Eugene M. Lang

Project Pericles … “that a man might benefit his country”

VTR Date: June 25, 2003

Eugene M. Lang discusses Project Pericles, a program for undergraduate colleges.


GUEST: Eugene M. Lang
VTR: 6/25/2003

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is a philanthropist who a generation ago set a quite extraordinary example for public-spirited persons of wealth with his now celebrated “I Have A Dream” program derived from the famous exclamation of racial justice by Martin Luther King.

Wealthy businessman Eugene Lang’s dream was of poor young people encouraged by financial support and mentoring that he and then other accomplished and wealthy leaders around the nation would supply. Encouraged to finish grade school, then high school and college, too, for many of them, giving them a stake in American life that they might never dream of otherwise.

Now a recent news story heralds Mr. Lang as a benefactor who wants colleges to deliver a stronger civics lesson, if you will. As The New York Times has written, “now he is trying again. Having created one powerful social program he feels driven to create another and on an even grander scale. His quest this time is to find a way to build political and civic engagement among young people in America, about 70% of whom he points out did not vote in the last Presidential election.”

Project Pericles is the title of his program and I would like to ask my guest just how one engages young people, in college or out at a time when spin control and to gussy it up a bit, “the art of mass persuasion” seems to compose our major intellectual and political heritage from the 20th century and the kids really know it.

But first let me read from Thucidies rendering of Pericles famous funeral oration … seemingly the cornerstone of Eugene Lang’s inspiring new Project Pericles. “Our government does not copy our neighbors, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized and when a citizen is in any way distinguished he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country what ever the obscurity of his condition.”

And Mr. Guest here today, this struck you so that you made it the theme of Project Pericles. Do you think it has very much meaning to young people today?

LANG: The title Pericles really came after the purpose. When the concept of Project Pericles … or the activity had developed to a point where I felt that I knew what we ought to do and where we wanted to go. Then it was a problem of giving it a title. And I made a whole list of possible titles to submit to my special advisory group that I had formed to try to mold the concept with me. And I … after going over all of the ones I had put down, I put Pericles on the beginning … or at the very end of the list and distributed it in the expectation that psychologically they would be sympathetic to the thing that was on the bottom. Because I was in favor of Pericles and sure enough that’s what everybody chose.

HEFFNER: Does it resonate for young people?

LANG: It will. When it starts to resonate, then I know that we will have accomplished our purpose. But I do feel that Pericles does carry some kind of a, of an association that’s positive in the minds of people. He is not noted as a warrior. He was noted, really, as a, as a builder, as a person who promoted democracy, as democracy could be understood at a time when women [laughter] were disenfranchised. And his name was just right for us. And of course, Pericles comes up when one has occasion to read about the Parthenon and some of the very grand artifacts of history that you find in Athens, in Greece.

HEFFNER: What do you want to have happen? What should be the result of Project Pericles?

LANG: Well, this is a question that … I have to wind up for the pitch … the whole origin of Project Pericles comes from the fact that came to me in the course of some studies I was … an article I was preparing on liberal arts education … that the role of liberal arts education has been declining and that the … that colleges … liberal arts colleges in the United States were departing more and more from the traditional structure and content of liberal arts in deference to perhaps greater demand from the community for, for vocational type education as distinct from the more provocatively thoughtful kind of education, problem solving kind of education, issue-oriented education that a liberal arts program encourages.

HEFFNER: Are you separating out liberal arts program from the bulk of American higher education today? The population, the huge population in the huge universities, the state universities. Are you talking about an elite concept here?

LANG: No, not at all. I think liberal arts education has, has a proper place, an essential place in the life of every educated person. And I’m not trying to be snobbish about the definition of educated person … an educated person … because I do believe in a democratic society every, every member is … as a mandate … entitled to the opportunity for a full education. And a full education to me means the kind of opportunity to come in contact with the culture, the arts, the thoughts of … that were worth … that have developed in the past and that really can help you think your own way through the present and into the future.

It’s … the expression “man does not live by bread alone” extends itself for the fact that education which becomes more and more vocational, as more and more technology and other types of training become essential to being a productive member of society, having a job and so forth. It’s been important that those needs, those demands for, for employment not be allowed to supercede, to suppress a, the other aspects of education which go to make a complete, thoughtful person that thinks about the issues of our society and as a citizen, should do something about them to the extent that it is appropriate as a citizen to do so.

HEFFNER: But you know … I, I want to challenge you … forgive me. I understand where you’re coming from. I know that you’re a graduate of Swarthmore , you were Chairman of the Board also of that wonderful, small, historic liberal arts college. What about the fact that this doesn’t seem to be what the great mass of young people today are asking for … or is asking for.

