DATE June 30, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: James Wood discusses his novel "The Book Against God"
and his career as chief literary critic at The Guardian
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, James Wood, has been called the best literary critic of his
generation. He's also considered one of the toughest. Now he's the one
getting reviewed. He recently published his first novel. Wood is the book
critic for The New Republic, where he's a senior editor. He started his
career in London where he became the chief literary critic at The Guardian
after graduating from Cambridge University in 1991. He was 26. Wood's new
novel, "The Book Against God," is in part about the arguments for and against
religious faith. It's about a young man, Thomas Bunting, who's been trying to
finish his doctoral dissertation for the past seven years. Recently, he's
neglected his thesis for another project, which he calls the book against God,
in which he collects religious and anti-religious quotations, and develops his
own arguments about theological matters. Bunting has gone from being a devout
believer to being a devout secularist. Bunting grew up in a small village in
northern England, where his father was the village priest. Here's a short
reading. The character refers to his parents by their names, Peter and
Mr. JAMES WOOD (Author, "The Book Against God"): (Reading) When I was a
little boy, Sunday was a visiting day, and Saturday a marrying day. On Monday
mornings, I often took a piece of wedding cake in my lunch box to the village
school. This was the spoil of my father's work on Saturdays. It seemed to me
then that my father was constantly marrying and burying people, joining and
separating them. In my childish mind, the dead and the affianced were equally
half alive. They all entered the vicarage as reputations. Each category was
treated in the same easy, genial way. `I have to marry Clendennon's(ph) son,'
Peter might announce at the dining table, while I, wide-eyed, legs dangling
from the slatted kitchen chair, trying to do my homework, looked on. `He's
gone and got Joanna(ph)--you know, Joanna in the pub--pregnant.' Or once as
he came into the kitchen with his overcoat on, `Bill Clemmons(ph) has died.
What on earth am I going to say about him? He only came to church at
Death had no sting in the Bunting household, partly because Sarah and Peter
sincerely believed in the resurrection of souls, or liftoff, as Peter called
it, and partly because death was a technical matter which called for an
immediate flurry of organization and a swift obituary. Most of the villagers
discussed were not members of the church, since hardly anyone came to church.
The village was Peter's real church, and had to be.
GROSS: That's James Wood reading from his new novel, "The Book Against God."
Though in your novel, the main character's father is a priest, you were
brought up in an evangelical Christian family in England. Your father was not
a priest, though, right?
Mr. WOOD: No, he taught zoology at the University of Durham. And in that
sense, I suppose he's a rather wonderfully Victorian figure, like something
out of Edmund Gosse's book, "Father and Son"; on one hand a scientist, on the
other hand, a fairly strict Christian scripturalist. I mean, not a literalist
by sort of American standards, but certainly a believer in the veracity of
scripture. And I grew up, as I wrote, I think, in that essay,
autobiographical essay, in "The Broken Estate," in a fairly austere Christian
regime. Family life tended to be saturated in what now seems to me like a
sort of Victorian language of moral pressure. So that I remember, for
instance, my father telling me that, when I was about 17, that my relationship
with my ex-girlfriend was not edifying. Or for instance, my mother telling me
that it was bad stewardship to have an untidy bedroom, because Christians were
supposed to be orderly in all things, including their bedrooms. I precisely
didn't want just to map that fictionally. That seemed sort of, on the one
hand, uninteresting and unchallenging, and secondly, you know, it would create
all the sort of family problems that one can envisage, 'cause my parents are
still alive. So what I wanted to do in this novel was really go to the other
extreme, was instead, to imagine a rather warm, undogmatic, flexible, rather
admirable Christianity, and then put a child, now grown up, but a narrator
into it, a son into it, who, as it were, has no obvious reason to be
GROSS: But rebels anyway.
