Supriya Sinhababu: I’ve interviewed a fair number of people, but you are by far the most difficult I’ve ever had to contact. Why is that?
J. Z. Smith: Well, I despise the telephone. That’s probably why. I don’t like it. I’ll reveal my age, but I don’t like the notion [that] for a nickel…anyone could get a hold of me any time they want. I think the cell phone is an absolute abomination. I don’t understand people really needing to take a telephone with them. I have one in the kitchen, and it has an answering machine, and I pay no attention whatsoever.
SS: How about e-mail?
JS: I’ve never used a computer.
SS: So do you typewrite all your papers?
JS: Yup. Or handwrite them. I just gave a 90-page paper in California—just came back. I had to get an honorary degree in Canada and take a flight from Toronto to Los Angeles, which I do not recommend. Especially if you chain-smoke, it’s not a good trip. But my son talked me into the patch. My God it works! My wife said she could stand me, and usually on the airline she can’t at all. She said I was relaxed. I didn’t think so, but that’s what she said. I had fantasies of cigarettes all the way to California. But she thought I was relaxed, so she said, “Maybe you should always wear one!” She wouldn’t let me smoke with it on. But no, that one I gave with a handwritten paper.
No, I take Marx very seriously, I think [the computer] alienates the worker from his production—I do not understand. With a typewriter, I hit a key, and it goes bam. I understand that: I made that letter happen. Now, I then got one of these Smith-Corona things that has a little window. Allegedly you can delete things and so on. And that already bothered me because number one it’s mysterious, but number two it doesn’t have a bell at the end of the line. And all my life I’ve said, “Gee, that was a good day. I had a 30-bell day” or “I had an 80-bell day,” and Elaine would say, “How’s it coming?,” and I’d say, “Three more bells!” So first I thought I’d get a hotel bell, but I also don’t like the idea that it decides when a word stops. And I like to put a hyphen in and decide myself where the word stops. Because to me it makes a big difference especially when reading something aloud. I could lose a whole syllable with this stupid thing. So I haven’t graduated past that, and now my Smith-Corona broke down, so I’m very happy because now I do everything by hand again. Because then it’s mine!
SS: What got you interested in the religions that you study?
JS: Because they’re funny. They’re interesting in and of themselves. They relate to the world in which I live, but it’s like a fun house mirror: Something’s off. It’s not quite the world I live in, yet it’s recognizable. So that gap interested me. And so I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back. No one says, “That’s not what I heard last Sunday!” Everybody’s dead. And I like that. Now, I sometimes have to deal with religions that keep going. And they’re more problematic because then you deal with people who believe things. They also find their own beliefs puzzling or challenging or interesting—they’re almost synonyms. So they have not only their beliefs, but their interpretations of those beliefs. And I have my interpretations of their beliefs. Sometimes we can sit like this and negotiate it. Other times it’s in a book or transcript. And then in a third sense you have to run back and forth. You have to represent both sides of the conversation as you try to figure out what it’s all about. You get good at doing that with dead people because you’ll never hear from them because you have to do it all the time.
And that’s what a historian does. They run back and forth to make both sides of a conversation happen. I also think that whether you like it or you don’t like it, it’s been a part of the world, and remains a part of the world that has a lot to do with what people do. And so I think if you think it’s a worthwhile task to try to understand other people, then you probably haven’t given up on trying to understand yourself. Then you would call religion a peril. We see bad results from countries or other countries’ religions. But you don’t have to go to war over it, you could just piss somebody off. So it’s a question of a world that, whether an individual sees themselves as religious, there is still enough embedded in the culture in which they live [that], to some degree, the eyeglasses through which they look at the world are shaped by those religions.
I started off originally in grass breeding. That was what I wanted to do with my life. I went to a farm, because since if you’re a city boy going [to] an agricultural school which is free, you have to prove that you can stand in cow shit, so they send you to a barn for a while. I did that, and I loved it. It still remains to this day the best thing I ever did in my life. But it was a bad time in Cornell’s history. They would let you take no liberal arts courses: It was all part of the agriculture which was my program. And for my interests I had a program called elementary corn development. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen corn roots but they’re only about this big. So to think there were people intermediate and advanced ahead of me—I mean I had lots of other interests! So I said, “What about history, philosophy, things like that?” and they said, “Well, you’re at an agricultural school which is free. If you went to Cornell University, then of course….” So I said, “What if I paid a little money?” and they said no. So I went to the headmaster of the high school and told him what had happened. He said, “You’re such a stubborn son of a bitch. It probably would have taken you two years to realize agriculture wasn’t for you. But that’s good, you’ll go to Haverford; they’ll figure you out there.” So that’s what I did. He made a phone call—in the old days, there was the old-boy network that everyone is so worried about. So I never applied to college, because Cornell just took me as a junior, and Haverford got a phone call, so I went.
And the first day there I met this remarkable man in the philosophy department, Mark Foss, and I think largely, education is an “Oh, when I grow I’d like to be like this” sort of affair. This was a guy—wow. So I became a philosophy major. I met him by accident. I was so enthralled. I went to this one place in the library that looked like the only place you could smoke. There were all these comfortable chairs. Turns out it was a shrine where Quaker philosophers would study. And if there was one place where no one had ever smoked before, that was it. So there I was, happy as could be. There were these armchairs that extended out six feet, and you could sit and put your legs up. But anyway, there I was. Then a man came in. Then some other students came in, and there was supposed to be a senior philosophy seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. And from Marx I had read some Hegel, not that one, but I knew some vocabulary. And I was absolutely enthralled by his way of talking. So that afternoon I became a philosophy major. And then when it got time to go to graduate school, I asked another philosophy professor—when I got interested in a problem that people were worried about for much of the earlier 20th century, how myth and philosophy interrelate. Mostly philosophers yell at myths; nonetheless, if you read them carefully, you’ll see how much they’ve been appropriated. So I thought I would like to do that, but not with Greek myth. And so I went to another philosophy professor—Mark had retired by then—and I said where can I go to study Greek myths. He said, “Why don’t you go to Yale Divinity School and study the New Testament, it’s the biggest piece of Greek myth that’s still around.”
