David Gelernter Transcript
April 17, 2015
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very happy to have with me today David Gelernter, Professor of Computer Science at Yale, author of – brilliant author on so many topics, ranging from art to education, to Judaism, to America.
Let’s begin with America. Your most recent book is called America-Lite. Why is America “Lite”? Was it ever heavy? I mean, haven’t people been complaining about America-Lite for 200 years?
GELERNTER: I guess they have, they’re never ever any shortage of complaints. And it’s true. It’s something one really has to keep in mind that any generation looking back is likely to be wistful and nostalgic on how great it used to be. Of course, we’ve made progress in a million ways. How about dentistry? An obvious example. We’re so much wealthier in the middle class; we take this for granted, but I think of my parents’ generation, the middle class has made enormous progress.
But America-Lite. I’m a teacher of college students. I’m lucky to be at one of the best colleges in the world, at Yale. Our students are as smart as any in the world. They work very hard to get here. They are eager, they’re likable. My generation is getting a chip on its shoulder, we always thought we knew everything about every topic, our professors were morons, and we were the ones who were building the world.
My students today are much less obnoxious. Much more likable than I and my friends used to be, but they are so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are. You tell yourself stories; it’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the 20th century – just sees a fog. A blank. Has the vaguest idea of who Winston Churchill was or why he mattered. And maybe has no image of Teddy Roosevelt, let’s say, at all. I mean, these are people who – We have failed.
So America-Lite – what’s the problem? The problem is – the incredible richness of American civilization in the years after the Second World War, the generation after the Second World War. When we were creating such extraordinary art and painting, such extraordinary science and mathematics and engineering. Such extraordinary music. Gershwin – we were still in the Tin Pan Alley generation of Gershwin and Kern, and Cole Porter. Leonard Bernstein was the first American born maestro, and his young people’s concerts were broadcast by CBS, coast to coast. We were – people were excited about novelists. When Hemingway did something, shoot himself, it was front-page news. People knew and cared. They knew who Picasso was. He was a celebrity. They knew who Matisse had been. They heard of Jacometti, they cared about Chagall. Chagall was a big celebrity in the United States.
People were excited about culture and, for the first time, the arts. They were interested in science, too, but the arts were reaching not merely the educated and wealthy elite, but the broader middle class. There was an air of excitement about the arts and science. About the universities, about American culture. The American civilization when America art, American science, American engineering, American architecture could do. This was a generation of Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright, two of the dominant architects of the last 300 years.
So much was happening, it was so exciting. There was such a variety of great artists, of great art. And today, how have we gotten to this empty reservoir when we were overflowing with excitement about the intellect and the spirit of mind?
The religious community was part of that discussion, also. People knew who Abraham Heschel was. They had some idea of leading – won’t even get into that. But liberal protestant theology was well known and was discussed. The ferment in the Jewish community, was in some interest in Jewish culture, was starting to make inroads on American culture. People cared about what Yiddish was – and anyway how did we get to this point today when my students know nothing?
They know nothing about art. They know nothing about history. They know nothing about philosophy. And because they have been raised as not even atheists, they don’t rise to the level of atheists, insofar as they’ve never thought about the existence or nonexistence of God. It has never occurred to them. They know nothing about the Bible. They’ve never opened it. They’ve been taught it’s some sort of weird toxic thing, especially the Hebrew Bible, full of all sorts of terrible, murderous, prejudiced, bigoted. They’ve never read it. They have no concept.
It used to be, if I turned back to the 1960s to my childhood, that at least people have heard of Isaiah. People had heard of the Psalms. They had some notion of Hebrew poetry, having created the poetry of the Western world. They had some notion of the great prophets having created our notions of justice and honesty and fairness in society
But these children not only ignorant of everything in the intellectual realm, they have been raised ignorant in the spiritual world. They don’t go to church. They don’t go to synagogue. They have no contact – the Americans. Some of the Asians are different. Some of the Asians – and, of course, the Asians play a larger and larger role. But I think, from what I can tell, the Asians are moving in an American direction, and they’re pulling up their own religious roots.
But when I see a bright, young Yale student who has been reared not as Jew, not as a Christian, outside of any religious tradition, why should he tell the truth? Why should he not lie? Why should he be fair and straightforward in his dealings with his fellow students? He has sort of an idea that’s the way he should be, but why? If you challenge him, he doesn’t know. And he’ll say, “Well, it’s just my view.” And I mean, after all everybody has his own view.
