So long, and thanks for the all the fish
March 4, 2022
On Friday, February 25 the best of what Bowdoin can be was on full display. Professors Laura Henry, Page Herrlinger, Reed Johnson and Mira Nikolova guided students, faculty and staff—all packed like sardines into Searles 315—in grappling with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They did so humanely—the very first words they spoke reminded us that this is a still-unfolding tragedy, and we should never forget that, even in the midst of academic analysis. They then explained what expertise they had and humbly observed that at times they were simply offering opinions unbound by their particular training but nonetheless informed by relevant experience. The speakers did not lecture but responded to questions from the crowd, which were many and varied. Each passed the microphone to whomever of the four they thought would be best equipped to answer any given question. Those who were in that room—sitting, standing, perched on tables and, like I was, scrunched into corners off to the sides—saw a caring community led by four of its resident experts, whose words and actions aimed to educate, illuminate and support.
Bowdoin is lucky to have these four, but luck did not bring them here. They were hired because Bowdoin faculty recognized their expertise and communication skills, which they had built through years of hard work and sacrifice. These professors were selected, from hundreds of similarly talented and expert applicants, for positions that have allowed them to help shape and nourish the community in which they live. At times they have sat in an audience and asked questions, and at times they have sat in front of an audience and answered. This is one of the joys of being a member of the faculty. Sometimes we teach, but most often we learn. Such actions model one of the chief features—indeed virtues—of democratic citizenship, according to Aristotle: to rule and be ruled in turn.
The recognition and elevation of true expertise within a community, whenever the community needs that expertise, is also a fundamental principle of democracy. Socrates, when describing the Athenian democratic assembly, notes that the demos (the assembly of citizens) called upon architects to design houses, upon shipwrights to build ships and upon other experts whenever their domain of expertise was needed. The amplification of actual knowledge, as opposed to mere opinion, is a necessary feature of democratic society. Places like Bowdoin are thus key institutions for democracy as they are places where particular kinds of expertise can be taught, learnt and nourished. But Socrates also warned that one of the chief dangers to democratic institutions is a person who tries to convince an unwary demos that they have expertise where they do not. Socrates suggests that such characters deserve—rather than elevation and respect—to be laughed from the speaker’s stage. For they not only undermine democratic faith in relevant expertise, but they make a mockery of the very notion of such expertise.
How, then, are we to assess the elevation and recognition of Arthur Brooks within our community? Brooks does have real expertise, and real experience, but not in the areas advertised to us. For that is what his latest incarnation, as a self-proclaimed happiness guru is: advertisement. It is a clever bit of marketing meant to distract us from who he is, and from that toward which he aims. It is part of a sustained effort at rebranding in the service of Brooks the individual, and of the wealthy and powerful men who have advanced his career. Take how he is being introduced as exhibit A. Unlike your Bowdoin faculty, Brooks wears the title “Professor” not because he applied and was selected from among hundreds of highly-competitive applicants. His current position had a candidate pool of exactly one: Arthur Brooks. He was gifted this endowed sinecure not because of his research or teaching or training, but because, as the former president of American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he has useful connections and powerful patrons, whom the Harvard Corporation naturally needs to cultivate. He’s what’s known in the trade as a “development admit.” And his association with Harvard does powerful work for Brooks as well. It grants him a particular kind of credibility and gravitas—useful qualities when one needs to reframe, rebrand and rewrite history.
For these are the domains in which Brooks can truly claim real expertise and real experience. He’s been called the Ronald McDonald of the right-wing policy machine, with good reason. For his is the smiling, cheerful face whose platitudes and blandishments distract his audiences from the realia behind his rhetoric. This is why he is here to talk to us about happiness, and faith, and other warm fuzzies. Not because he can offer us insights—certainly no more, and arguably less, than anybody’s grandmother could—worth the tens of thousands of dollars we are paying him. No, he’s here capering about, serving up tasty morsels devoid of nourishment, with the express purpose of avoiding any actual engagement with his past actions and words as a committed culture warrior.