JS: See, you’re smarter than I am. I didn’t catch it as a joke. So I went to Yale Divinity School to study the New Testament, and here I am. But I still don’t know that there’s a place where you could get a degree in such a subject. You might persuade a classics department. You might persuade a history of art department. You’d really have to talk a blue streak to do it. And I think nowadays you’d probably have to go construct your own major in college, because they’re very unimaginative. I don’t know why I said they—we’re all very unimaginative. Philosophy was no good for me after college because it was in the height of its analytic phase, and you certainly weren’t going to go study mythology with these guys. They’re arguing about whether what I just said made any sense, let alone blue, green people climbing in trees or something; it’s not for them. So I knew I couldn’t go on unless I radically changed what I thought I was doing. So then I’ve taught religion ever since. Some say peculiarly, but nonetheless I’ve taught it.
Usually something on one of the old religions. Usually something on the Bible, because that’s what a lot of people like to talk about and usually something on the anthropology of religion, I guess you’d call it. I tried always to be comparative. We never look at one thing; we always look at more than one thing. Even years ago when I used to teach a course, Bibles in Western Civ, which was then a Western Civ requirement, for three quarters I would do the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon as “the Bibles of the West.” Because it doesn’t have just one Bible, it has a bunch of Bibles, and we might as well take a look at them. Even that makes it simpler than it is, because it depends on whose New Testament you look at, whether it has 24 books, 27 books, or 38 books, and so on. I think that’s what got me interested in grass—how many kinds of grass there are. I’m fascinated by how many kinds of religions there are, how many kinds of Bibles there are. Linnaeus gave us a way of talking about the diversity of grasses. I don’t think looking at their sex organs is the most interesting way, but nonetheless he gave us a way of talking. Some types of grass, if you’ve dealt with them, have very small little organs. You have to use a tiny brush that has one camel’s hair in it, and you have to go back and forth. But two, two will damage it already, it’s that strong. I still have one brush left. I haven’t used it for years. I keep it to remember. I could have spent my life with a binocular microscope going like this: [Smith makes brushstrokes in the air]. Good to remember.
SS: Do you still do that anymore?
JS: No, I don’t. I do fool around in the garden, and grow certain grasses that grow wild around here that I’ve transplanted. This new popularity of ornamental grasses—they’re basically grasses that have a hard time surviving, because they’re so ornamental. I have ordinary grass, common, but I like its shape, so I have about eight kinds.
SS: You mentioned that your teaching style is peculiar. Can you describe what you mean by that?
JS: Oh, I don’t know. Well, first of all, given the range of religions I teach, the issue of where I stand in relation to them is moot. And most people who teach religion have a clear relationship with the religions. I cannot. Obviously, most of them are dead, I would get in trouble with the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] if I sacrificed a bull ox to Zeus. I have a friend who recently died, but he actually decided to show kids what a sacrifice looks like, so he sacrificed a lamb at Easter time. “We talk about it so much—here’s what it looks like!” Half the class puked, half the class had angry letters from mommy and daddy. But he did demonstrate that it’s not just a metaphor. It’s a messy and not altogether pleasant process. Since [then] we’ve converted it entirely into an economic question. I ask students the meaning of sacrifice, and they always start talking about “mommy and daddy sacrificing so I could go to college.” We’ve been at war for four years, and I haven’t heard one person yet say some soldier sacrificed themselves. That language is gone. It’s entirely economic. One kid whose name I sent to the Development Office said sacrifice was joining a golf club for the four years that he was here, so he would have money to go to Europe when he graduated. I thought Development ought to keep an eye on that kid. I rarely do that, but I turned him in. That’s just his notion, but it’s the same idea—it’s economic: “I give up something now to get a better thing in the future.” Well that’s a shitty theory of sacrifice. But that’s the kind of thing I try to do, I try to make students answer questions, and not in class, but in writing.
On the whole I don’t teach seminars. I used to teach a lot of seminars. It’s a young man’s game. Some people like [U of C Classics professor James] Redfield can keep it up. I can’t; it’s very tiring. To really keep track of what everybody’s saying is like a computer dating service—”You should really talk to him,” or “Come on, stop talking!”—it’s like conducting an orchestra. And I can’t do it any longer. So I mostly talk. And I let them talk back in writing basically. And sometimes I’ll identify who asked something—it depends on how many people are in the room. If there’s 20, I’ll identify them. If there’s 80, I won’t. I try, I suppose, very hard—someone once said religion is a topic you have to un-teach before you teach, because in some sense, everybody comes in with an idea in their head, so they’re obviously sure that they know something about it. Your job is to suggest, without being incredibly in their face, that they don’t. So you have to take it apart, respectfully, but nonetheless take it apart. And sometimes you try juxtaposing it to something, you sometimes try asking an awful long question about it, sometimes you play dumb. Sometimes you do some history, say, “You know, it wasn’t always like you just said,” and there’s a reason behind why you’re saying what you’re saying, because something happened that caused people to talk like that. No one until Charles Darwin ever knew the Bible had no errors. No one in the history of Christianity has ever claimed until Christianity that the Bible had no errors, so why suddenly did they have to announce the Bible had no errors, at the beginning of the 20th century? It’s not an internal religious movement, it’s what they perceive as an external threat. Of course after that you drop the second shoe, which is, the sentence continues: “It’s only an error in the original autograph.” Well, fat chance you and I are ever going to see that one! And fat chance there ever was one, incidentally. The whole damn thing, written down in the same handwriting, all at once? No way. So you ask questions. That’s what you do. And most religions that are interesting spend a lot of time asking questions.
The difference I think is when religion is left alone to ask questions, they can actually be far more daring than I can be in a classroom. And usually people who ask questions are fairly comfortable with their religion. They ask the craziest—I mean I wouldn’t dare ask some of these questions. But they’re never going to leave, because the answer to that question—that’s who they are, and they just want to find out more about it. And if it leads them to things that make them say, “My God, yuck,” they’re still not going to say, “So, tomorrow I’m going to join some other group.” Whereas when you deal with a mixed audience, when you deal with somebody else’s faith, it gets tricky.