LANG: Well, I suppose one thing is that they really are not aware of what a liberal arts education is and what it means. Essentially too many people regard education essentially as a path to holding a job.

HEFFNER: Do you blame them?

LANG: No, I don’t blame them at all. It’s …but on the other hand … this is a free country and students … and parents can influence their children to make choices which perhaps solve what are looked at perhaps as the primary things that you have to deal with in living.

But nevertheless there’s more to man than just developing the capacity to stay alive and, and to earn enough to take care of a family and to take … and to serve whatever interests that person may have. I believe that, that a richness of life is also associated with the knowledge that you acquire, the stimulus that knowledge offers you to think about things and the fact that, really, between everything that you come in contact with from day to day, all the problems, the concerns, the injustices, the feelings that you have … all of them … all the issues have a connection … a personal connection to us if we want to think about it.

HEFFNER: Well let me ask you about the civic activity aspect of Project Pericles. There was a great emphasis in it upon being good citizens. Not just upon developing one’s own garden …

LANG: MmmHmm. That’s right.

HEFFNER: … and presenting oneself with something that you can make use of in the future, but contributing to society at large. What’s the response to that?

LANG: Well I think, if I may say so, your question is not the right question.

HEFFNER: Okay. What is the right question?

LANG: The fact is that young people today, students, are idealistic, they are concerned about the condition of society. The fact is that more than 70% of all undergraduate students in the United States currently perform some kind of volunteer community service. Students are idealists. Students are not mean. Student are not selfish.

The problem is that they … in addressing … the, the objectives that they are dealing with as volunteers … they, they see there something that they can do. There can be a consequence. Sometimes the consequence is imagined, depending on what they undertake. But what they fail to act on is the fact that what they are focusing on in their particular volunteer service represents just an example of similar, comparable, or even identical problems that are all over the place. Sure, I can address myself to eliminating a garbage dump in town. I can address myself to tutoring some kids so that perhaps they can learn to read a little bit better. But this sort of becomes relevant when you hear about the … the, the issue between giving a person a fish and teaching him how to fish.

The fact of the matter is if you really, you think about the problem you’re volunteering … you should also be thinking about well what can we do to … about the conditions that are causing problems like we’re dealing with. That individual problem that we’re dealing with. We stop and think about it, and you say “Well the problem is bigger than all of us. What can we do about it, we’re just me.”

But what’s worse in the process … what you’re simply saying is you’re abandoning the facility that the democratic process uniquely offers to do something about it, about the problem, because if you really want to affect the change and where you can deal perhaps wholesale with the individual problem that you address, you’ve got to get yourself involved in this civic process.

HEFFNER: Do you mean politics?

LANG: Ahhhh …

HEFFNER: Because you make the point to the Times that 70% of our youngsters don’t vote.

LANG: Well, the fact of the matter is that in the last Presidential election, less than a third of all young people 25 and under did not vote. And boy when I think today of what we face, and what a couple of thousand more students might have voted … I’m really very [laughter] I just feel very, very strongly that we better get moving fast with our Pericles.

HEFFNER: Well, is that what you want? Are you …

LANG: Look, they’re not voting. The point is … as a citizen … you have … especially if you’re a citizen of this country, you have a very, very important asset. There are a … an awful lot … a big part of this world would like to be able to say “I’m a citizen of this country” because of what citizenship in this country means, what it implies.

HEFFNER: You control your own destiny.

LANG: You not only control your own destiny, you’re free to speak; you’re free to do; you’re free to be ambitious and there’s nothing really that stands in your way of trying to assert yourself as a citizen. Obviously, the most important index to what I’m getting at is the fact that youngsters don’t vote and that has been a steadily declining percentage. There are literally dozens, and dozens and dozens of studies which evidence that. They just don’t vote.

Why? And you can understand why. A lot of kids are disenchanted with the political process. They look at the problems that maybe they’d be facing as volunteers. They think how unjust and how necessary it is, and the system is tolerating it. Why? But the system, it’s a big amorphous thing. “What can I do?” But the fact is that you have to have the faith and the conviction that our democratic process, imperfect as it may be is still the best system in the world that empowers an individual to express his or her view and to try to promote social change through the institutions of democracy.

HEFFNER: Of course, when you and I were young we were taught “Civics”. That’s not taught any more really. But it seemed to me that that’s what you’re talking about for the undergraduate level.

LANG: It’s more than that. I think … I think there are two things that are involved in, in the development of people and their lives. Intellectually we see certain things, we think they ought to be changed, or we think they ought to be done. And we sit there and we ruminate about them and we express our views in that respect. But nothing happens. And it becomes very … I’m sorry …I lost my train of thought.

