Vartan Gregorian

A Man for All Seasons, Part II

VTR Date: April 22, 2004

Dr. Vartan Gregorian discusses his career and the state of education.


GUEST: Dr. Vartan Gregorian
VTR: 4/22/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Dr. Vartan Gregorian, historian, educator, administrator, foundation chieftain … truly a man for all intellectual seasons, about whom a New Yorker profile discerningly wrote when he was at that historic institution: “The New York Public Library houses many treasures, but few are as colorful, complex, enigmatic, civilized and stimulating as Vartan Gregorian, its President and Chief Executive Officer.”

Add a few more descriptives such as vital, brilliant, energizing and one has a pretty good picture of my guest years before as a teacher at Stanford, at the University of Texas, at the University of Pennsylvania; then later as President of Brown University and now as head of the prestigious Carnegie Corporation of New York.

All of which, of course, is grist for our mill as we pick now where we left off last time. And Dr. Gregorian I know that you have written, spoken about the importance of being good ancestors. What do you mean?

GREGORIAN: Each of us can live a life for our own sake or can live a life for the sake of our forefathers, mothers … our nation, our community, our society and can live for the moment or can live also for the future.

If you decide to live for the future, because you believe in continuity of humanity, continuity of our nation and society, you have an obligation to be a good ancestor. Because what we inherited from our ancestors puts a major obligation for us to leave a better world than we inherited. That’s why I say “we have to be good ancestors”. We have responsibility for our children, grandchildren … if we don’t have children and grandchildren, for our mothers and fathers. If we don’t have mothers and fathers, for relatives. If we don’t have relatives, our village, our farmers … we have obligations.

Life is a series of opportunities, gratifications along with major obligations. And that’s why I was …

HEFFNER: Obligations. Responsibilities. This is an age, many people say, of dumbing down …


HEFFNER: Has … isn’t it also an age when we have diminished our sense of obligation? Diminished our sense of responsibility?

GREGORIAN: Yes … more or less, unconsciously and consciously we’ve done that. Because the rhetoric and facts don’t coincide always. People will like to live an instant gratification life. Everything is instant. Instant coffee. Instant sex. Instant this. Instant that. And so forth.

Sometimes I feel that comes out of a sense of desperation because there’s no value system holding one’s life together. People are desperate to spend it all, to live it all because there’s no future, there’s no past, only present as Orwell described … becomes an end in itself. That nihilism is one of the things that has scared me to come up with a notion that we have to be good ancestors.

Because we’re not just socio-economic units, pleasure units. We’re spiritual, complex, rational, social beings, with memories of thousands of years and imagination for infinite. And to confine all of that to instant something … ephemeral … it’s not been acceptable to me. So I always have stressed the fact that one has to live as we discussed last time … a full life … a fuller life. Not one of just “what I can do”, but also “what I cannot do” for the sake of future.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “What I cannot do”?

GREGORIAN: Well, for example, we can exhaust all the energy of the world in one generation, to hell with the next generation. We can cut all the trees, deforest everything. Mine everything because we’d like to life a better life for the next 30, 40 years, so what happens to our great grandchildren? Who cares? What happens to the rest of humanity? Who cares?

One percent of us maybe exhausting 30% of human resources, who cares? That kind of attitude is what I’m saying that will be destructive in a sense. Fulfilling … yes … you’ll live a better life and a richer life and so forth. But you’re postponing all the consequences to future generations, if there are future generations.

That selfishness is one of the things that fascinated me when I came to America as freshman. Because one of my favorite authors, that my wife is fed up with … is Alexis de Tocqueville.

When he came to America in 1835 and wrote his classic “Democracy In America” he made a fundamental observation which I thought combined the secular and the spiritual elements in our culture. He said, “In America” … he coined the term “individualism” to describe the American character … “Individualist was not self-centered nor selfishness.” His notion of individualism combined the public good and the private good. Possibility of your postponing personal gratification and personal fulfillment. To also put in the public context, he thought what made America great … that local communities helped each other; that individuals were able to rationalize … “that I can do this, but I should not because of the public good”. That sometime private good and public good can be coordinated, have to be coordinated. That impressed me very much. That the element of individualism did not mean selfishness and personality cult and instant gratification; it meant decisions you have to make has social context, historical context, moral context. And that appealed to me. That’s what I mean.

