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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Botstein and Stephen Colbert go head to head on The Colbert Report in October 2010
Photograph courtesy of Comedy Central
Or, as Stephen Colbert put it when Botstein came on his late-night show last October, “you’re an egghead.” And with his bald pate and ever-present bow tie, Botstein certainly looks the part. Of course, he is an egghead who is savvy enough to come down from his ivory tower and appear on mainstream TV shows. So when Colbert joked, “I believe you used to pet a white cat and plan world domination” — a reference to the character Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films, you couldn’t help but think, “Hmm. I see the resemblance, and if anyone could dominate the world, well, it would be this guy.”
But despite all his “impressiveness” — as Colbert called it — Botstein insists, “Really, I’m just like you. I work hard, I have a family.” At least that is what he told me when we sat down for an interview in the book-crammed library of the President’s House at Bard, a room so perfectly suited for this “public intellectual” that it seems as though it must have been crafted on a movie set. While the thought, “No sir, you are nothing like me,” rattled around my head, Botstein soon fessed up to his workaholic ways. “I don’t work to live, I live to work,” he says. “I have no hobbies, I have no interests, I’ve never taken a vacation. I love to ski, I love to play backgammon. But I don’t do either.” Apparently, sleep is fairly dispensable too — Botstein stays up to the wee hours most nights, thinking and writing, and cruising a bit on the Internet, which he calls “a cross between a sewage pipe and a clear water system.” And while he says that he has no problem disciplining himself to get offline, he is, apparently, human after all: “I do cherish the moment where, early in the evening, I can lay down and take a little nap,” he admits.
“It’s crucial, and I don’t mind doing it. But it is so hard to do and hard to do well. You’ll never persuade someone who has no instinct for generosity, no matter how rich they are”
Botstein credits his over-the-top work ethic to his parents — Jewish doctors who fled the Holocaust in Poland and ultimately settled in the Bronx where they raised three children (his brother is a renowned geneticist at Princeton, his sister is a physician). “My parents were idealists and they both loved their work. Many people grow up in homes where their parents complain about what they do, but I learned from home the love of work. I owe them both a great deal.”
He describes his childhood home as a sort of intellectual salon, where he studied piano and violin and where big ideas were batted about freely. “If there were guests, you sat at the table with them. There was no kids’ table, nobody talked baby talk to you,” he says. It seemed the world was full of possibilities. After all, his mother, a leading polio scholar, managed to succeed despite the fact that she was almost entirely deaf. “My father was absolutely determined that despite her illness and immigration, her career would not be sacrificed,” he says. At 16, Botstein graduated from Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art; he went on to receive his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in history at Harvard.