter Schickele the composer who was a humorist, narrate a football game using the first movement of the Beethoven’s Fifth as a soundtrack? Why did the allies use the opening bars as a symbol of victory? Why did this piece become an icon? So you do explain a little bit about how the piece is put together.

But you talk more about thinking about ways of thinking about the piece, because you don’t want to tell the audience how to listen. I’m always offended by program explanations or notes that sort of say, well, here comes a trumpet tune and then it changes key and then there’s a variation, so the poor listeners are looking for what someone has taught her or him to look at. So it’s as if take a boat around Manhattan, instead of leaving me to look around to see. I might look at the sky; I might look at the water. But they've told me there’s the Empire State Building so I’m waiting for the Empire State Building to arrive. Then they go around the bend and they tell me, well, there’s the United Nations. I’m waiting for the United Nations to arrive. Well, I might as well stay at home, you know? I haven’t seen anything on my own.

You don’t want to turn music listening to tourism. Tourism is a fraud. You buy a little guidebook and it tells you to go see the Eiffel Tower in Paris and that’s all they see. The best thing to do is throw the guidebook away and just go for a walk. You’ll discover the place for yourself. So what we try to do is help the person discover stuff and think about stuff without giving them answers. 

Question: What is the future of classical music? 

Leon Botstein: The audience is not dying out. I think the audience is very hard to replace because it’s always been older. This has always been an older person’s entertainment, as far as concert-going is concerned. And so what we need to do is find a way to capture the interest of people in their late 20s and their 30s, early 40s, who’ve never been at a classical music concert—or once when they were children. So you have to re-introduce them. It’s similar to re-introducing a child to vegetables they hated when they were children. So we’re not dealing with a group of people who learned to play an instrument all through childhood the way I did or my grandparents and parents’ generation. And then decide to become professionals.

So take baseball, all right? People who do a lot of amateur baseball playing love the professional game. People who ski love to watch skiing. People who golf are worried about Tiger Woods. No sane person would watch a televised golf game. Would you? No, I wouldn’t watch a golf game, unless I played. Because when I play golf, which I don’t, I would probably understand why Tiger Woods is good. For me Tiger Woods is some kind of conspiracy. Famous guy hitting small ball long distances.  I don’t understand it, it makes no sense to me. It has no particular value. So I’ll never watch golf, I’ll turn the channel away from the golf game.

So the audience has always traditionally been built on amateurs who are fascinated. Tennis is the best example. There are a lot of tennis clubs out there. People hitting the ball, and they, when they see a real good tennis player, they know what that person does. Now we don’t have that audience anymore in classical music, by and large. So we have to find a way to connect music to their lives, the way museums have done with painting. The people who watch art shows, or go to museums, aren’t amateur painters. They have never tried to paint, but they understand it. 

The people who read books and literature haven’t tried their hands writing novels or poetry, but they love to read. How do we do that with music to a population where it’s new to their adulthood? That’s task number one. And I think we can do that. It has to do with changing the concert format, changing what we play and how we play it. In terms of the context of performance. The other odd thing about classical music, which is a great thing, is that it is an international rage. There are more young people out there learning to play instruments than ever before and they play better than ever before. 

The level of play is much higher than it ever was, and the number of people studying violin and piano and western classical music in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, India, Venezuela, all over the world, is fantastic. It’s a growing business in terms of the people learning to play it. Young people, as children and as adolescents and young adults, learning to play the instruments very well. So we have a very vital growing group of instrumentalists. We have a lot of people writing music for the concert stage. The trouble is actually convincing the audience. Now there are not enough young players who are not going to become musicians to make up the audience. Because they are studying the instrument at too high a level. 

