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Awards & Honors: 2009 Jefferson Lecturer

Leon Kass Interview

Chicago-born Leon Kass, the 2009 Jefferson Lecturer, sat with Humanities magazine to describe how as a young medical doctor he joined the civil rights movement, then changed course to become a research scientist, but, as a result of reading Rousseau, Aldous Huxley, and C. S. Lewis, ended up studying Aristotle, teaching philosophy and literature, and becoming eminent in the field of bioethics.

HUMANITIES: Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?

LEON KASS: I was born in Chicago. I grew up on the South Side. My father had a clothing store on the South Side. I went to public school in a lower middle-class neighborhood, then moved on to University High School at the University of Chicago.

After two years I started college there as an early entrant. Robert Hutchins was gone, but I received the benefit of a good part of Hutchins’s “Old College.” And although I was not terribly well-educated there, I picked up certain salutary prejudices and was introduced to books that would later mean a great deal to me.

I went to medical school in Chicago, and met my wife, Amy, there, fifty years ago this fall. Then, after fourteen years in the diaspora, I returned with a desire to teach, which I did in the College and eventually also the Committee on Social Thought. It has been a joyous and satisfying career, primarily because of the students. I found that if you treated them as if they were better than they thought they were, they proved you were right in making the assumption.

HUMANITIES: I’m not sure people who know your work realize you have an M.D. How did you get to where you are from medical school?

KASS: I did a year of internship in Boston, and I did some outpatient work thereafter. But then I went back to graduate school and did a Ph.D. in biochemistry with Konrad Bloch at Harvard. My dream was to go into academic medicine and eventually come back to the University of Chicago in science and medicine. But I had a secret ambition to teach philosophical topics to undergraduates on the side.

In medical school, I was already interested in ethical and social issues, specifically questions of the inequities in the distribution of health care, racial prejudice in medical education, issues of the doctor-patient relationship, and things of that sort. This interest was awakened by some of what I had read in college, but mainly by certain teachings of my home, which emphasized the importance of moral and social questions. Mine was a left-wing, socialist, Yiddish-speaking background.

So, in medical school, I and some others tried to form a student organization to explore such issues. You needed ten students to form a registered student organization. I managed to get nine. Joseph McCarthy had died, but people were signing nothing.

During the Summer of ’64, Amy and I were traveling out west and we heard the radio report of the discovery of the bodies of the three civil rights workers. We made up our mind that the next summer we’d do something. We joined up with the Medical Committee for Human Rights and spent the summer of ’65 in Mississippi, ostensibly pressuring for community medical services, but in fact registering voters and trying to help organize black farmers in Holmes County, which is about an hour and a half north of Jackson.

That experience triggered the transformation of my life. In the fall I came back to Harvard with a nagging question. It was something like, Why did there seem to be more honor and decency in those uneducated black farmers in rural Mississippi than there was, and I mean no offense, among my fellow graduate students at Harvard? Many of my fellow students shared my altruistic left-liberal political opinions, but what struck me was that, in their own lives, they were all out for number one. They all wanted to see their names in lights, and were happy to elbow each other aside in pursuit of professional rewards. They were prototypical limousine liberals. Their compassionate concern for others cost them nothing, while they lived high and fast. The only explanations I could offer were that the black farmers were religious and churchgoing or that their virtues were the product of a simple life of poor but honest farming. Now, if either were true, then it called into question my intuitive belief that education and scientific and technological progress would put an end to superstition, suffering, and poverty, enabling human beings to realize their underlying morally good nature, and that finally all good things would walk hand in hand into the sunset.

At this point my closest friend, Harvey Flaumenhaft, who teaches now at St. John’s College and has been the dean there, gave me Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences to read. It was a wedding anniversary present in June of ’66, and this really knocked my socks off. Rousseau argues that not only is there no positive correlation between progress in the arts and sciences and progress in morals and taste, but, in fact, they are inversely related: Progress in the arts and sciences necessarily leads to the debasement of taste, the promotion of inequality, the decline of morality, and finally to a weakening of the populace, eventually leading to the loss of its freedom.