Mr. WOOD: But rebels anyway. There's a risk here, and I think I may not
entirely have pulled it off. Some of the reviews have suggested that I
haven't entirely pulled it off. The risk obviously is that you don't give the
reader enough, and the reader, at the end, says, as indeed I envision the
reader doing, the reader says, `But I don't know what he's complaining about.
This is contentless. What's he got to be so worked up about? His parents are
admirable. Christianity they espouse might not be his kind of belief, but I
can't really see what he ranting on about.'
GROSS: Now I'm interested, if you're willing to talk about it, in the church
that you grew up in, you describe it as a charismatic part of the Church of
England that was, quote, "renewed" during the late '70s. And you write,
`Inside that church, I saw people shivering with ecstasies, people clutching
at God with their hands raised, people dancing in the aisle, whirling and
writhing, taken with the Spirit. I was disturbed by how many adults broke
into tears during these services. It was perhaps the wrong kind of religion
for a child, because it excited in me two childish responses, fear and
slyness.' Can you talk about those responses, fear and slyness?
Mr. WOOD: Yes, happily. I know the prospect of English worshipers cavorting
around as if in a gospel choir seems a bit extraordinary, and it's true that
my own parents were quite physically inhibited. It tended to be a sort of
island of stillness surrounded by all the charismatic craziness that was going
on. Nevertheless, that was the church they had decided to belong to, and it
was the church that I, as a child, was exposed to. Fear and slyness--I meant
by that simply that I think it is emotionally disturbing for children to
witness adults breaking down. I mean, adults obviously aren't meant to do
this, and so to see adults in tears is painful and, I think, is actually
disastrous for children if it alienates them from religion. And then the
slyness simply because, you know, in that sort of tradition, there's a great
sort of pressure brought to bear on everyone in the church, even children,
which is a sort of pressure of testimony, the pressure of witness, you know.
`Are you called? What do you have to say about your decision to take Christ?'
And again, I don't think children should be put under that kind of pressure.
And the result, at least in my case, was that I found it easier to lie about
the lack of faith than to actually feel any faith in me.
GROSS: So you felt no faith, but you lied and said that you did...
Mr. WOOD: Yes, I went along with it.
GROSS: ...just so that you would be good in church?
Mr. WOOD: Yes.
GROSS: And the people in your church sometimes spoke in tongues?
Mr. WOOD: Yeah, they did. I never really, and still don't, really quite
believe in the notion of speaking in tongues. It's a characteristic sound if
you hear it. And indeed it's precisely the characteristic nature of it that
makes me suspicious, the fact that if you hear it done again and again,
certain kinds of illogic, certain kinds of patterns and phonemes and so on
tend to get repeated. I think it is a sort of mass hysteria, really.
GROSS: In your essay about this, you write that the sound of people talking
in tongues, it sounded like a tourist's imitation of Hebrew.
Mr. WOOD: Mm, and that's very naughty of me, isn't it? I had forgotten that
I had written that. Yes, it's impossible, when you hear it, not to think that
some vague idea of what a Biblical language ought to be, a sort of Biblical
gibberish, is being unconsciously imitated. I mean, I sound very harsh when I
say this. I don't think there's conscious deception here. I think,
obviously, these people truly believe--are sort of lulled into a hypnotic
state, and truly believe that they are speaking, you know, as the early
disciples began to speak when the Holy Spirit came to them at Pentecost. I
mean, the Gospels say that the disciples went out and began to speak in many,
many different tongues. But, you know, I think there's a marvelous line. I
can't remember who said it, but there's a marvelous line about how there's
nothing more cold and alienated than a choir boy at a funeral. And I think a
child who isn't going along with the flow, a child in that kind of charismatic
service, is about as alienated as a choir boy at a funeral. He looks on it
with a sort of coldness and professional disdain.
GROSS: My guest is James Wood, book critic for The New Republic. His new
novel is called "The Book Against God." We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: James Wood is my guest. He's the book critic for The New Republic,
and author of the new novel, his first novel, "The Book Against God."
