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A Liberal Education

Should academics join the government?

Last month was decision time for the many academics who left their tenured jobs to work in the Obama administration. Universities standardly grant leave for at most two years, at which point a professor must either return or resign. Some, of course, can hope to be rehired later, but prudence often rules. Many of my acquaintances made the choice to return to writing and teaching. A few have stayed on. For a long time I’ve been comparing my free and sheltered life to those exposed and difficult lives, with a mixture of relief and guilt. I keep thinking of Cicero’s acerbic commentary on philosophers who refuse to serve the public realm: “Impeded by the love of learning, they abandon those whom they ought to protect.” Even worse, he accuses them of arrogant self-indulgence: “They demand the same thing kings do: to need nothing, to obey nobody, to enjoy their liberty, which they define as doing what you like.” It’s difficult not to hear that voice in one’s dreams, even if one believes, as I do, that writing itself can serve the public good.

While I pondered my own regal privilege and the recent choices of my friends, I happened upon a book that sheds as much light on such choices as any I know: A Liberal Education, by Abbott Gleason. Gleason is a respected historian of Russia in the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. He taught in the History Department at Brown from 1968 until his recent retirement—but with a two-year stint in Washington running the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a leading think tank focused on Russia and its surrounding states. Gleason’s father Everett, also a historian, made the opposite choice, leaving his tenured position at Amherst and taking on the jobs of chief of the current intelligence staff for the Office of Strategic Services, and of deputy executive secretary of the National Security Council. So Tom (as I always knew him, when we overlapped at Brown) grew up in two worlds, and this early experience informed his later choice.

Gleason was a child of WASP elite privilege, and he ultimately came to detest narcissism and egotism in all its forms, even those that masquerade as revolutionary zeal. That’s what makes this memoir, written with a lovely sense of irony (Orwell is his favorite stylist, and it shows), so tricky and so fascinating. As Tom depicts his early forays into left-wing politics while a Harvard undergraduate, some of the commitments were genuine—he ran real risks in the South during the civil rights movement. But there was also a lot of narcissistic hype, as he came to believe that he and his mostly Jewish friends (he congratulated himself both on having such friends and on being able to keep up, almost, with their smarts) would someday run the world, in a far better way than it had been run before. Meanwhile, as he shows, his own life contained stunning pockets of unexamined arrogance, particularly in his role as a husband who just expected that his wife would like everything he liked and do whatever was most convenient for his career. (It is a testimony to his interest in genuine self-knowledge that the marriage has endured and flourished.) The tale Gleason tells is, ultimately, one of patient self-unmasking and self-recreation, as his radical effusions gave way to a cautious and deeply unfashionable liberal individualism with conservative elements (the love of community attachments that he depicts historically in his best known book, Young Russia).

Where government service was concerned, Gleason took issue early on with contemporaries who denounced everything that went on there as corrupt, while saluting one another with canned revolutionary slogans. But he also knew how life in Washington, with its constant jockeying for reputation and power, its severe restraints on self-expression, had drained his father of joy over time, and he was determined not to be drawn too deeply in. After two years of what he regards as useful and enjoyable public service he had had enough. He had learned something—a richer sense of the reality of political choices, a new confidence in his grasp of the whole range of issues affecting Russia—but he saw that beyond a certain point staying there would not satisfy his desire to understand.

But why the academy? Gleason’s portrait of that life (my life, the life of those returners) is far from rosy. He trenchantly puts before us so much vanity, so much anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, so much disdain for the legitimate demands of students, that the reader begins to wonder why he didn’t run screaming away. He’s particularly rough—rightly—on Harvard, where both professors and students alike operated (and maybe we should use the present tense!) on an unearned assumption that they were indeed kings and that they would rule the world with their superior endowments.

And yet, there is just the delight of finding something out and teaching it to others. It’s deeply moving to see Gleason find, slowly, the subject that grabs his passions and, ultimately, sustains his life. Moving, too, to find that he connects his curiosity about Soviet history with the capacities for self-criticism and self-change that he slowly developed, and with his evident capacity for thinking critically and creatively about academic institutions. (He almost became provost while I was at Brown, but withdrew from the final group of two because of a health issue.) In the final chapter, he talks about his current struggle with Parkinson’s disease. As his body increasingly eludes his control, there is still the abiding pleasure of doing some work every day, learning just a bit more, being just a bit deeper as both thinker and person. He’s still getting a liberal education, and that, in the end, he suggests, is what life is really about.

I admire and honor my friends who have made Cicero’s choice for service and who stick by it. They are giving the world something that we who write all day are not. Reading Gleason’s powerful memoir, however, reminds me that it is not just cowardice or truculence that keeps us here in the study. It is something in which a reasonable person could reasonably hope to find the meaning of a life. 

Martha C. Nussbaum is professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago. She is the author of From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

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