HEFFNER: What happened to the America that he described all those years ago?

GREGORIAN: There’s a division between our rhetoric … between religion and religiosity; between ethics and legality, we think anything is legal … law has taken care of ethics. Or …

HEFFNER: Law has taken care of ethics? If it’s …

GREGORIAN: If it’s legal … it’s ethical. You can always find a loophole; you can always find a comma missing; a period missing; an exclamation missing and a paragraph irrationalized. We also … something else happened I think that we always have taught about rights, but not about obligations. A society is not about rights along, it’s also about obligations. And obligations are not only legal, but are moral, ethical obligations. So take one course in law school about ethics; take one course in business school about ethics is not enough. It’s like taking … one place I mention in the book … fifty great moments in music by Milton … it has opening lines, but you don’t have to know the rest. But that’s not enough. I mean ethics is a daily phenomenon, it’s not a course phenomenon, one has to practice, one has to understand. Somehow those have become empty words now or have become formulaic in a sense.

But the essence is what is important that people believe in certain standards, certain moral taboos, certain ethical obligations that some things we cannot do. Not because the law prohibits … because it’s not right to do.

HEFFNER: Do you think that that awareness of what is right or not right to do can be achieved outside of the framework of religion?

GREGORIAN: Yes. I think our schools … literature, where do you teach literature? Literature is about ethical obligations, literature is about human relations; literature
is about love, about caring, about illness, about aspirations, about tragedies.

We teach in our society how to cope with success only. We never teach how to cope with adversity and failure and tragedy. I believe one’s character is better demonstrated during times of tragedy and adversity than during times of success. Anybody can cope with success.

But we don’t teach how to cope with adversity when one’s character, one’s ancestral obligations, one’s moral character is tested. One’s values are tested. Because we’re very afraid to discuss these issues … openly in many ways. So we hide behind the law.

This is a country of laws, that’s fine. But it’s also a country of values and values have to be taught, not preached through literature, through history. I think history and literature are one of the best elements in which we can discuss about betrayal, about friendship, about love, about patriotism, about social obligation, about the poor, about the rich, about justice, about equality, or tolerance. They’re all in literature.

HEFFNER: Do you …

GREGORIAN: How you teach literature, how you teach history, how you teach to reflect the reality of our lives and our aspirations, the gap between our aspirations and our reality. I think we have put too much emphasis on selfishness, self … individualism has become personality, self-centeredness. The social element has receded and that was not what de Tocqueville’s America was supposed to be. Maybe it was idealistic even then. But I believe that is one of the things that ought to distinguish our society from the rest.

HEFFNER: You feel that it ought to distinguish our society from the rest. What responsibility and this may seem to you to be a strange question … what responsibility do the great foundations like the one that you head …


HEFFNER: … have to point us in that direction?

GREGORIAN: Well, one of the things we’re doing in many ways … we have to fix our school systems. People cannot read and write, to preach them values is not enough. When 800,000 young men drop out of our high schools a year, that’s wasted. We’re trying to fix our higher education; schools of education I mentioned … very much about the content of schools to deal with these kinds of issues. Issues of learning, but also issues of content, curriculum.

We’re dealing with the issue of strengthening US democracy. Voluntarism is prevalent in America among our youth. I don’t believe our youth are selfish, ironically, I tell you this.

HEFFNER: We teach them to be, then.

GREGORIAN: We transform them to be selfish because you have now hundreds of thousands of young men and women volunteer their summers, their evenings and others, for Habitat for world, that travel abroad to build, to teach in elderly hostels and hospitals and community centers.

But they don’t participate in our political life. So we’re engaged now with campus compact which brings almost a million college students … we’re studying how civic engagement should be very central to American educational system. We also are trying to re-introduce civics in our elementary and high schools, and so forth, because civics has become a boring course, rather than being made exciting as a living mechanism to instruct us about our democracy and our society, about our values. So we’re trying to do this through Carnegie and various other foundations.