I loved teaching Self, Culture, and Society. It was I think my favorite teaching I’ve done here. And I would come in the winter quarter when they did religion, with Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, all those good people. And one year we read a book about education by Derek Bok and another former president of another university, called something like The Shape of the River, and it was an argument basically for the educational requirement for diversity. It was the book the University of Michigan used before the Supreme Court to make its argument about what Republicans like to call quotas. They’re targets. A quota means you have to reach it. A target means you try, and there’s a big difference, and they know damn well there’s a big difference—anyway, that’s neither here nor there. It’s remarkable because since they were the president of Princeton and the president of Harvard, they got access to everybody in the business and they got access to everybody’s files. And so they were able to give us longitudinal surveys of attitudes over a 20-, 30-year period. Alumni associations have polls, Harvard has a continual poll that they bother people with until they die. Some other places do the same thing. And they tried to summarize—and I was fascinated by a discrepancy, it seemed to me, in two questions. They said, “Do you think it is important to go to school with people of other cultures?” And I don’t care what population you were looking at, the answer was always in the high nineties. Old, young, black, white, rich, poor—not so poor, for the surveys these places were doing—but still, everyone said, “Yes, it’s important educationally to go to school with someone from different cultures.”
But 150 pages later, they said, “Do you think it’s important to go to school with someone of different beliefs?” Thirty-eight percent was the highest “yes” on that one. I looked at that. I said, “You know, I don’t consider my classroom a zoo where I have to have a specimen of every animal. So clearly what I want is I want people from different places because they bring with them different beliefs. So what the hell is the difference between those two?” As interviewers sometimes do, they reword the same question and ask it. I asked Bok, who I know, and he said, “No, no, that wasn’t it at all.” He hadn’t noticed the discrepancy. Well I said, “You’re no God damn use, I’ll ask my students.” They’re the ones who presumably fill out things like this, so I asked them. And they thought I was crazy to think there was a contradiction. First of all for them the word belief means only religious. I’d never quite realized this before. They don’t have beliefs about science, or beliefs about Obama or beliefs about War and Peace. They only have beliefs about religion. If you say “what do you think about…” that’s not beliefs! So somehow beliefs isn’t about thinking about, first of all; that’s the first thing I learned from my students.
Secondly, though we had read Clifford Geertz’s arguments, which tell you that culture, science, everything is a matter of belief, they obviously didn’t believe him. And that pissed me off, because I’d just given out some As for their reading of Clifford Geertz. And now they’re telling me religion is the only thing you could believe in. All right. Now I’m beginning to catch on, aha. Well if they all read it that way, yeah I guess I see, but still. Didn’t they know different beliefs were going to come with all these different cultures, even if it’s religion? I thought it was fascinating and horrifying—the students weren’t horrifying but it was…. If there was someone from some place else, if there was someone from India, I could go to their house, I could like their food, I could like the samosas and go home. Or I could go to an ethnic fair and enjoy all the different—and that’s a zoo!—all the different dances, foods, costumes, and all of that, and I go home. If I like someone else’s religion, I have to leave and convert. I can’t go home. And I listened to that, and I thought, “My God. Your choice is to be a tourist or to be a convert, there’s nothing in between.” There’s a whole world in between! You don’t have to run fast through a museum from Greek art through French impressionism, watching your clock because you have to go to a natural history museum in a couple hours. You don’t have to do that. There’s other things you could do. You could slow down a little bit. But you also don’t have to become an apostle—there’s a lot of room in between. And that really got me all reanimated about this business. I was quite struck—and I suspect they were telling me much the same things from the minds of the [surveyed] people, that explains the gap.
I thought that was quite amazing. So the question is, how can you look, like you look at a museum at something, look at it, without having to run to something else right away, but without saying—I’ve seen very few paintings where I’d like to live in what I see, but it doesn’t stop you from looking at them for a while, trying to figure out, “What the hell’s going on here, how did they do that?” You know, all the questions you ask yourself. The same kind of thing should somehow happen in the world of beliefs, even religious beliefs.
SS: So do you consider yourself one of those people who’s in-between?
JS: Oh, I would hope so. In between is where you always are. In between is where you always are. If you want one word from me I’m a translator. That’s what I do. I translate in both directions. But what you have to remember is, it’s like the original autograph, there’s no original in this business. So, I’m translating other folks’ translations of who they think they are or what some figure said, or for that matter I’m translating the translation of the figure who said it. And so, you’re always in the middle, because translation’s always in the middle. It can’t impose its language on someone else’s language. On the other hand, if it just repeats the other person’s language, it ain’t translated. I have colleagues in the religion business who think that’s what we ought to do. We ought to repeat their language. We ought to get them to sign off on our version of their language. Nonsense! Translation changes things, there’s no doubt about it. I can’t imagine any author has been fully satisfied with a translation of their work, even if they translated it themselves. So if I can’t get the author to sign off on their own translation, why the hell—and who am I going to ask?
There’s an example, of a great scholar, also named Smith—Wilfred Cantwell Smith, just died a couple years ago—that was his fundamental principle. His specialty was particularly in Islam, and he held that if he said something about Islam, they had to sign off on it. And I said “Wilfred, the difference between you and me is that I’m at Harvard and you’re at Chicago. You’re rich, I’m poor. Who are you calling up? My God, what a phone bill! I mean, you’re calling up the entire Muslim world, and asking what they think of your sentence? Because if not, I want to know how you picked out the person you asked. And I suspect you picked him out because he talks just like you!” And then you’re asking a mirror,”‘How do I look today?” I mean, it’s a crazy idea. Call up the whole world and ask them, “What do you think about what I was about to say? Every sentence?” I mean good lord, what a bill. I think even with the cell phones, I see all the ads say “unlimited”—I don’t think they had that in mind. So no. Now, there are some self-appointed loudmouths who say ‘unless I approve of what you say’—but who the hell appointed them? So, you know, with Wendy Doniger you get in trouble with the self-appointed guardians, or something or other. But that’s just…you get in trouble anyway. It’s a pissed-off believer or a pissed-off parent. You get in trouble anyway in this business. Sooner or later, you do something someone’s not going to like. Because their son or daughter translated what you said. And then they translated hearing the son or the daughter. And so it’s the same issue. It’s the glory and the problem of speech.
But it would be terrible if we did everything in the unambiguous world of mathematics. Here’s a speech designed not to have any of these problems, to be international, to have no ambiguity of any of that. I mean, it has its uses, but what an awful way to go around all day. I can’t imagine. It would be a very odd conversation. I’m sure we wouldn’t laugh once. They’re very funny people, mathematicians, but always when they stop being mathematicians they’re funny. I guess they have to be, having spent all day talking like that.