Rousseau’s argument is more subtle than I first saw, but its thesis was inconceivable to me, and yet by experience I was somehow ripe for it, and that was Point One.

Point Two was I discovered that you didn’t have to go to Mississippi to find large moral questions. In fact, there were some rolling around at my feet in the new biology. In Mississippi, the moral right was evident and the only question was how best to make it effective. In biology and medicine, the anticipated evils were the backside of the goods that we very much desired: longer life, cures for disease, freedom from pain and suffering, and so on.

HUMANITIES: What were some of the specific issues at that time?

KASS: Well, the structure of DNA had been discovered in the early fifties. The unraveling of the genetic code came in the early and mid sixties. It was a heady time. I remember a conference in New York in the mid sixties where distinguished scientists talked about the great day, visible on the horizon, when man takes control of his own evolution.

HUMANITIES: Is this because once you unraveled the code, you could manipulate it?

KASS: You could intervene not only to cure diseases, but to engineer improvements in human beings, not only to make them smarter but to deal with their aggressiveness, their vanity, and all the kinds of things that make trouble in the world. Biology could thus do what social science had tried but failed to do, namely, effect changes in human nature to bring about a better world.

Eugenics, which had been in the closet thanks to the Nazi horrors, but which had been a liberal movement here in the United States well into the twenties, was now making a comeback, only quietly.

HUMANITIES: Who do you have in mind?

KASS: In the thirties, there was a geneticist named Hermann Muller who talked about improving the species through voluntary germinal choice.

HUMANITIES: He won the Nobel Prize, right?

KASS: Yes, for showing how radiation produces mutation. He proposed something called germinal choice. Instead of allowing reproduction to proceed by the miserable lottery of romance-driven and undirected matings, it should be made possible for women to inseminate themselves with the donated sperm of geniuses. And, in fact, for about twenty years there was a Repository for Germinal Choice in California where various Nobel laureates and other luminaries made their deposits.

HUMANITIES: What happened to it?

KASS: The women were not as eager as Muller thought they would be, and the place closed, I think, for lack of business in 1999.

HUMANITIES: Were there others who promoted eugenics?

KASS: There was Joshua Lederberg, another Nobel laureate, who died last year. He used to write a weekly column in the Washington Post on science and society.

In the fall of ’67—I’m now at NIH—he writes an article called “Unpredictable Variety Still Rules Human Reproduction.” Scientists had just succeeded in cloning frogs a few years earlier, and Lederberg does a thought experiment on how cloning humans would enable us to perpetuate successful genotypes and find out whether the second Mozart could outdo the first. I was too earnest to see what levity there might have been in it, so I wrote a letter to the Post which was published, complaining about the moral neutrality and breeziness of this kind of talk. Then, with encouragement from my friends at NIH who promised to help, I offered the Post a series of regular responses to Lederberg’s columns, to produce some kind of controversy about the growing number of science-based social issues.

The Post invited me to lunch and offered me the platform. Two months later, the first heart transplant is done and Lederberg is in the Post with a six-column story on how simply wonderful this was. It was time to put up or shut up. So I wrote an article called “A Caveat on Transplants.” My friend Harvey blue-penciled the thing to death. I was a miserable writer. The Post published it, and it came to the attention of the people who were starting the Hastings Center, the nation’s first interdisciplinary research group (now a think tank in Garrison, New York) on ethical issues in the life sciences. I was invited to its first meetings in ’69, and that was a beginning of my work in bioethics. A year later, on behalf of Hastings, I approached the National Research Council to find out what its committee on life sciences and social policy was doing, and was on the spot offered, and soon accepted, a job as its executive director. On April Fool’s Day, 1970, I took a one-year leave of absence from NIH; it has turned into nearly forty years. Returning to the issues of those days, there was organ transplantation, cloning, and, soon afterwards, problems in determining whether a human being has died (the so-called definition of death). End-of-life issues and euthanasia questions were also emerging that—

HUMANITIES: These were all rattling around.