In your novel, the main character has lost his faith, even though his father
is a priest. You lost your faith, too, I think, at about the age of 14 or 15.
Mr. WOOD: Yeah.
GROSS: What was behind your loss of faith?
Mr. WOOD: I think first of all, you'd have to say foundationally, what was
behind it was not having had any particular experience or revelation to begin
with. So there was nothing very strong to remove. I had no special feeling
that, you know, God was speaking to me in a still, small voice and that kind
of thing. And then a second component was just beginning to try to--becoming
enamored of rationality, actually, which I think is such a sort of wonderful
experience of growing into adolescence, beginning to realize that you can
think for yourself. And I remember, as a teen-ager, a bit older than 14
actually, more like 16, getting a piece of paper and drawing a line down the
middle of it and putting the arguments for God on one side, and the arguments
against on the other, and feeling, when I'd finished, that the debit side was
much greater than the credit side.
GROSS: What was on each side?
Mr. WOOD: What was on the credit side was the usual stuff. I mean, the
notion of the extraordinary unlikelihood of the world being created at all and
the fantastical idea, which is still a bit fantastical to me, that it's simply
rudderless, that it's simply this chemical accident, and that we'll all die
into the dust at 70 or 80, and that'll be the end of us. The evidence of some
kind of spiritual life beyond the material one--I mean, by that, sort of the
ghostly world, the extrasensory world that people seem to, again and again,
have contact with. On the debit side, has always been for me, reconciling the
pain and suffering of the world with any traditional notion of a God who's in
charge, a providential God who loves us and commands us to love him.
GROSS: And would you still include that in the pluses and minuses of religion
if you were drawing up a list?
Mr. WOOD: Yes, I would. I've never been able to get around this basic
question of making compatible the pain of the world with the notion of a
merciful and loving God. I should say, you know, neither has theology. I
mean, it's something I read again and again. I read a lot of theology, and if
you do, you see that this is an area in which theology is finally modest. It
has to be. It sort of hangs its head and says, you know, `We can come up with
some reasonable arguments as to how we might make this compatible, but in the
end, it's a mystery that we cannot explain.' So theology admits this, and I
think it's just a question for each individual human as to how strongly this
admission of failure in a way hits one. It hit me very hard, and I've never
been able to get around it.
GROSS: Knowing what a close reader you are, and knowing that you grew up in
an evangelical family, I found myself wondering how you were taught to read
the Bible, and what your Bible reading was like when you were young.
Mr. WOOD: I had regular Bible reading at Sunday School and, to some extent,
at home. I think above all, it wasn't just how I was actually led through the
Bible. It was seeing how the Bible was invoked by my parents. I think that
was an absolutely crucial thing for me, to witness the power of those words.
I mean, you know, I mentioned earlier that certain words which became
intensely irritating to me when I was an adolescent, like this idea that, you
know, having a girlfriend might be unedifying. Certain words became sort of
saturated with rather oppressive meaning. And yet, when you think about it,
how extraordinary that so much faith might be placed in the power of one word,
this idea that, you know, the idea that my father might be able, almost, to
dissuade me from seeing my girlfriend by using the word `unedifying.' So
there was a real education in the power of language every day.
GROSS: Did you have any favorite phrases, passages from the Bible?
Mr. WOOD: Yes. I've always loved Psalm 90. That's the marvelous Psalm, `For
a thousand years in thy sight, but as yesterday we grow up as grass, but in
evening, the grass is cut down and withereth.' It's difficult for me now,
despite my sort of formal atheism, not to be tremendously moved. I mean, I
find it almost too overpowering when I go particularly into a cathedral or
college chapel and this old familiar confluence of music and language starts
up again. It's really just overwhelming to me.
GROSS: So when you're in church or in a cathedral and you have this kind of
complete sensual experience of the beautiful architecture, the beautiful
language, the beautiful music, do you find that reawakens in you a sense that
maybe you want religion in your life, or can you see that experience as a
purely kind of sensual, artistic, transcendent experience as opposed to a
religious transcendent experience?