What a lost opportunity! Imagine if Bowdoin were to bring Tom Brady to campus for a week but he insisted on talking only about his passion for Belgian beer, his search for the perfect scone and his developing interest in black-and-white photography. We’d all know he was here solely because of his exploits on the gridiron, but we’d have to awkwardly pretend that wasn’t so. We’d all find such an event a spectacular waste of money, time and energy. And yet, this is where we are. Perhaps Bowdoin’s collaboration in the all-too convenient elision of Arthur Brooks’ actual history is an example of what economist Dan Stone has called “strategic cowardice.” I hope so, because the alternatives are far more depressing.
Last week we were given some strong, necessary medicine by trusted doctors who know what they are doing. We were able to engage with people who care about this community, and to whom we will turn even more in the coming months and years. This week, however, we had doughnuts stuffed down our throat by the pastry-chef about whom Socrates warned us in the Gorgias. Fortunately, the differences between the doctor and pastry-chef could not have been made clearer. Let’s hope that all of those involved were paying attention. No more over-paid pundits, please! Bowdoin needs to devote resources to worthy voices in need of amplification, not nattering sophists already in the unmerited possession of multiple bullhorns.
Imagine what the Russian Studies program could do if they were given only a fraction of the budget paid out to the Brooks grift! Let’s push Bowdoin to act according to principles that were once considered conservative: cultivate and support local knowledge, recognize expertise and build trust laterally out into one’s community. And if the College invites somebody who has done something noteworthy and important, give us a chance to engage them on that. Don’t tell us we must spin wool from the coat of the wolf.
Robert Sobak is an Associate Professor of Classics and Chair of the Department of Classics.
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I used to be confused as to why the overwhelmingly liberal Bowdoin community was always so threatened when a conservative came on campus until I realized that community was unable to handle differing views from someone not “vetted” by that same cabal. Professor Sobak is yet another in a long line of entrenched “educators” afraid to hear from someone who does not align with their world view – formed not in the real world with consequences but by the ivory tower more concerned with titles than substance. This is why, despite years of service, I no longer give to Bowdoin.
Respectfully, if I were more concerned with titles than substance, Arthur Brooks is exactly the kind of person I’d bring on as a “professor”
Professor Sobak isn’t against different world views, but is rather questioning the process through which Mr. Brooks was selected—which did not include faculty or student input at all. Of course, Professor Sobak has his own political stance and I’m glad that he is willing to publicly share it, but nothing in his essay says that he is not open to engaging with other opinions. In fact, productive engagement with fellow citizens is the foundation of democracy, as Prof. Sobak points out. I spent a semester reading Socratic dialogues with Prof. Sobak and his passion for fostering conversation has always been clear.
A liberal education surely is not “liberal” in the sense of “left-leaning.” Free inquiry is not and should not be exclusive to any side or shade of the political spectrum. The tenet of free inquiry is central to the idea of liberal education, and I for one am grateful that Professor Sobak is one of the few faculty at this college willing to defend it publicly against artificial speeches sown by the administration who seek to make this school a cash/prestige factory.
The case of Arthur Brooks is the ultimate example of elevating title over substance. That much is obvious from the circumstances of his hiring and the content of his work.
And I say this as someone who worked for him.
Professor Sobak is to be commended for drawing our attention to the sorry state of liberal education at Bowdoin. But I am puzzled that he confines his criticism only to Brooks. The current faculty could hardly stand up to Socratic scrutiny of their commitment to philosophic life and study of the Great Ideas. Sobak is right to suggest they claim artisanal expertise, but Socrates would say this inherently bars them from leading students to the universal wisdom of philosophy (literally Ph.D.s). Socrates would chuckle at anyone credentialed in teaching political and social topics “scientifically,” and encourage us to investigate the opinions concealed by this approach. Brooks is, least charitably, the right-wing version of the pundits already in the Bowdoin classroom. Of those who have swapped liberal education for a program of activist dogmatics. Of those imparting not wisdom, but instrumental “expertise” to the next generation of middle-managers, bureaucrats, and petty nonprofiteers. Why the hysteria? Enrolling this man is a small price to siphon money from the most dupable demographic—center-right donors. With a little lip-service to intellectual freedom, the faculty could funnel their donations to countless more professorships earmarked for ideologues of preferred identity groups. More priests for the cathedral.
Socrates would chuckle? Seriously?
The idea that you don’t need academic vetting or expertise to teach college level philosophy or classics is pretty ludicrous. Also what is a petty non profiteer?