Chasing Leviathan

In this episode of Chasing Leviathan, PJ and Dr. Nicholas Dirks discuss the crisis of the humanities being seen on many college campuses, including challenges to the free exchange of speech. Dirks calls explores origins of the humanities in the university and calls for a re-imagining of humanistic learning to address contemporary challenges.

For a deep dive into Nicholas Dirks' work, check out his book: City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University 👉

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Who thinks that they can subdue Leviathan? Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. When it rises up, the mighty are terrified. Nothing on earth is its equal. It is without fear. It looks down on all who are haughty; it is king over all who are proud. 

These words inspired PJ Wehry to create Chasing Leviathan. Chasing Leviathan was born out of two ideals: that truth is worth pursuing but will never be subjugated, and the discipline of listening is one of the most important habits anyone can develop. 

Every episode is a dialogue, a journey into the depths of a meaningful question explored through the lens of personal experience or professional expertise.

What is Chasing Leviathan?

Who thinks that they can subdue Leviathan? Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. It is without fear. It looks down on all who are haughty; it is king over all who are proud. These words inspired PJ Wehry to create Chasing Leviathan. Chasing Leviathan was born out of two ideals: that truth is worth pursuing but will never be subjugated, and the discipline of listening is one of the most important habits anyone can develop. Every episode is a dialogue, a journey into the depths of a meaningful question explored through the lens of personal experience or professional expertise.

PJ (00:02.792)
Hello and welcome to Chasing Leviathan. I'm your host, PJ Weary, and I'm here today with Dr. Nicholas B. Dirks, Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley in Columbia, known for his work in anthropology and history, the former Chancellor of UC Berkeley, and the President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences. Dr. Dirks, wonderful to have you on today.

Nick Dirks (00:23.254)
Great to be with you, PJ.

PJ (00:25.392)
And we're talking about your book, The City of Intellect, The Uses and Abuses of the University. Tell us why this book? Where does, I mean, there's a very clear personal component to it, but what led you to this project?

Nick Dirks (00:43.25)
Yeah, so, you know, this is a different book than any of the ones I've written before by a big distance. And I probably would have screamed if somebody told me 20 years ago I was going to write something that resembled a memoir. And I didn't mean for this book to be that, although it certainly has components of a memoir in it. But what I tried to do...

PJ (01:00.145)

Nick Dirks (01:11.722)
really was to use certain elements of my own personal experience to hang a larger story about the predicament of the university in American life, framing it historically. I am in part a historian, so that kind of goes with the territory. But then bringing it not only very much up to the present, but up to present debates and discussions about

you know, what is the future of university education? Does the education that universities provide really prepare people for the world as we know it today? Do some of the things that universities have traditionally believed in, like the liberal arts still matter? Does the cost of college effectively exclude its offerings to most people, and indeed, are there ways in which?

PJ (02:09.075)

Nick Dirks (02:09.358)
We can justify or perhaps turn around the trajectory that has led to the unaffordability of college for all but a few. What and how do we think about the mission of the public university, which of course has a wonderful history in this country, which was, which began with, I'm going to just try to...

turn that off.

Nick Dirks (02:41.535)
I hope you can edit that little bit out.

PJ (02:45.02)
Yep, we can do that.

Nick Dirks (02:45.39)
Yeah. And in particular, I wanted to look at the history and present of the public university, which has such a great history in the US, which is part of an effort to bring education to the people, to make it much more accessible to a public than, of course, was the case when colleges and colleges and colleges

universities were first established in the US in the 18th and 19th century, drawing of course on German universities and English universities and ultimately on European universities by background. So you know I have had the good fortune of teaching and working at a number of really terrific institutions of higher education. I began my teaching career actually in a one year gig but it turned out to be a very difficult

be a more regular one and then ultimately a place where I got tenure at Caltech. Very different kind of institution than the University of Chicago where I'd done my PhD or Wesleyan University where I did my undergraduate work. And had a wonderful experience there, but I wasn't by virtue of my own fields and the specialization of Caltech able to take graduate students and work with them, so I took an offer to go to the University of Michigan.

where I again had a terrific 10 years and an opportunity to not only work with graduate students but to build an altogether new graduate program that brought together the departments of history and anthropology and an inter-departmental PhD program that I set up with a few colleagues. And it was in the course of doing that, really thinking about how to create both more interdisciplinary kinds of PhD.

programs and opportunities for students, but also to focus increasingly on the kind of global components of education, which of course were connected to my own scholarly work in India, that I fell into this kind of administrative vortex and began to get asked to do various things that I had actually never thought I would be asked to do. And if asked to do, I never thought I would say yes, I might go on and do it.

Nick Dirks (05:05.662)
do them. And so it was actually on the basis of the experience of building that interdepartmental PhD program at the University of Michigan. I was invited to Columbia to chair the anthropology department. That was pretty awesome because first of all I got my PhD in history not in anthropology although I studied a lot of anthropology so it seemed like a kind of interesting opportunity to really learn and embed myself in an adjacent but different discipline.

