World of Ideas
World of Ideas
World of Ideas
World of Ideas
World of Ideas

World of Ideas

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Introduction to Bill Moyers “A World of Ideas”, 1989
As I traveled the country to tape "A World of Ideas" for public television, I thought occasionally of a letter I received several years ago from an inmate at the federal prison in Marion, Ohio. He had been a faithful viewer of my series of PBS programs on "Six Great Ideas." Now he wanted to tell all the participants in the series of his "heartfelt gratitude that you shared your time and thoughts in so open a medium. You can understand what a truly joyous opportunity that program was for an institutionalized intellectual. After several months in a cell, with nothing but a TV, it was salvation." 

For me, talking to the men and women who appear in this book was also a truly joyous opportunity. Sometimes during the 1988 election season, it had seemed to me that we were all "institutionalized" in one form or another, locked away in our separate realities, our parochial loyalties, our fixed ways of seeing ourselves and strangers. Sometimes it had seemed that depending on a TV to connect us to the outside world could only fortify our walls and wither our intellects.

But working on this series reminded me again that ideas can open our cells. They can liberate us from prisons we have ourselves built. In the laboratory of the scientist, the vision of the poet, the memory of the historian, the discipline of the scholar, the imagination of the writer, and the passion of the teacher, I went looking for what the veteran broadcast journalist Eric Sevareid has called "the news of the mind." I found a kingdom of thought, rich in insights into our times.

Most of all, I found a love of sharing, a passion for connecting. In their own way, all of the men and women with whom I talked are teachers. Sharing is the essence of teaching. It is, I have come to believe, the essence of civilization. The impulse to share turns politics from the mere pursuit of power and makes of journalism a public service. It inspires art, builds cities, and spreads knowledge. Without it, the imagination is but the echo of the self, trapped in a soundproof chamber, reverberating upon itself until it is spent in exhaustion or futility. For this reason democracy, with all its risks, must be a public affair. Ideas cry out for an open hearing, and the true conversation of democracy occurs not between politicians or pundits but across the entire spectrum of American life where people take seriously the intellectual obligations of citizenship and the spiritual opportunities of freedom.

The men and women who shared their ideas in the series are public thinkers. Their ivory tower is just a mailing address; they are at home in the world. They have in common a deep caring for this country, and each in a different way tries to serve it. If we could gather them in one room, we would not get much argument about the condition of things. Running through all the conversations is the notion that change is happening so rapidly and globally that our institutions are not keeping up. No grand solution for confronting this predicament appears anywhere in these page What emerges is a consensus that we can best negotiate the future through s. multitude of shared acts in science, education, government, politics, and our local civic life. 

It is a consensus these men and women already act upon in their own lives. Tom Wolfe, for example, takes seriously the presidency of his block association on the East Side of Manhattan. Joseph Heller, who registers his protest by not voting, nonetheless gives money to favored political causes because at heart he is not a cynic and still wants to save the Yossarian in each of us. In his research as a scholar, Robert Bellah reaches broad conclusions about religious values, but he takes concrete steps to put his own faith to work in his local community and church.

None have given up on America. Even the foreigners who appear-Chinua Achebe Carlos Fuentes, Northrop Frye, David Puttnam-see America critically but affectionately, and they talk hopefully about the moral leadership this country could yet exert if we began to see the world in all its intricate design. I am struck by the extent to which each person in this book believes that the life of the mind and the life of this republic are inseparable. And I am encouraged by the realization that for every one with whom I talked, there are scores more out there, waiting to be heard. America is rich in many things, but it is especially rich in thinking men and women.

The value of listening to such people has seemed obvious to me ever since I sat at the feet of caring teachers-Inez Hughes in the tenth grade, Selma Brotze in the eleventh, Mary Tom Osborne in freshman English, Eva Joy McGuffin in sophomore lit, Frederick Ginascol in junior philosophy, De Witt Reddick in senior journalism, T. B. Maston in graduate ethics, and James Stewart in postgraduate rhetoric. Because of them, my work has been for me a continuing course in adult education; this series was the latest course. 

The chief reward of it is the joy of learning, of coming away from each person with a wider angle of vision on the times I live in, on the issues I am expected to act upon and the choices I can make as father, husband, journalist, and citizen. The main reason I seek the ideas of others is for help-the diagnosis and treatment of my own isolation and the enlargement of my understanding. If you have ever hiked in the Rockies and seen the vista change as you move from one plateau to another-revealing peaks, contours, crests, clouds, colors, and vegetation previously hidden-you know what I am trying to say. I have had a career of discovery and feel compelled to share it. 


Quotes from World of Ideas

David Puttnam - Sept. 1988
BILL MOYERS: What was it Adlai Stevenson said? “Clichés mean what they say and truisms are true.” It really does matter. Sometimes I think, well, it’s just a movie, it’s not real life. You’re saying it really matters.

PUTTNAM: I’m saying it really matters.

BILL MOYERS: But do you think people do things differently because of what they see on that screen?