KASS: Or beginning to. There were also issues of prenatal genetic screening and, on the horizon, genetic engineering. The potential powers arising from neuroscience I saw coming, but there was as yet very little technical capacity for intervention, though there were enthusiasts for psychosurgery or electrical brain stimulation as a corrective for criminal behavior, and B. F. Skinner was pioneering operant conditioning as a form of behavioral control, paving the ground for direct technological intervention in child-rearing, soon to be refined by psychopharmacology. New capacities to alter the brain and the mind are the wave of the future, and I think the major area we need to be concerned about.

HUMANITIES: How did your time as an undergrad at Chicago affect this later interest in bioethics?

KASS: Before Chicago, I guess I thought of education as preparation for life, and therefore as a mere means, and life after education is where the action is. It took me a long time to see that education was a lifelong activity and that teachers were not simply instruments but in fact models of the best kind of thoughtfulness, and therefore, perhaps even, the best kind of life. One odd thing about Chicago back then was that we didn’t mainly read whole books.


KASS: We more often read excerpts. The curriculum was organized around themes and problems, not texts. There were fourteen year-long common core courses, one ofwhich was a philosophical integration course called “Organization and Methods of the Sciences and Principles of Knowledge” or OMP.

HUMANITIES: Were there any electives?

KASS: None. That was the old B.A. system. The university abolished it in 1953. The graduate departments wouldn’t admit the university’s own undergraduates without additional training. When I came in 1954, the college offered a joint degree, with requirements drawn both from the old college’s fourteen courses and from a departmental major; I majored in biology.

HUMANITIES: But you got some experience thinking about the big questions.

KASS: Yes. The first year was an appreciation of art, literature, and music, and we had some wonderful teachers. The second year was on the analysis of great works of literature, and the third year was on criticism. So you’d read Aristotle’s Poetics or Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty, and then you’d read various kinds of works and try to see whether these principles could be applicable. So this was three years of humanities.

For the first social science course the college faculty produced volumes called The People Shall Judge, containing primary documents of the American Founding and American history. The second course was about the self, culture, and society, with readings in anthropology, psychology, sociology. For the third year, the theme was freedom and order, which began with Plato’s Republic set in opposition to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

HUMANITIES: And you had superb scholars teaching these courses. But the same people weren’t teaching specialized courses?

KASS: No, they weren’t. We had a separate college faculty. The people who taught in the college, in this liberal arts-only college, didn’t have departmental appointments and when the Hutchins College ended, only a few were able to latch on to a department. The rest were not canned, but eventually they died out, and the place has not sufficiently renewed itself to produce in its distinguished faculty the same kind of dedication to general education and liberal learning.

In each course there was at most one lecture a week. The other classes took place around an oval table. We were all addressed as Mister or Miss, as were the professors. No one was Professor or Doctor. There was a kind of equality in the face of the real teachers, who were the books and authors before us. I remember being called Mr. Kass on my first day of class, and now I don’t have a single student who, on first introduction, will tell me his or her last name, but I thought of this as a welcome to adulthood. To be called after the name of my father was an invitation to maturity.

HUMANITIES: It’s amazing how those little things make a huge difference.

KASS: Yes. And I have to confess I was not a great student in the humanities or the social sciences. I did very well in the sciences. Because of that, I was given a biology adviser. In my last year in college, though, I encountered a remarkable teacher named Joseph Schwab, who had started out as a biologist and wound up teaching all the courses in the college except for history and foreign language, including the OMP course, the philosophical integration course. And he was a bit of an intellectual bully, but he showed me for the first time that there were questions where I was previously walking around unthinkingly with inadequate answers. He really woke me up, and I owe him a great debt.

I was interested in ethics. No one was interested in ethics in those days. It was all positivism. We could do away with the need for ethics through scientific psychology, sociology, and political science. But Schwab showed me that one could and should put philosophical questions even to the sciences, and that their foundations could not be scientifically demonstrated. He introduced me to philosophical questions about the nature of the organism and other kinds of larger philosophical matters that eventually became very much a part of my work.

So, I would say that Chicago gave me four things: this emphasis on the great books, a sense of maturity, the idea of embracing education as a delight in itself, and this very special teacher who woke me up philosophically and to what was beyond the merely ethical.

HUMANITIES: But then you go into medicine and the study of biochemistry before returning to the great questions.