SS: I know one of the people you’ve criticized is Joseph Campbell. What’s it like to take on big fish like that?
JS: He’s a good friend, so that makes it easier in a way. He could drink like a fish. He could recite Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake in a fake drawl for hours. Of course, who knew if he was right or wrong half the time, but nonetheless he could do it. And since he wrote the skeletal key to Finnegan’s Wake I presume he probably does in fact know it. But every now and then he’d come to a passage that I love that would come out as far as I can recall—of course I had had a few drinks too—but it came out letter-perfect.
Joe makes it all easy! All myths are one! Well, see, I think that’s terrible. I really do. If that’s all it is, if all myths tell the story of a hero who at a certain stage in his life blah blah blah blah, why read more than one? For that matter, why not just read Joe Campbell? [That's] exactly what he had in mind. Now his popularity does not depend on spirits. His popularity depends on his aura—legitimating the mysterious world of the East, legitimating the hunters and gatherers and their deep rapport with nature! “Oh, you like mushrooms? Mushrooms, too, let me tell you about mushrooms”—Joe would affirm anything. He was terrific! It was a pleasure to be with him. Now with me he wouldn’t give this crap about the great mother or something like that, but I would sometimes go after a session of some meeting we both went to just utterly depressed with what I heard. But ten minutes with Joe and a couple of bourbons, and my God, it was great.
Now, we could do that. And it’s a gift. He had the gift of…oh, I don’t know…societies that still honor the storyteller. We don’t, but he had the gift of a storyteller. He had the gift, unbelievable. And then the Irish drawl would come out the more he drank, which made the stuff more lilting…. But this is a business—and I don’t think we show students enough of this—but this is a business that lives by high noons. It’s shoot-’em-ups and rewards. Your job, in part, is to take somebody down. Their reputation shouldn’t be a big deal, but obviously it is.
I say it when I gave those annual lectures for the social science core that human science is fortunate, I have to say. We can’t experiment on our subject matter. If I want to show what modernization does to a tribe, I’m really not allowed to sneak in a computer and hide in the bushes and just watch what happens. There are ethics committees that stop you from doing things like that. So you torture—there’s a sentence in Foucault that says experimental science is the torture of the elements, to make it talk. Well with real people, you can’t do that. The only way a person in the human sciences can experiment is with their mouth. We experiment by talking, by arguing, by trying something out—what if?—and see what happens. But we can’t throw it in an acid bath. So the only thing that we have is to have someone come in backing us. That’s it. That’s not proof. But it strengthens a position or weakens a position. But it’s really terribly important that if the human sciences are sciences at all, they have to have something analogous to experiment. So talk is one of those. Comparing is another one. Experiment interferes with whatever it’s looking at. It’s not watching a natural process just going along naturally. It sticks a pin in or drops some irritant on it or does something to it or smashes it in a multibillion dollar hole. But comparing is doing something—bringing two things that have no reason in creation to be in the same pond together—throw them in and see what happens. It’s the same thing you do when you interfere with largely, fortunately, an inorganic substance, but certainly we do try to cure diseases. We interfere with bodies, we interfere with bodily fluids, and we drop something in and see.
And that’s all I do. I look at the Book of Mormon in relationship to the Koran. I’m dropping one in the other’s pond to see what happens. So to me, if we’re a science, we have to have something analogous to an experiment. Bernard really made a deep impression on me, his book on experimental biology, because he moved it to the living realm, away from the inorganic. And he didn’t worry—it was just animals he was working on, who cared?—he didn’t have an ethical bone in his body about all this stuff, did ghastly things with them. But he defined experiments as exactly this, the process of interfering. And that made an enormous impression on me because that’s what I do think comparison does, among other things. There’s no natural comparison. There’s no reason to put something next to something else. You decide to do that, and in a certain sense change its context, because now that context is that other thing that you brought it to.
SS: Have you had students that questioned their religious beliefs?
JS: Yes. I think that comes with doing a course in religion, that people use it for that perfectly reasonable use. I’m sure political science has the same thing. Again, beliefs is a bigger category than religion, so I think that anyone who deals with what’s mostly called beliefs, worldviews, point of view, I don’t care what word we use. In part their class is intended to help them to settle. I mean they come with various expectations, and they will come and talk to you about them. You tread very softly. You try to get them—you certainly don’t have an answer for them, so you try to get them to talk it out. What you try to urge them to do is to try to use some of the language we’ve begun to use in class. So at least there’s a public language—and that’s what language helps us do, it helps us bring our private world out into public without necessarily dragging every inch of our guts along the way. So if I can help them really think about their problems, but not underline the word “their,” underline the word “problem,” I think that’s the best I can do. After that, it’s friends, loved ones, ministers, et al., who move in. That’s not where I go. But I do think that most people’s problems with their beliefs, whether they’re religious or not—it’s not the first time this has come up, and there are people who have spent a lot of time thinking about that. So part of what you do is say, “Why you don’t you look at thus-and-so, that might help you at least find a language to talk about this.” It’s bad enough that you’re having problems; it’s even worse that you have to invent a whole new language to talk about it. I don’t have to read your diary, and I won’t. But where you are, others have been before, and some have made important contributions as a result of that. So that’s the best you can do.
I would estimate that a thousand religions die each year. We’re very limited in our sense of how many religions there are. And I’d say that a thousand come into being each year. A religion that survives its founder’s death is doing well. But we still tend to have a much more limited view of the resources that are available to think about things. When people have problems, some people have general problems, but most have a particular problem. They want to say no, I want to say yes, that’s usually what happens. Well, they’ve thought of all of that, so [I] said, “Go look!” The point of saying how many religions there are is to say that no religion, despite the way they sometimes talk, no religion’s belief depends on a single thing. Because there hasn’t been a religion that hasn’t changed its belief structure multiple times if it’s lasted more than that one year. And one of things about religion is they take it all! They talk about everything! They’re not like most of who think they have a certain expertise so they pick their beliefs about this narrow range of things, and they’re doing pretty good. You know, don’t ask me what to do in the present market; I’m next to useless. For one contemplating retirement, that’s an important question. You go out with the value of what it is the day you go out.