PUTTNAM: Not on any one film and I think this is one of the areas that’s important. I’m glad you asked the question because it’s one of the things that’s used to puncture my arguments. No, I don’t think any one film’s ever going to change anything and I don’t think any one newspaper article’s ever going to change anything. But over a period of years, the drip, drip, drip of a lot of good movies, a ton of movies that address real issues, a lot of good articles, the quality of newspapers, the caliber and integrity of newspapers’ editors — very, very, very important — the effect of that drip, drip, drip daily diet of views and ideas that adhere to what’s best in society, that has an effect. Not one movie, not one article, not one building can better our architects but just the fact that all of us buckle down and try and do better and be better.


BILL MOYERS: And you really do believe that movies can make a difference in their lives?

PUTTNAM: I’m glad you said “make a difference.” I believe that movies have a role to play and the interesting thing is, if movies played their role to the hilt, then they may well embarrass other media like television, like journalism, into also addressing their inadequacies and getting their act together.

BILL MOYERS: But if movies did that, would we still need to go to church?

PUTTNAM: It’s an interesting question. I suppose, really, if we reached the apotheosis that I dream of, there would be no need to go to church because church would reside in everyone’s home and within each of us. It’ll never happen to me and it’ll never happen in my lifetime, but it’s a nice dream.

Chinua Achebe - Sept. 1988
BILL MOYERS: The power of reminiscing is very important to you.



CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, if you look at the world in terms of storytelling, you have the warrior, you have the war drummer; the man who drums up the people first of all, the man who agitates the people, I call him the drummer, And then you have the warrior, who goes forward, you know, and fights. But you also have the storyteller, who takes over to recount the event. And this is one who survives, who outlives all the others. It is the storyteller, in fact, that makes us what we are, that creates history.

BILL MOYERS: The memory. The continuity of the generations.

CHINUA ACHEBE: That’s right. The memory which the survivors must have, otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.


BILL MOYERS: There’s a proverb in your tradition which says, “Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” How do you interpret that?

CHINUA ACHEBE: It means that there is no one way to do anything. The people who made that proverb, the Ibo people, are very insistent on this; that there is no absolute anything, even good things. They are against excess. Their world is a world of dualities. It is good to be brave, they say, but also remember that the coward survives the brave man. And so this is what it’s saying.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot - Oct. 1988
BILL MOYERS: What is it that makes a good teacher?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think one thing is that teachers who are good do regard themselves as thinkers, do regard themselves as intellectuals, and I don’t mean anything fancy, but I mean that they think of themselves as existing in the world of ideas. This is true for a nursery schoolteacher and a professor in the most distinguished university. It seems to me that the currency is one of ideas, ideas as conveyed through relationships.

BILL MOYERS: I think it was John Henry Newman that said we can get information from books, but real knowledge must come from those in whom it lives. And that is a teacher. The idea has to be incarnate, the word made flesh.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: That’s just so central to good teaching; so that you not only have to have the knowledge, but want to communicate it and convey it. You have to feel deeply about that, that you want those people to know it. And who are those people makes a great difference. In schools where teachers do not see their own destinies in the eyes of their children, it’s unlikely to be good teaching going on. In some sense, you have to see yourself reflected in the eyes of those you teach, or at least see your destiny reflected in that.

BILL MOYERS: Your destiny, meaning your … ?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Your future after you’re long gone. Part of what you’re doing in this process is handing it over, is sharing what it is you know and how you perceive the world and your angle of vision on it. What we might call the most pernicious discriminatory behavior on the part of teachers, which is often expressed quite passively, is it seems to me, when teachers can’t imagine themselves in their students at all, when there is no sort of reflection back and forth.


Derek Walcott - Nov. 1988
BILL MOYERS: You once said that the poet is an obsessed person. What’s the obsession?

WALCOTT: The obsession is the impossibility of utterly clear utterance. Dante would have been dissatisfied with the Divina Commedia. The condition of a writer is a condition of very agonized humility. The masterpieces of the world were never masterpieces to their authors. The writer knows in creating the work that it is not going to be the vision that he had. The poet has divine discontent.

BILL MOYERS:I often envy you poets because you name things. You tell us what things are in language that we can apprehend. That’s a moral choice, isn’t it? And that’s what makes looking for that right word a moral act.

WALCOTT:Yes, it’s an enormous responsibility because the responsibility is also to the history of the word. It’s not simply getting the right word. The word has a history.

Noam Chomsky - Nov. 1988
NOAM CHOMSKY: So, “They can think what they like in private, but they better do what we tell them in public.” That’s the model towards which totalitarian states tend. As a result, the propaganda may very well be not too effective. On the other hand, the democratic slate can’t use such mechanisms.

BILL MOYERS: Can’t force anybody

NOAM CHOMSKY: It can’t force people. Therefore, you have to control what they think. Since power is still concentrated, but in different hands- in our society, largely in private ownership- and you can’t control people by force, you’d better care what they think, which means you have to have other forms, and, in fact, more sophisticated forms of indoctrination.


