James O. Freedman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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You speak of liberal arts and a liberal arts education as a tool for life, a way to prepare yourself, all through your life, to deal with the ups and downs of life. I know that when you were president of Dartmouth you were stricken with cancer, and you were public about that. You've written and said often that your liberal arts training helped you deal with the difficulties of confronting that situation. Tell us a little about that.
In 1994 I was stricken with cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I was told there was a good chance of dealing with it successfully with chemotherapy, but it was probably a 50 - 50 chance. Fortunately, it worked. But that begins to make you think that life is short; that you're not invincible. You begin to ask, "What matters to me? Am I using my time properly? Why am I letting other people control so much of my time?" It makes you think about your children who, after all, are your most important legacy on earth, and it makes you ask, "Have I completed my task with them of passing on the values I want for them and that I hope they have, and of being an example for them? Have I become the kind of father I want to be?" Those things really make you ask questions at that time. And I think the asking of the questions begins to help you try to answer them.
I, like everyone who is stricken with cancer, began by saying, "Why me? I'm a perfectly nice person. Why me?" And of course, you begin to realize that everybody says that. A friend of mine who is a Congregational minister said to me, "Why not you? Somebody has to be stricken with this? So why not you?" And I began to think about that. But that's the whole question of the arbitrariness of the universe -- it's the question of Job. Why does God treat some people in certain ways?
I've had cancer twice since then and I'm dealing with it, still, now. It makes me think very, very seriously, of, particularly, how best to be myself, if time is limited. Whether it is, I don't know. But, you know, a third time makes you think that it could be. And it makes you see that you don't want to spend your time on trivial things. You don't want to spend your time on things that are mere duty, if you've chosen them and you can retreat from them. You want to spend it on those things that really matter to you.
Did you turn to your books a lot? That is, reading. Was reading you found something even more useful?
I found help. One of the first books I read is one of these books that I mentioned earlier that I read every two or three years, because you can read it in a long, long day. And that's The Plague by Camus, which, of course, is about why does this plague, this pestilence, strike this city of in Algeria? Of course, nobody can answer that question, but they puzzle with it. And that's, of course, what you puzzle with, with cancer. You ask yourself, during that, "I may have six months left. I may have a year left. What should I do at that time? Why has this happened to me?" And, you know, people say to you glib things that are well-meaning, like, "You've really had rich life. You know, your work is done, in a way. I mean, you're so fortunate, you didn't have a life where you failed at your career, or raised terrible kids, or had a bad marriage." You know, your life, in some sense, is a nice, complete package. But nobody sees it about themselves that way.
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