Mr. WOOD: No, I think I do, for a minute or two, lose my hold on rationality.
Music has always done this for me. Of all the arts, it's the one that seems
most to challenge, well, the very notion of rationality. I mean, when we
think about how a note is produced, what it refers to, where the notion of
notes comes from, it's very difficult not to think that there's something--I
mean, you know, there's a long tradition of writing about this in music, but
it's difficult not to think that there's something otherworldly about it. And
of course, a large proportion of composers have been believers.
GROSS: You became the book critic for The Guardian in London when you were
26, in 1991. That's a pretty young age to get such an important position. Is
there a story behind getting it that young?
Mr. WOOD: Not really. I started reviewing books pretty young anyway. It was
actually my last year at university when I began to write a few reviews for
national newspapers. When I left university, I started immediately
free-lancing for The Guardian, and had been doing it for three to four years
before being asked to go on to the books pages as an editor. And then I think
I was just sort of so keen to being regularly reviewing that I became the sort
of de facto chief literary critic, and then rather pompously got the title
appended to my reviews at the same time. I mean, that was a period of real
sort of zeal in my life, and I still clearly have that zeal, but, you know, I
think that was the time when I began to--I sort of got this reputation in
London as this sort of cheerless hammer coming down, you know, breaking up
books like meringues, you know, sort of coming down on one novel after the
other. And I was given, in the youthful way, to rather extreme statements,
sort of say that, you know, there had been no good English writing since 1945
and that sort of thing. This tended to get a lot of attention, quite a lot of
it negative, as you could imagine. And it's a funny thing that when I'm
reviewed now in Britain, despite the eight years I've been in the States, and
it happened just a few months ago with the publication of the novel, I'm
still, in a way, frozen in that mid- or late 20s period. I tend to get
written about, still, as the enfant terrible or as the guy who laid about him
with the sword. There's not much awareness of and sympathy for the kind of
deeper and longer things I've been doing in the States.
GROSS: James Wood is senior editor and book critic for The New Republic. His
new novel is called "The Book Against God." He'll be back in the second half
of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, the tough book critic becomes the subject of reviews. We
continue our conversation with book critic and novelist James Wood. Also,
imagine a university auctioning off spaces in its freshman class. Former
Harvard President Derrick Bach says no university has done that yet, but it's
the direction we may be heading in. We'll talk with him about his new book,
"Universities in the Marketplace."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with James Wood, senior
editor and book critic for The New Republic. He started his career by
becoming the chief literary critic at The Guardian in London when he was 26.
Now he's written his first novel called "The Book Against God." It's about an
academic who was the son of a priest but has become a devout secularist.
This is your first novel. Did you have any reservations writing a novel after
having passed judgement on so many of them? In other words...
Mr. WOOD: I did.
GROSS: ...one could say you set the bar really high. How could you possibly
reach that standard yourself with your first novel?
Mr. WOOD: Yes, I did set the bar high, and as a result it's come down like a
guillotine on the back of my neck again and again. So there was a sort of
standard review. It wasn't necessarily a negative review, but there would be
a standard mixed review that would appear in Britain which would always have
the same beginning. It would say, `Wood is a critic who has relentlessly
raised the bar. He's always demanding masterpieces from writers. Is this
novel a masterpiece? No, it's not.' And then the rest of the review would
sort of continue, you know, depending on how much the reviewer liked or didn't
like the book.
Curiously enough, I think that actually my writing about books didn't make it
harder for me to write. It actually gave me more confidence. I mean, I know
there's this notion that, you know, the critic can't do it. The critic talks
about it and the writer actually gets on with it. But on the contrary,
actually living in the novel year after year, thinking about fiction, greedily
reading it, appropriating its techniques in the way, certainly, that I've
privately been doing that, ought to fortify one. My disappointment simply is
that it took me so long.
