Interview with Leon Botstein: 35 Years (and Counting) as President of Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

After 35 years at Bard College, Leon Botstein reflects on his life as a public intellectual



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leon botsteinLeon Botstein at Bard College

Photograph by Michael Weisbrot

Botstein speaks passionately about the need to ramp up scientific literacy in this country. “Increasingly, the issues that face us, politically, have some component of science in them: the environment, energy, employment, tech, health, disease. This country needs more engineers, more scientists; that is crucial for the future of the American economy.”

The problem, he says, is the way that science is taught in schools. “Memorization, cookbooks, facts. That is not what it is. There is none of the discovery, the investigation, the method, the joy. We need the doing of science as opposed to the delivery of facts. Science is the thing that any child is most curious about. They are not interested in Thomas Jefferson or politics or literature naturally. They are naturally interested in why is it cold? Why is it hot? Why is someone tall? Why does the grass grow? That curiosity seems to be so natural, so intuitive, but it is beaten out of us by our formal schooling.”

On education:
“The trouble with American higher education is that it has walked away from teaching and has tilted toward research and graduate education, which is why colleges like Bard are the best places to get an undergraduate education. Our curriculum is quite distinctive”

The response to the first Citizen Science three-week seminar in January was “fantastic,” says Botstein. This year, the students got their hands dirty performing experiments and analyzing specific problems that dealt with the question of how we can reduce the global burden of infectious disease. “It is in small groups and it is ungraded. You don’t have to be afraid of saying, ‘I don’t understand.’ A lot of idealism was generated.”

And of course, idealism is what it is all about for Botstein, who shows no signs of slowing down, or — gasp — retiring. “He has expressed no desire to leave,” says Schwab. “We’ve expressed no desire for him to leave, so the length of time can be 10 years, 15 years. It depends on health, vigor... desire. It’s impossible to imagine him retiring. He’s not going to sit on a beach and read a book.”

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