The School of Aspen

I first became fascinated with the Aspen Institute when I was a young partner in Big Law. Having had the benefit of a Great Books education and having taken a master’s degree at the University of Chicago before law school, I was intrigued by the “Aspen idea” of executive education based on the Great Books. I also admired the Institute’s close ties to Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, the legendary University of Chicago duo who launched the Great Books movement. For those reasons, I applied to participate in the Institute’s flagship offering, its “Executive Seminar on Leadership, Values, and the Good Society.”

Officially, the Aspen Institute styles itself as a “nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas.” But most conservatives (rightly) see it as a center-left organization, so I had some skepticism about what the Executive Seminar experience would be like for someone of my conservative ilk.

Still, I decided to give it a go. About two and a half years ago now, over the course of a week, I participated in the Executive Seminar at the Institute’s former Wye River campus on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Truth be told, I was stunned by the spirit of civility I found there.

By now, I’ve also participated in the Aspen Institute’s Justice & Society Seminar in Aspen, Colorado, plus numerous other seminars over Zoom during the Covid-19 era. In all, I’ve been amazed at how very civil the dialogue has been. We have discussed the hottest topics without anyone getting heated, much less “canceled.” Given the usual rancor of our public discourse these days, it feels good to report that there are still a few places where conservatives and progressives can interact in respectful and productive ways.

Reclaiming the Great Books

About six weeks before I arrived at the Executive Seminar, I received my reading packet. The packet was accompanied by an orientation letter from Todd Breyfogle, the Aspen Institute’s executive director of seminars and himself a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.

Several of the readings composed a highlight reel of famous passages from the classics of Western thought—selections from Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Politics, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, and Darwin’s The Descent of Man, plus all of Sophocles’s Antigone and Melville’s Billy Budd.

Other readings included selections from the classics of ancient Chinese civilization and the medieval dar al-Islam, such as Confucius’s Analects, Mencius’s Human Nature, and Ibn Khaldun’s The Muqaddimah. The remaining readings included selections from contemporary texts—Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Ayn Rand’s “What is Capitalism?”, Nel Noddings’s Starting at Home, bell hooks’s Kentucky is My Fate, Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

Personally, I was delighted to see so many old books from the Western canon on the reading list (any of which might easily have been featured in a Liberty Fund colloquium). Western civilization has been under direct attack from the progressive left for decades. It’s now over 30 years ago since Jesse Jackson and around 500 activists marched down Stanford University’s main entrance chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go.” Since then, of course, the attack on Western civilization has intensified exponentially. 

Against that bleak backdrop, including a serious number of selections from the Western canon seemed to be eminently fair-minded. (I was especially delighted to see Antigone on the list, since it, like my own work, deals with the conflict between religious freedom and statism.)

I was also pleased to see Chinese and Islamic texts. I had been meaning to read the Analects for years since it receives a lot of attention in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, and I was familiar with Ibn Khaldun from the courses I had taken in Islamic history.

What struck me about so many selections from old books, both Western and Asian, was the implicit rejection of today’s all-to-common “chronological snobbery” (to use C.S. Lewis’s famous term) and affirmation that the insights from 2,500 years ago are still worthy of our consideration and even relevant to today’s issues. Those notions are utterly foreign to the zeitgeist that dominates so much of education today. What similarly struck me was the implicit premise that even the most ancient texts are accessible to all, which, arguably, implies that there are universals about human experience across time and space that are not dependent on individual experience or identity, another notion sharply discordant with today’s prevalent identarian ideology.

Last fall, I had a flashback to the moment when I first reviewed the Executive Seminar reading list as I was reading Alan Jacobs’s fabulous recent book, Breaking Bread with the Dead, in which he succinctly summarizes today’s “common attitude,” hostility really, toward ages past. Many people, Jacobs argues, labor under the assumption that “all history hitherto is at best a sewer of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general social injustice, at worst an abattoir which no reasonable person would even want to peek at.”

But amazingly, that “common attitude” finds no purchase at the Aspen Institute. Their approach seems to reflect C.S. Lewis’s insight, in his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word of God, where Lewis writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes.” That’s why, Lewis adds, we “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books.”

It became evident to me that the experience was not going to be anything resembling a typical class or conference on a university campus today

As for the more contemporary readings, I must confess that they worked well in the sense that they served as a useful foil to the old books, shedding light on the contrasts (and continuities) between ancient and modern thinking.

