Vartan Gregorian

As ever: a man for all intellectual seasons

VTR Date: May 21, 2009

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


GUEST: Vartan Gregorian
VTR: 05/21/09

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today is once again a good friend and long-time benefactor of this program…Vartan Gregorian, the charming, scholarly but ebullient, Armenian immigrant to America so often and so correctly called THE man for all intellectual seasons…thanks to his roles as much admired teacher and historian at Stanford University, the University of Texas, and the University of Pennsylvania before becoming President of the New York Public Library, then of Brown University, and now of Carnegie Corporation of New York

Indeed, in suggesting that my guest would have been great as successor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the United States Senate, The New Yorker recently noted that, quote, “the impossibly distinguished Vartan Gregorian is a one-man academy of arts, letters and the humanities” … end quote.

All of which leads me to ask my friend what he wants to do and to be when he grows up. For that’s a question I think I ought to be putting to more and more of my Open Mind guests, searching perhaps for something akin to Edward R. Murrow’s THIS I BELIEVE. Now maybe it’s an unfair question, Vartan, to throw at you that way, but after all these things …what’s in the future?

GREGORIAN: Ha … that’s a very tough question you’re asking me.

HEFFNER: I know.

GREGORIAN: All right, so let me try to answer it. I’m thinking aloud, so forgive me … I’m not trying to be evasive.

In Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, there’s one line that stays with me. It says “people are not born individuals once and…but for all when their mothers give birth to them. But throughout their lives they reinvent themselves.” So I’ve reinvented myself many times.

HEFFNER: Clearly from that list I opened with.

GREGORIAN: Yes … list you have. It’s not because I could not keep a job. Each job I would stay at eight, nine years. But rather, when you reach a certain stage in your life, when you’re intellectually stagnant or you get bored … what you do … you’re not eager in the morning to get up and run to your mission … I call it … not a job. Then you better quit.

So, so far I’ve been fortunate. The only thing I miss in my whole ten years here is that I’ve not been … I did not have time to teach. I found teaching is most reinvigorating, most honorable profession.

Actually I was surprised why people have to be paid to teach. I think people should pay for the opportunity to teach. Because I always have believed that students don’t fail … teachers fail.

That you have to be able with all the literature you have read, all the novels you have read, all the knowledge you have, all the experience you have … to be able to reach and touch somebody’s soul.

As a matter of fact “educattio” is how to draw out from somebody what’s already in there. That’s what I miss. Some of the great moments in my life have been in the classroom. I’ve taught thousands, maybe 20,000 or more students throughout my whole career. And when I see them now … just yesterday … talked to all them … they still remember the course they took with me on Faust, or Intellectual History. They remember … the fact that they remember all these years … many of us don’t remember who spoke at our commencements. But … so that’s a kind of enchantment, fulfillment that I feel you transmit your teacher’s investment again in you to the next generation.

HEFFNER: Yet you know there have been so many times when we’ve spoken when I’ve thought that you’ve always wanted to … you’ve always thought about the power of the media and I’ve almost felt that … my gosh …


HEFFNER: … that’s the most important thing to you.

GREGORIAN: No. The most important thing for me has always been education. First as practitioner, then as advocate. I’m an advocate for education … investor in education. But the fact that I don’t go to classroom has been the only thing that I’ve missed.

My wife asked “Why do you go to commencements? Why do you give commencement speeches?”

Well, I told her the other day “When I am in the midst of the excitement when thousands of students are graduating, they’re going to ‘commence’ a new life, it just is the most enchanting thing you can see after four or five years” … sacrifices and other … parents and relatives and guardian … here you are marching into new frontier for yourself, full of possibilities. That excites me in many ways because I see the work of the teachers and the function of the university, function of high schools, whatever graduation.

I used to love to give commencement address of high schools. Of another excitement to see … people are looking for the future. So that’s the only thing I miss in all of these things I’ve done.

Second thing I miss is I have tons of handwritten, pre-computer days, research done.

HEFFNER: You mean, write this book, do this article?

GREGORIAN: Nationally … positivism and anti-semitism … they … how to compare concept of evil in different religions and so forth …

HEFFNER: Wait, wait a minute. What’s the connection between positivism and anti-semitism?