I mean, at 26 or 27 I was desperate to write a novel and did begin writing and
didn't like at all what I was doing and tore it up and threw it away and then
began again at the age of 30. Same, thought it was rubbish, threw it away, at
which point I began to tell myself, well, you know, you may be precocious as a
critic but you certainly aren't as a novelist. You'll just have to be
patient, bide your time and, you know, it'll come along. And I suppose it
did, but I had wished it had been at 26 rather than 36 or 37.
GROSS: Here's an essential dilemma I would imagine you have to face as a book
critic writing your first novel. As a critic you really have to believe in
the importance of the form of literary criticism, and you have to believe that
what you're writing matters, it's serious, it's worth publishing in a
newspaper, a magazine, it's worth collecting those reviews in a book, that
those reviews are worthy of a life, a life that might even outlive the novel.
But at the same time as a novelist you have to believe that your novel is
really important and, sure, a lot of reviewers will try to shoot it down, but
you can just ignore that and have faith in the book 'cause you kind of have to
do that to survive in a way. So how do you reconcile those two contradictory
impulses that you have to keep in mind as a critic and as a novelist?
Mr. WOOD: That's a very good question. I do it probably by a slightly
unexpected route, which is that I don't have complete faith in my novel.
That's to say I think I could write a pretty good essay explaining what's
wrong with it. You know, there are days when I'm sort of more positive than
negative, but there's a lot that I can see wrong with it. And so I actually
tend to be rather feebly suggestible when reviews come along. I tend to--you
know, if someone says it's overwritten or someone else says, you know, there's
too much nostalgia and retrospect, there's too much stuff about childhood in
it, I tend to sort of come away from the review saying, `Well, he's right, of
course. He's right about that.' So in a curious way I manage to turn your
contradiction into a sort of paradox that I can hold together, believing, in
large part, you know, in the sort of basic integrity of my novel but
essentially believing that a good part of the criticism that's being written
about it is likely to be accurate.
GROSS: So do you think that writing this novel will lead to a change in the
way you write as a book critic?
Mr. WOOD: I think actually not for all that I've said. I think you must feel
that I'm just deliberately, you know, throwing these jaunty paradoxes at you
whenever you ask me a question. It would follow, wouldn't it, seemingly, that
I ought to go about being a critic with greater humility, and yet to some
extent I think there are certain cruelties that I regret in some of my pieces
and that I think I will soften. I think in the main, though, it can't change,
really, one's feeling about criticism, and that's because I think, you know,
it's the great truth that you're not writing a review to the writer. It is
unfortunate, humanly, that the writer is being written about and, you know,
has to read the reviews, or perhaps chooses not to read the reviews but sure
enough hears about them. But you're not writing to the writer. You're
writing to a public. You're engaged in a discourse, a rather impersonal
discourse in some ways.
I don't say that this is necessarily humanly defensible. It isn't. And
people are caused pain. The only way of defending it is to say, I suppose,
that I, too, have been caused pain now as someone who's been reviewed twice.
I haven't produced two books. So, you know, rather like the analyst who has
to be analyzed himself before he can, you know, go into his profession, you
know, I've been there. But I do think, you know, it's a discourse that exists
for the public, not for the writer.
GROSS: Do you think now that when you give a bad review to an author, the
author will be able to say, `Yeah, well, I didn't like his novel, either'?
Mr. WOOD: You know, that's a very good question. It's something that has
given me pause. I do sometimes worry about whether I've undermined my
authority, I suppose you might say. That sounds terribly pompous, but I think
you know what I mean. Yeah, so that a writer might say, `Well, I didn't like
his book' and, you know, `Look at that thing. I mean, you know, he's telling
me what to do. He can't do it himself, can he?' And it's true that, you
know, as long as you haven't written a novel as a critic it's all pure
potential. No one really knows what your failings are. As soon as it's out
there they can get at you. Yeah. I think that will happen. But again, I
think one just has to say that's, you know, the sort of private relation of
the--you know, that's the writer responding. But, you know, one's interested
really, in the end, in the readership responding.