But to do so at Columbia, which was the place where anthropology was founded as a graduate program in the United States under the leadership of Franz Boas, an extraordinary figure who himself was trained as a geophysicist in Germany, but as I said, created the first PhD program in anthropology in the US, went on to train some of the most extraordinary anthropologists of the 20th century from

Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston, to people like A.L. Krober and Melville Herskovitz and others who went on to set up some of the other great departments of anthropology in the U.S. Herskovitz at Northwestern, Krober at Berkeley, and quite a number of others who played major roles in the development of anthropology in the U.S. And so, you know, I went to New York.

found myself able to hire a lot of people. I brought in people from around the world, some of them anthropologists, some of them not. The idea was of course to bring people in from the global south as well as from the Western Academy in order to shake up the field of anthropology and to really begin to take the kind of post-colonial critique that I participated in.

namely that anthropology itself had been born in part out of the colonial experience, but to take the critique of that and rebuild an anthropology that was able to look at colonialism not just critically but from the point of view of the colonized as well as the colonizer and to change the terms and to reframe the conversations that go on in the field. And Columbia afforded a great opportunity to do that. We were able to recruit people from

Nick Dirks (07:24.514)
from the University of Cape Town, from Uganda, from the West Indies, from India, from other parts of the world, along with a few friends from the University of Michigan who I brought with me to the Big Apple and others too. And I had a great time. Columbia is a very different kind of university. It's obviously not like Caltech, an Institute of Science and Technology, not like Michigan, a great Midwestern public university.

but a private university that's in the Ivy League, albeit an Ivy League college and university that's in New York City and somewhat distinct and different because of its very, very urban kind of location. And also the fact that in relationship to the rest of the Ivy League was a place that actually brought in more students from public high schools and was more diverse, at least for many years, than some of its peer-

peers in the Ivy League. But you know, I was chairing the anthropology department. I happened to have met Lee Bollinger, who had been president of the University of Michigan before I left and then came to Columbia as president. He asked me to be the dean of the faculty and vice president of the arts and sciences at Columbia. And I thought, hey, now I get an opportunity not just to go to an adjacent discipline and learn a little bit more about anthropology and work with anthropology as a field to build a...

PJ (08:42.877)
Ha ha ha!

Nick Dirks (08:52.194)
different kind of critical space in the social sciences, but I can actually now work with colleagues across 29 departments, many interdisciplinary and interdepartmental programs, centers, institutes, and the like, and learn much more about the university as an institution. And I was pleased to work with Lee Bollinger, a very brilliant First Amendment constitutional scholar, and...

and somebody I had a high regard for and who had all kinds of plans to make Columbia more global and to do new things and so on. So I took the job and it changed the course of my life in dramatic ways. I started having almost no control over my time as opposed to before as an academic when I had, you know,

a rich level of control over time because of course I needed it both for writing and research as well as for teaching and administrative work in the department. But I did in the course of this begin to learn all kinds of things about the university. I felt in fact that I was doing field work in university administration. It was a kind of ethnographic experience albeit one in which I was an insider. But

PJ (10:04.756)
I'm going to go to bed.

Nick Dirks (10:09.57)
But it was always as much about learning new things as it was about trying to, you know, give them a payback to the university for the good fortunes I had been able to experience as a result of my education and my good luck to get jobs in great places. And then, you know, I began getting calls about being a university president. Initially, I resisted them, although I was always intrigued, and then at some point...

I got asked to interview at the University of California, Berkeley for the next chancellor position. And lo and behold, within a couple of weeks, I had an offer to move west. So I went to Berkeley and I went as chancellor. And Berkeley is obviously, you know, a terrific university. It's a shining example, like Michigan, but in some ways even more so, of a public university that not only was able to compete with the best private universities, but...

did so with levels of excellence, but also commitments to access to a much broader public that really makes it a kind of beacon for what public higher education in this country has stood for. And that was even more interesting. And of course, it's not only the beacon of public higher education, it's also a place that is known for its

PJ (11:28.049)
Ha ha ha!

Nick Dirks (11:35.218)
Activism and the years beginning when I got the call to Berkeley in 2012 and 2017 when I decided to step down were years of, again, extraordinary change in American life, change in the university world. It was a time when the country was still recovering from adjusting to a different kind of world after the Great Recession.

But of course also went through one convulsion after the next, some of which were related to the rise of social media, some of which had to do with the increasing concern about issues having to do with sexual harassment on campus, other issues having to do with intercollegiate athletics, ultimately issues having to do with Black Lives Matter, and finally with the election of Trump.

as president in 2016 and some of the things that happened as a result of that. So I feel like even though I was there for a relatively short period of time, it was a time of big dislocation in the country that was condensed into and expressed through one really interesting but often intractable situation I confronted at Berkeley after the next. And so when I stepped down and I was able to catch my breath.

and I was thinking about doing what former administrators do, which is to go back to the faculty. I thought, well, you know, I've been away from the archive. I've been away from the field. I haven't, I've been back to India, but I haven't done research. When am I gonna write next? And I thought, you know, I should write something about this, about the experience I had. And I should try to figure out.

in a kind of broader way than one is able to when you're actually in the firing line, day in and day out. What I might recommend, what kinds of thoughts I have more broadly about how to deal with some of these kinds of crises, how to respond, how to actually perhaps change some of the institutional structures that we take for granted but are now getting pretty rusty, pretty old and seem in need of certainly rethinking.

