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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

Provoking Thinkers


M: How do you think new technology has affected learning?

O’Brien: I think it has affected it a lot. Students now get a lot of their information from the Internet. Unfortunately,
a lot of them try to get their papers from the Internet and we have to bag them on that.

M: You mean cheating?

O’Brien: Yes, there’s been a lot of plagiarism. For example, in MMW and even now in Revelle, we have to run all the papers through a program that checks for plagiarism.

M: What happens to anyone who’s caught?

O’Brien: They get an “F” for the course and it goes on their record permanently. It’s a hard slam.

M: You wrote in a Revelle commencement address that one of the risks of the decline of the humanities, arts and social sciences is a less educated public. But isn’t it just a differently educated public?

O’Brien: A public that is not educated in the humanities, arts and social sciences is a narrowly educated public and a less humanely educated public. You cannot govern a society with knowledge only of technology. How can one govern without an idea or sense of justice, without a sense of what society is? Without thinking of what the ends of politics are? Science is rarely an end in itself. It is more often a means. The question is how are you going to apply science? Science can give us medicine or it can give us poison gas. It can improve our lives or bring us to the brink of nuclear annihilation. A public educated only in science is not only less educated, but dangerously less educated.

M: Do you think the teaching of the humanities is in decline?

O’Brien: I don’t think the role of the humanities is very clear in the contemporary university. The humanities have been at a loss to justify their presence and utility within public institutions, and this is a shame. But this doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Humanistic study has great value, especially in a democracy. If you have a populace that’s trained only to think technologically, you have a populace that’s very easy to manipulate. And you have a very, very dangerous situation in a democracy.

M: I’ve been told that you like the quote from the 19th century writer John Ruskin, that we need to train new students “into the perfect exercise and kingly continence of their bodies and souls.” That sounds very spiritual. Do you believe there is a spiritual content to your teaching?

O’Brien: There is a spiritual dimension to education. What Ruskin said, was said in a similar manner by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, when he said that happiness, what he called “eudaimonia” in Greek, or a good state of the spirit or “daimon” depended on the exercise of our intellectual and moral virtues. Education is certainly concerned with this. We train people to think as well as they can and to make decisions, including ethical decisions, as best they can. Education has a social end and my justification of humanities within a democratic society has to do with this. But it also has a more personal one as well. I want my students to live the most full lives they can. I want them to think about what they want out of life. I don’t want them to wake up one morning when they’re 30 or 40 and think, what the hell have I done? I don’t believe the old Platonic maxim that an unexamined life is not worth living. In fact, my cats give me a fine example that that is not true. But I do believe that a thoughtful, compassionate life is something for which one educates oneself. If I can help young people in this direction, great. If you want to call this spiritual, OK.

M: Something I’ve heard from students is that you say you are as happy teaching writers you don’t like as you are with the ones you admire. Is that true?

O’Brien: When I first taught Humanities Five, there were a few authors that I really had to teach. One of these was the poet T.S. Eliot. His writing is brilliant and extremely experimental, but personally I have always hated him because he is such a reactionary. So I had to think how I was going to teach him. Students expect that you are going to do most of your reading in a great books class on your knees, and they don’t expect that you’re going to take an author and rip him apart. In the end, I used him to teach the structure of cultural reaction. And it’s very interesting to see how a cultural reactionary thinks. Because there’s always plenty of cultural reactionaries around and you can’t find a better one anywhere than T.S. Eliot. I really don’t believe in objectivity or neutrality or presenting all sides of an argument. I present my side of an argument and I present it strongly. The kids know that and the kids are able to disagree and that’s the deal.

M: You teach Marx. What is relevant in Marx’s teachings when almost all communist societies have disappeared?

O’Brien: You must excuse me if I find your question a little bit provincially American for two reasons. First it’s a Cold War question. It ties Marx’s fortunes to that of the Soviet Bloc. Second, all of Europe, East and West, has long recognized the importance of Marx as a thinker, and his works have always been taught in the universities.
But in America, somehow, to admit the truth of anything Marx wrote means you’re a raving communist. It’s quite silly really, and with the Cold War over, I find that at least students are a lot more relaxed about reading his work.
And Marx is still relevant because of his history and criticism of capitalism. He was fascinated with capitalism—its past, its present and its future. For us Americans, Marx can remind us that capitalism is not a timeless phenomenon. It has an origin and it has passed through various stages. He can also remind us that it is not perfect. It has its downsides. Mind you, I’m not saying he was always right or that one should read him uncritically. It’s just that in a world, and especially a country dominated by capitalism, it is a very good thing to open yourself to thinking about capitalism’s often troubled history and its very real problems. They are not things that are given a fair hearing in our media.

M: Where does your middle name, Arctander, come from?

O’Brien: It’s my mother’s maiden name. It comes from the sixteenth century. Some crazy ancestor from Norway moved to Denmark and named himself Arctander. It’s related to Arcturos, the North Star, the North Bear. So it sort of means “the clan of the bear,” “the people of the bear.” And the name’s made it intact all the way from that time. We have this whole wacky family coat of arms and stuff with it.

M: Do you enjoy teaching?

O’Brien: I just love to teach. If it’s true that something can be in the blood, teaching’s in mine. Both of my parents were teachers. They actually ran a small private high school in the Bronx. And my grandparents were involved in teaching as well. Two of my three siblings are also teaching. So I guess it’s a family trait. It’s tremendously exciting to be teaching a really wonderful idea that has traveled hundreds or even thousands of years through human minds and see it light up in a student’s eyes. It’s an incredible privilege and joy, and a rarity in life to be able to make a difference in anyone else’s life. If I can help these excellent young people think better, read better, speak better, or write better, I’m quite satisfied.

The interview was conducted by @UCSD editor Raymond Hardie.



William Arctander O'Brien

UCSD Department of Literature

Alumni Awards for Excellence

"I do believe that a thoughful, compassionate life is
something for which one educates oneself."