James O. Freedman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Liberal Arts and Higher Education: Conversation with James O. Freedman, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, former President of Dartmouth and of the University of Iowa; 4/18/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Mr. Freedman, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

You write in your book, Idealism and Liberal Education: "Sometimes lives do seem to be framed by a theme." book cover And you pose, as an important question, identifying "the forces that created and shaped that defining theme." So, I think it's fair for me to first ask you, what has been the defining theme of your life?

That's a good question. I think back to when I was in high school, and one of the books we were asked to read was Macaulay's essay on Johnson, a short essay. We were told to go home one night and define the sentence in that essay that best capsulized the theme of Samuel Johnson's life. I've always remembered that, because Macaulay's sentence, that is the pivot, is that, "the force of his mind overcame all impediments."

When I look at lives, including my own, I do try to think about what the themes were. In my life, there have been two themes. The first has been the question of education. I fell in love with education as a young person. I love to read. I love to go to school. I didn't want to leave college. I didn't want to leave law school. That's certainly one of the themes. The other theme has to do with whatever influences there were on me in growing up in a Jewish home in a small New Hampshire town with a very small Jewish population. And there's, of course, a very common, really mundane theme of Jewish kids striving to make their place in American society.

How did your parents shape you in this regard?

My father was a high school teacher. He taught junior year in high school. I think he shaped me primarily by reading. We had always had books in the house, always had magazines. For my father, the life of literature was wonderful. Because of the way high schools bought books, you tended to teach the same book, as long as they had forty copies, year after year after year. And he taught every year, Idylls of the King, by Tennyson. He taught Macbeth. He taught The House of Seven Gables, by Hawthorne. And he was in love with those books. He did not get bored or tired year after year in teaching them.

Did you have any teachers as a young person that influenced you, talking now about high school, not later?

I can't say in high school. There were teachers whom I thought were very good and whom I liked. But I wasn't a reader yet in high school. I was too interested in, you know, the things young adolescent kids do, but reading wasn't one of them. I really didn't start to read in a serious way, in a loving way, until I got to college.

Talk a little about your mother and her input into the shaping of your character.

My mother had a profound input. She was the daughter of immigrants. She grew up in New York. She never had the opportunity, as women usually didn't in those days, to go to college. But she was profoundly ambitious for me. There was nothing too high for me to aim at. I think it was her ambition and my father's love of literature and things intellectual that merged to fuel where my energies were put.

What about conversations at the dinner table? Were there a lot of the discussions that go with Jewish idealism, concerns about social justice?

No, there weren't. We were not as heavily observant a Jewish family. My mother, indeed, would not be observant at all. Her parents, I suspect, were socialists, who'd come over from Europe. Religion to her was, indeed, probably the opiate of the masses if she could know that term.

My father cared. And I was, of course, bar mitzvahed, and we went to schul and the high holidays and the like. But I really wasn't aware until, I would say, just in the last ten years, of what a profound effect it had on me to be the only Jewish kid in my class from kindergarten to eighth grade, and one of the two or three in a class of 300 in high school. It's only in recent years that I've looked back and have seen how important being Jewish was, how much of an outsider I felt. Although at the time, I did not realize this feeling.

In one of your essays, you write about Justices Frankfurter and Brandeis, and the consequences of their Jewishness for the way they viewed the world and their concerns. And this outsider theme emerges in that.

That's right. The theme of that essay, in a sense, is that some Jews have wanted to be insiders and some Jews have preferred to remain outsiders. And I don't know that I had any conscious preference, but I was probably an outsider until, I would say, ten years ago. And it's in the last ten years that I have become, in my own mind, very identified with Jewish causes. I'm now very active in the American Jewish Committee, and I'm on the Board of Brandeis University. I care now, deeply, about Jewish causes, but I did not until I was probably into my mid-fifties.

Do you think you've been influenced by the focus on cultural identity that is so much a part of American pluralism today?

No. It's been, I think, two things. First of all, I've discovered the joy and beauty of Judaism and the threat that it is under in a country like the United States, not principally from anti-Semitism, but from intermarriage. The values of the Jewish community and of the Jewish religion seem to me very important, and I think we risk not being able to perpetuate them if we don't identify as Jews.

The other thing is that I went through my life without ever facing anti-Semitism. It's only in the last ten years that I've come to appreciate how much my parents' generation did suffer from that, and I've come to be much more conscious of that.

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