GROSS: Well, don't you also think that it's a really different set of
muscles, in a way, that you use as a critic than you use as a novelist.
They're both about good writing, and either you can write well or you can't,
Mr. WOOD: Yes.
GROSS: ...you know, the skills of a critic and the skills of a novelist...
Mr. WOOD: Yeah.
GROSS: ...you can have both, but they're kind of different processes.
Mr. WOOD: No. Absolutely. And, you know, one thing anyway I tend to do--I
mean, I have a fairly scholarly bent. I mean, I tend to review contemporary
fiction quite a lot in the light of sort of great works in the past. And I
think, you know, there are writers who I'm sure hate my guts who've suffered
under me. There are other writers who I've perhaps been hard on but who don't
actually loathe me and who like--I think who enjoy being demanded upon. And
there's no doubt that, you know, as someone reviewed yourself, the review that
holds you to a high standard is the real challenge. I mean, the danger then,
I suppose, for me, as a critic, is that I get sort of--that I'm not open to
contemporary writing and that I sort of get lost in a kind of cemetery of
touchstones, you know, these sort of great works of the past that I'm
continually praising and not opening myself to contemporary writing, which is
something I need to do, I think, more.
GROSS: Well, James Wood, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WOOD: Thank you.
GROSS: James Wood is senior editor and book critic for The New Republic. His
new novel is called "The Book Against God."
Coming up, former Harvard President Derek Bok on the commercialization of
higher education. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Derek Bok discusses his new book titled "Universities
in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Former Harvard President Derek Bok has observed colleges and universities
relying more and more on the corporate world for money. He worries that we're
getting to the point where everything in the university is for sale, if the
price is right. There are new opportunities to sell scientific discoveries to
industry and to find corporations willing to underwrite teaching positions and
sponsor courses on the Internet and cable TV.
Bok has written a new book called "Universities in the Marketplace: The
Commercialization of Higher Education." He's now the faculty chair of The
Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard. I asked Bok why he's
concerned that commercialization may be changing the nature of academic
Dr. DEREK BOK (Former President, Harvard University; Author, "Universities in
the Marketplace"): Well, what has really changed is that the opportunities to
make money by the educational programs and research activities of universities
have multiplied enormously because advanced research and scientific
discoveries are much more valuable to the country and to commercial
enterprises. And so what has changed is that there's a lot more patent
licensing. There's a lot more education for profit via the Internet. And a
number of the other practices that I talk about have simply become more
GROSS: Are you concerned that if research on the campus is funded by a
corporation or by a pharmaceutical company that that research might be less
objective because the company might have a vested interest in having the
research turn out positively or negatively or whatever?
Dr. BOK: Well, there are two problems that are worrisome there. One has to
do with the fact that often the pharmaceutical company has given stock, or has
some other financial arrangement, with the researcher or with the university
itself. And that creates a conflict of interest, by which I mean that the
university and its scientists have a financial stake in the outcome of the
research because they will benefit if the research comes out one way and not
so much if it comes out another. That threatens the objectivity of the
research. But even if the scientists are not hampered in any way by their
financial interests, the public will surely lose confidence in the research if
they come to know, as they surely will, that a lot of research on university
campuses is done by people who have a financial stake in having the outcome
come out the right way.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of an offer that you found very tempting
when you were president of Harvard but you decided to turn it down because you
were afraid it would lead to commercialization?
Dr. BOK: Yes, I can think of one in particular, but there are many others.
