Michael Sandel
Professor of Government, Harvard University

Who are you?

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A child of the Midwest.

Michael Sandel

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught political philosophy since 1980. He is the author of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press), Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1996), Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (Harvard University Press, 2005), and The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Harvard University Press, 2007). His writings have also appeared in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The New York Times. The recipient of three honorary degrees, he has received fellowships from the Carnegie Corporation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Ford Foundation. From 2002 to 2005, he served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics, a national council appointed by the President to examine the ethical implications of new biomedical technologies. A summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brandeis University (1975), Sandel received his doctorate from Oxford University (D.Phil.,1981), where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He lives with his wife and two sons in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Question: Who are you?

Michael Sandel: I grew up outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, so I’m a child of the Midwest. And I grew up rooting for the Minnesota Twins baseball team. And I went to school in Minnesota until my family moved to Los Angeles when I was 13. And then I went to public school in Los Angeles … actually Palisades High School was my high school … just overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And then I went to college at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. And for graduate school, I went off to Oxford in England.

Well I’ve been interested, I guess, throughout my life in politics and the shape of American public life and civic life. And I can’t be sure that this is the source of it, but Minnesota always had a strong civic tradition and emphasis on civic life going back to the Democratic Farm Labor party, which had its origins in the Midwest. And it was still strong in Minnesota and the surrounding region when I was growing up. There was also … neighborhoods and community played a big part in life growing up in Minnesota. So I suppose there may have been some influences. Not that kind, but … .

I think I began really to think about these questions more fully and more clearly when I went abroad. I went to England to study after my undergraduate years. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought maybe a lawyer. Maybe a political journalist … that appealed to me a lot. And maybe I thought I would run for office and try to be a politician. And academia was in fourth place in my ideas when I graduated from college. And then I had an opportunity to go off to England to study full time, and really to read more, and study more without having to choose a particular path. And seeing America from a distance for the first time living in England – I wound up spending four years studying there – enabled me to see things about American politics that I had not been aware of living within the United States. And in particular what struck me was the way in which American liberalism had turned procedural, and had really become empty of the kind of moral and spiritual energy that I came to think any Democratic politics requires … any progressive politics require. And then I began to try and understand why that had happened historically, and also philosophically.

Recorded on: 6/12/07




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