KASS: I guess the transition from doing science to thinking about its human meaning happened like this. I acquired a real question, which is, What’s the relation between scientific and technological progress and moral and political well-being?

That was the gift of Mississippi and Rousseau. But my friend Harvey also gave me Brave New World to read and C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, and they really made it clear that the humanitarian project for the relief of man’s estate, especially with the help of modern biology, also carried with it a threat of the kind of dehumanization that Huxley shows you and that Lewis argues against, so that man’s conquest of nature might in the end turn out to be nature’s conquest of man.

As a consequence of this turn, certain books were now open to me in my search for the human and how to defend it. I mean, if the Enlightenment teaching on which I was booklessly reared was wrong, what then might be right?

HUMANITIES: What were you working on at NIH?

KASS: Molecular biology, certain problems of cell division and genetic stability in bacteria. It was wonderful. I mean, you know, you putter around in the lab, formulating your own research questions and doing your own experiments to answer them. You have real colleagues of the sort one rarely has in universities, who discuss your work daily and who read and criticize every word you write.

HUMANITIES: It’s a real collaborative situation.

KASS: Oh, NIH was wonderful. There were five of us, crammed together in a small room, and it was exhilarating.

While still at Harvard, I had organized a student-faculty discussion group on ethical issues and new biology. That’s ’66–’67. But now I was also interested in questions of human nature and its relation to ethics, to the human good, and soon additional questions about the relation between the sciences of life and life as actually lived.

At NIH, around ’68, I started meeting with my friend Harvey to read, once a week, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I was looking for a deductive and indubitable ethics, but it didn’t satisfy my wishes. Ironically, it later became one of my favorite books, which I am now teaching for the twelfth or thirteenth time, in Chicago. I next read Aristotle’s Physics, and this opened up another big area for me.

I saw that there were not only ethical challenges raised by new technologies, but underneath that was the challenge posed by the scientific view of nature, and of human nature, for the traditional understandings of man, society, morals. And I saw that one could raise questions about the adequacy of that scientific view.

The practical and ethical issues of the new technology eventually came to seem the least profound. The greater difficulty comes from adhering to a scientific view or account of human or animal life that is not interested in what life is, that has banished the idea of a “soul,” that understands the human animal, just like any other animal, as a machine actuated by pleasure and the need for survival. In this connection, a very important book for me was Hans Jonas’s The Phenomenon of Life, which I read in 1968. It took every ounce of my intellectual grit to understand its remarkable arguments, but it really took the scales off my eyes.

Here was a man who philosophized profoundly about the phenomena of life but in full acceptance of modern scientific findings, and who showed me how to begin to address a disquiet that I had but did not yet know how to articulate, about the insufficiency of the reductionism of molecular biology, the field in which I was immersed.

Jonas showed me how to philosophize about living nature in a way compatible with modern science but without taking the scientists’ materialist view. I had a wonderful year of philosophical study in 1973–74, thanks to a grant from NEH for a project on the concept of organism, species, and health in ancient and modern thought. I spent the time reading Descartes, reading Aristotle’s On the Soul. By then, I’d gotten hooked up with St. John’s College, where my education got a further boost.

I taught the laboratory course in biology at St. John’s. There they read Aristotle’s The Parts of Animals, which I read—

HUMANITIES: This was a lab course?

KASS: Yes, we did dissections and embryological demonstrations, but these were backed by readings of great books I’d never read before (including Galen, William Harvey, Claude Bernard, and Charles Darwin). I learned more about living nature in that course than I learned in medical school, not more information, but a deeper appreciation of what an organism is, of how to think about aliveness and mortality, about both the gains and losses of a mechanistic understanding of life. So this was terrific. When I went back to Chicago in 1976, I did so with a new preparation and energy.

HUMANITIES: Was this a turning point for you?

KASS: I don’t know if there was a single turning point. From the inside, it seems like a continuous journey. I don’t have the precise words for what animates it, but if you put together what my mother and father were about, my interest in ethics, my thinking about the insufficiencies of modern science, my concern for how our humanitarianism may lead us to the dehumanization of Brave New World, and my devotion to liberal education as a search for wisdom, the continuous thread appears to be a search for the nature of our humanity and for the ways that elevate and perfect its possibilities—intellectually, morally, communally, and spiritually.