Nick Dirks (14:00.482)
reimagining, but also I think in many cases redoing. So, little by little and then aided by the pandemic and the time that afforded, I wrote this book.

PJ (14:15.076)
One, thank you. So I just want to make sure that I'm tracking with you. It has this ethnographic study of the academy kind of feel, but perhaps has more prescriptions as well. It's a little more prescriptive than just a pure ethnographic study. Is that a fair way to characterize it?

Nick Dirks (14:35.122)
Yeah, no, right. I mean, one of my blurb writers actually said part memoir, part manifesto. I think that may be putting it too boldly because it's not a memoir in the classic sense, nor is it a manifesto as I understand that. But yeah, it begins with experiences of being, you know, a student, a professor, a chair, a dean, a chancellor.

PJ (14:41.395)

Nick Dirks (15:05.23)
And then it moves into a kind of encapsulated history of the university in the US, which is basically to kind of set the stage for a set of reflections and recommendations around issues related to the crisis in the humanities, the contests over controversial speakers on campus, debates about free speech and academic freedom.

questions having to do with the cost of college, with the basic resistance to change on the part of most constituencies and universities, whether faculty or alumni or donors or others, but in the context of the crisis of affordability and then ultimately the kind of crisis of political polarization that is.

roiled every major college campus across the country. And of course, that was then. We've only seen in recent years since I finally sent off the last galley proof to Cambridge University Press a further escalation of some of the issues that I write about and document in my book.

PJ (16:25.412)
So you have that sub tagline, the uses and abuses of the university, and you've referenced your personal experiences. One way that I often find helps me understand these sorts of things.

What did the university provide for you? You mentioned, I think it's in the preface about, you may sound defensive at times, but you're trying to protect what was given to you. So what did the university provide for you, and what are you trying to protect here as you critique?

Nick Dirks (17:00.17)
Yeah, so it's a great question and it's a central question to the book because education can mean a lot of different things. Obviously it means a lot of different things to different people. But in the context of some of the critiques of the cost of higher education, there's been a growing call for not just relevance but for thinking about...

education as predominantly equipping people with the skills they need to go on to vocations, to go on to jobs, to go on to careers, and to have a viable future that is often thought about in terms of income and success in sort of classic terms. But of course, this is at some odds to some of the ways in which...

educators like me talk about the university which is in terms of having an opportunity to grapple with the big issues to think about you know what Aristotle wrote about as the good life to think about not just the self but also our embeddedness in and relationship to the larger world what kinds of obligations we have to be citizens to be

to be, you know, in a whole variety of social contexts and relationships, which are much more than simply about self-realization, which one might begin with in some kind of litany of what is part of an educational justification or set of, you know, reasons that are behind a liberal arts education. But more broadly, what is it to be?

a member of society? What and how does one think about meaning that is both personal but also social and oriented around the public? So I myself begin, as you just said in the preface, by talking a little bit about how transformational it was for me to go to college from a public high school, but to go to college and see these very, very smart people in classes disagree with each other.

Nick Dirks (19:21.162)
about fundamental issues. And the example I give is, of course, I took my freshman year of college, and it was a course about free will and determinism, and it was taught by a behavioral psychologist and a philosopher of religion. And the two of them were incredibly smart and couldn't agree about a thing. And for me, this was actually the most extraordinary thing because I always...

PJ (19:40.477)

Nick Dirks (19:49.09)
These were, you know, those were heady political days, just like the present ones, where there didn't seem to be a lot of room in the middle in most arguments. But there I saw these two people who could have an amiable, but impassioned conversation with each other, in which they disagreed about first principles, but agreed about the importance of having that conversation, and having that conversation in the kind of rigorous way that one could in a college setting.

That was for me, in a way, a kind of crystallization of what a liberal arts education is all about. And so I build on that and seek to find ways to not only explain why that was so important for me, but to find ways, perhaps, to think about how one might be able to protect at the level of...

institutional issues protect that component of education, even when it's under attack, and even when it deserves to be criticized because it has seemed to be both irrelevant and too expensive a luxury by any estimation at the same time. So the book is an effort to kind of reframe this discussion about the liberal arts.

and to do so in the context of accepting that there are real issues, real problems, real concerns that need to be worked through within the university in order to address them properly, and not just brush them aside and not just say, no, the university doesn't need to change.

PJ (21:34.464)
I would love to come back to what you see as those issues of the liberal arts, but also what you're trying to defend there. I think it may be a good way to set that up and kind of a central question that I think is helpful. When you call the university the city of intellect, where does that title come from? Where does that concept come from? And what does it mean?

Nick Dirks (21:59.086)
So it comes actually to direct quote from Clark Kerr, who was president of the University of California between 1958 and 1967. And before that, he was the first chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. So he was the first, I was the 10th, I was in the line of succession. The reason he was the first and he was the first as of 1952 and Berkeley goes back to 1868 when it was first established.

was because the president of the university at large used to be the equivalent of the Chancellor at Berkeley before there were lots of different campuses and even when there was just a second one down in UCLA. But Kerr was an extraordinary leader and as the president of the university system he basically developed what was called the master plan. He developed it working with Governor Pat Brown in

And what it did was to really create a kind of charter for public higher education in California in which you had community colleges, you had the California State University system, and then you had a growing number of University of California campuses. And it established a set of kind of differentiation among the different levels of the university so that advanced research and PhD training would be done at the University of California. But...

