Posts Tagged ‘John Hennessy’

Robert Harrison’s “Entitled Opinions”: philosophy without borders

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

Over at the blog for the American Philosophical Association, I have a guest post describing my work with Robert Pogue Harrison‘s brainchild, the intellectual talk show Entitled Opinions, available as a radio show and podcasts. The piece been adapted from a longer essay that will appear in Literary Criticism as Public Scholarship (edited by Rachel Arteaga and Rosemary Johnsen), under contract with Amherst College Press. An excerpt from the blogpost:

I teamed with Harrison to plan for a bigger future for Entitled Opinions a few years agoA generous donation from former Stanford President John Hennessy helped fund a website redesign, with easily searchable programming and a home of its own that was not in a hard-to-find corner of the French and Italian Department website.

I argued that there was nothing on either the new or old website to indicate what a listener would hear in the particular podcast – a powerful disincentive for anyone thinking to invest an hour. Not everyone will gamble an hour of their precious time that way. Jazz scholar Ted Gioia, a master of the social media, had counseled me that the missing component in our modern cyber-edifice is this: while there is much transferring text to visual images, tweets, audio, and so on, there is comparatively little transfer going in the opposite direction – that is, turning audio and visual content into text. A few synoptic paragraphs with quotations from the episode would entice as well as inform potential listeners.

We forged a partnership with the Los Angeles Review of Books, establishing a podcast channel for Entitled Opinions that would bring more visibility to the program and draw new audiences. We also struggled to get a presence on social media – no small thing either, as Harrison was at first resistant to Facebook, Twitter, and the rest. He cherished the cult status of Entitled Opinion, and emphasized the whole message of Entitled Opinions was for long thoughts over short ones, through the medium of intensive hour-long conversations. I was sympathetic. But in today’s world, to get the word out without using social media is to try to get the word out without getting the word out.

Now we are taking the next step: we are creating lightly edited transcripts and pitching them to the international media to spread the word about Entitled Opinions. Harrison’s interview with German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk ran in translation in Die WeltThe original English transcript is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books. The first of a two-part interview with French thinker René Girard ran in England’s Standpointthe second is scheduled for Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung, which has also run a translation of Harrison’s interview with American philosopher Richard RortyThe Chronicle of Higher Education has published part of a transcript of a conversation with “metahistorian” Hayden White.  More are on the way. (Both the Girard interviews will be published in my forthcoming Conversations with René Girard, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2020.)

Read the whole thing here.

Hitting the road with Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

christmas-carolDickens-lover John Hennessy (also known as Stanford University’s president) told us some time ago that he reread A Christmas Carol at this time of year. Perhaps we’ll join him – certainly it’s short enough.  My little facsimile of the first edition is a double-spaced 166 pages long (at right).

It was the first book Charles Dickens took to the road for his famous readings, which made a killing in the U.S.  His second American tour raked in the equivalent of $2.3 million in today’s dollars. People camped out in the snow the night before to hear it – it was the 19th-century version of Black Friday sales at Walmart.

During that 1867 tour, the 32-year-old Mark Twain was in the audience, and was distinctly unimpressed.  Here’s how he described the “old” (55 years old) writer’s entrance:

Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, “spry,” (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage – that is rather too deliberate a word – he strode.


Hamming it up

The verdict? “There is no heart,” he said. “No feeling – it is nothing but glittering frostwork.”

Dickens was renowned for his theatrical readings.  Here’s how he prepared:  two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour prior to performance, he would knock back a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the interval of his reading he would sip beef tea, and at bedtime he’d have a bowl of soup – just like Ebenezer… or was that porridge?  I’ll have to reread and find out.

Dickens’ first public reading was A Christmas Carol, and it was also his last.  His son recorded his last words to a London audience in March 1870 (springtime is not the usual time for reading A Christmas Carol): “…from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with one heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.”

On performance days, Dickens would prep with two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before he went on stage, he would knock back a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the interval of his reading he would sip beef tea, and at bedtime he’d have a bowl of soup … just like Ebenezer … or was that porridge? We’ll have to doublecheck.

Just as Dickens’ first public reading was of A Christmas Carol, so was his last – an uncharacteristic springtime reading of A Christmas Carol in March 1870. His son recorded his final, admittedly hammy, words to the audience: “…from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with one heartfelt, grateful, and affectionate farewell.”

How do I know all this stuff?  You can read this and more little-known facts about the Christmas classic over at Mental Floss here.  And below is the bestest Christmas Carol ever, the 1951 version with Alaistair Sim.  And below that, Dickens’s distinctive bookplate.  Just because we like lions.




John Hennessy likes big fat books.