The one I think of is an offer from a pharmaceutical firm to have Harvard put
on a program of new developments in cardiology and receive a million dollars a
year, plus substantial fees for the participating professors with, of course,
commercial advertising at the beginning and end of the program. And in one
sense, like so many of these schemes, when you first think about it the money
is very tangible. The risks are pretty ephemeral and intangible and hard to
But the more I thought about it the more worried I was about, in a sense,
going commercial with our teaching programs because when you do that you
suddenly introduce another motive into your teaching besides simply trying to
educate students. Suddenly, with the commercial sponsorship, everybody knows
that you're doing it to earn money, and that makes them begin to mistrust your
motives. Is he telling us the real thing? Would the university level with us
if products that the sponsor turned out turned out to be bad for your heart?
Is the university dumbing down this program in order to make it commercially
Teaching depends on trust, and when you introduce another commercial motive
you make people who you are trying to educate distrust, or at least question,
your motives and wonder whether you're really helping them or only helping
yourself. And that's an element of doubt that I think universities should
actively try to resist. And so in the end we turned down the offer.
GROSS: Was there any pressure on you from the trustees, or from anyone else
at the university, to accept so that you'd get the money?
Dr. BOK: My trustees were wonderful. They would always back me up on a
matter of principle. I never knew them to fail. The deans and faculty
members who were immediately involved were disappointed. I don't want to say
they brought great pressure to bear. They respected the fact that I was
trying to act in a principled way. But they badly needed the money, and so,
of course, they were disappointed when I ultimately said we can't earn our
money that way.
GROSS: One of your concerns has to do with sports. And a lot of colleges and
universities have made their reputation with their football or basketball
team, and they've made money on those teams as well, so it seems like a pretty
good deal for those colleges. You say that it's actually more difficult than
you might think to make a profit with a football or a basketball team for a
college. Why is it difficult?
Dr. BOK: It's difficult because although if you have a successful team you
may attract a lot of revenue, the costs keep going up very rapidly. Different
universities begin enlarging their stadium. They want state-of-the-art weight
rooms. They want all-weather practice fields. They want instant videotaping
of their practices or the other teams' games or a hundred other things that
drive up the cost. So it's sort of an arms race in which the revenues may be
getting greater but the costs are rising at least as rapidly. What is clear,
however, is that there are very real academic costs to becoming a big-time
GROSS: What are some of those costs?
Dr. BOK: Well, the first place, in order to win on the field you've got to
get the best athletes. The first thing that happens is you compromise your
admissions standards by letting in lots of students who never would have had a
chance of getting in except for the fact that they are effective athletes.
And then you begin interfering with the quality of their education in order to
further your athletic program by lengthening the seasons, by having practices
so long that they cut into the opportunities to study, by having away games.
And in all those ways what you are doing, in effect, is saying we are prepared
to sacrifice our most basic academic standards in order to make money in
athletics, and that is really a shameful thing.
GROSS: So what's the problem really, in terms of the larger university? If
the athletes on a team are spending a lot of time on the game instead of in
class, OK, they're not getting the education that they should theoretically
get at that institution. At the same time you could argue these are people
who are going to be focusing on their sport anyways, and this way they're
doing it at an academic institution and it's still benefiting the athletes and
it's certainly benefiting the institution by having the athletes there and by
having a good team. So what's the problem? Who's getting hurt?
Dr. BOK: Well, a number of the students. The student athletes get hurt
because they end up being exploited for athletic purposes and the quality of
their education suffers. And they may not feel it at the time, but after they
graduate they're less equipped to make their way in the world when the
overwhelming majority who can't play professional sports have to make their
way in the job market.
But more than that, what you've done in athletics is really compromise very
basic academic standards, and that results in scandals that hurt the
reputation of the university, but it also undermines the value that give
meaning to universities for those people who work there, for faculty members
who see the admissions standards being compromised for a purpose having very
little to do with what the university is really there to accomplish and other
students who see people being brought into the university who obviously are
not on a par with other students. And in all those ways I think we suffer in
the way that any institution that compromises its basic values for money tends
to suffer in its own estimation as well as the public's.