KRISTOL: So we began in the 50s, and now we’re 60 years later. How did this, what were the big break points in your judgment from “Serious America” to America-Lite?
GELERNTER: It seems to me something happened. There was a historical event, which needs to be understood and recognized more clearly than it is. The cultural revolution in the United States, which people take for granted. If I tell people there was a cultural revolution, yeah sure, there were a lot of changes in the 60s. But it’s more than that. It’s a double change.
Colleges and universities. Let’s look at the generation after the Second World War. This is a cultural revolution, it seems to me to extend roughly from 1945 to 1970. So in 1970 everything is different. Things are radically different. And what happened during those 25 years? Colleges and universities became vastly, vastly more influential on American culture.
Journalists didn’t use to go to college. I mean, they could have if they wanted but some of the very best did not. A lot of highly intelligent people in highly influential professions, in the movie industry, people didn’t go to college. Loads of people didn’t go to college. You didn’t have to go to college to be a businessman. Some businessmen did obviously but lots of people did not. So the influence of colleges was limited to the upper classes. The upper-middle classes.
But in the generation after the Second World War there was an academicization; suddenly everybody had to get a bachelor’s degree. It was just self-evident that everybody had to go to college. And professional schools, journalism and education. Teachers didn’t have to go to ed school. Journalists didn’t have to go to J-school. Businessmen didn’t have to get an MBA. But suddenly all these professional schools. Not suddenly – they had existed before the war. There were journalism schools and education schools, but they were not terribly important. They were theoretical centers.
But after the war, suddenly, you had loads of journalists going to journalism schools so what Yale and Harvard teached them, Columbia, you know, matters a huge amount. Loads of teachers going to ed schools. Loads of businessmen getting MBAs. And so in this generation, American’s colleges and universities become much, much more influential than they’ve ever been before. And during the same time, I think the hardest kind of historical phenomenon to grasp are ones where there are two parallel processes working together.
At the same time, the universities were taking over by the intellectuals. The leadership of Yale is a dramatic example. Harvard, too, slightly less dramatic. But Yale and Princeton were created by WASPs, by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Most of them wealthy or at least wealthy-ish. They sent their children there. And they were run by WASPs who also built them. Who built the built the buildings, who donated the money, who donated the time to meet trustees.
They were WASP institutions, they were run by WASP businessmen, basically. But the idea suddenly that the professors at Yale and Princeton and Harvard should not be just generally WASPS with an occasional Jew but should be absolutely world-leading superstar thinkers. The best scientist. The best historians. This meritocracy, which we got very excited about and speaks very well for us as a nation, obviously.
But intellectuals are abysmally bad at running institutions. The idea that the President of Harvard or Yale should be a professor would have struck the WASPs of the 1920s as idiotic. I mean how, unless it’s really a socially serious professor who’s a member of the club, who gives his daughter a wedding in the right Episcopalian church.
These people were prejudiced but they knew what they were doing. They knew how to run an institution. I as an intellectual am an idiot at running institutions. Not my field. My field is to think and to write and to do whatever. But not to run institutions. I’m not a businessmen, I’m not an organizer. I’m a lousy person to run an institution. Now, I never will but the people who are running Harvard and Yale and Princeton are unfortunately too much like me. Are not as different from me as they ought to be.
They’re running the university down. They’re turning them into political instruments, as we all know. Now, the universities were always to the Left of the general population, at least throughout the 20th century, but they never used to be hard Left, and they never used to be propaganda sellers.
I mean, in the Second World War, America looked to Harvard and Yale and Princeton for its officers, obviously. Undergraduates were – there were close relations with Yale, particularly the State Department and the CIA, and Harvard, of course, had all sorts of political connections, and Princeton, too. But this idea of what you owed to the country. What you owed to the country, a Yale man, a privileged – he has all sorts of white privileges, male privileges, WASP privileges. What the hell. On the other hand, he also has obligations and duties; when the country’s in a war, he feels an obligation. He feels an obligation in general to the country, to – it’s his country. Wants to do his best for it.
The Yale – there was a book published – I don’t know a long time ago now – Harvard Hates America. We all know it’s true. Yale hates it worse. Princeton worse. Berkeley, Stanford, you know.