In other words, there are too many people in the minor leagues, so to speak. Or going through the college pipeline, and there are not enough slots in the NFL. That’s more or less the idea. So the question is: "Can you get a lot of people who have never played football to watch the game?" People who think it’s an enjoyable time to sit and listen to a concert? And that’s our task, which is capture the interest of the adult, young adult, and one of the places to start actually is in college. One of the real failures, in my view, is the failure of music departments in universities to make music appreciation really enjoyable to college students. And they’ve gone into the very arcane fields of musicology and they’ve made a profession out of their expertise, so we need to rescue classical music from its own defenders. 

Question: Have you had any political difficulties playing with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra? 

Leon Botstein: I’ve experienced several kinds of criticism. Number one, when we were on tour last year, there was a threatened protest at the University of Michigan because we are the radio orchestra of the State of Israel, so there is a growing sentiment on American campuses which is anti-Israel. There are talks of boycotts. There is a lot of anti-Israel sentiment. And we picked up a little bit of that. In addition, the extremely articulate anti-Zionist, anti-Israel intellectual group views me as a kind of apparatchik for the Zionist state. 

So they’re very suspicious of me for taking this position, which I have had for seven years, which I do, by the way, without compensation. I take no fee. I do it, I give my fee back to the orchestra. So there is a little bit of pushback. On the other side, since Bard has the only dual-degree program between an American university and a Palestinian, we have a cooperation with Al-Quds University on the West Bank for a Master’s degree program training teachers, an honors college and we’re building two high schools. I’ve been attacked by the Zionist right for being too cooperative with the Arab population and being in favor of a two-state solution, and so the Israeli right doesn’t share my point of view. 

And so this cooperation between an American university and a Palestinian has not earned me some friends on the right. So I’ve been attacked from both sides as a result of my involvement in Israel. But the problem is that I would have liked to see the Jerusalem Symphony reach out to all of the residents in Jerusalem, including the residents of East Jerusalem. But it’s very hard. It’s a very polarized situation. I’m not a citizen of the State of Israel, so I’m there as a foreigner and as a guest. So I try to stay away from politics as much as possible. So, by and large we’ve had good luck but there’s been some criticism, not as much as I might have expected. 

Question: Can music be an instrument of peace? 

Leon Botstein: No, I don’t think music can be an instrument of peace. It is an instrument that can be a common ground. You know, there’s a lot of talk about music being a universal language. But it is, in other words it’s fascinating to see different cultures want to play the same repertoire and the same music. A Chinese orchestra, Japanese orchestra, Venezuelan orchestra. Vietnamese, there are three classical orchestras in Hanoi. So it is perfectly compatible with multiple identities. You can be a nationalist, Chinese nationalist, and love Beethoven, but you can also be a Nazi and love Beethoven. You can be a freedom fighter, anti-fascist and love Beethoven. 

So everybody owns it and nobody owns classical music. It’s a common ground. But it is not itself a builder of peace. One would hope that our sense of being musical, that you’re musical and that I’m musical and that we both enjoy music, we might enjoy the same music, would lead us to respect each other. But that hasn’t happened with language. You know, we’ve killed people who speak the same language we do for other reasons. The color of the skin was different, their religion was different, their political views were different, their gender was different, their sexual preference was different, but they speak the same language. Somehow the fact that you and I speak the same language is not enough for me in the larger sense to respect the sanctity of your own life. 

So I’m going to go to war against you even though we speak the same language, nominally. So music is much the same thing. It’s an illusion to think that it is an instrument of peace. 

Question: How did you become the youngest college president in U.S. history? 

Leon Botstein: The college was completely bankrupt in Chapter 11 and was going out of business, so it was desperate. And desperate circumstances make for desperate choices. So I think there was probably an inverse parallel between who was most qualified and who was youngest. The most qualified person would have been 16, so I was 23. It was a situation of complete desperation. It was an anomalous, completely bizarre circumstance. It was an artifact of a strange moment in American history between the baby boom of the '60s, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the draft and all the chaos of the late '60s and early '70s. My career is a function of a random fallout of that period. 

Question: What’s been the greatest challenge during your presidency at Bard? 