It was meant to be also a system that actually made social mobility a reality so that students from community colleges could, after a couple of years, either transfer into a Cal State university or into a campus of the University of California. And so the idea was not simply to separate these different tiers but actually connect them for students in ways that really would matter.

Indeed, a third of the students in the University of California are still transfer students from community colleges. So you could say the master plan is still working. But of course, the master plan also went along with a great deal of state support. Those were days when tuition payments were basically a set of fees that cost a student somewhere around 70 bucks a year. So a big difference from the present. Hard to imagine.

PJ (24:17.532)
Hard to imagine. Yeah.

Nick Dirks (24:22.006)
Wonderful to think about bringing back, but unlikely. But Kerr was able to do that both because of the kind of vision of a broader system around what public university education would be, and also because he forged very, very good working relationships with political figures in California, chief among which, of course, as I said, was Pat Brown. So I think the...

Nick Dirks (24:52.334)
The story there is a wonderful one. But Brown, I'm sorry, Kerr was an interesting guy for many different reasons, not least because he worried that big campuses like Berkeley were losing some of the elements that he looked back in his own life as having been critical for his own education. He was an undergraduate at Swarthmore College before he went to Berkeley to do his graduate.

and he didn't want to lose that kind of small college liberal arts education, even in the midst of trying to bring about this great vision for public car education. And so he talked about what he thought of as the model for even a place like Berkeley, as being something that he termed the city of intellect.

But then he said in a book he didn't write, but he did the last edition of it in 2001, just two years before he died in 2003, that the city of intellect was a product of the 20th century in America. But the 20th century was no more. And the question really was whether there would be some way in which the city of intellect might survive after the...

after the transition from the 20th to the 21st century. And I took that as a kind of way of thinking about what Kerr and I both take to be some core ingredient to education and then effectively wonder in the book about whether or not it can survive, whether it will survive under what conditions might it be able to be reborn or is it gone forever?

And the subtitle of the book is actually taken from the book in which Kerr coined this term, City of Intellect, but his book was called The Uses of the University. I add abuses partly in reference to Nietzsche, who wrote about the uses and abuses of history, but partly because I wanted to tell a slightly different story in which I was

Nick Dirks (27:17.346)
willing to confront some of the kinds of things that really I was deeply worried about in terms of the issues that we've just talked about, namely cost affordability, accessibility, focus on the mission, and survivability into the future.

PJ (27:37.801)
So forgive me, when you use City of Intellect, as a model or a metaphor, is it the communal side of it you're focusing on, the structural side? How does the idea of a city function when you're viewing the university?

Nick Dirks (27:58.142)
Yeah, so again, a very good question and one that I comment in the book somewhat elliptically, so you're right to ask that. I think of the image of the city of intellect as being intentionally utopian. So yeah, it's this kind of vision one has. And I actually use a depiction.

of an interesting image on the cover of the book that comes from a French edition of Gulliver's Travels and one of the places Gulliver goes in his Swiftian voyage is to a place somewhere in the South Pacific that really has a floating city on an island which he goes on to for a short period of time, writes about and then leaves and waves goodbye to and that's the image on the cover.

But I have in mind here the fact that the fundamental priorities of the university, of a university education, but also of research in the university, have to do with a set of intellectual goals. And to actually achieve those goals, one has to have a set of commitments to open debate, to open inquiry.

to the contest of ideas, to a kind of framework or context in which students, faculty, and others can come together, have very different views, and seek to, if not resolve, certainly pursue their differences, but via intellectual means.

But it's got to be done in a larger context, because the world is like that. So I use the image then of the city, not just of some kind of abstracted intellectual utopia, to suggest that this is a place where lots of different people are, with lots of different perspectives, lots of different subject positions, lots of different roles, and as a result.

Nick Dirks (30:20.81)
a lot of different views, but that nevertheless could function as cities do. Here I'm talking to you, I'm in New York City. It has issues and it has lots of things that aren't working particularly well, but it does work as a city. And it's that idea. So what I'm really seeking to do in some ways is to ground the idea of the utopia of

of the kind of idea that intellectual values are preeminent with the reality that those ideas have to be worked through, negotiated, and argued about in a real social context where there are lots of differences and lots of ways of conceiving of what

and how those ideas should signify. So that's the way I interpret this image. And it explains in part why it is that I go on to suggest a number of things in the book. On the one hand, for example, that we have to go back to thinking about the original meaning of academic freedom. We have to accept that in university life, people are going to be offended.

It has ever been thus. It's not just today that there are issues of offense when a colleague of mine at the University of Michigan used to teach a course on the history of Christianity. He would offend people in the class who might be fundamentalist Christians simply by virtue of telling different histories of the church and different ways of conceiving of the Bible or of the...