HUMANITIES: How did your scholarship and writing develop in the years after you returned to Chicago?

KASS: In the seventies and early eighties, I wrote essays on bioethical topics, from making babies to patenting life; I also wrote on the changing goals of medicine, the doctor-patient relationship, and the intrinsic ethic of the medical profession, as captured in the Hippocratic Oath. And I made my first forays into philosophical anthropology with essays on the meaning of embodiment, natural teleology, mortality and morality, and possible natural pointings toward nobility. My first book, in 1984, used these essays to call for a more natural science, one that would be truer to life as lived and that might give better guidance for how to think about the ethical issues of the new biology.

My next book, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, was an attempt to illustrate such a more natural science, using the phenomenon of eating, beginning from the meaning of metabolism and human omnivorousness to customs just, noble, and holy that clothe the human animal in elevating ways. Although I continued to keep my hand in matters bioethical—writing in opposition to euthanasia, cloning, and physician-assisted suicide—I began to be more interested in larger cultural and social issues—the decline of marriage, the breakdown of the family, the overturning of traditional mores—about which I began to write. It was also about this time that I began studying the Hebrew Bible, particularly Genesis, whose stories spoke powerfully to me about the permanent problems of the human condition. To my great astonishment, as a result of teaching Genesis some ten times over fifteen years, I produced a commentary on the entire book, in 2003, called The Beginning of Wisdom. Another collection of my essays in bioethics, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, was published the year before.

HUMANITIES: Those books appeared while you were chairing the President’s Council on Bioethics.

KASS: Yes, and also happily a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Although most people thought of the council as the stem cell council, President Bush gave us the privilege of trying to develop a richer way of doing bioethics, charging us with conducting fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of advances in biomedical and behavioral science and technology. During less than four years, we produced five book-length reports, a white paper on morally unproblematic ways of getting pluripotent stem cells, and an anthology of ninety-five humanistic readings on neglected topics in bioethical discourse, available for teaching, entitled simply, Being Human.

HUMANITIES: There’s one factor we left out, Amy, your wife.

KASS: Yes. Amy was always interested in the humanities and history. She was a student of the late Karl Weintraub, a legendary teacher of Western civilization and a splendid human being.

HUMANITIES: You met her at Chicago?

KASS: Yes, in 1959. I was starting my second year at medical school. She transferred from Antioch, she said, because she’d learned all the folk dances. And she majored in intellectual history and we were married about a year and a half later, before my last year of medical school and before her last year of college. When I went to intern, she went off to study with Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis.

HUMANITIES: I didn’t know that.

KASS: The History of Ideas program. She couldn’t stand it or him, so she wound up teaching University of Chicago-type courses at a new high school in Sudbury, Massachusetts, while I finished my degree. Then she took a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of education at Hopkins, writing her dissertation on the efforts of Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Scott Buchanan, and Stringfellow Barr to revive the liberal arts and the Great Books, leading to the programs at Chicago and St. John’s, places to which we had been attached.

Then we both go back to Chicago in 1976. Amy begins teaching Common Core Humanities, but for the next year she and I and four other colleagues decided we should try to improve those common core offerings, and we designed the “Human Being and Citizen” common-core double course, both social sciences and humanities, taking the theme from Plato’s Apology of Socrates: What is a good human being? What is a good citizen? And the latent question, What if they don’t match, what then?

These were yearlong courses. I attended and participated in all her classes, she attended and participated in all of mine. The readings were terrific. In the fall quarter, the humanities list was the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Meno, the social sciences list was the Oresteia, the Republic, and Thucydides. In the winter, we read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, Genesis and Exodus, one of the Gospels, and a Shakespeare play. Spring opened with questions of American citizenship, reading Founding documents, the Federalist papers, Tocqueville, and Lincoln, while exploring ethical writings of Rousseau and Kant and critiques of liberal democracy in Marx and Freud. We finished up with War and Peace or some other great novel.

