DO I CONTRADICT MYSELF?," asked Walt Whitman. "Very well, then, I contradict myself..." Or, as John Ruskin observed: "Truth is polygonal." And so, too, is A. Bartlett Giamatti a human case study in contradictions and paradoxes.
A second generation Italian-American, Giamatti is the president of Yale University, once a bastion of Yankee WASPs. When he became the youngest modern-day president of Yale, one of higher education's prize posts, he joked that what he really wanted was to be president of the American League.
In this era of staggering financial problems in higher education, some universities seek "fund reaisers" for presidents; Yale, then with a deficit, instead chose a professor of comparative literature with no significant administrative experience but with an uncompromising dedication to academic standards; two years later, Yale had a balanced budget for the first time in 12 years.
And while national economic problems have prompted ever more students to pursue pre-professional, applied subjects, he has championed classical liberal arts.
If Giamatti himself is paradoxical, The University and the Public Interest is crystallized contradiction -- simultaneously brilliant and banal, insightful and obscure, challenging and disappointing. His first book on education, this is no homogeneous volume but rather a collection of 13 disparate essays, written originally as speeches, delivered between 1976 and 1981 to diverse audiences.
He notes in the Preface that the essays contain "no new legislative programs for action, no policy initiatives"; rather, they concern the "civic goals of education." The unifying theme of his essays, he states, is the conviction that "education in America is a powerful force for good."
Further, he candidly asserts that there is "a good deal of dealing in paradox in this collection." And then the caveat emptor: "The reader who does not share my sense of the need for contradictory connections... will find not ambiguity but confusion here." With that as fair warning, consider:
* Whereas he told the Modern Language Association that the humanities are central to a liberal education, he told freshmen (many of whom were pre-medical students) that there is a common fallacy "that asserts that a liberal education is synonymous with the humanities"; in fact, he told them, math and science are essential to be educated liberally.
* Whereas in 1980 he warned freshmen to beware the doomsayers of today, for their wisdom is "only fatigue masquerading as philosophy," in 1976 he gave Yale alumni a chilling, compelling account of the incontrovertible illiteracy of today's youth.
And so it goes. In part, these apparent changes in perspective or wording are the inevitable result of laying out one's thoughts on similiar topics, before different audiences. In part, they are nuances and refinements on a common theme, not so much contradicting one another as illuminating from various angles. And, in part, they are the artful practice of stressing a particular shading for a given audience.
This latter practice, long the politician's gambit, can be the educator's as well. After all, despite Giamatti's classics, modern higher education is not without sin; it, too, knows the ways of the world. Ironically, throughout the book, he disparages government and politicians; yet, he himself adroitly uses their ploys.
Before the MLA, he said humanities were central to liberal arts; in a Phi Beta Kappa lecture, usually attended by professors from many fields, he said, "at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching." Both assertions are true, but it does pay to know your audience.
Similarly, before the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare, he argued that government should not view education -- with its totally different form of financing and personnel practice -- as being like industry or government itself. Yet, on the Yale campus, he complained about the stereotypes of education: that professors often are thought not to live in the "real world."
And he protects us from unidentified foes. Private universities -- he told HEW and the Yale senior class, in a modified version of the same speech -- must be able to pursue truth responsibly and freely. These remarkably different audiences must have agreed, but who would not? On several occasions, he railed against government regulations; yet, he cites almost no specific examples, except for the notorious, widely criticized A-21 circular of OMB. Again, few would disagree with his frequent and lengthy defenses against unnecessary governmental intrusion and bureaucracy. But concrete illustrations of bad practice would be helpful, if the purpose is pragmatics and not polemics.
Finally, however, the cardinal paradox emerges: despite his contradictions and inconsistencies, Giamatti remains loud, clear and constant on what really counts:
* In this time of vocationalism, his commanding claims for the classics, the traditional, the basic, ring true, not just for now but always.
* In this time of a declining work ethic, he shields it and ennobles it, even as a historic Puritan piety.
* In this time of decay in the public schools, he places the problems in their proper historic context and argues that "the schools are the most important single asset the community holds in common."
* And in this time of questioning of education itself, he states its purpose lucidly: "to lead us to some sense of citizenship, to some shared assumptions about individual freedoms and institutional needs, to some sense of the full claims of self as they are to be shared with others."
Always the professor, Giamatti teaches as he preaches. Studded with historical facts and literary illusions, his own syntax instructs. Although sometimes convoluted and unclear, his language, like his own research, is from another century -- complex, civil and civilized. And his range of subjects -- modern schools, 19th-century scientists, Yale's athletics, to name but a few -- itself educates liberally.
To Giamatti, education is not only a "force for good" but also "the way to arrive at a forceful public good." That view, like his language, echoes from an earlier time. In our modern cynical world, we have begun to doubt. But Giamatti's arguments are sound, whether for the past or present. May they always be so.