SS: I was going to ask you that actually, are you retired?
JZ: No. I’m slowly edging. I’m in my 40th year here, and I’m 70 years of age, so it’s getting to be time to at least think about how to make a graceful exit. Every time I’ve really gotten almost to the point of doing it I haven’t been able to. So that’s where we stand.
Anyway, most people having a problem actually have a problem. And yes, there are dramatic statements. Martin Luther says, “What think you of Jesus Christ is the only question!” Well that’s the only question, but what hundreds of questions are wrapped up in that question? Religions will try to simplify themselves, strip off the things—they say, “Well, those are not so essential.” But nobody needs to leave any religion over a single issue. Because fortunately, unlike some of our political groups, there are no single-issue religions. There really aren’t. Part of the problem is they have no modesty. So they’ll talk about everything, and have a belief about it, and it makes them fun. It also makes them asses sometimes. It does both. If your religion’s been around a while, most of the members of that religious tradition haven’t read all the literature of that tradition, that they get told is “this, which is it.” The Golden Rule. The Gita. The Koran. They also, almost all of them, are a piece of a much longer work. In almost any field, if you’re going to take a piece of something, you’d better take a look at the whole.
And that’s where issues start. So it seems to me when someone has got the picture of the religion that it’s sort of the Reader’s Digest version, it’s been condensed down. Campbell’s stuff, it always shows you all the variety and condenses it down to the same thing. It’s just too damn rich to do that to it. I mean, you ask me what I get out of it. I always tell him to me that I get a feeling of the absolute wonder of the human imagination. It’s unstoppable. It’s funny, it’s sort of a game among analytic philosophers when they discuss religion to invent something crazy and then talk about how you could invent it. And I always ask them, “Why are you working so hard to invent something? I could show you a hundred crazier things than you could come up with that are in somebody’s most sacred writings.” It’s mind-boggling.
And the one who challenged me on it was someone who had a living rock. It could only go “woo!” or “uh.” And how do you work out the grammar of “woo!” and “uh”? And I said, “You don’t tell me how the woos got there. You don’t tell me how these woos and uhs got there. I mean, you’re a shitty mythmaker!” So I just picked up one yesterday—the world is a spider web, formed of the dripping, green semen of another spider that goes down the various parts of the web—I don’t know what you call them, filaments—and congeals here and there. So now you want to talk about rationality—man, you deal with that. To hell with your woos and uhs. And that’s only the first paragraph. The myth goes on for I think about 700 paragraphs actually. It’s a Brazilian native myth. Wow! I look at that, I’ve never taught it, but I look at that…it’s not that I want to understand it so much. I just want to say, “Hats off to you kids! You sold it to generations and generations! Woo! Terrific! Wonderful!” That’s what I like about religion, it never fails to surprise me. Whenever you think you’ve seen it all, you find something like this that—”Whoops, back to the drawing board. My definition has not been broad enough. I have to get this one in too.” It’s good. It’s good subject matter. It doesn’t conclude, and that’s good too.
I’ve always said it would be nice to drop dead in class except for the shock to my students. My wife’s a piano teacher, and she actually took a student whose teacher before her literally keeled over in the middle of this kid’s lesson. So I don’t joke about dropping dead in the middle of class any longer. But I always try to—and I don’t always succeed—to end the last class on an incomplete sentence. And that to me is important. Don’t come to an ending. I don’t think it’s true, I think it’s an artifact of the codex form, but the first page of the Babylonian Talmud…starts on the back side of the second page, I guess it was the title page—the copyright page! Never underestimate the ingenuity of a man making a sermon. It’s to teach us that we join the conversation in the middle, and the conversation 47 volumes later is still not finished. And I like that sense. I’ve always been sorry that political conservatives took up the phrase ‘the great conversation’ to mean only the books they approve of. You have the great pieces and all the rest are petty conversations. I always thought that was sad, because I think that’s…what we really ought to do, and I’m not sure we still say this often enough, is that’s what we charge you so much for. It’s conversation. And you might buy it; your parents won’t. That’s too bad. It really is. They want efficiency, and I hate efficiency. Because it makes everything over too fast.
SS: [Takes several seconds to riffle back to the questions in her notebook] Let me just dig back through for my questions here—
JS: What do you want to know, how tall I am? Before I began to shrink and stoop?
SS: [Laughs] I do really like your cane. I don’t know if you if you’ve heard of this website—probably not, but it’s called Ratemyprofessors.com, and your reviews are glowing.
JS: I’ve never heard of such a thing. And I don’t like the idea.
SS: Well, a lot of people on this website are big fans of your cane.
JS: Well, I’ll tell you about this thing, because it’s botanical. This is a rhododendron. It grows from mama, it grows from under the ground, and gets out from underneath mama—this is a parable—and it comes out from underneath. So it’s a natural cane. And what I didn’t know, from the spindly, shitty rhododendrons that we have around here, that they grow to this length. I’ve seen photographs of them in England and they grow to be like trees. Feel it, it’s very heavy! That’s not my picture of a rhododendron.
My uncle—Freud is the only one who would understand this—my uncle had two hip operations and after they were both successful he turned to making canes as a hobby. I mean, to the rest of us—what is he trying to do? I have no idea. He made this one, in a wonderful phrase that I haven’t heard used properly since the ’60s—he was driving through the Smoky Mountains National Park, and he ‘liberated’ it from there. I haven’t heard that usage in—I don’t know how the hell he knew. He used to be a YMCA coach. I don’t know that they talk about liberating things much from a federal property. But he made three or four types of canes, and now I got, from his wife who’s 95 and said she didn’t think she’ll need a cane much longer, so she gave me the cane he’d given her. It was a little smaller and a little shorter. It’s a two-handed job, this one, like so. [He demonstrates.] But the curve of it is funny to grab with one hand.
Well I think [Ratemyprofessors.com] is an awful idea. And what good does it do? I mean, I’ve been married for nearly 50 years, I’m not on the market. What other reason would one have for such a thing? It’s like reading a stud book.