Teaching with Amy was exhilarating. She also taught elective courses on Homer—the Iliad, the Odyssey—and I also got hooked on these. Three times we taught an elective course devoted solely to War and Peace, my favorite novel. We also put together an anthology on courting and marrying and taught that a few times. And it’s really from her that I’ve learned how to read and teach literature. She’s really a magician at making the text come alive.

I have over the years begun to get the education that the Hutchins College aspired to. And I have learned that if you teach these books as if they offer a royal road to understanding the deep and enduring questions of our humanity, read not as part of a canon that you have to assimilate, but because they might just show you the truth you most desire, it’s amazing how quickly students catch on and become willing to try out their half-baked ideas with you, even if it’s very much against their cultural prejudices.

Let me give you an example. We’re teaching the course on courting and marrying, using our anthology, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. In one of the early readings, an excerpt on relationships from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, the discussion produces remarks like, ’To be married to the same person for twenty-five years is preposterous,’ or a young woman says, ‘You know, we’re not supposed to get married until we’re at least twenty-eight, so all our relationships with men are supposed to be impermanent.’ Another young woman says, ‘Casual sex with men is terrific. It gets the sex thing out of the way so we can now be friends with men in the way women could never be before.’

I’m thinking to myself, God, Where did they get these goofy ideas, and What in the world are we going to do with these people?

Late in the quarter, we come to a colloquy, “On Courtship,” by Erasmus, an eight-page dialog between a young man and a young woman. He is both in lust and in love, whereas she is interested in marriage. This dialog is not about how things are, but how they might be if you wanted to liberate young people from arranged marriage: Courtship could take the spark of love and discipline it in the direction of marriage. In the colloquy, the young woman puts the young man through his paces, gets him to approve everything she wants, then sends him to her parents for their blessing. He says something like, ‘Wouldn’t you, as a little token of your affection, give me a kiss at least?’ And she says something like, ‘Would you like me to bestow my kisses on others?’ He says, ‘No, I’d like you to save them all for me.’ She says, ‘Then I’ll save them for you. Let’s shake hands.’

While I am dreading what students are going to make of this, Amy, inspired, says to the class, “What’s a kiss?” and the same students in rapid succession say, ‘A kiss is the most erotic thing imaginable.’ ‘A kiss is the sharing of the breath, which is the spirit.’ ‘A kiss is a promise.’ ‘A kiss is a small consummation.’

What you realize is that their earlier comments about casual sex and whatnot were just superficial talk, and maybe a defense against taking risks or being betrayed or disappointed in love or in other things that life promises. In truth, the’re all looking for a meaningful life. They all hope to find lasting love and friendship in life. The great works of the humanities open them more fully to these possibilities. They legitimate and reflect back to them their true hopes and longings. They give them the words to describe their deeper selves and loves. And they furnish their imaginations with vivid examples—good, bad, and mixed—of how to negotiate the wonderful but challenging task of being human.

HUMANITIES: So with just a little prompting, students will look to the humanities for pathways to answering great questions, about self-understanding, about love and friendship, the duties of citizenship, and the meaning of life.

KASS: Empower would not be too strong a word for what effect such an education can have on students. The reigning humanistic scholarship, meanwhile, is interested primarily in the contextualization of these works, in issues of authorship, and questions of power and social circumstances, inequities and difficulties, race, class, and gender. Many humanists are just too sophisticated to recognize that their students are actually interested in the truth.

HUMANITIES: So the scholars are seeking to be scholarly and the students, with some prompting, seek truth.

KASS: Exactly. To address this problem, with help from the Endowment, we started in 1983 a degree-granting undergraduate major called “Fundamentals: Issues and Texts.” Allan Bloom was the principal visionary of it, joined first by James Redfield and myself, and then some other people from the Committee on Social Thought. I chaired the program for its first eighteen years. This major allows serious students to formulate their studies around questions of personal intellectual concern: Can war be just? What is the meaning of marriage? What’s the point of travel? These questions are pursued primarily by means of the intensive study of a small number of individually selected classic texts, taught in single-text classes, books that can and should be reread and reread again and that can actually change your life, enable you to think differently, books that may be your friends for life.