NOAM CHOMSKY: : For ordinary people it’s extremely hard, and that’s why you need organization. If a real democracy is going to thrive, if the real values that are deeply embedded in human nature are going to be able to flourish – and I think that’s necessary to save us, if nothing else – it’s an absolute necessity that groups form in which people can join together, can share their concerns, can articulate their ideas, can gain a response, can discover what they think, can discover what they believe, what their values are. This can’t be imposed from above. You have to discover it by experiment, by effort, by trial, by application and so on. And this has to be done with others.

Furthermore, surely central to human nature is a need to be engaged with others in cooperative efforts of solidarity and concern. That can only happen, by definition, through group structures.

Toni Morrison - March 1990
MORRISON:: Some of it’s very fierce. Powerful. Distorted, even, because the duress they work under is so overwhelming. But I think they believed, as I do, while it may be true that, you know, people say, “I didn’t ask to be born,” I think we did, and that’s why we’re here. We are here, and we have to do something nurturing that we respect before we go. We must. It is more interesting, more complicated, more intellectually demanding and more morally demanding to love somebody, to take care of somebody, to make one other person feel good.

Now the dangers of that are the dangers of setting oneself up as a martyr or as, you know, the one without whom it would not be done.


BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the primary role of the novel?  Is it to illuminate social reality or is it to stretch our imagination?

MORRISON: The latter. It really is about stretching. But in that way you have to bear witness to what is. The fear of collapse, of meaninglessness, of disorder, of anarchy–there’s a certain protection that art can provide in the guise, not even of truth, but just a kind of linguistic shape of a life of a group of lives. Through that encounter, when you brush up against that, if it’s any good, or it touches you in some way, it does really rub  off. It enhances. It makes one or two things possible in one’s own life, personally. You see something. Somebody takes a cataract away from your eye, or somehow your ear gets unplugged. You feel larger, connected. Something of substance you have encountered connects with another experience.


Tu Wei Ming - July 1990
BILL MOYERS: So mature humans beings are self-sufficient but –

TU WEI MING: They are not islands, but always a stream, allowing other streams, other waters to come in. They have their own direction, but they are also able to open themselves up to other possibilities; they may eventually flow into the ocean.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a sense of reciprocity there. Life is taking & giving.

TU WEI MING: Right. But it’s not altruism in an ordinary sense. 

BILL MOYERS: It’s not doing good for goodness’ sake.

TU WEI MING: Right. It is, in fact, a necessary condition for my self-development, for my self-transformation. I am sympathetic to others because my own sensitivity has to be heightened and empowered for me to be truly human. So a fundamental quality of being human is sympathy. And sympathy has to be cultivated. It’s not something just given.

Ernesto Cortes, Jr. - Nov. 1990
BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about in a cultural way. Self-interest involves the other.

ERNIE CORTÉS: Yeah, because the word-well, let’s go back to the word interest. It means to be among or between. It means inter-the Latin word for interest is interese. So we’re asking that which the self is among or between. De Tocqueville understood self-interest as a very complex phenomenon.

BILL MOYERS: John Dewey.

ERNIE CORTÉS: John Dewey understood it, okay.

BILL MOYERS: “And no one grows apart from others growing, too.”

ERNIE CORTÉS: Exactly. And we say that, properly understood, self-interest leads people to be their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, because you recognize you need people. I can’t get what I want without you setting what you want. We’re in this together.


ERNIE CORTÉS: Well, I learned I could trust my own people. I could trust people, I could trust myself. And I learned that-I guess I learned the iron rule.

BILL MOYERS: The iron rule?

ERNIE CORTÉS: The iron rule is, never, ever do for anyone what he or she can do for themselves. It’s the opposite of learned helplessness. It’s the opposite of what we teach. We teach people they’re incompetent. We teach people they can’t do for themselves, that they have to–that they’ve got to be told everything. The iron rule respects people’s dignity. It says you have to challenge people, you have to agitate them. It’s the opposite of what Alinsky called welfare colonialism, where you treat people as if they were children. But the iron rule teaches that people can be respected, that they can be challenged, they can be agitated. And if they’re offered the right choices and the opportunity to learn, that they could initiate on-in behalf of themselves and their families.


MOYERS: You use the word discourse. There’s not much discourse, though, in politics today, is there?

CORTÉS: There’s not much discourse in what I call the quadrennial electronic plebiscite that we have every four years in this country, which has very little to do with politics. It has to do with marketing strategies, marketing segments, direct mailing, polling. But that is not politics. That is not what de Tocqueville talked about, which he thought was the really, you know, important, positive of this whole American experience, that people’s willingness and love of public discourse and debate and dealing with local issues connected – and doing it from an institutional base, you know, working through these media, the institutions. He was just really enormously impressed by the potential that this offered. Of course, he also saw some real serious potential problems, like slavery, you know, et cetera, the fact that people were left out. And one of the things that I guess we’re interested in is making sure that people who are normally considered, you know, the have-nots, or normally considered disconnected don’t get left out. So, well, I guess what I want to do, what I like to do is to organize people who are not part of that decision-making in most communities.