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Love’s much better, the second time around: Stanford prez on the joy of rereading books. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford prez John Hennessy is famously techie, right?  Here’s the surprise: the former computer scientist also likes ploughing through the big-hearted, super-retro, thousand-page classics of the 19th century. “I like sagas, a big story plus decades,” he confessed to a good-sized crowd at Piggott Hall last week during an exuberant, free-wheeling talk on “Why I Read Great Literature.”  You know the books he means: the kind that gets turned into a year’s worth of BBC Masterpiece Theatre viewing.

les_miserables_bookHe’s clearly a man after my own heart – he singled out Victor Hugo‘s Les Miserables for particular praise, saying that he’s read the whole shebang several times. This is comforting to me personally, after watching René Girard, that anti-romantic sage and immortel, politely squelch a smirk when I told him of my childhood adoration of the book.

For Hennessy, an apparent turning point in his reading tastes occurred the summer before he entered high school – an over-the-vacation reading assignment that somewhat parallels Stanford’s Three Books program.  Clearly one of the books took hold of his imagination:  he’s read Charles Dickens‘s A Tale of Two Cities several times since.  And although he wasn’t up to reciting the magnificent 118-word opening sentence last week, he did refer to it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

How many books are enclosed by an immortal first and last sentence? Hennessy had better luck reciting the the famous close:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

copperfieldDickens “has proven enough times that I could read anything he writes,” said Hennessy. “He grapples with Victorian England, social injustices, a system that obviously tramples on people.”  As for nasty schoolmaster Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby: “If I ever met him, I would be forced to shoot him,” said Hennessy.  These books ask, he said, “How would I have approached that situation? What would I have done?”  Now we know. Hennessy would be compelled to commit homicide.  Fortunately, fortunately, Squeers must have died in Australia at least a century ago, presumably of natural causes.

Hennessy’s love for Dickens includes the worthy chestnut A Christmas Carol, which he rereads during the holiday season. As for David Copperfield, he gleefully quoted Mr. McCawber; apparently it’s one of his favorite lines: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Well, that’s the techie in him.  Throughout the talk he kept presenting numbered lists of thoughts – he likes counting.  I always wonder how you know that, when you say you have five points to make, it’s going to stay five points, and not meander into seven.  Or you’ll forget one and have only four left.  He seems to be good at keeping track.

Like many a young ‘un, he was frogmarched to the great classics.  Some books are not wise choices for teenage boys – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example. “I wasn’t up to it. It was too deep, too much angst to it. High school angst is different.”

stendhal_5136“An author I was tortured by in high school was Edith Wharton,” he recalled pensively.  The inevitable high-school staple, Ethan Frome – it’s mercifully short, after all – was “not the right book for high school guys.”  What kid wants to read a tragic story of wasted lives?  They say love is much better the second time around – so it seems with these reheated feasts.  He’s warmed to Henry James, too, despite a premature exposure to “Turn of the Screw.”

I couldn’t agree more with his overall point, but I think the first exposure, however flawed, is important.  I’ve just rediscovered Stendhal in a big way after reading it in high school and finding it a little too cold-edged and cynical for my delicate teenage sensibilities.  It didn’t help that the class was reading it, for the most part, in French (we all cheated and found translations, of course – I now find it amusing that we thought Mademoiselle Vance didn’t expect us to do this). René Girard definitely approves of this late-life conversion to Stendhal.  I’ll have to have another go at Rabelais now, too.  These classics, reread at ten-year intervals, resonate within us at different layers of experience, but you do need a prime coat.

Hennessy’s passion is not restricted to Golden Oldies, or reheated feasts from early class assignments – he included some more recent fare in his endless list.  “Sometimes fiction is better at telling a story than non-fiction,” he said, citing this year’s Pulitzer prizewinning book, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (we’ve written about it here and here and here and, oh, lots of other places).  He also cited Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga‘s White Tiger, which helped prepare him for trips to India a few years ago.  Where does he get the time? Clearly, he doesn’t watch TV – I wrote about that here.

Orphan_Master_s_SonSepp Gumbrecht, author of In Praise of Athletic Beauty, offered what he called “the biggest compliment” to Hennessy: “I did not anticipate half an hour when I would not think about football.”  He praised Hennessy for taking a firm departure from clever literary theory and speaking with “unbridled and deliberately naïve enthusiasm” about books.  He noted the words and phrases Hennessy used most frequently in his talk (apparently, he was counting, too, which would certainly keep his mind off football):  1) redemption, redeeming; 2) tragedy, justice; 3) sacrifice, vengeance.  It doesn’t get better than this, does it?

divinecomedyWell yes, it does. Hennessy didn’t forget the slash-and-burn, blood-and-guts classics, Homer’s Iliad and Dante’s Inferno.

And what does he read at the end of the day, before bedtime?  “Junk,” he said.  Just like the rest of us.