No, I’ve been spared much by never—I’ve never seen the Internet. And my son endlessly explains to me that I should say that rather than “I’ve never seen the Web.” I haven’t seen that one either! He says I sound very ignorant if I say I’ve never seen the Web, but I sound like I know what I’m talking about—he has these tips for me as I grow older. He’s nearby, so he comes by to check on the two of us. My daughter’s in Oakland, so we fly out every now and then to check on her.
SS: I was reading your essay on educational reform, “The Necessary Lie,” and—
JS: Oh, that one! Someone told me that’s also floating around in cyberspace.
SS: That’s right.
JS: I’m actually very angry about that. Those are notes! That’s not the talk. And it was a series. And either right before or right after me was Wayne Booth, so I had to come up with something really smart-ass. He was the best iron the campus had, so how do you out-iron the iron? What this begets—and that’s why not everything you do should be public—is a talk that’s very situational. Certain talks, God knows I’ve given over and over again. But that one, that was a one-time only performance and deliberately done with one eye on Wayne the whole damn time.
I never knew it was there. I knew it was mimeographed and given to beginning graduate student teachers for one or two years. Then I thought it died an honorable death. And then somebody actually sent me a contract because he printed it as the appendix to a book he wrote. He needed my permission—even though he assured me that since it’s out there, if I didn’t get, it was the first time I heard the words “intellectual property lawyer,” he was going to violate it with impunity whether I said yes or no. It’s a book on religion; what the hell does ["A Necessary Lie"] have to do with religion? It’s an introduction to religion, and I guess he wanted to say at the end, “Religions have necessary lying to them.” But it’s true. I think in there—I haven’t looked at it in a long time—I also said some things about students and what they learn from us. And some of that is from real things, when I was younger and more ambitious, and also could carry more. I used to just take the students’ books from them at some point in the class and take them home and analyze, spend hours looking at what they underlined. And there’s a crack in there I think, we tell them, “It’s all the process,” and all they do is underline the conclusion or something. And I was shocked to see, yes, some did that.
There was one kid who took a black marker and obliterated everything he thought was unimportant. So in his Durkheim, there would be the word “totem,” and nothing else on the whole damn page! And I say, not that I didn’t know because I looked at the page, “What’s here is details. Why do you think he put them in? He’s not an anthropologist. He didn’t go there. So why is he giving you all those details? So it’s all about totems—well he said that on the cover page, you know it’s about totems, so don’t underline totems. God damn it, that’s what the book’s about.” I’ll tell you one thing, I said, “I wouldn’t want you for my doctor. Because for all I know the disease I have you eliminated on that page! It’s just details, get rid of it!” So that’s the difference. What’s the difference between you as an intern presenting a case history and Durkheim here presenting a case history? And the presumption is that everything is potentially relevant. It may not be! It may be misleading. But for God’s sake!
So a lot of ["The Necessary Lie"] came out of teaching here. When I taught at Santa Barbara I had 800. When they left they wrote, “He had the hottest nightclub act in town.” I was offended for years. By God, I would spend 10 hours getting ready for one 15-minute session and all they remember is that I tell jokes sometimes. Always with a point, they’re parables! Sometimes. But all they could remember is they laughed. And the way some of them performed, I suppose that is all they remember. Those weren’t the times for teachers because that was during the Vietnam War. And if you failed someone, you were going to kill them. It was a terrible time—certainly to be a student, but to be a teacher as well. It’s the first time I evoked this principle of Marx because they had machine-scored exams. And I insisted on watching the machine do it. I said, “I can’t grade it, but I’m going to watch it.” And you know what? I found out it skipped 20 questions. So the students getting As did well—but the kids that got Bs were on their way to the selective service system! I mean this isn’t just a matter of being pissed off because you got a lousy grade. This is sending you! You’re on your way kid! And the damn machine skipped the same 20 questions all the way through the exam. And that’s when I learned what happens when you can’t see inside the machine. I finally started looking over here, and something wasn’t right. “Some glitch,” says the engineer chairman, “some glitch.” That’s why I trust no black box. Something that goes in here and comes out here, I don’t trust. I do my Xeroxing one by one. Page down, peek underneath the thing, watch the little light go across, and then I take it out and compare it to make sure—and then I put the next page down. It’s a black box otherwise, I don’t like it.
SS: The reason I brought up “The Necessary Lie” is because I was wondering what criticisms you have of the Core as it is today.
JS: Well there’s not enough of it, first of all. I understand why, and now I withdraw my understanding of why. I was told [curtailing the Core] was done to increase electivity, and I think electivity is a good idea. I also think being told what you should do is also a good idea, as long as there are options. But it turns out that’s not actually how it’s been used. It’s been used to carve out spaces for double majors, to which I am unalterably opposed. One major is bad enough. I would like to abolish majors altogether. So two is unbelievable. And then you find out one is for mommy and daddy and one is for you, so then I thought let’s take this issue head-on and stop this crap. It seems to me that majors ought to be flexible enough that if you were in history and then suddenly said my real interest is in biology, they might say, “Well, why don’t you look into the history of biology”—I mean we’ve got a whole fucking library called the Crerar Library of the History of Science. I mean, they ought to be able to find some way to fit you in.
No, I think the Core, if it were a Core, is terrific. Now, the thing about a Core is it really has to represent a hard-won faculty consensus. I mean, it can’t be “we’ll put this one in for that group, and we’ll put this one in for that group.” It has to be that of all the books we could possibly inflict on you—only in 10 weeks, and you waste the first week, you waste the last week, so you’ve got eight weeks. If they’re not crazy, they’re going to take two weeks to read a book. So you’re down to four books. Now what that Core really ought to be doing is saying that if there were only these four books in the world—or the other way around, out of all the books in the world, these are the four books you should read. If they’re not prepared to say that, they should shut up shop. That’s my first comment. I find too much politics, too much accommodation. “We can’t get the so-and-sos to join us unless we read this.” And they don’t care what it is, it’s got to be a little bit of this, or the economists won’t join the social science core, or something.