PJ (31:48.294)

Nick Dirks (32:11.734)
of the priesthood or of the relationship of Christianity to other both sects but also religions. And so that goes with the territory. But it has to be, I think, rethought in a context in which we become so concerned about offense, which is not to say that I think that one goes around offending people, but rather

in the university context, but rather that one has to build in a whole set of expectations about what it means to come and have arguments from different kinds of positions and with different points of view. So I write a lot about issues of academic freedom and I write about them in the context of things that happened very specifically in the short period of time I was at Berkeley.

In 1964, Berkeley was the scene of the free speech movement. It was famously a struggle that was meant to contest the policy of the University of California, which was to keep the university as a politically neutral space. And the students who were motivated to agitate for free speech on campus,

were students who were basically back from freedom summer. They'd been engaged in the civil rights movement and struggle in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. And they wanted to recruit other students to participate in the civil rights movement on campus. And they were told they could not, in fact, solicit for participation in a political, for a political cause on the campus itself. They had to move off campus and they thought that was inappropriate and they won.

And so after 64, the university said, okay, we'll have a completely open kind of political theater, not in the classroom, but in certain public spaces where anybody can come and speak about any particular political point of view and so on. And it was a very strong value, a very strong commitment, and something that...

Nick Dirks (34:28.546)
the regents of the university were initially somewhat skeptical about but finally accepted along with the students and of course the faculty as well. So 50 years later we were celebrating, I was now chancellor, we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement. And every fall I had to also make a statement about the importance of civility on campus, the need for people to, and this was just kind of a routine thing the chancellor would do.

every fall, you know, remember we have community principles. These community principles include, you know, a certain kind of commitment to civil dialogue across, you know, across different groups and positions. And interestingly enough, I got some blowback by people who said, look, you know, actually this is the time we're celebrating free speech. You shouldn't say anything that would in any way compromise.

or abrogate our commitment to total free speech, which will include screaming about something you feel passionately about. And the fact that I had mentioned free speech and the free speech movement at the same time that I mentioned civility was an opening for people to register their continued belief that the chancellor had to be completely outspoken on this issue of free speech and not have anything else obscuring its priority.

Three years later, the young Republicans at Berkeley have invited Myelianopoulos, I don't know if you remember Myelianopoulos, but he was at that point a darling of the extreme right. He was writing for Breitbart, and he was going around from campus to campus in something that he called the Dangerous Faggot Tour. He himself identified as gay, but he was.

PJ (35:59.636)
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

Nick Dirks (36:26.962)
He loved to go to campuses and insult feminism, anybody who was trans, and what he considered to be what was then called politically correct that we now call woke, sensibilities on the part of students who he would go and speak with. So

In fact, he was going around from campus to campus. There were some violent incidents that happened at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, at the University of California, Davis, at the University of Washington in Seattle. And students and faculty came to me and said, you can't have my Annapolis come to Berkeley. It would cause harm. And they were saying two things when they said that they were saying on the one hand, it would cause harm because of what he says. And if he comes and

critiques, for example, anyone who is trans. This is a violation of our speech codes. But they also were, of course, worried that it would be physical harm as well because of the experience of some of these other universities. And they had valid points to make. But in my discussions with them, I realized that something had changed in the intervening three years.

Whereas three years before, any conditionality that might be attached to free speech was seen as bad now, these conditions were actually becoming more important than free speech. And there were increasing numbers of students and faculty who actually held that there was no such thing as free speech on campus. Because once you look at the relationships of power that are embedded within any kind of speech act, you immediately...

see that, you know, some people are free to speak and other people are not. So the only way actually to interpret free speech is to fully license the speech of the powerless and the oppressed, but to control the speech of those who have more power and who are, or who we might see as oppressors rather than those who are oppressed. And in this case, Milo was an oppressor. And

Nick Dirks (38:42.226)
and he would by definition be using free speech in a way that we talk about now as having been weaponized by a right-wing political agenda. But you know, I said, look, you know, this is the place where free speech was born on American college campuses. This is, you know, fundamental to our identity. And besides, you know, the jurisprudence on this is clear that

you know, when you are committed to free speech, you don't make judgments about who's going to speak and who isn't. You may not like what they're going to say. You can even condemn what they're going to say. And I did condemn what I knew him to have said in other contexts before, but I still said we have to invite him to campus. Well, he came to campus. There was a major riot.

He wasn't allowed to speak in the end because we had to usher him off campus. It was quite dangerous. There were people who were breaking into the Student Center causing tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage on our campus and then they went around and caused even more damage in the city of Berkeley right next door. And it was a mess. Now the images of that event were broadcast on CNN.

MSNBC, Fox News, around the world. A lot of people saw them. I got calls from parents asking if, you know, it's safe for their kids to stay on campus because there was a fire in Sproul Plaza that looked like a major conflagration, but was just a small fire, but it was nevertheless an image that got broadcast everywhere. But you know, you know who was watching Fox News back in 2017, usually in an anti-room off the Oval Office in the White House.

So the next morning I wake up and there's a tweet from the president of the United States, Donald Trump, basically condemning Berkeley for having shut down this exercise in free speech and asked whether we should receive no more federal funding. So it became a major national incident. It was the first tweet against the university president. I feel proud to have been the one who fielded it.