GROSS: My guest is former Harvard President Derek Bok. His new book is
called "Universities in the Marketplace." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is former Harvard President Derek Bok. His new book is
called "Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher
You end your book with a scenario that you say you fear is just around the
corner, and here it is, that Coke approaches, for example, Princeton
University with an offer of $25 million for permission to etch five words over
the entrance of Nassau Hall. Those five words are `Things go better with
Coke.' This is just a hypothetical situation that you dreamed up, but do you
think that this could be a reality in the near future? The offer. Not
Princeton agreeing to it, but the offer.
Dr. BOK: I don't think the offer would be made because I think they'd know it
would be turned down. What I was really trying to do was to illustrate that
it's very hard to reason about these cases by using the kind of utilitarian
kind of cost-benefit analysis that we often employ in problems of this kind
because the $5 million from Coke is very real, and the five words over the
entrance are pretty harmless. So what that example does is to make you think
more deeply about the fact that that isn't just weighing tangible benefits and
costs. There are intangible, subtler values that are nonetheless very
important. If you allow those words to be etched, what you are doing is
saying to your faculty and to your students that anything at Princeton can be
had for a price. And that is a message which is really insidious because it
shakes the faith of students and faculty and the ultimate values of the
institution and thus eats away at the kind of morale that makes universities a
GROSS: Is there anything that you're seeing happening now that isn't `Things
go better with Coke,' but it's the same theme that you were talking about,
about, you know, selling out some kind of larger, intangible, but very
important, value for the up-front money?
Dr. BOK: Yes. I could give you a number of examples. I think more and more,
in little ways, we're beginning to accept advertising for our educational
programs. Now it's sort of creeping in on the Internet and in other ways, but
the principle is the same. I suppose one of the examples that is perhaps more
obvious and dramatic that illustrates the danger to me would be the continuing
education of physicians, which is now subsidized to the extent of about 40
percent by large companies. And those companies, in subtle ways, by offering
support of that magnitude, influence what is being taught, how it's being
taught. If you get their subsidy you have to choose from their approved list
of instructors. They may provide lecture notes and slides for the instructor.
They're going to support some kinds of programs and not others, which tends to
affect the mix of programs that you put on for physicians. In all those ways,
commerce is beginning to exercise a subtle influence on the content of
education, which it really should not.
GROSS: Do you think that every university president should be puzzling
through these issues by himself or herself, or would you like to see some kind
of group of university presidents or some kind of ethical committee get
together and just puzzle through some of these dilemmas and agree on where the
line should be drawn and set an example for all the other colleges and
Dr. BOK: I certainly think it would be helpful if university officials got
together and discussed these things. They're very difficult, and discussion
can only help. And there are some situations in which joint action by a group
of universities is much more effective than each individual university going
its own way. The most obvious example, of course, again is athletics. To be
completely moral in one's athletic program is to commit unilateral athletic
disarmament, and no institution can do that. It's only when you get together
as a conference, or you get together as the entire NCAA, that you have any
chance of passing rules to limit the effects of commercialization in a way
that will be viable for individual institutions to accept. So, yes,
discussion and ultimate agreement in appropriate cases is the most effective
way to cure the problem.
GROSS: What was one of your big frustrations about raising money when you
were president of Harvard?
Dr. BOK: Well, my biggest frustration was that I wasn't very good at it,
which is the ultimate frustration. I didn't enjoy it very much. Fortunately
at Harvard there are lots of people to share the burden, and so I was able to
spend a lot of time on the things I love, which are the academic and
intellectual problems of the institution. But even so, I had enough fund
raising to understand what a problem it is, especially at places that require
much more time spent on that purpose than Harvard does.
GROSS: Dr. Bok, one more question. Has anybody ever said that you sound a
little bit like Walter Cronkite?
Dr. BOK: No. And you make my day by even suggesting that in the minds of
GROSS: OK. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Dr. BOK: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Derek Bok is the former president of Harvard. His new book is called
"Universities in the Marketplace."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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