July 6, 2010

Dear Colleague:  

     In America, “private” and “privacy” are good words. “Public,” by contrast, is somewhat suspect, suggestive as it does of faceless bureaucrats. In ancient Greece, it was quite the reverse. Recall that the word “idiot” is derived from the Greek word for “private.” To be a private person, living in the sheltered home, was to be an idiot. If one wished to be a fully developed human being, a citizen, one must be engaged with one’s equals in the city’s forum. In that period of European history known as the Enlightenment, the public sphere was again esteemed above the private. But what thinkers then deemed “public” and “private” was not what we now deem “public” and “private.” To us, places where all sorts of people gather, as, for example, the church, the theater, the marketplace, and, outstandingly, Hyde Park corner where political oratory is encouraged, are public places. Not so, however, to the thinkers of the eighteenth century, who would have relegated them all to the private realm. Public, to the likes of Voltaire and Diderot, was that sphere of activity in which they sat at their desks in their separate studies–one is Paris, another in Vienna, a third in Edinburgh, and so on–for the purpose of writing letters that addressed matters of high import.

     The traditional prestige of the public over the private appears to be based on biology: more specifically, on the human body. Our genitals are our “private parts,” exposed to another person only in the dimness of the bedchamber. Our brain, by contrast, openly displays its powers and wares. The private parts propagate the species, the brain propagates human excellence; the first we all have in roughly equal measure, the second differs significantly in quality from individual to individual. Hence, Enlightenment thinkers believed in an elite of the mind, as distinct from an elite of the blood (aristocracy), but both groups saw themselves as rising above the common herd.

     Fortunately, the ancient Greeks also elevated the body, as had no other people. Somehow they saw the excellence of the body as reflecting and at one with the excellence of the mind. Both were to be trained. Britain picked up this idea in the nineteenth century, and America followed suite. But with a remarkable difference. British universities are democratic in selecting the body but elitist in selecting the mind. American universities do the opposite: they are elitist in selecting the body–note how strictly football players are picked, but democratic in selecting the mind–note how relatively lax academic students are admitted. But this turns out to be an advantage to American universities. It makes them “public” in a way undreamed of by eighteenth-century thinkers. “Public” now means an unholy but highly creative mix of faculty and students in varying degrees of brilliance and preparedness, and of researchers of the highest caliber who also teach undergraduates, thus linking the mature with the immature. All these American arrangements exist in sharp contrast to the rigid separation of research and teaching, the tendency for faculty and student bodies to be homogeneous, that is the rule in European institutions. The result? American universities consistently rank among the best in the world. Universities in other countries now try to emulate the American model. In doing so, might they not also emulate the American ideal of the public–the res publica?

Best wishes,



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