April 15, 2005

Lipson says he loves what he does

Charles Lipson, professor of political science in the College, spoke to students and community members on Thursday afternoon in the Reynolds Club as part of the series "What Matters to Me and Why."

Lipson—a commanding presence, with his Southern accent and emphatic gesticulations—surprised his audience by beginning his talk with a front page story from Thursday's New York Times, about a millionaire who works as a transit conductor because he loves the job.

"That's my situation, millions of dollars in extraneous income," Lipson said to a chorus of laughs. "No, [I picked that because] I really thought, and think often, that the kind of life I live now—where I read, and I write, and I teach—is what I would do if I had his income. I fundamentally love what I'm doing," he said. He then spoke briefly about the importance of family before moving on to subjects that he considered less conventional answers to what matters to him.

Lipson emphasized the importance of reading, writing, and learning; of those three, learning was most important to him. "I love to learn about things that interest me, but my interests are very eclectic." He mentioned linguistics as one of his interests, which he is currently studying by listening to an audio course.

History and political science are Lipson's preferred academic pursuits, and he discussed some of his concerns within these disciplines. "What I've become more and more interested in is the problem of peace," he said. "It's a problem because it's hard to achieve a durable peace. We've reached a wonderful moment in world history, where peace is not simply a moment between wars."

Lipson also spoke about the importance of humor. "I'm not sure I can explain why—I just love it," he said. Praising Krusty the Clown as "one of the great figures of our time," Lipson shared his appreciation for not only The Simpsons but also Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, recounting an anecdote about his experience as an audience member on that program. "There are Ph.D. dissertations that don't have this much insight," he said.

Lipson applied humor to insight, noting how well it can inform the human condition. "It's not systematic, it's not theorized, but it's deep," he said. "I enjoy thinking about it, thinking about what it means. Sometimes we can have the insights about our world that we don't even appreciate when we laugh at a joke," he said. Naming Woody Allen, David Sedaris, Leslie Nielsen, and Bob Newhart as some of his favorite humorists, Lipson showed that his interests in comedy were also varied. "I don't just go for deep humor—my tastes are anything but highbrow on this," he said.

Lipson, also the director of the Program for International Politics, Economics, and Security, turned to an area from which he drew material for his recent book, Doing Honest Work in College, as one of further importance.

"Honesty, integrity, and free discourse—I think of them as related," Lipson said. "If you're dishonest in presenting your work, then you're undermining the trust that's an inherent quality of teaching."

Lipson lamented the effects of plagiarism and distorted data in academia. "What you're seeing is education turned into a kind of punch-your-ticket enterprise, so you don't really care what you learn, what you care about is…are you going to get the grade," he said.

Lipson, who earlier in the speech had expressed gratitude at being on the faculty at Chicago, did not think that the problem was endemic to the University. "We don't have that kind of mentality here—we have people who care about learning. That makes it a lot more fun to teach," he said.

When asked during a question and answer period what he would take on a desert island, Lipson named eclectic music such as Mozart, Robert Johnson—"see if I can drown him out with my own bad blues singing"—and the early Rolling Stones. He said he would reread several history books and take "a lot of Snickers bars and Diet Dr. Pepper."

Responding to a question on partisanship in the media, Lipson clarified his own political views. "Some people consider me conservative on campus—I don't think of myself that way at all. I think of myself as a centrist, and very much on the left on a wide range of social issues," he said.

Justifying why he did not name politics as what mattered, Lipson spoke of politics on a different plane, drawing a connection to some of his earlier points. "I could say that politics matter a lot to me, but what really matters are the issues like human freedom—what to me politics is about," he said. "I'm really concerned with somewhat bigger issues—freedom of discourse, integrity—those kinds of things are things that I really care about for their own sake."