This program has flourished. Many of the students who come are interested in literature but they can’t find in English departments people who will read books in relation to questions that interest them. We have between thirty and forty students majoring in “Fundamentals,” but we also offer some thirty to forty courses on individual texts, which are open to the campus as a whole, and we recruit fellow travelers from other departments, who have the nerve to teach something other than their specialty, because they feel like it.

HUMANITIES: When you hear the phrase “research in the humanities,” what does it mean to you?

KASS: Well, look, there was a time when I didn’t appreciate the caricatured humanistic scholar, the gray-bearded guy locked in a windowless room in the bowels of Harvard library, learning more and more about less and less. But, over the years, having seen something of the politicization of the humanities, the deconstruction of texts that allows people to feel superior to great books without knowing anything at all about them, and the noxious idea that a text means whatever you say it means, I’ve come to have a new admiration for the people who really care for and are interested in studying the humanities because they love them. They find, even in small things, ways that someone has chosen to either express or to give an account of how other human beings have negotiated the human condition.

So, really careful, rigorous scholarship, the desire to get things right, that’s gone way up in my estimation compared with today’s politicized or “relevant” scholarship.

Still, it would be very nice if we could get more and more people to do real research, serious, careful, truth-seeking, evidence-based research, into the larger questions as well. And one of the great things, it seems to me, about the Endowment in the last eight years, and also the Endowment when I had the honor of serving on the Council under Chairmans William Bennett, John Agresto, and Lynne Cheney, is that a lot more of that scholarship is now going on, is being funded, it is being honored. The We the People initiative is a fine example.

The teaching of today’s scholars is not necessarily the sort that students need, nor is the research necessarily the sort that illuminates what one would want to have illuminated. Scholars with a real passion for real questions that leads them to careful, meticulous thought can really help people, especially young people, get into and appreciate more deeply the books and questions that, if not already on their minds, ought to be on their minds.

HUMANITIES: I would say that characterizes your work.

KASS: I have been led to books that I never thought I would study.

HUMANITIES: And to questions that you never thought you’d tackle?

KASS: Yes. But, as you don’t have to be told, the humanities first took their name in contradistinction not, as we now think, to the sciences, but to the “divinities,” to theology and religious thought.

Science, natural philosophy, was once a branch of what we now call the humanities, and for most of my life, it never occurred to me that attention to what the humanities long ago left behind might be sorely needed for a well-founded liberal education.

So having made Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics the centerpiece of my teaching for fifteen years, certain parts of the Bible—Genesis and Exodus—have become the centerpiece of my teaching over the last fifteen years.

HUMANITIES: You returned to the old definition.

KASS: At a certain point, it began to dawn on me that we couldn’t presuppose today the same kind of rearing or the same kind of habits and manners that my parents and the cultural ethos of my youth insisted on. I began to wonder whether the humanities without the “divinities” could, despite their grandeur, lay the foundations of a flourishing and decent life. I began to wonder what talking about character and happiness in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics could really mean to people whose character was still in formation but whose sensibilities have been shaped by television, rock music, and the popular culture.

So, I began to be interested in the question of the broader culture, and especially the place of religious thought in liberal education and the pursuit of wisdom. I have pondered the difference it might make if people are taught to look up to righteousness and holiness, rather than to the emancipation of their mind, which is, of course, the central goal of a classical liberal education. So, nearing the end of my career, the tension between the competing claims and goods of Athens and Jerusalem is alive and well with me, and I walk both sides of the street in my teaching—last year it was Exodus, this year it is Aristotle.

Although the suspicion that Rousseau had of popular enlightenment remains with me, I am devoted to the study of both the Great Books and the Good Book, after the fashion of St. John’s College. The pursuit of wisdom remains, in my view, the highest vocation of a teacher—and a student. But a liberal education and enlightenment that is at least mindful of the great works of the world’s great religions is surely wiser than the sorts of education and enlightenment that have tried to prosper by kicking them out.

In this day and age, we should seek and hold dear whatever wisdom we can find, wherever we can find it.

—From the May/June 2008 issue of Humanities.