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December 27, 2008


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Andrew  Patner

It is unfortunate that Ms. Nussbaum uses her tribute to our late teacher, rabbi, and friend Arnold Jacob Wolf, z''l, to take unwarranted potshots at the rest of The University.

Arnold, as an alumnus of The College (AA '42), at various times both a student and a teacher in The Divinity School (EX), and a friend to and guest lecturer for a multitude of faculty members and students across the Schools and Divisions, brought the same mixture of deep knowledge, keen insight, and challenging criticism to The University as a whole as he brought to other institutions that he knew, loved, and knew could do better.

Arnold's love of literature and philosophy, of close and careful reading, of teaching through discussion and debate, of the life of the mind and ideas, as well as his belief in direct participation in political and ethical matters -- to say nothing of his loyalty to The U of C Presents chamber music series, despite its Friday night concert schedule! -- reflect the near-lifelong connection and match between this great man and this great institution.

Andrew Patner -- Chicago
EX' 81 (The College), EX' 88 (The Law School)
Member, Visiting Committee to The Department of Music

Martha Nussbaum

Mr. Patner, whose work as a critic I deeply admire, is misreading me if he thinks I am "taking potshots" at the University, a university that I deeply love. As is usual in our law school, I am making some criticisms that are out there to be debated and discussed, and I think that the great glory of the University of Chicago is that this is what we do all the time, and nobody feels aggrieved by it.

In the present case, my first set of criticisms, about the University's relationship to the surrounding neighborhoods, pertains to a time well past, as I emphasized. As to the point about smugness, that, too, was more marked in the past, and I mentioned it as a feature of our "history," although smugness about knowledge is always a danger against which all academics need to guard themselves at all times -- by the kind of relentless self-criticism for which our Law School is known.

Obviously I could not be making the point that one should not be a close reader of great books, which is what much of my own work involves; my point is that one should not think that merely reading those books made you better than other people. And I do believe that there have been, and still are, people who think that reading those books -- without any further engagement with life as a result -- made you better than others. My point was the same one that Socrates repeatedly made to the bigshots of Athenian society, and I agree with Socrates: books can be very valuable, but they can also engender a "false conceit of wisdom" that is death to the intellectual and also the ethical life. I was, in effect, comparing Arnold to Socrates. I think it is possible that some leading figures in our university in the past did not heed the Socratic warning carefully enough.

After all, Mr. Patner's "Critic's Choice" would hardly be the fine program it is if he just venerated fine works rather than engaging with them, as he so often does, with a contentious and challenging wit.

So I'm grateful to Mr. Patner for prodding me to clarify my meaning, and I hereby invite him to come to conferences and events at our law school, which would benefit from the input of such a perceptive critic. We would like to argue with him, and I think he would enjoy arguing with us. We only occasionally talk about music (though it does happen -- I recently presented a paper on Mozart in our work in progress workshop), but we are holding a conference on Shakespeare and the Law on May 15-16, with Justice Breyer as keynote speaker, to which Mr. Patner is most cordially invited.

Andrew  Patner

Ms. Nussbaum is too kind and I also thank her for making her points more clear and for her excellent additional points about Arnold Wolf.

My own experience with The Law School has been different from Ms. Nussbaum's, but as I left the School after three years (1985-1988) without a degree I've usually thought it best not to make public comments from such a position and have limited some of my public participation with the Law School. My own time as a student there did not impress me as having the sort of atmosphere that Ms. Nussbaum has described in the two posts here and this was in marked contrast to my four years as a student in The College (1977-1981). As the son of a Law School alumnus, the late Marshall Patner, Class of 1956, who also was a program director in the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic many years ago and later a member of the Visiting Committee to the Law School, and as a lifelong neighbor of the School I have had additional opportunities to observe the School, its history, its achievements, and failures and to attend and participate in events at the School over the decades. My Mother, Irene Patner, and I helped to present a conference at The Law School in 2007 on race, police accountability, and public housing on the South Side of Chicago, notable, as so many "engaging with life" programs at The Law School have been, by the very sparse attendance by Law School faculty members. My family also has a small fund at the School that supports some activities of the Clinic.

I thank Ms. Nussbaum also for her invitation to the Shakespeare and the Law conference and congratulate her on securing the participation of an august Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for this gathering. I will certainly attend such sessions as schedules will allow.

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