Josef Joffe Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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Do you think that as a writer, a journalist, and a commentator you were sensitized to these issues early in the experience of wonder that you described when you were a high school student coming to America and seeing all these wondrous American things in comparison to the situation in postwar Germany?
I would slightly enlarge the point. It takes the transgression of cultural borders to be aware of contrasts and similarities. From your very own culture you can't see very far, and what you see you will always perceive in terms of your own frame of reference. And so if your are a Frenchman and you have learned that Racine and Flaubert were the pinnacle of literature, then you will be tempted to say that Emerson and Walt Whitman and Faulkner are less significant examples of the species. But once you transcend, say, the French language, you begin to learn English, you begin to learn American, English literature, you begin to live in English or American universities, then you begin to look at the same thing from a second or even tertiary vantage point. And so I'm a great fan of people living in more than one culture and learning more than one language, which is happening anyway, I think. I think English, the American accented version, is becoming the global language. Everybody now wants his kids to spend at least some time in an American or English school or university so you can acquire that "second mother tongue."
What lessons would you think students might draw from your story about how they might prepare for the future, in terms of things to study and so on? You've suggested some of them just now.
Well, I'm a great believer in liberal arts as I imbibed them in the mid-sixties and beyond. And now we are sitting here on the periphery of Silicon Valley, I'm sitting right now in the heart of Silicon Valley.
As a visiting lecturer at Stanford.
I'm extremely impressed, as everyone else is from the Wall Street Journal to the general interest magazines, about the explosion of "e" this and "e" that, e-commerce, etc. And the "new new thing," and the "next big thing," and so on. But precisely because the new, new thing is happening, coming in at ever shorter intervals, I've become even more of a believer in liberal arts education. There's more to life than electrical engineering, especially since the skills you acquire in electrical engineering at Stanford today will be obsolete in about four years, even less.
What is liberal arts all about? Liberal arts gives you an education. What is an education? Well, apart from the pleasures of knowing Shakespeare and Flaubert and Turgenev and Goethe, it teaches you how to learn. It gives you a sense of how little you know and endows you with tools by which you can acquire and process more knowledge, in addition to making you a more interesting human being if you can talk about more than e-trade and megabytes. So in short, a liberal education has become more critical today than ever.
It also teaches you to look for the continuities in history, which is something you suggested when you were talking about Swarthmore.
Yes. It makes you somewhat more humble about your own time when you realize that the great Greek chronicler Thucydides 2.5 thousand years ago wrote a book called The Peloponnesian War which has contributed more to your understanding of the Cold War -- two great powers, Sparta and Athens, were tangling with each other -- than so much contemporary literature on the Cold War. Continuity makes you more humble; it also makes you wiser, because the "new new thing" may not be quite as new; others have thought these ideas. And I find this a very interesting multicultural experience in a very funny way, you know. It just tells me I am part of that large, large family that reaches back two or three thousand years who have thought things that I'm thinking today and who have taught me these things. And this is a wonderful multicultural experience in the best, best sense of the term.
Joe, thank you very much for joining us and talking about your life and about Germany and the United States and their foreign policies. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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