That’s the first issue. The second issue is I really think that if it’s a Core, there shouldn’t be so many of them. How can you say “we hold these truths to be self-evident, and by the way we’ve got eight sets of truths. You can choose which one you’d like to take.” I’m not a fan of the fantasy of the Core in the days when on Wednesday, April 8, every student was reading exactly the same page of Plato. It’s the automaton theory of uniformity. I mean, stick with one or two, but then it’s five, six, seven, eight. The word fundamental means something or it doesn’t mean something. And somehow, eight’s too big. And I don’t think they’ve made a hardcore argument. Half the time they got pissed off with this Core, so it went off on its own, like, Protestantism and went off to build a church of their own. And then you ask who are they’re speaking for. Now as soon as they’ve done that, after all the excitement of designing it, then they no longer want to teach it. Then they start screaming for graduate students or Harper something-or-others to come in and do it for them. So the other problem with the Core is there’s not enough senior faculty. The more introductory you get, the more gray hair you have to have. Introducing is an old person’s game; it’s not a young person’s game. A young person has just spent years becoming the world’s expert on some itty-bitty little thing. And that’s the last person in the world you suddenly give the overview. They’ve studied one little city or one little group, and now you tell them “all of social science.” It makes no sense.
I once sat down at this long table in the Stanford faculty club. I was giving a lecture, and some people were supposed to meet me but I didn’t know who they were. So I sort of looked and waved, and they were very affable, they waved back! So I sat down. Turned out it was a group of physicists. So I thought, ‘I’ll just eavesdrop until someone finds me.’ And they were having an argument about how whether so and so was old enough to teach Physics 101. Their phrase was ‘senior enough.’ I mean, that was their argument. So I think that’s something we ought to be serious about. I don’t think that “Lie” thing was a great piece of work; it was an informal presentation. But you’ve got to think through—you can’t just think about a particular text. You’ve got to spend time introducing. I find that the more I know as a scholar, the more I need to use all of that when I introduce. Because out of all the things I know, I have to pick the things that I want you to know about. And I have to know damn well why it is that I picked this rather than that. I find that every skill I’ve picked up over the years is involved in making those decisions. It’s better than a Nobel Prize, it’s the most important thing we do. Because, just like religions, we don’t study ourselves. We’re transmitting. The great unstudied area of religion we don’t study is education—how are they transmitted? It’s not just mommy-to-baby; it’s a whole apparatus they have. And how does that work? And is it similar or different? Religion and education—I mean, we’re used to that as a lawsuit topic, but…most educational systems started off being run by religions. But prior to having a former system they had other systems. Anyway, that’s digressing. But the transmitting is a big part of what any cultural system does. That’s what makes it a cultural system. That’s why so much public funds go to supporting it.
I mean, I used to be the Dean of the College, and I’d have to speak to the Board of Trustees. I just said two things to them: that we’re the first country in the history of the world to have more teachers than farmers. That’s an incredible statement. Now partly it’s because these huge agri-businesses don’t need many people, they just need to spread their shitty stuff all over things. So it’s a little bit of a fake figure, but it was trying to make a point [about] that. The second one, however—education is America’s biggest business. There’s four percent of our product devoted to this. There’s more people employed in it than any other industry. Why has this country chosen to put so much public and private wealth behind it? They must think it does something! So what do they think it does? Train you to turn a wrench—that’s not what it does. Even schools that do that, they get asked to do civics, they have to make you a better citizen—all this other stuff. Well, I think that should probably be in the hand of folks who’ve thought about it. And I can think of nothing least likely that a third-year graduate student would have sat down and spent a lot of time—they may have read an article. Maybe they read an article by me because I spend an enormous amount of time just running around campus talking to graduate student groups who are about to teach. It worries me how many of them are about to teach, by the way.
So that’s what I—those are things, small things. I have no philosophical disagreement with the Core. And I started off not entirely persuaded by it. I looked at Chicago’s catalogue in high school, said, “My God, this is a fascist system.” Now in those days there was no option. For two years, it was St. John’s. For two years, you did what they Goddamn well told you to do. And I wasn’t ready for that. To me college meant free of being told what to do, so I wasn’t moved to that. A Quaker college like Haverford never told you; it might try to reach a consensus with you and 24 hours later maybe you got there, but it never, never told you. So those are the kinds of things—and I think it’s got to be a requirement. So I think it’s a hurdle to jump over. “Now I got that finished with, now I go on to what I came here for.” When if we knew how to say it right, we’d say, “You schmuck, this is what you came here for! The other stuff you can learn, just pick up a book, sit down and read it!” Now I think part of it is we don’t do it enough. When I helped design the Lang College in New York—it’s part of the new school—a lot of Chicago people said it should be part of that school. So they knew about the Core and wanted to have one. What I said was something I used to do, again when I was younger, since I was the one in charge by the president to do the blueprint I could say things like this, “I’m not going to recommend it unless they all repeat the Core their senior year.” One quarter of it. Because that’s when you know what you’ve learned.
I used to invite my class to dinner their senior year. I would pick one chapter of one of the things we read and said, “It’s going to be like Plato’s symposium, I’m going to assign dinner table conversation.” I’d have enough wine and booze, Coca-Cola for those who won’t, to keep the conversation moving, but we’re going to sit around and talk about that book. It was not what we were going to do because as they sat down I reached under the table, in a careful style handed a Xerox copy, each one of the papers they had written. And whether they got an A or a D, they were outraged by what they had written. And I said, “That’s what I want you to know.” Our grading system—we don’t give a lot of Ds and Fs—our grading system doesn’t allow us to tell you how much you’ve grown. Chances are you got some Bs the first year; you’re going to get some Bs the senior year. On the average that’s the way it works. My God, what a difference between the B paper you wrote your last year and the B paper you wrote your first year. If you don’t know that, you ought to get your money back. And by the way if it’s not better, you ought to get your money back, too. [Former U of C President] Hanna Gray heard I started making sentences like this when I was teaching—”you know if you say things like that it’s not hyperbole. You’re putting us on the line, shut up with all the you’ll-get-your-money-back talk!”
