Thursday, March 8, 2012

James Q. Wilson the teacher

The past few days have brought encomiums to and reflections of the work and life of James Q. Wilson (see here for example). But I have yet to see anything about Wilson the teacher.

When I was 17 years old, I took Government 30, American Government, from Wilson, Sydney Verba and H. Douglas Price.  The whole course was good, but I found Wilson to be an awe-inspiring figure.  He behaved the way I thought a Harvard professor was supposed to be--he was elegant, he had an easy-to-listen-to voice, and despite the fact that we had been a national champion debater, he never spoke too quickly or aggressively.

Both the style and substance of his lectures were memorable.  Leonard Bernstein once wrote of Beethoven that has never had a note out of place--every note followed inevitably from the previous note.  The same was true with Wilson and words.  The prose coming out of his mouth was flawless, but never flowery.  I remember that some of my classmates didn't like this--they deemed the polish to be slickness.  To me, however, the pristineness of his language meant that it never detracted from the substance he was communicating.  His lectures were also models of organization and clarity; as such, he made sophisticated ideas easy to grasp.

Because I was a 17 year old naive liberal from Wisconsin (a state once known for clean government and progressive traditions), I came to college thinking that people got involved in government because they wanted to do good.  Wilson managed to convey the idea that bureaucrats, members of congress and interest groups often behaved in, well, their own interests.  This may seem obvious, but it was actually a bit of a bolt out of the blue for me at the time.  But the great thing is that he conveyed these "conservative" sentiments without demeaning the idea that there is a role for idealism in government.