Leon Botstein: How to do the right thing when you don’t have the resources and when everybody is only interested in becoming richer. I’ve lived in an institutional culture where we measure quality only by wealth. We think a place is good because it has big endowment. We don’t care what it does or whether it contributes to culture or education in the nation. We have a terrible elementary and secondary school system. Bard happens to run two public high schools. Has the largest prison education program in the country. It runs a middle school and teacher-training program in the poorest agricultural district in California. But it’s a very poor institution. Where are all the rich institutions? What are they doing about public education? 

What are they doing in the national interest? What they’re interested in is their country clubs. They want to have just a big endowment. So we have a culture have permitted them to measure quality by wealth. The larger the endowment, the better the place. The reason people think Harvard and Yale are important places... they’re great universities, no doubt about that, but what really sticks in peoples’ mind is that they’re rich. When you go to small colleges that don’t have university faculty and research programs, you know, they’re ranked by third-rate news magazines primarily by their wealth, not by the quality of what they do. 

So the toughest job is to go against the tide; to innovate in education, in the arts, in areas where universities should make a contribution. You know, we have these international programs in Russia. We’re now taking responsibility for the American University in Central Asia. We do a lot of things, prisons is the thing where perhaps to some best known for because it’s the largest college-degree-granting program in the country. What are we doing that? It’s creating a culture and finding people of great quality who are willing to do that. Building a college where learning, and not fraternities and football and sports and kind of a vulgar social life is the primary aspect of undergraduate life; to focus on undergraduate learning. Running a college where the values of education, the love of learning, and public service are a primary aspect of campus culture. 

That’s the hardest thing to do because you’re only measured by business standards. Not by quality, not by what you do, but how wealthy you are. So it’s as if a hospital were around the corner and you’re a patient and the hospital said, "You know, I’m not going to give you the best training or the best treatment is because I’m waiting for three generations for now when a patient comes in." My attitude is education would be more like a really good hospital. Our primary obligation is to the patient who comes in now, who is sick, who is right before us. Our obligation is to the students we have now, the faculty we have now, doing the right thing for the country now. Not being a bank, to protect ourselves so that we still exist for no apparent reason 100 years from now. 

Question: Is American higher education too homogeneous at the student or faculty level? 

Leon Botstein: American higher education is by any comparative standard more democratic than any other system of an industrialized nation. So although it isn’t as open and available as it should be, and the President is very right to try to press that agenda, it is still far more open and available than in many other countries with which we often compare ourselves. Second, it is a very uneven quality, particularly on the undergraduate level, but also the graduate level. That being said, by international standards, the American university system is still, in my opinion, the very best system in the world. And certainly at the highest levels of science and research and scholarship. Because the American university is structured to foster innovation and change. 

The European system is still very hierarchical and very rigid by comparison. So we’re a more flexible and responsive system, and we are I think at the cutting edge of both scholarship and research. The problem is that American higher education is underfunded, particularly state universities, and I would have wished that in the stimulus, the president would have done a new land grant act, would have really put federal money into all of the state universities directly. But the state universities are in a very touch circumstance. In terms of the ideology, I don’t think there’s a uniform ideology. There’s a tremendous amount of diversity in the university. Now the universities have always had, as all institutions have, a kind of wade in one direction or another. 

But it’s very slight. What makes the university very important is that it’s an aggregate of individuals. Universities never speak with one voice. Most people who teach in universities are deviants. I mean, who would be a mathematician? An average person is not a mathematician. An average person is not a physicist. Average person doesn’t worry about Chaucer. Average person doesn’t, you know, study Chinese literature. I mean, these are, you know, self-selected nuts by and large. You know, they’re not Ozzie and Harriet. They’re not your normal neighbors. These are people willing to spend time in archives studying rare, obscure things, or in laboratories looking at wacky looking fluids in computer screens. 

