Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join José Maria Yulo as he reflects on the joys of examining an idea for its own worth, apart from any attendant political and emotional entreaties on its behalf. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
And above all, we should remember that there is simply no point in winning the argument if we know we are wrong. —Mortimer Adler
It was 1992, and as the nation prepared to reelect the current administration or elect an incoming one, no dearth of opinions could be found in the national punditry. It appeared that this chattering would infiltrate college campuses as well, with books (yes, books) all momentarily being set aside as coffee shops and quads reverberated with voices tellingly longer on the fervor of emotion than the judgment of experience.
Yet, this was Annapolis, and the campus was that of St. John’s College, known for over half a century for its rigorous Great Books Program. This curriculum differed from most of academia in its emphasis on students reading primary works from the great minds of the Western Tradition, engaging in discussions with the conservators of humanity’s legacy. Guiding students in this effort were academics who, because of their collective merit, would have been at home professing their knowledge in any university in the country. By making the choice to stay in Annapolis, these teachers would forego numerous honorific titles befitting their stature, opting instead to be called tutors. It was their trust to guide the students through the curriculum rather than profess from it, allowing each individual to evaluate the readings and perform that most challenging of academic disciplines, thinking for one’s self. It was two men of this caliber who chose to joust that Annapolis evening.
The scene was both tense and inviting. Two prominent academics squared off to debate in front of a body of eager and curious underclassmen. This being an election year, one would defend the incumbent administration of George Herbert Walker Bush, and the other would advance the positions of his opponent, Arkansas Governor William Jefferson Clinton. Taking the incumbent’s position was Laurence Berns, a political philosopher who taught at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, before his thirty-nine year tenure at St. John’s. Among many academic interests, numbering among them the works of Hobbes, Lincoln, and Francis Bacon, Mr. Berns was known for his translation of Aristotle’s Politics. On the opposite side of the debate was Benjamin Milner, an alumnus of Emory University and Harvard University, where he would receive his doctorate in the history and philosophy of religion. Mr. Milner taught for the department of Biblical history at Wellesley College before his three decade-long tenure at St. John’s; a tenure that saw him serve as assistant dean and director of the Graduate Institute. The exchange between the two men was notable both for what was present in it, as well as what was left out of it. The two sat at the front of a room in Mellon Hall, the same room where an incoming freshman is welcomed into the College’s community and made aware of the intellectual responsibilities one was now inheriting. Mr. Berns began first, explaining in measured terms the importance of the sitting President’s leadership in the first Gulf War, leadership which was able to bring together nations with varied and disparate interests. Mr. Milner responded by pointing out the incumbent President’s party’s criticism against the challenger was increasingly approaching demagoguery, without in turn acknowledging exactly what were the specific policies deserving evaluation. As each man advanced a position he did just that, seemingly placing the argument as an invisible object forward, and on top of a table for all present to examine. Students in attendance were encouraged to view these arguments, deliberately positioned as such apart from the men making them, and therefore open to a frank approximation of their merits and their merits alone.
This perhaps is what is most representative of a St. John’s education, that an idea should be judged for its own worth, apart from any attendant political and emotional entreaties on its behalf. It was not unusual at the College to be at Monday seminar and have two tutors of contrasting political philosophies, cooperate in leading the class discussion. In Annapolis, one’s being conservative or liberal, especially if one was of the College’s faculty, did not take precedence over one’s search for the truth. There, an undergraduate’s annual essay, one he or she must defend orally in front of a committee, is informally encouraged to have as much of the author’s original intellectual engagement and input as possible. Works that overemphasize citations and outside references are deemed not as potentially insightful as one where students thoroughly utilize their own reasoning skills. This of course does not mean any independent argument, solely owing to originality, prevails while others are reassessed. Does this idea make sense dependent on the situation or does it so universally? Is it undergirded by logic? To what does it owe allegiance other than reason?
As both debate opponents progressed, one could sense them challenging not each other necessarily, but rather the audience to apply these questions to their arguments. In a sense, both paralleled Socrates’ maieutics, trusting their audience to adhere to the better elements of their intellects and produce sound positions of their own. As true teachers have always done, they waited patiently after presenting their cases for their students to judge these arguments’ validity within the confines those seeking the truth have always respected. The evening ended with earnest smiles and a gentlemanly handshake shared by the principals; men who happily though fiercely jousted, it seemed, for prizes other than the glory of victory.
It is most telling to recollect and recount what was absent during that night in Annapolis. By separating themselves from their arguments, both Mr. Berns and Mr. Milner avoided the fallacy of ad hominem attacks, which in turn by example discouraged this practice from the students in attendance. Though vigorously attempting to dispute the opposing position, each tutor never once chided the other for maintaining his point of view. Each knew that attacking the possessor of an idea is one of the last refuges of those bereft of the soundness of their own ideas; and as such was conduct unbecoming and did not engage in play that was in accordance with the rules of the field.
Though the debate involved polarizing political positions, it did not foment behavior that became symbolic of campus strife decades before. Unlike past paradigms, there were no acts of political demonstration engaged in by students or faculty. Scenes of weapon-wielding students and acquiescent, enabling academics marred the vision of what a university once stood for a generation ago; scenes whose significance was not lost on the two tutors engaged in debate. One could honestly say the only demonstrations practiced at St. John’s were those where a student, chalk in hand, would proceed to draw out a geometric icosahedron, thereby demonstrating Euclid in a mathematics tutorial. Demonstrations that are political rather than geometrical possess a tendency to be governed by loudness and force, rather than by reflection and thought. Loudness and force were minions that bore the shrill dictates of power, while reflection and thought were willing servants to truth. This was the lesson subtly conveyed by the two men at the end of the table in Mellon Hall that night; a lesson which was apt for the time because it spoke of what was apt regardless of time.
Laurence Berns and Benjamin Milner both retired from their duties at St. John’s within the decade of their debate and have sadly both passed on, carrying with them the legacy of intellectual integrity of a bygone era. Such fidelity to what it means to educate will be difficult to ever replicate. This author was one of the undergraduates in attendance that evening in 1992, and is one who will remain grateful to have had the privilege of witnessing how true gentlemen dispute.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in August 2012.