To be sure, I was impressed with the reading packet’s intellectual diversity, and especially with the inclusion of so many classics of Western thought. What I found even more impressive, however, was Breyfogle’s instruction in our orientation letter regarding how to handle the texts. “As you read you should not dismiss any of the passages, but should consider them as potentially true,” he said. That instruction, to my mind, was significant. It indicated that we were to engage the texts with a spirit of goodwill rather than to engage in “rage readings” (a helpful term I learned from Elizabeth Corey); that is, reading texts only to seethe over their wrongness. Breyfogle’s letter filled me with hope for what the Executive Seminar experience might prove to be.     

Reclaiming Civility

I arrived at the Executive Seminar not knowing who would be there. The Institute does not disclose the identity of fellow participants until you arrive.

As it turned out, my Executive Seminar cohort was composed of immensely impressive people. The 22 of us—including several senior executives from Big Tech, the provost of an elite university, a special forces commander, a partner at a major management consulting firm, a successful serial entrepreneur, and several nonprofit founders and executives—arrived on a Saturday afternoon and would be there through the following Friday afternoon. It did not take long for me to perceive that almost all of my fellow participants were left of center in their political views, and that some of them were particularly progressive indeed.

All week, we would do everything together—eat our meals; go on excursions; even put on a play. And, of course, we would sit in seminars discussing the readings and their implications for several hours a day. 

Through it all, we would be led by two moderators, one a highly successful management consultant who had been moderating the Executive Seminar for years; the other, a highly accomplished business leader who was moderating the Executive Seminar for the first time. Both were amateur intellectuals (“amateur” in the original and best sense of the word)—they were smart, well read, and warm hearted.

In the seminar room, we gathered around a large, circular table with a hollow center for our discussions. Early on, our senior moderator set out some simple, but powerful, ground rules that reinforced the spirit of goodwill in Breyfogle’s orientation letter. First, he told us that we should have three conversations throughout the week—one with the author of each text, one with our fellow participants, and one with ourselves about what constitutes true meaning and value. Second, we were to focus on the ideas in the texts and avoid discussing the authors themselves or their time periods. Third, we were to maintain strict confidentiality (which is why you will not find any names or conversational details here). And finally, he asked us to be “freely authentic and morally present,” adding in conclusion, “You can be bold here.”

At that moment, it became evident to me that the experience was not going to be anything resembling a typical class or conference on a university campus today (from which one so often hears horror stories about self-censorship and silencing tactics against campus conservatives and invited speakers who express views not in line with the prevailing progressive orthodoxy).

What followed were some of the best conversations I have ever had. But it didn’t have to happen that way. You see, being bold, I spoke up early on about being a Christian and a conservative and named William F. Buckley Jr. and C.S. Lewis as my major formative influences. Though I don’t know for sure, I think that must have come as a shock to some of my left-of-center interlocutors. As a practical matter, it alerted everyone to the fact that our time together would not be what Cass Sunstein has called “enclave deliberation”; that is, my interlocutors would be hearing from someone—me—who held views with which they would certainly disagree (perhaps passionately). Afterward, however, to my grateful surprise, I found myself neither shunned nor silenced.

One, perhaps unique, feature of the seminar experience is that no subject is verboten. Race, gender, religion, politics: they’re all on the table. For a religious conservative like myself, this was refreshing since so many people are sadly conditioned to exclude religiously based thinking from our public discourse (à la John Rawls). The only condition was that we were expected to trade and test views in the currency of curiosity and goodwill.

Another, perhaps equally unique, feature of the seminar experience is the role the moderators play. Most seminars have two moderators who, in turn, lead the discussion. Refreshingly, their purpose is to pose questions, not to teach or present answers. That is, they do not try to lead participants to “correct” conclusions. When this Socratic approach is done well, as it was here, the moderators do not let their own views shape the discussion, much less digress into personal dogmatism. (To be fair, I have seen a moderator halo slip once or twice, but that has been truly rare.)

As noted, the participants also put on a play together—Antigone for the Executive Seminar, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit for the Justice & Society Seminar—near the end of the week. (Executive Seminar participants have been putting on Antigone since the 1950s. Notably, past Antigones include Queen Noor of Jordan and Madeline Albright.) To be sure, having to create a script and assign and practice roles required considerable collaboration, as well as a solid sense of humor. (For Antigone, I was assigned the role of Creon; for The Visit, Ill. Read into that what you will.) 

At bottom, the week’s experience had transformed us into a high-functioning civil association. Civil discourse had led to civil action. Needless to say, we need more of that these days. Though civility is in short supply in our time, the Aspen Institute’s seminars offer a glimmer of hope for what our public discourse could be.