Nick Dirks (41:01.274)
But it, of course, it was nontrivial, as we now know. It wasn't just, as it were, a figure of speech. But it, as an event, I think, was curious, because it was an illustration of how views on campus had changed about free speech. And of course, there were lots of other incidents around controversial speakers that had different kinds of outcomes in each case, but which, of course, occasioned a great deal of public.

commentary and often condemnation of the university. And condemnation because we, you know, there we were, we would allow anybody on the left to speak, we would not allow anybody with views on the right to speak. And of course, in the context of that, I had to defend what we had done. And I've thought about it a lot since, and it's part of the reason that I...

I decided to write the book to say, look, it was easy for us to advocate for free speech when it was speech that we liked. But the whole point about free speech is that you have to be able to advocate for it when you don't like it. And yes, power does play a role in doing what you say.

going to the point of weaponizing free speech as a principle, and we've seen that with Citizens United and other kinds of, you know, other kinds of interpretations of the First Amendment that go well beyond what we traditionally conceived of as speech. But the university itself is a place where ultimately our mission depends upon our capacity to hear.

and consider a speech of kinds that we find disagreeable and potentially even offensive. And so that became in a way the kind of storyline that was the pretext for reconceiving the need to defend free speech at a different kind of moment in American history. And I'll just say one more thing and forgive me for going on. But...

PJ (43:14.713)
No, no worries.

Nick Dirks (43:18.37)
But I wanted to make this defense from, not as part of a general attack on wokeism, because I think much of what has been said about wokeism, whether it's your governor in the state of Florida or any number of other people writing about the university, has caricatured what goes on university campuses to a grievous extent.

You know, a lot of what people refer to as wokeism is simply being respectful of other people on campus. For who they are, for their histories, for their identities, and respect. And indeed, dare I use the term civility, are good things. And in fact, they're often critical for our capacity to do things like get together on a university campus and talk about difficult issues and try to work through things.

in intellectual debate. But by the same token, I wanted to suggest that there were issues on university campuses that did require a rethinking about our commitments to open inquiry and genuinely open exchanges about things that...

People have severe disagreements about it. And now, of course, we're seeing this in the case of the Middle East in ways that I think have kind of brought the chickens home to roost and made it very, very difficult because university presidents are being asked now to make statements really that are political statements and not simply statements where they are concerned about the safety of students, concerned about the expression of prejudice that is...

or often hatred directed at particular communities. But they're actually being asked to adjudicate political issues in ways that I think not only go beyond the remit of what universities should do, but really put them in impossible situations. And in that sense, I think we've come to this point for all kinds of historical reasons that now require us again to...

Nick Dirks (45:40.202)
rethink all of these fundamental issues. How can we be respectful of a diverse community on campus at the same time that we're genuinely open for debate? And that is part of what I write about in my book.

PJ (45:55.14)

PJ (45:58.968)
I've been blessed to be able to carry out this podcast and talk to many people from academia through this podcast. And I've always been struck by the genuine concern, the serious thought and argumentation they put into their work. And I think as you talk about the characterization of...

woke-ism, I am struck by the incredible difference between my conversations on here and when I go on social media and part of the reason that the caricatures happen is because of the enormous explosion of self-expression. Whatever you want to find, you can find a real example of. So the caricatures have become real.

but they should not be taken seriously. And that's what I generally find is when I'm on social media, I see something that angers me, or that's really foolish. And when I take a step back, I'm like, this person is really of no importance, right? Like, why are we, and the reason that this is being brought up is to justify a straw man. And because, I mean, I have my own memories of being a freshman.

and the things that I would say and the things that, you know, before you really dig in. And so I think that's part of why I want to do this podcast is, you know, hopefully help with that. But also, it is it's been fascinating to see and I wonder how much of that is that I mean, that's an incredible turnaround that you have people fighting for unconditional freedom of speech. And then three years later.

they're trying to attach major conditions to it, right? Like that's not, that's rather quick in the grand scheme of academic freedom. Just walking through that. I, one thing I wanted to ask you about, because this is something you mentioned at the beginning, I think is part of what makes academic, it's part of its strengths and weaknesses, is you talked about the, you used this image of the guild from Clark Kerr.

Nick Dirks (48:16.494)

PJ (48:17.772)
and you talk about irony and critical distance, can you talk about, and I think this goes to one of the things you've mentioned is the insularity. So this is one of the things that I'm sure you have prescriptions on. What are the uses and abuses of irony and critical distance in academia? Because that seems to be one of its major strengths, right?

Nick Dirks (48:43.851)
Yeah, well.

Nick Dirks (48:47.842)
Irony, I guess, is always a dangerous trope, right? Because one person's irony is another person's satire, and then you keep sliding down from there. I think the... You know, the...