KRISTOL: What was the key? Was Vietnam the snapping point?
GELERNTER: Well, I think you saw these two processes just during the generation in which the Yale’s and Harvard’s and Stanford’s became vastly more important than every before, because now everybody has got to get a BA. And journalists have to go to journalist school, and businessmen and teachers and all these guys. Law’s a bigger profession than ever before. Medicine, suddenly doctors are making much more than anybody else – there was a period during which going to medical school was a frenzy.
And during this same period, universities were being taken over by intellectuals and moving hard to the Left. Intellectuals have also been Leftist, have always been hard to the Left. So the dramatic steer to the Left coincides with a huge jump in the influence of American universities. We have a cultural revolution. And the cultural revolution is that we no longer love this country. We no longer have a high regard for this country or for the culture that produced it. We no longer have any particular feelings for Western Civilization.
KRISTOL: All traditions are called into question, to say the least, you know.
GELERNTER: Exactly. The Judeo-Christian tradition means nothing to us, except in terms of hostility. And we have a generational shift so that when we start in the 1970s and 80s, suddenly public schools’ and college teaching went way down. Deteriorating. There was that famous report in the 1980s, mediocrity, saying mediocrity in the schools. In 1983 or something like that.
So the schools were failing to teach but at least the parents had been educated before the cultural revolution. You know, they’d been educated in the 60s and the 50s, some by the 40s or the 30s. So they – When their children were taught garbage, when their children were taught nonsense, when their children were taught outright lies, at least the parents could say, “Hold on, not so fast, are you really sure about that?” Or “You know, there are Republicans in this country, too.” Or, “You know, we’ve tried those policies, and they created catastrophes. Are you sure we should do this all again?”
But what happened in – as we move out of the 90s and into the new century – the children educated in the first generation of the cultural revolution in the 70s, in the 80s, in the 90s, those children are now the young teachers. And then the not-so-young teachers. And they’re the parents.
And so the children who were being taught nonsense and garbage and lies in school, instead of going home and having the parents say, “Well, wait a minute, this is really idiotic, by the way.” The parents say, “Yeah, that’s what I was taught, too.” You know, the same.
KRISTOL: The second generation.
GELERNTER: So we have second-generation ignorance is much more potent than first-generation ignorance. It’s not just a matter of one generation, of incremental change. It’s more like multiplicative change. A curve going up very fast. And swamping us. Taking us by surprise.
KRISTOL: And it seems to me – and of course, everyone has his own and so much prejudice is based on where and when you grew up and so forth – but what strikes me is the difference – I mean, people didn’t know much honestly in my generation or probably our parents’ generation.
I mean, there was a lot of faking it. A lot of what was then this middlebrow culture that was kind of vague knowledge of the name of an artist but not really knowing anything about his work. And in some ways the critique, at the time, the whole middlebrow thinking was anti-intellectual, people were almost complacent in it. But there still was this sense that you should know about X, Y, or Z. And it would be good to know more but you’re a busy person so you can’t have time to learn a language or to read or think but you admire the people who do.
What strikes me today is – correct me if I’m wrong – is there’s not even that sense of lack or of not knowing or knowing that you don’t know or admiring the people who really know. It’s almost not even a sense of what it would mean to really know something. Is that exaggerating?
GELERNTER: I think that’s exactly right. It’s certainly not the case that my education in the 60s and 70s, was anything to write home about. It sort of overlapped the cultural revolution, but a good deal of it was before. My parents often said, “Well, you mean they’re only teaching you that, they’re not teaching you this?” My parents themselves complained about the education they had gotten: “We wish we had studied this, we wish they had taught us that.”
But what we used to do and, for example, art education has always been a joke. Music appreciation was never taken seriously. But what we used to do was, at least, expose students to things that they might be excited about, that their own minds would propel them into. So they would know nothing about Beethoven in any deep sense but they would have heard a phrase from the Fifth Symphony, they would have heard a phrase from the Ninth Symphony or the Moonlight Sonata. Doesn’t mean they know Beethoven, but it means if they love music, the door is open, they have some concept of what culture is.
If you are the sort of person who responds to painting or who loves history or cares about writing or poetry, you still know it’s there.
KRISTOL: You have a sense that maybe you should want to know more; then if you have a taste for it, you then actually learn more.
GELERNTER: It’s a good thing to care about these things.
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