HEFFNER: Do you think that … I’ve discussed this matter of the teaching of civic with people who are very much aware of what we’ve lost by eliminating civics from the curriculum … do you see this as successfully taking place?

GREGORIAN: Yes. Now, many governors, many educators and many states are interested in a re-introduction. As a matter of fact I spent a wonderful weekend with three Supreme Courts Justices, I’m trying to convince them that they should write a textbook on civics … taking …

HEFFNER: Good luck.

GREGORIAN: Well, I don’t give up … as an educator … never have given up on things that I want people to do for the sake of the nation. They were very nice to pick up 18th, 19th and 20th century cases, not current cases … they cannot pass judgment. And explain how their ancestors, their predecessors handled moral dilemmas, such as Cherokees were pushed out and the Supreme Court ruled that they must not be moved. Andrew Jackson moved them out …

HEFFNER: And said …

GREGORIAN: And said, “I don’t care what Supreme Court says …” What are his consequences? One of the things I found out … through this wonderful seminar the Supreme Court Justices gave … that then various states said, “If the court does not come, we don’t want to pay income taxes or taxes.” And so … “Wait, wait, this is country of laws.”

So to show that you cannot be selfish, you cannot just be whimsical, this is country of responsibilities as well as rights. And the Supreme Court re-emerged again with all its might and respect. So why not I said, put cases like this and others, where living elements and then it relates to people’s lives.
Against the death penalty, let’s say, in the past and current moral debates, these are all moral issues, ethical issues. But in the 21st century you can kill somebody in order to take revenge … revenge, retribution all those are ethical questions. If somebody reads Doestovsky’s Crime and Punishment … you can read that as an ethical document, not just as dead literature and for criticizing the structure of sentences and so forth.

But the point is people are starved … there was a freshman … in one of the speeches, maybe you have, that surveyed Freshman entering class in America … millions and millions of students. 75% to 80% said they want to go to college for meaning in their lives … to obtain some meaning. Not just jobs … meaning, people are starved for meaning. If universities won’t provide, if our society won’t provide, esoteric religious sects will fill that vacuum … spiritual vacuum, and that’s one of the reasons we have to re-introduce civics in the life and structure of our society. Not in terms of how many times you mention Malcolm X or Cesar Chavez or George Washington, and so forth. But what are the major issues that our nation has tackled in the past and should tackle in the future? And has to deal with now?

HEFFNER: You know, I can’t think of anything more important than what you’re talking about now … however, in the time left, I want to ask you a question that may seem way out … it has to do with the responsibilities, again, of foundations … when Peter Goldmark was head of the Rockefeller Foundation and was at this table, he spoke about all kinds of wonderful, to me … wonderful social programs.

And then I asked him, what right does a foundation have to push in the direction that our political forces seem not to want to push in …


HEFFNER: … at the very same time.


HEFFNER: You deal with … from your strength of tax exempt monies …


HEFFNER: Yet you, at times, fly in the face of the nation at large. Explain that to me, rationalize it for me.

GREGORIAN: I will explain, I won’t rationalize …

HEFFNER: Okay [laughter]

GREGORIAN: Foundations … first of all, let me tell you one thing, which we may open up now … at one point … 4 million non-profit organizations in the United States. That, in my opinion, are one of the major guardians and forces of American civic life. Civil society. That they’re the ones who provide a civil society for us, in a sense, but private initiative, or local organized initiative helping our hospitals, our museums libraries and others. Within that context foundations have two roles … one is to fulfill their mission established by their founder. In our case our founder, thank God, gave us a wonderful mission … international peace and the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

HEFFNER: What more could you want?

GREGORIAN: That’s fine. I believe foundations can provide demonstration of projects, of thoughts, scholarship and others which may go against the trend of our times. And we have an obligation to do that in a free society. Free society is not about orthodoxy, it’s about heterodoxy.