GREGORIAN: When I finish you will know.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

GREGORIAN: So … but the point I’m saying is … I have so many interests, which I’m blessed … because once again I’ve been constantly educated. But also some of the limitations that I emanated professors who are similarly engaged in everything. Because you love everything, you love nothing in many ways, sometimes … because total commitment results in total apathy … there is no room for action.

So the discipline of writing, of finishing, actually … two books … one on nationalism … which I have mentioned. One updating my book on Afghanistan, which was at one time hailed as great work of scholarship.

And the fact is whatever I write, it’s written for media, for general public … whereas the scholar in me would like to do more job … more research. Everything I write I make tons of research before I put it down. Because I was taught by my professors before you write anything, you see what is worth writing or preserving.

And the other thing I would learn from my childhood, before you teach anything, remember silence is better than free flow conversation without any end or any redeeming feature.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but why do you, why do you pick on that?

GREGORIAN: Well, I pick on this because time is of the essence. I feel my worst enemy now is time. I want to finish this project … as you do. But at the same time, when I became president of Carnegie Corporation one of my colleagues, a dear colleague, who’s retiring himself from a foundation shortly … gave me a cactus as a gift.

I said, “What is this?” He said “Foundations are intellectually barren. Because you will not be healing any criticism, you’ll not be challenged, because people are coming as supplicants or as … and therefore they will all agree with you, not to offend you.

And to cultivate, continue to cultivate your… But I did not have to worry about that. Because the range of my activities, whether it’s peace, whether it’s international justice, human rights and so forth … I have so many interests, and so many outside from foundation world … whether it’s Russia, whether it’s Middle East, whether it’s France, whether it’s international.

So they sustain me in many ways intellectually. But the thing that I find is most damaging for me, in many ways, is the fact that I don’t have enough free time to write. And if I did that I would feel guilty that I’m taking off … taking, you know, neglecting my job, which I have not.

For example, I’m there ten years, I can hardly tell you how many days I have taken vacation … in ten years.

Because my problem always has been … and yours, too, maybe, anything worth doing is worth doing good, or not at all.

So therefore I put all or nothing. And that’s very good for the institution I have been working for, first the library, Brown and now Carnegie. It’s not necessarily very good for me … my personal writings and others.

So that’s, that’s the only thing I miss … teaching and writing. Other than that, I think I’ve had most privileged life. I’ve never applied for a job in my life. I’ve never been fired from a job. And I’ve always done what I promised to do. I never failed with contracts and anything … my word was my bond.

How many people can say that nowadays? A luxury America has afforded me and I’m trying to return one way or another, through teaching, through scholarship and through service to our youth and our citizens in our nation.

HEFFNER: You know I … the reason I said I thought you were going to say something about media is because I have felt over the years in our discussions, and I don’t’ mean just here. That you see the media as a great teacher.


HEFFNER: And that you wanted to make use of this teaching instrument.

GREGORIAN: Oh, yes, I have, I have … absolutely. Not only use of it, I’ve been very effective doing it in the past and now. Media is … means … the content matters what you’re transmit through media.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s the teaching.

GREGORIAN: Teaching. Teaching ideas and values. But most importantly, also, preparation of new citizens. One of our great programs, which I’m very proud of at Carnegie is strengthening US democracy. We have … we’re trying to say to all the immigrants, America is not just to make money or job security. It’s to become citizens, concept of citizen.

We’re trying to integrate them into our society, rather than assimilate. That you have to become citizens of this country because America is about citizenship, about rights, about privileges, about responsibilities, knowledge of America’s past, engagement in its future and so a part of being both individualist, as well as part of the organic community, which is the United States.

HEFFNER: When did you come here?

GREGORIAN: I came 1956 as freshman.

HEFFNER: What was the difference? The feeling of someone as an immigrant coming from abroad here. How did it differ from what people must feel like now?

GREGORIAN: Well, when I came, I came as a student.


GREGORIAN: Students don’t come as immigrant … you come to learn in order to return.

HEFFNER: Did you assume you were going to return?

GREGORIAN: Oh, absolutely. But then one thing led to the other. And then suddenly you’re working now in the university. Suddenly you feel, “My God, I’m guest worker almost”. You also have a resident alien right to live here, pay taxes and so forth.

But citizenship becomes almost (laughter) like a formal ceremony of marriage … to the country, to its entire legacy. And that was, when I became citizen, I was so moved, it was almost like the act of marriage. I was marrying … unworthy as it may be to … becoming part of the United States. And it’s a transformative occasion. When you’re making a choice to invest your whole life … everything in a country.