This is not what people do to grow up and normal people don’t do this. And these people are all trained to think for themselves and have their own opinion. Many of them do their own work. Now in science they collaborate. But in the humanities they write their own books, their own opinions. The quarrel about interpretations and facts and history. They’re eager to make their name for themselves in their fields. So the faculty that make the core of the university are by definition self-appointed individuals. Now they often belong to schools, when economics, their group of people thinks sort of alike, and in political science, their people think sort of alike, and literary criticism, there’s school of thought. But these are schools of thought, like fishes, with other schools of thought floating around. 

So in one university you have usually representatives of all of them. And while they might agree in a faculty meeting on something, it’s usually trivial. The most important stuff they don’t agree about. That’s why they teach their own classes, they have their own graduate students, their own research programs. Now, they made be allied with other people, but often the people they are allied with are not at the same university. They’re at other university. They have an international university of scholars. So the great thing about a university is that it doesn’t speak with one voice. So all the journalists who talk about the American academic community having a left-wing bias or a right-wing bias don’t understand the university. 

It is that most people who are individualists resist any party membership. They’re smarter than everybody who’s running for office. Now, when they make a choice, there are two candidates on the ballot so it’s a, when I vote I always think I’m making a choice of the lesser of two evils. I can think of a better way to do it to begin with. So in point of fact, the university is not a political entity. It’s an aggregate of individual students who come and go and faculty who are by definition non-conformists. 

Question: What lessons from your own life do you draw upon in overseeing Bard’s accelerated early education program? 

Leon Botstein: Bard runs three early college programs. One is Simon’s Rock, which is a residential program in Great Barrington. The other are two public high schools here in New York. Where in New York you enter after the eighth grade so you do nine, ten, 11, 12. At the end of the 12th grade, you get a junior college, an AA degree. At Simon’s Rock you entered after the tenth grade and then you do in two years an AA degree. You can stay for a four-year Bard B.A. Because I went to college at 16, people think this is autobiographical. It isn’t. 

I went to college at 16, that’s when I graduated high school. I wasn’t really prepared socially. I was thrown in at the University of Chicago, which was a terrific experience for me, with students who are largely older. There were a group of us who were 16. Chicago did specialize in taking younger applicants often, and, but it wasn’t because of my experience. It was my experience in the classroom, seeing young people come to college at 18 who had lost at least two years of their schooling and been turned off by bad schooling to learning. They had grown up, they were adolescent. They were fully mature. They were independent. 

They were independent consumers. They had independent social lives. They were sexually active already late in high school. They had matured. They were treated by society as young adult, except in the school. In the school they were treated as big children. And the fact is that I thought it’s a good experiment to see whether a large portion of the college-bound population would be better off starting college early. So at Simon’s Rock we accumulated a lot of data that showed it actually works. And so in the public sector in New York we have public schools, not charter schools that do this. It has been fantastically successful. 

In my view, for fully half of American high school students, schooling should end the end of the tenth grade. We should have a system that has six years of elementary and four years of high school. No middle school. No junior high school. And get young people out, let them start their education as adults at age 16. 

Question: What are the unique challenges faced by students who enter college early? 

Leon Botstein: Well, we have over 90 percent graduation rate and over 90 percent of them go on to further schooling. And they’re completely by class and race diverse. In New York our populations mirror the demography of the city of New York. What’s important is that they’re with their own age group when they start college. The older programs, 50, 40 years ago, put a 16-year-old into a college population whose average age was 19. And that’s a problem. Here they’re together as a group. When they go to four-year college, either for two or three years or four years, at the end of the 12th grade, when they have an AA degree, they actually enter as 18-year-olds with other 18-year-olds. They be advanced in their credits, but they’re with the same age group. So what we do is, we’ve created a system by which the young person is never out of touch with his or her own peer group.

Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman
×
Articles
  • Redefining "Meaningful Work"

    As we live longer and fewer of us are needed to provide the essentials of life, how can our society provide a sense of purpose to people’s lives through work?

comments powered by Disqus
×