PJ (48:51.292)

Nick Dirks (49:07.13)
Certainly the case. I mean, you're right that the Clark Kerr reflected a certain kind of capacity for irony that, you know, that actually got him in trouble every now and then. You know, one of the things that I mean, when I write about him, I talk about his nostalgia in some ways for the city of intellect and his commitment to trying to provide undergraduate educational experiences that, albeit in the context of a big

large research-intensive public university aren't quite the same as the times he had at Sleepy Swarthmore. He certainly understands that things change in the larger context, he had certain kinds of commitments and so on, but at the same time he wrote about the

He wrote about the university as a multiversity. He wrote about the knowledge industries. I mean, he was an economist. He was actually a labor economist. So he understood that the industrial production of knowledge in some sense was an image that needed to be taken on board in the way in which research was done in the second half of the 20th century in US universities. And he turned figures of speech that

were meant to be both provocative and sometimes ironic, only to find himself getting into trouble. And he was attacked by Mario Savio, who's the leader of the free speech movement, among other things, for this idea of the knowledge industries. And Mario famously gave a speech about throwing your, sometimes, you know, things get to the point where you have to throw your body on the machine to stop the wheels of industrial production because they're so destructive to the human.

spirit and ultimately the human body. And Kerr sort of shook his head, I'm sure, and certainly wrote that he regretted making it so easy for somebody like Savvia to go after him on the grounds of what was meant to be ironic and was taken to be literal. But again, you know, the...

Nick Dirks (51:30.498)
the debate that went on was an interesting one because it was contestatory at certain moments but it was also, it also had a resolution and on December 8th, 1964 when the faculty voted to side with the students to accept the new idea about how free speech should be protected on campus.

and the regents and Kerr went along with the faculty. Savio then got up to say, okay, now we have one. He quoted Diogenes and he quoted to the, in effect to suggest that now we have the responsibility of free speech, which we have to zealously protect and guard. And I'm moving away from irony now.

PJ (52:16.891)

Nick Dirks (52:25.442)
but to the point where in fact, whatever kinds of contests had taken place, there was alignment at the end of this around this sense of the responsibility that came with winning a particular political battle. And that at least gave an opening, I think, to show that

Nick Dirks (52:54.142)
It was a really, I mean it was not a peaceful movement. I mean it involved occupations of buildings, forcible evacuation of people by the police, you know, lots of classes and other normal events being shut down and very angry things being said between students and faculty and administration and so on. But it did lead to that kind of understanding at the end. That to me is a kind of model.

for, you know, again, I was, you know, I was involved in some of the protests against the war in Vietnam when I was a college student. So I'm not by any means suggesting that, you know, that speech alone is the way in which you conduct political protests. There are legitimate reasons to engage in protest and peaceful protest. And there are times when, you know, when words become, you know, fighting words in a way. But...

There was also, I think, a kind of shared sense of values, which I fear now we're looking at only in the rear view mirror. And therefore, having to rethink how we can create a world in which there will be shared values, again, that will allow these kinds of arguments, these kinds of debates, and even these kinds of ironic

you know, figures of speech as being part of those debates to be, you know, to be brought back into the ambit of what is possible. And as you said, PJ, you talk to academics all the time. You know that academics just were always engaged in argument. You know, as a historian...

You know, we're all revisionist historians. Every one of us, you know, when we take up a topic to work on, think about the historians who've done things that have inspired us, but we also are thinking about the arguments that we want to basically argue against. And if possible, we want to actually refute them. And there can be, you know, disagreements that are, you know, very polite, and there can be disagreements that end up with, you know...

Nick Dirks (55:13.25)
the equivalent of academic shouting matches between and among faculty who share much more than they differ in around everything from how you use evidence, how you make an argument, how do you conceive of a historical project, et cetera. There's a lot of cacophony, and there should be. That's what it's really all about. And yet, there have to be certain ways in which that broader...

cacophony is at least contained to the point where it is productive of new understandings, new ways of seeing the world, new knowledge, and new ways in which that knowledge can inform the lives of younger people who come up through the university that is still relevant to the world they're entering, however different that world may be today than it was, you know, 20 years ago or 40 years ago when I was starting out.

PJ (56:11.576)
I want to be respectful of your time. One, thank you. That was a very helpful answer. I mean, they've all been fascinating and I've really enjoyed this. I wondered, I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't get you to at least speak a little bit about the crisis in humanities. What you see as the root problem and what you see as, what is your prescription to solve that root problem?

Nick Dirks (56:41.71)
So yeah, I don't have a single prescription. It's not just an RX that I can scribble out and affix an unreadable signature to, but yeah. It's still in testing. The FDA hasn't approved it yet, but no, I, you know, I talk a little bit about the history of the humanities and I suggest in the book that, and I use the work of some other people who have written very helpfully about this.

PJ (56:44.84)
Ha ha!

PJ (56:49.632)
I was hoping for that silver bullet. Okay, all right. Ha ha ha!

PJ (56:56.988)

Nick Dirks (57:10.966)
I suggest that in a way the humanities in the 20th century became installed in the curriculum to replace what had been in the first instance a much more religiously based kind of curriculum. But even in and after some of the secularization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had become very much a kind of civic educational kind of program. So you get it, Columbia where I taught.

in 1919, right after World War I, you get a course that is called something about the study of war. In 1920, it gets renamed as a study in world peace, you know, to go along, I guess, with Woodrow Wilson's speeches to that effect. But it became the core curriculum.

ultimately and it became courses like Contemporary Civilization, Great Books, Literature Humanities and so on. In many other universities where such a core was not created or at least was not continued there were distribution requirements for courses in the humanities that basically played that same role. They were to provide some place in the curriculum where issues around values, where issues around the nature of morality and ethics and uh...

and models of what perhaps appropriate values might be taken from great works of literature, great moments in history, great leaders in history, usually from the West, would be used in some sense to provide a more secular version of a kind of religious moral education. But you know, the way it plays out in the middle of the 20th century is that the humanities become basically a set of departments.

in national literatures. So you have English, sometimes you have English in comparative literature, but you have departments of French and German and Spanish and Portuguese and so on and so forth. And then you have a smattering of other disciplines. You know, you have, of course, you know, you have philosophy, but philosophy came out of, you know, Western classics and then, you know, changed in different kinds of ways. You have sometimes religious studies and, you know, a few other...

