It seems appropriate to be reflective on this very challenging Thanksgiving. Especially, perhaps, at my stage in the life-cycle.
As we approach the end of a truly horrible year for everyone, I am also approaching the end of what has been a genuinely rewarding and satisfying career. Not my only career–I’ve had several (my mother used to say I didn’t have a resume, I had an itinerary…) After twenty years of “professoring,” I will retire from the faculty of the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis at the end of the current semester, which is next month.
There are all sorts of emotions that surface at times like this. When I joined the faculty at what was then just SPEA–the School of Public and Environmental Affairs–I was conflicted about my separation from the Indiana affiliate of the ACLU, which I had directed for the preceding six years. (You can know that it is time for a change, and still be emotionally connected to a position. It’s like realizing that your baby has grown up and needs to be independent.)
Teaching at the university–my “portfolio” was law and public policy–has taught me so much. Far more, I’m sure, than I was able to impart to my students. Those students, by and large (there were definitely exceptions) gave me reason to hope for a kinder, better country and world–as I have said in many of the posts to this blog, I would turn the world over to the younger generation in a heartbeat! They didn’t always come into my classes with sound understandings of America’s history or legal traditions (okay, that’s being kind), but they came with good values and open hearts, and a desire to make the world better.
One of the things I will always be grateful for was the freedom the school gave me to design my classes and create new ones. Aside from my “Law and Public Affairs” classes, I created and taught Media and Public Affairs–originally, as a team teaching effort with Jim Brown, the then-Dean of the Journalism School, and later with others, including John Mutz, former Lieutenant Governor of Indiana. (I used to say it was a new preparation every year, because it was a different media every year…)
There were several other courses that I made up. One of my favorites was “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” basically a philosophy of government course.
I’ve just begun going through the detritus of the past twenty years, and I found my notes for that class. I was struck by the fact that the issues it focused upon were the same ones that consume discussions on this blog: what is government for? If–as Aristotle said–the good society is one that facilitates human flourishing–what should such a society look like? What do we mean by “human flourishing”? How should such a society be governed? What is the common good?
And of course, there is the constant question of balance–what concessions must individual rights make to the maintenance of the common good? (Could there be a better example of that tension than the one we see in the current, ugly politicization of mask wearing?)
As I leafed through my teaching binder for Individual Rights and the Common Good, I scanned the readings I’d assigned–beginning with Aristotle, proceeding through De Tocqueville and Rawls, Feinberg and MacIntyre and ending with several Supreme Court cases that put legal flesh on the philosophical “bones” of theory.
As I scanned the readings, I was struck once again by De Tocqueville’s observation that “Individualism is likewise dangerous to society because when a large segment of the population is isolated and indifferent to the welfare of those around them, they become unwilling and then unable to band together to prevent tyranny.” In my classes, we discussed this observation, the important differences between individualism and selfishness, and the meaning of De Tocqueville’s next sentences: “Equality puts men side by side without a common link to hold them firm. Despotism raises barriers to keep them apart.”
I will really miss hearing what my students think about America’s prospects in the wake of our recent, close encounter with despotism. For that matter, I will miss my students. A lot.
But when it’s time, it’s time.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.