And that was for me … I’m not now saying everybody should feel that way, but at the same time, I don’t want people to say … I live here, but I don’t participate in the country’s life, the country’s future.

And that’s one of the things we’re doing. We’re doing at Carnegie again through media, we’re involved in the formation, or at least transformation of schools of journalism. That journalists should be educated journalists. I’ve believed always that there are three classes of people that are important for the United States. Teachers. Journalists. Librarians.

HEFFNER: And they all do the same thing.

GREGORIAN: All do the same thing because librarians preserve and mediate. Teachers teach. And journalists are essential for the health of our democracy, to keep everybody at bay or and honest and transparent and responsible.

Sure some of them are offensive. Some of them get on your nerves, journalists. Some them are excessive. Some of them are wrong. But the institution of journalism itself … its usual gathering news, rather than propaganda … in itself is one of the important things of a free society. As Jefferson said, “newspapers are the currency of democracy.”

HEFFNER: But now librarians join professional organizations, consider themselves professional and take on the responsibility that the profession insists upon.


HEFFNER: Same thing with teachers. What about journalists?

GREGORIAN: Well, journalists I think have more responsibility to know the subject. And I tell you this because there has been much more technique oriented how to organize, how to transmit rather than content. And I’ve always been, as a historian, about content. I … a journalist, but thank god, Nick Lemann now at Columbia, they’re doing this … it’s one of the schools we have supported … if you’re covering law … Supreme Court of the United States, you better know the Constitution and Constitutional history … to know the intricacies, the dynamics of United States Constitution and Supreme Court composition and others.

Greenhouse, Linda Greenhouse type of journalist who knows the field. Rather than transmit news given and then you’ll read it what was handed to you, summarized and said “it’s news”.

HEFFNER: But how many Linda Greenhouses are there?

GREGORIAN: We need more. That’s the whole point. We need Linda Greenhouses, we need individuals who would be challenging the system. We need a Bill Buckley … new Bill Buckley’s. We need new I. F. Stones from the Left and the Right who could challenge, who could create a kind of dialogue, rather than monologue.

Because now if you’re covering law, you’re covering medicine, you’re covering government, you’re covering economic … you better know what sub-prime is. Study in depth … and others.

Because my fear is, if we don’t have educated journalists and free press, and yes … various heterodoxy and orthodoxy … always conflicting each other and so forth … you’re going to have an Orwellian society which we always dreaded.

You don’t have suppressed news anymore. All you … we inundate people with information. You want a report? I’ll send you 10,000 pages. You don’t have time to read it, you’re going to read my executive summary of two pages. And I’m going to list there whom you can consult … from the Left this, from the Right … that. And I say, “well, there we are balanced view”.

Nobody has divined how many shades of Left there are, how many shades of Right there are. Where is the center. It’s a moving target. So it’s very important to have educated journalists. I don’t care whether they’re Conservative, Liberal or Radical, I always have said, no matter what ideology you are, you better be educated.

HEFFNER: Okay. Now you say we need educated journalists. May I add a question then? Are we getting them?

GREGORIAN: We still have them. We still have them. But it will require the kind of content knowledge and that’s costly, because Columbia now is bringing two year or one year. Ping.

But the other one does not cost much. And I’ll tell you why. School of Journalism in a university should be able to ask “Richard Heffner, come and tell us about Edward Murrow”. All right. It’s not costing them. Your Rutgers, okay, if they had a School of Journalism … to ask professor of law to come and lecture about torture, laws of torture in history, in Geneva … whatever the issue is. To invite historian of Nepal at Columbia to come say, “We read about Nepal. What are questions we should be asking? Where are documents we should be …”

University … Schools of Journalism are not as important as university … because they are in a university, they should not ossified outposts like schools, they should be taking advantage for the entire knowledge, of the entire expertise of a university. So that a student discussing today’s news should be able to get somebody … expert on Serbo-Croatia … somebody expert on nuclear non-proliferation. Or National Security, or insurgency. They’re all kinds of experts in the universities. Their writings, their talents should be exploited and explored by Schools of Journalism when they deal with specific issues.

HEFFNER: Oh, it sounds a little as though you were talking about Jim Leherer’s NewsHour …


HEFFNER: … because that’s precisely what they do.

GREGORIAN: Well, they do some of it. But not all of it.