HEFFNER: Well you were, you were talking about what really limits us from the kind of participation …

LANG: Yeah. Well, you, you think about them. What is it that pulls the trigger on what you think. It’s largely an emotional thing. I think that’s what impels a lot of voluntarism. You don’t want to see people suffer if you can do something about it.

HEFFNER: Right. You see a situation that you want to remedy.

LANG: Yep. And the fact is you don’t … you don’t have the same emotional charge in dealing in politics through the political system as you do when you see a hungry child. The fact of the matter is … and when you see a hungry child you give the child some food and at least for the time being you’ve solved the problem.

In politics it doesn’t quite work that way and there are a lot of reasons why a lot of people feel that the system … you have nothing to say, nothing you can do through the system. Because … well, you see right now what now, what money is doing to corrupt, I think, the democratic process. And were the individual feels impotent in relation to the interest that can put together large sums of money to accomplish, perhaps perfectly legitimate purposes.

HEFFNER: Well, certainly that’s what I see in my classes. My students who do not vote. Who a) do not read the paper and b) and do not vote and say “what difference does it make? Basically my vote doesn’t count.” And move on to the funny pages or the sports pages.

LANG: I’m not even … they, they may very well say that because it’s a cop out. But I think that student, if they feel strongly enough and furthermore have a conviction, a genuine conviction that the democratic process does, in fact, offer them an opportunity to make a difference.

HEFFNER: So the question has to be then, Mr. Lang, maybe it doesn’t at this stage of our lives. What are we going to do with that question? How do we answer it?

LANG: Well …

HEFFNER: Are they perceptive? Do they really see what the facts of life are in American politics? And is their unwillingness to participate …

LANG: Yes, there is.

HEFFNER: … a reflection?

LANG: Well, I guess nothing is more depressing than to want to do something that you think ought to be done and not being able to do it. I often think of when I have worked with children and their families and where the parents may not be able to speak English. And the parent knows the kind of support the child needs to grow up and that being able to use the English language can mean in providing them the kind of help and support that a kid needs to go on in school.

But to be helpless as a parent to take care of a child growing up. Or, I suppose it is. It maybe the uneducated and unskilled person who is looking for a job. And can’t take care of his family. It’s … when I see that I …first I think of how fortunate I am, but I think also “this is something that has to change.”

And what can you do to change it. Now I would say the problem is bigger than all of us. But I do know that’s what the thoughts I had with the “I have a dream program” which today is 22 years old, but also with Project Pericles, we’re dealing with a very difficult thing. How do you, how do you get students to look beyond voluntarism and to feel that the political process does work for them? There is a whole mutation of attitude required in order to be able to have someone to recognize citizenship as a constructive facility that they have to do something.

HEFFNER: Maybe we should look back at the chaotic nineteen sixties and embrace them. Wasn’t that the last time that there was thing kind of huge investment of energy on the part of the young in political action?

LANG: Well I think it would … it may be to have the … a Vietnam … it maybe necessary to have a Vietnam in order to eventually arouse the sentiment of young people to take … become as active as they did in those days. But I think that’s a heck of a big price to pay to get people aroused and very often with the … Retonian???????? Law … every action breeding a comparable reaction … the kind of reaction that is generated … was generated in the sixties, in good measure was not the kind of action that we’d like to see happen in a democratic society. We want to … our process should work in a much more orderly fashion. In a much more disciplined fashion and where we are able to agree or agree to disagree … but at least have the fullest opportunity to make our opinions, our thoughts become an effective guides to what happens in this country.

HEFFNER: We have two minutes left as I’ve just been told. Do you think someone would be fair to say that you are “spitting against the wind?”

LANG: I don’t care about that. After all, I feel if I have an idea and it works, the very fact of my success will encourage other people to join me. People do agglomerate the success.

We all know what the problems are, I think. And we all agree that something should be done about them. But how do you do it? Well, my purpose in life, right now, is try to develop ways in which we can deal with these problems. I’d like to create models that by their success will invite other people to join and do the same king of thing. Which is what happened with “I have a dream” and which is in the process of happening now with Project Pericles.

Of course, with “I have a dream” it was a question of motivating individuals. Here we’re trying to motivate institutions. And if, if anything can be a definition for viscosity, it certainly is the attitude of the, of institutional educational organizations.

HEFFNER: But they’re joining with you, aren’t they?

LANG: They are joining with me. And we have a problem right now trying to hold back until we are in a position, appropriately to provide the information, the experience and the service that will make their interest and make their eagerness effective.

HEFFNER: Well, Eugene Lang, I appreciate your joining me on The Open Mind and I must say that I hope you keep spitting against the wind because I bet you have the ability to make the wind shift. Thanks for joining me on The Open Mind.

LANG: Thank you very much, I appreciated the opportunity.

HEFFNER: 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.