He escaped by a side door during the refreshments – but not before George Brown and I pleaded with him to reconsider the Purgatorio, the only book in the Divine Comedy where time counts for something – which it did for Hennessy, too, clearly, as he rushed to his next appointment.


(Photo above has a gaggle of professors – the contemplative head-on-hand at far right belongs to Josh Landy.  Next to him with the snowy beard is Grisha Freidin.  The ponytail at his right belongs to Gabriella Safran.  Next to her (if you leap an aisle) is David Palumbo-Liu in black glasses, and the half-head to his right belongs to Sepp.  Humble Moi at far left with the black Mary Janes.  Many thanks for the excellent photography from Linda Cicero, which has often graced this site.)


“Why do I need to know that?” Defending the humanities, social sciences in a techno world

Friday, September 7th, 2012

John Hennessy, Leslie Berlowitz, Steven Denning, Condi Rice (Courtesy American Academy of Arts & Sciences)

What’s a degree in the humanities or social sciences “good for”?  Can you get a job with a B.A. in German studies or history?  Should students finally do what their parents have been begging them to do all along, and go for physics or computer science instead?

William Perry (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In the face of hard times and declining interest and enrollment, the humanities and even the social sciences are often seen as the “uncool” poor relations of the sciences and technologies.  Increasingly, they’re being asked to justify their presence at the academic table.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences has been working on the defense.

It’s preparing a report for Congress, to be delivered in early 2013.  As part of that process, it is holding several forums around the country that focus on various aspects of the humanities and social sciences.  The first, Humanities and Civil Society, was held in Cambridge, Mass., in July; the second was at Stanford on Tuesday.

The Stanford event, The Humanities & Social Sciences for International Relations, National Security, and Global Competitiveness, was  hosted by Stanford President John Hennessy, a member of the commission. Former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and George Schultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry were among the 22 participants.

Leslie Berlowitz, president of the academy, asked all the participants to pool their thinking “so that we can talk cogently and with authority on why the humanities matter,” from kindergarten to graduate school.  She stressed the need “critical thinking, understanding other languages and culture … for public life, for our security, and for global competitiveness.”

I know what you’re thinking: that’s not what the humanities are for.  Learning how to write a smashing sonnet will not make you richer or  the nation more secure or more globally competitive.

However, even with that proviso, the discussion evoked some powerful anecdotes about serving in foreign wars or the diplomatic service, and the need for cross-cultural understanding and foreign language study.

“Why do I need to know that?”

Perry recalled his experience in “diplomacy that dealt with incredible danger” over 65 years of his life, first as an 18-year-old army soldier sent to occupied Japan.  “The glamor of war turned into the horror of war,” he said.

David Kennedy (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The firebombing of Tokyo left more dead than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  When he went to Okinawa, a city the size of San Jose, “I was not prepared for what I saw there.  Not a building was left standing.”  Working with Hungarians after the brutal Soviet suppression of 1956, “I came to know some of them and know their personal stories.”  The Cuban Missile Crisis “was a very moving experience for a 32-year-old.  I truly believed it would be the last day on earth.”

“Deterrence, as important as it was, is very, very dangerous and can easily spin out of control, leading to nuclear holocaust,” he said.

Facing the enormous Red Army, America chose to “offset numerical superiority with technical superiority” – with smart intelligence systems, stealth weapons, the internet, he said.

Whoops, we’re back to technology again, aren’t we?  Perry voiced hope for a world without nuclear weapons – maybe we’ll go back to our ploughshares and poems then.

Condoleezza Rice made a polished presentation that cut to the chase: “I think we’re a bit on the defensive about the humanities and social sciences,” said Rice.  “I myself am a social scientist and a musician. I can’t understand why we are on the defensive.”

“Our world has become quite instrumental,” she said, noting the rise of the social media and the transformations in the traditional media.  “The attention span is a minute and a half, if that.”

Condi Rice (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“The question is: ‘Why do I need to know that?’ If you try to defend the humanities and social sciences in terms of its usefulness in the next week, it’s hard to make a connection.”

Instead, she said we must help students “to understand that we have a past, are living in the present, and hope for a better future.  One has to know something about how human beings have addressed important issues in the past.”

“We also need to understand us.  We are, as Americans, losing the sense of us,” she said. “One way not to fear they is to have a strong sense of us.”

In the era of texting and twitter, many students have a reduced capacity to “use evidence to support and make an argument.”  She asks students if they knew the case they are trying to make, or whether they simply “expect to meander towards the end and hope for the best?”  (Why did my mind drift immediately towards Montaigne?)

She argued for a more rigorous training in writing, pushing students to go beyond what they feel and believe to articulate what they know and have learned.  “The well-argued, well-written two-pagers can make a difference,” she said – even with a U.S. president.