Nick Dirks (59:30.698)
departments that sometimes get placed in humanities. History is one of those fields that is sometimes a social science, sometimes a humanities, but it's fundamentally humanistic even when it uses quantitative methods to do archival analysis, the analysis of data from archives. Anthropology, again, a social science even if it has humanistic aspects and so on. But for the most part, what the humanities consists in are what we thought to be

this array of disciplines that introduced us to questions of meaning and value in the middle of the 20th century. So what I argue is that let's not think about the specific elements that are taken to be the humanities. Let's talk about more abstract question. How do we think about humanistic learning in a broader sense? And what if we were going to be creating a new kind of

PJ (01:00:15.625)

Nick Dirks (01:00:27.806)
institutional structure for the university today and a new kind of curriculum to go along with that, how would we do that? What would we place in the same container as the things that were placed there 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago? And maybe it would look quite different. And maybe that's what we should start thinking about when we talk about the crisis of humanity. So the crisis of humanity shouldn't simply be seen as, you know, my PhD students in history can't get jobs.

I don't like that. I'm against it, but it's a reality. So are there different ways in which we could conceive of the humanities in order to give them a more secure place in our curriculum? So I think on the one hand, I'm certainly concerned about the crisis in the humanities, but I also think that it's a crisis of our own making in part.

and that we therefore have to do our part to reconceive how they might be structured in a university, how they might be structured in a curriculum. And at the same time, I say once we do that, I think it's important to say over and over again that there's not a single issue in the world today, whether it's in the world of technology or science or what have you, that isn't almost immediately also an issue that

refers back to a set of humanistic questions. We're dealing with this in artificial intelligence right now. And I don't have to explain to anyone listening to this that it would be a good thing for people with humanistic and social scientific understandings of some of the key issues around what and how machines and humans interact to play a role in designing.

PJ (01:02:22.502)

Nick Dirks (01:02:23.37)
how the next versions of machine intelligence will indeed interact with us as a species. When I hear, as I did actually last night, Sam Altman on a podcast say, we're thinking very carefully about how we're gonna design the next iteration of machine-human interaction, I'm thinking, well, I'm not too sure I like that. I mean, I actually don't want this really important set of things to be...

designed by a bunch of people in the Silicon Valley and San Francisco who don't have a deep engagement with humanistic and social issues and questions and values. You know, I think there's a real big place for the humanities there. Climate change, gene editing, CRISPR-Cas9. There's nothing in our world that doesn't immediately...

call to mind the importance of humanistic learning. But that is not to say that the humanities, as we define them and as we enshrine them in our curricula, are exactly what is needed at this moment to deal with these kinds of issues. So I'm calling for a rethinking, as it were, of the disciplinary structuration of the university. And more broadly too, and...

I'll just say this very quickly because I know our time is coming to an end. But I also think that universities need to think about how they're organized in ways that could bring costs down. And frequently when faculty hear administrators talk about doing things that might involve some cutting, they'll cry out, austerity. And austerity is a bad thing. And you know.

Most recently, we've seen these debates taking place at the University of West Virginia, which is having a budget crisis, which is contemplating cutting major lines and departments and humanities, including in mathematics. And it's clearly a situation that is deeply fraught.

PJ (01:04:33.548)

Nick Dirks (01:04:42.678)
But again, this is like the canary in the coal mine. I had some of these same budget issues at Berkeley. In 2015, I was confronted with $150 million structural deficit. And this came out of a long and complicated history. But it was something that was a real existential threat for the university. And we ultimately balanced the budget, and it's balanced now. But it's a precarious kind of question going forward.

how many universities without the huge endowments of Harvard and Yale and so on are going to survive. So I think, you know, rather than just crying fall and saying austerity is a neoliberal atrocity, we have to do two things. One is, you know, at the intellectual level, we can see perhaps what we mean by certain kinds of core humanistic components in the university. And secondly, begin to think about the resources that are needed to...

sustain the university as an institution, including paying the salaries of professors, in ways that would involve finding more efficient, more sustainable, and more affordable ways to fund some of what we do. And some of this involves collaboration across universities, creating new kinds of institutions themselves that...

don't require every university to have everybody in house, but to be able to perhaps share certain kinds of departments or certain kinds of resources in ways that are potentially going to change the way we think about the university, not just competing, but actually being part of a broader ecosystem. And so until and unless I think we take on board some of these kinds of structural questions, I don't think we're in a position to simply.

say it's unfair that the humanities are being treated so badly today.

PJ (01:06:41.425)
Dr. Dirks, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure having you on and a joy to talk to you. Thank you.

Nick Dirks (01:06:49.57)
Thank you, PJ, I've enjoyed the conversational one.