But I really feel that schools—I hate these senior projects. They’re absolute—every educational test of them we have say that they’re an utter waste of time. They’re a make-believe M.A. thesis or a make-believe doctoral thesis, and they’re just a way of hiring graduate students to be lectors. They have more Latin names for them—rectors, lectors, preceptors—I never heard of so much Latin around this Protestant university! It’s Baptist, we don’t speak Latin! But this business of having a portfolio—that I believe in. Saving your papers and being required to talk about them your last year. Is it Wellesley? One fine girls’ school—I don’t even know if it still is, but a required project for a history student to take a paper you wrote your sophomore or junior year and write an outline of how you would change it. Don’t rewrite it—just tell us how you would do it differently. Because if you can’t do that, what the hell have you learned? It’s this production of…I’ve read a lot of them. They’re not all that good. It’s a lot of busy work, a lot of rummaging up notes and footnotes and that kind of stuff, and it’s not clear to me that—I mean I would get rid of the dissertation, too, if you allowed it, but that’s another topic. But I certainly don’t want a fake one. I think all people have spent almost their entire year doing that. And it cannot be worth it. I think you ought to…visit where you were and see how far you’ve come. That’s good for you, it’s good for us. It’s trouble for you; it’s trouble for us. We have to find a way of thinking, we ought to find a way of handling that issue. If not getting your money back, we ought to do something about it. So that’s—I mean that’s what I don’t like. It’s that nothing’s comparable to the Core your senior year. And there should be. It could be one of these—this big ideas class, why can’t you have a big ideas seminar for every single major? Constructed by its major, but all take the same topic…however many win the lottery or however the hell you get into that Goddamn class. So senior seminars are good—what we’re saying is that this is general education that will give you something to serve you well, whatever you specialize in—well, we ought to test the premise out. Let’s test it. Let’s say, “Well, now you’ve learned some special things, let’s go back to that and see what difference it makes.” And it should make a difference. Doesn’t mean you say it’s crap, but you should be able to read it differently because you’ve spent two or three years more focused. Well great, let’s test it! Is it true?
So those are the things. I don’t think they take it seriously enough, and so it’s now become requirements, something you get over with your first two years. Or some hang on hoping that it’ll be abolished, so you get the really pissed-off seniors because they’re sure it’s going to be abolished next year, but Goddamn it they still have to take it! And all of that nonsense. So I would have added—they’re shrinking, I would’ve added. I wouldn’t ask college to fit so comfortably with graduate school. After all, despite our faculty fantasies, the vast majority of our students don’t go on to arts and sciences graduate schools. We fudge it by saying we go on to—they go on to medical school, business school, law school. And somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to 10 percent become clones of us. But we teach this entire College as if it’s only purpose is producing clones of ourselves. And so that’s why we’re going to do the research skills in your senior year for graduate schools. Got news for you folks, that’s not where they’re going! They’re voting with their feet, they don’t want to be like you! They want to be like mommy and daddy, and they sure as hell don’t want to be like you! They’re going to go off and make money!
SS: So when you were Dean, did you make [these kinds of] changes?
JS: I made some changes, but not a lot. What I tried to do was to try to make talk about education something that was routinely part of the faculty’s concern…. I thought we’d have discussions. So I’d form a presentation, bring up something from some educational newspaper, or something I heard at a conference, and try to talk about–try to suggest that college teaching is an intellectually interesting topic to think about. That it’s not some extra-even some extra burden. They don’t get as much work as they should. It’s a no man’s land. That means they get it in the major courses. And increasingly, which I despise, I see courses limited to majors only, which is absolutely horrendous. Some people have double majors, I don’t know what this means, but anyway it’s limited to majors only. It’s too big otherwise. So then hire more faculty. Not going to happen.
I think, I once made the statement that I think if you’re going to teach college students you need to know as much about late adolescent developmental cognition as you know about your own field. You have no right going in front of them and not knowing where they are. I mean I don’t know whether the work of that terrific feminist at Harvard is still holding, where she says ‘show me a paper and I’ll tell you what year it is.’ And it goes through-a first-year will buy anything from anyone with authority. A second-year won’t buy anything from anybody, no matter how authoritative. Finally by the fourth year they learn what you call contextualization. Take some of it and leave some of it, they’re able to take what they’re reading, not just thinking they’re going to push a black button or a red button. For the first two years it’s button-pushing largely. And you ought to know that! It makes a difference to what your expectations are in a class! And also what you want to do in a class. If I’ve got a class I know has mostly second-year students, they’re not going to take any shit from anybody, then I’m going to give them a lot of shit. And I’ll argue about every goddamn thing they say, and I ought to know that! I wouldn’t do that the first year. So, I just think that there’s more meat on those bones than the faculty knows. And I think it’s okay to talk about it, we don’t always have to talk about the crap we talk about in faculty meetings. And again I think you can’t ask, you’re responsible to ask people who themselves are struggling for a degree to now not only show up, do the readings, maybe even think about the readings, before they walk in, but now know something about Carol what’s-her-name’s theory of-no, you know, and worry about how does the Harvard model of general education applies to the Chicago model applies to-no, that’s not the world they are ready yet to live in.
So those are the things-I love the idea of the Core. When I was an adolescent and looked at it I thought it was absolutely insufferable. And I don’t think I like St. John’s. that eliminates the tension which ought to be interesting. And this thing really is an hourglass-you start broad, you specialize, then you get broad. When you specialize you ought to be intelligently broad, not be even more narrow. And that’s what I’d like to see the Core allow. I think it doesn’t pull off-so it leaves this as a sort of ‘well everyone does it, let’s learn a little about this and little about that, isn’t that nice? And the next strand is to get some writing in there’…That’s overlooking the fact that writing for one subject matter is not the same as writing for other subject matter.
The other thing I got out of that book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! that I quoted in that speech is that…a guy wins a Nobel Prize in one science and gets laughed at for writing something in another science, not because of what he did, but because they thought it was important. At least in this book, I haven’t read the rest. This is a guy I see in the bookstore, of course there are tapes to sit and listen to Feynman in the same way there are now tapes of folks speaking beyond the grave, but you sit around and listen to the tapes! You get an aura. [Tries to eat a chocolate drop that came with his espresso without interrupting the flow of the conversation.] Oh I’ll have another one…very discreetly.
SS: No, go ahead!
JS: My wife will come back and she’ll say, ‘your disposition’s unusually sweet today!’ It’s an itty-bitty little thing! [He eats the chocolate drop.] Majors I think are of no use to anybody.
SS: I really agree.
JS: I mean it’s…It’s not real! It’s all sort of simulated, and they keep telling you it doesn’t get real until-I don’t know what the hell happened, but when I was in my first year of graduate school I didn’t feel a tingle th