As a matter of fact, if you read our history, sometimes heterodoxy has become orthodoxy. So in this kind of situation, everybody cannot just play the same tune. You have to provide alternatives; you have to challenge; you can also support, that does not mean that all foundations have to challenge. But we are incubators of ideas and then later we’ll find oxygen tanks for them … we don’t provide oxygen tanks, so I believe … for example … let me just mention … it’s Carnegie Corporation that started Russian research centers at the height of the Cold War because there was little knowledge about the Soviet Union. Harvard, Columbia, everywhere … Stanford … it’s us that bring Soviet Generals and American Generals together.

Can you imagine the State Department trying to do that? And going before Congress to justify the expenses to bring Soviet Generals to visit Pentagon, and vice versa. But we thought, and now we’re still doing it until recently, Generals … knowing each other is as important as diplomats knowing each other. It’s us who brought together Track Two Soviet scientists and others so we can play a very positive role without being part of the established orthodoxy.

We have to be, what my hero, John Gardner, said … “we have to be critical lobbyists and lobbying critics, but never indifferent.” And that’s what my philosophy is.


GREGORIAN: When it comes to democracy; when it comes to issues of war, peace and so forth we cannot be neutral.

HEFFNER: And thus far, I gather you’ve been able to finesse the situation with an occasionally angry Congress.

GREGORIAN: Well, I don’t know about Congress, I have not had any problems with Congress. Because we also have one other wonderful project … as a matter of fact, deals with Congress. Twice a year, under Aspen Institute, we’re the only ones bringing Congress together … Senators and Congressmen. Congressional leaders. Seldom have chosen, other than Budget Committees, Conference Committees to meet. To meet as co-equals to discuss … in this one case about education, in other case about Russia and the past Soviet Union. We brought Soviet experts, Soviet leadership … now Russian leadership, American leadership together for five days … no constituencies, no press, no lobbyists, to talk about one issue.

Out of that came non-Lugar, non-proliferation initiative which is a big deal to disarm Soviet nuclear weapons so they would not contaminate or fall into bad, or pollute all the water, and so forth. So Title One, Title Two came from this kind of thing, with Republican and Democratic Congressmen and Senators.

And for five days … not their staff … a chance to work … I said “My God, why can’t we do something about it?”. So we’re also helping Congress to talk to each other and to come out for it.

HEFFNER: You’re a great believer in conversation, aren’t you?

GREGORIAN: I’m a great believer in teaching, learning. That’s what we need. Not just conversation. But great believer in learning. That Andrew Carnegie … fate … that reason … learning … reason … logic can provide a common vocabulary for rational people to know their difference, to know the true essence of their differences and see where they can meet on a common goal for a common good.

HEFFNER: Do you think, in the two minutes we have left, that dialogue, that discussion, that learning, teaching, that this is a nation that embraces all those wonderful things more now than when you came here to this country?

GREGORIAN: Yes and no. The same people … they think everything has two sides, only. From the left and from the right. Well there are hundreds of new answers between those two extremes. There’s the center, but nobody has defined the center. Center is not always middle of the road. Sometimes [laughter] middle of the road can be one individual who’s opinion varies from everybody’s, but he or she is right. In a sense I’d like more diverse opinion, but also opinion and discussion, unless they result in action, sooner or later … they will defeat themselves. They become source of rationalization, rather than a source of exploration and action.

HEFFNER: Are the other major foundations as much devoted to dialogue/action as Carnegie?

GREGORIAN: I think so. As a matter of fact, we have formed an alliance or an alliance/partnership is a better word, with Ford, Rockefeller, McArthur and we’re helping, for example, African higher education … 14, 15, 16 African universities … we’re revamping them, helping them. McArthur, Ford and us are working in Russian regional universities so that Russian intelligencia will not lose its faith in their institutions and on the top of it, their democracy. So we work together.

The important thing for me is not is to be … who’s doing it, but what is to be done. That’s the key central issue for us.

HEFFNER: That a good point, Vartan Gregorian, to end our programs, but thank you so much …

GREGORIAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … for joining me again on The Open Mind.

GREGORIAN: Thank you very much and good luck to you.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.