HEFFNER: Well, when, when Nick Lemann was here shortly before he took over the Deanship at the Columbia School of Journalism … I put a question to him, I said, well, why don’t you … when he was talking about a second year … content …


HEFFNER: … year. First you learn the techniques of journalism.

GREGORIAN: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: I said, why don’t you bring in only well-educated, well-rounded Liberal Arts majors and (laughter) and his reply was, “Heffner, you went to Columbia College where you had that kind of education. That’s not to be found. We are obliged to extend their education…


HEFFNER: … to these fields.

GREGORIAN: That’s part of the problem. The other part is that nowadays because of unity of knowledge has collapsed in many ways in our universities … look, when Oxford offered in middle ages a Bachelor of Arts degree … you were going to learn in three years … they were going to make educated person.

Now, eight centuries later, we still persist with all the growth of … monumental growth of information, knowledge and wisdom, whatever it … all of them together. We still insist we’re going to educate you in three years. So all the ills of society, all of the solution of it, is put on the shoulder of universities. Universities are supposed to provide remedial work, to solve economic issues, expertise and others.

But I say, therefore, gradually, we’re learning in a university … Bachelor of Arts … how to learn to learn. That’s the greatest thing that the university can provide. Then professional schools have seen that you learn how to learn, they can instruct you and educate you what you should know about this.

And the other thing … continuing education … every profession has continuing education except journalists. Because pilots have it, teachers have it, librarians have it, everybody. But journalists is such a word, that you learn on the job. But that’s not enough, you have to be able also to be given time, you know, to … again … reinvest in yourself, intellectually and culturally and others.

HEFFNER: Is that because it’s not really a profession, as the others are?

GREGORIAN: It is a profession. But it’s never treated as a profession.

HEFFNER: You mean it doesn’t accept …

GREGORIAN: It does not have standing of law or legal …


GREGORIAN: … of business and so forth. Because anybody can write. And sure, if you’re well educated, you can write. The accent is “well-educated, well-informed and inquisitive”. Those are three ingredients.

HEFFNER: But the journalist really wouldn’t accept the responsibilities that go along with professionalism? Would they?

GREGORIAN: Well, why not?

HEFFNER: Well, of course, why not. But their attitude seems to be at least when they’re here … hands off.

GREGORIAN: Well, hands off of what?

HEFFNER: Hands off of me as a journalist. I’m a First Amendment absolutist.

GREGORIAN: Well, well, maybe you should then tell them they’re “First Amendment practitioners”. I mean … well, why not. I mean I want journalists to be treated as a profession, with dignity, with this goes—and responsibility. That goes with that. Because we need well-educated people as journalists, well-educated journalists. They’re essential to the health of our democracy. We don’t want transmitters of facts and information. We need people who’ll separate the chafe from the wheat or the wheat from the chafe.

HEFFNER: Okay, we have two minutes left. I want to ask you about something else. I know that Carnegie was interested in civics.


HEFFNER: And teaching our youngsters … what’s happening with that?

GREGORIAN: Well, we have invested in many … it has succeeded to a certain extent. Circle … we have various Governors and others have meted.

My attempt now has been, last couple of years, and Sandra Day O’Connor is very much involved. My hope was that several Supreme Court Justices could write a civics text in the form of major Constitutional issues … past … not now … that formed our nation.

Because the way it is now, civics is very controversial in high schools … not in universities, in high schools. How many times you cover the name of George Washington, Adams and the Founding Fathers. How many times you cover … how many female names you cover? How many minorities you cover? All of this … it’s become a kind of negotiated text, rather than challenge of major issues.

Why not use Ceasar Chavez case, for example? As a … what happened to immigration to America? Why not cover the Japanese, let’s say, internment … as an issue … Constitutional issue? As we require that kind of unbiased people, let Supreme Court … Justice of Supreme Court to write … which they lecture all the time … they write all the time. To have them issue a civic textbook or book of civics, which now they’re doing, by the way, thanks to Annenberg Sunnyland Project. If that comes up and then invests all its proceeds in the defense of Constitutional, instruction of Constitutional … last point I will mention.

Why not give every student who graduates high school or college a copy of the text of the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution with their name, as an heirloom.

HEFFNER: Great idea. Now, when you come back, we’re going to talk about how little we know about civics and how infrequently we teach it. Thank you Vartan Gregorian …

GREGORIAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: … for joining me again.

GREGORIAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. 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.