“You can’t defend what you don’t know.”

Eikenberry, who is also a Chinese specialist, continued some of the same themes: “In my many talks with the People’s Liberation Army, they never asked me a question about Tang Dynasty poetry.  They never asked me questions about Napoleonic history.  They asked questions about American history, American economy.”

“If we don’t understand ourselves, we can’t do it well,” he said. “You can’t preserve something you don’t understand.  You can’t defend what you don’t know.  If you aspire to be a transnational bridge, you have to be grounded on both sides of the river.”

Get to the point, Michel.

Lt. Col. Joel Vowell described 21 years as an active duty infantry officer and recent work with tribal organizations in Afghanistan.  He recalled one incident in which choosing a site for a well meant that the American troops had inadvertently taken sides in a 400-year conflict.  “I had to educate myself in linguistics, political science, sociology, geography, media studies …” well, I lost track at that point of the various fields he self-educated himself in. Lots.

Pulitzer prizewinning historian David Kennedy said the humanities give us “the ability to operate in an ambiguous environment.”

“Dealing with ambiguity is the essence of the humanities,” he said.  “Interpretation, reconciliation, appreciating the points of origins of different positions – humanities are at home with ambiguity. It is our stock and trade.”

But I return to my earlier point:  I think that’s confusing an effect with the raison d’etre. It’s not what the humanities are for, or rather, it’s only a small part of what the humanities are for.  The humanities … well, make us more deeply human, but even that description is way too reductive to be much use.

Given the session’s title, it’s not surprising that there was a tendency to boil down the humanities and social sciences to foreign language learning and cultural understanding – rather than, say, the worthiness of efforts to make an immortal sculpture or ponder the mysteries of   epistemology.

But it would appear that apples and oranges were on the table. I’m not so sure social sciences are in quite the same pickle (to continue my jostling, gustatory metaphors) as the humanities.  Psychology, for example, might be a suitable entry point for med school, political science for law school – more than, say, East Asian art leads to anything obvious, other than a PhD in the subject.  Of course, there are gray areas: I’ve had quarrels with people about whether history is a humanities or a social science.  But social sciences are by definition social, and the humanities?  At their finest, they lead us on an interior journey, guiding to individual, unique understandings, and inoculating us along the way (with varying degrees of success) against groupthink.

However, if both are hot in the pot, it may not matter which one has hit the boiling point first.


TV? Don’t waste your time, says Stanford prez

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

A waste of time? Who sez?

“TV is a waste of time,” said John Hennessy.  The Stanford prez added:

“Let’s face it. No one really loves watching TV, though we may do it occasionally.”

He came to that conclusion when he was interviewing, years ago, for a full-time faculty gig at Stanford. His interviewer was Donald Knuth, the “father of computer science.” Hennessy wondered if he was up to the job.  He asked Knuth how he managed his time.  Knuth confessed that he never watches TV.

“It was a great insight about using your time and doing what you really love,”  Hennessy’s told an audience at the Stanford University’s dedication of the new “Jen-Hsen Huang” Engineering building.  His comments were picked up by the Forbes blog here.  And boy, did they hit a pocket of resistance.

This, from Kym McNicholas of “Kym’s Faces of Tech”:

Those of you who bash television, you may talk about books on Picasso or Gauguin with people you want to impress. You may make sad sounds when people talk about the decline of the newspaper industry.  But no one is pulling the plug on TV stations. They’re thriving.  And guess what? We’re thriving online, too, on Hulu, YouTube, and Netflix. People love video! …

I also know of several Stanford graduates and Harvard graduates who never miss an episode of “Family Guy.” I hear it’s now preferred over the “Simpsons” for techies looking for a little humor as they decompress after a long day of programming. But are they any less intellectual because of that? No. Everyone needs an outlet. …

And one more thought. If television is such a waste of time, why are some of the largest companies such as Google, with Google TV, and Apple, with Apple TV, investing so much money it? Yes, to make it better. And yes, to make it more relevant for today, in terms of our Internet-centric world – a world that brilliant Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and other University graduates (or drop-outs) are helping to create.

So, I can imagine that the argument that “TV is a waste of time” is only going to get harder to defend.

Whew!  I guess John Hennessy really stirred the pot with this one. I caught “Family Guy” for the first time while waiting for my sons at their apartment about five years ago. I didn’t know what I was watching, but I was astonished at the crudity of the animation and appalled by the sexism and stereotypes. Do people really “decompress” with this stuff? The episode I watched included a veiled, seductive Arab woman snatching the father away from the mother in some sort of polygamous arrangement, in which the husband was mindlessly acquiescent.  Talk about stereotypes!

As someone who learned to “manage my time” the same way, many years ago, I can only say yes, John, yes, yes, yes, yes!