photo by Sally
does Professor Wertheimer think?
Try as they might, UVMs first class of Honors College students
cant always figure that one out but in the process they learn
to define and defend their own thoughts. Inside the honors ethics
seminar, where a colleges debut is also a venerable professors
Alan Wertheimers method is the question, and right now, as a high-wattage
October sun pours in and illuminates the buttery walls of his Allen House
honors college seminar room, the question is this: Is Alan Wertheimer
Well, no, not in modern-day America. But in the 18th century? Among the
diminutive Bayaka, a Central African pygmy tribe? Among political theorists,
where Wertheimer cuts a large figure because of decades of work illuminating
crucial concepts in ethics and law like coercion? Who is to say? Perhaps
Wertheimer, who goes about five-seven in his shoes, really is tall.
But theres no time for that now. The professor has posed another
proposition, more questions.
Wertheimer, who is the John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science
to his colleagues and Big Al affectionately yet secretly to
his honors students (offering another data point on the contingency of
height), is ending his 37-year career at the University with a beginning:
Wertheimer, who is retiring at the end of this academic year, developed
a two-semester course in ethics along with philosopher Don Loeb that all
90 students enrolled in the new Honors College are taking. (See Your
Honor, page 31.) The idea is to provide these talented first-year
students, a diverse group of future environmental engineers, doctors,
English teachers, and software developers, a shared intellectual experience
that cuts across every academic discipline and profession.
But the universal applicability of ethics we all, after all, have
strong notions of right and wrong, fair and unfair, whether to hand back
the overpriced grocery stores miscounted change or keep it
is also a potential trap, at least if youve got a group of 15 very
young, very bright, and very vocal students. Loeb puts it this way: When
you teach particle physics, nobody tries to come in with equally valid
opinions on whether mesons have mass. Ethics is different: were
all experts on whether or not protestors should mass.
But in the Honors College, emoting is not thinking. Opinion is not analysis.
Instructors need to spark a lively discussion (generally an easy task
with this crowd, even when the subject is Platos Crito), but also
to manage it, keeping the conversation aligned with the readings, and
helping members of the class interrogate their classmates ideas,
and their own. Voicing your thoughts is great; defending them well is
something else entirely. Something better. And putting logic into opinions
is where Wertheimers teaching excels.
The professor proffers another idea to the class, It is not wrong
to download music even if it violates the law. The students are
supposed to reply true, false, or don't know, but once again, a statement
quickly morphs into an interrogatory and the discussion surges. Passions
rise was that a telltale flash of porcelain iPod earbuds in the
messenger bag across the table? as the first-years come to a somewhat
sheepish consensus: when it comes to illegally downloading music, fine,
true, cool. Wertheimer winces. It is early in the semester, after all.
(Or was that a smile?) The seminar soon rumbles on to categorizing a statement
about the existence of God. The group opinion here, just barely, is dont
Questions, questions, questions. But few answers from Wertheimer: none
today, in fact. At a different time, in the more relaxed confines of his
corner office on the top floor of Old Mill, the professor sits under a
Chicago Art Institute poster depicting a horseracing scene, and explains
The job is not to answer the question, he says. Its
to get them to think about it more rigorously.
AN ORDERLY MIND
The method is the question: Reading Consent to Sexual Relations, Wertheimers
most recent book and a tome far less racy than its title might imply,
illustrates the power of carefully chosen, interlocking queries. With
a characteristic intellectual flip, Wertheimers discussion is not
so much about the obvious when does no mean no?
thats morally clear, he thinks, or should be but when
does yes really mean yes.
Think about that: when does yes really mean yes? It can make your skull
vibrate, even before the professor launches into nearly 300 pages of tricky
cases and complicated theories. Can a retarded person truly consent to
sex? A coerced one? Someone deceived, egregiously or subtly? Someone drunk?
And those scenarios are only the beginning.
Wertheimer doesnt present a grand theory, an overarching vision,
a huge program for social change. Thats not his style. Instead,
he offers a lot of thorough discussion of complicated cases, and some
focused theories for hashing through them. This is not to say that the
book lacks moral vision, however. Wertheimers philosophical peregrinations
leave him convinced that sexual deception, a matter largely ignored by
the law, needs to be taken more seriously. Why should the law say so much
about commercial deceits, when dollars are at stake, and so little about
sexual lies, which cost so much emotionally?
Lawyers like to say that hard cases make bad law, and they
well may, but Wertheimers gifts for sustained, precise and dispassionate
analysis at least makes them into compelling theories. The books that
Wertheimer built his intellectual reputation with, Coercion and Exploitation,
take similarly knotty philosophical areas and methodically think through
them in ways that are useful to political theorists, philosophers, and
lawyers. More than useful: One reviewer said of Exploitation that no
one interested in the topic will be able to ignore this classic work.
Wertheimers scholarly appeal, says his colleague Robert Pepperman
Taylor, a fellow political science professor and dean of the Honors College,
comes down to his clarity and rigor.
These are issues which people tend to wax rhetorical about, but
Al brings his extremely clear analytical mind to bear on problems that
can raise a lot of heat, a lot of passion, a lot of rhetoric, Taylor
says. He insists that we speak clearly about these things and understand
Wertheimers career, unlike his writing and thinking, hasnt
always taken the clearest and most logical path from point A to B. The
professor, in fact, attributes many of his breakthroughs to good fortune;
a fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study supported his first book,
and a workshop invitation from the University of San Diego law school
started him on his latest work. Now, after stepping down from his full-time
duties at UVM, Wertheimer will spend a year at the National Institutes
of Health, working on issues of exploitation in medical research.
Things happen, he says. Truth be told, thats the
story of a lot of my career anybodys career things
happen. Each opportunity led to new opportunities. I suppose its
true that the rich get richer; and, while Im not exactly rich, I
have gotten intellectually richer.
SHARING THE WEALTH
In casual conversation, Wertheimer is genial and amusing, fairly soft-spoken,
prone to answer questions after one of the stretches of contemplation
that make him a formidable bridge player. In the classroom, hes
loud and kinetic (I think he shocks the kids a little, Taylor
says, because he is passionate very passionate about
things that maybe they never knew anyone cared about) as he explores
and tests his students logic.
To make a class of the kind I teach go well, you need at least four
or five articulate, bright students, Wertheimer explains. One
or two isnt enough: You need a critical mass. If you have that,
you get the others going.
In the honors seminar, Wertheimer has his requisite fluent five and then
some, and while the discussions are lively, the conversation isnt
always totally satisfying for the students. As the class spent a fall
semester wrestling with abortion, inheritance, Plato, and the war in Iraq,
their frequent tendency was to try to gauge what the seer in the front
of the room thought. But after nearly 40 years of teaching, Wertheimer
is wily about concealing his views behind a Socratic screen when it suits
First-year honors student Kevin Ohashi, an electric-haired computer jock
who spent his last two years of high school in Kathmandu, says that sphinx-like
quality drove some of his classmates nuts. Professor Wertheimer
loves to play the devils advocate, Ohashi says. In class
he would take the side that most people werent on and propose a
hypothetical situation that started tilting things his way, and then he
might switch again. I thought it was great.
Ohashi says that the result of all those hours of discussion, at least
for him, wasnt a messenger bag full of new ideas or a changed sense
of moral purpose. Instead, in conversations with friends from the honors
floor and elsewhere, he has over time found himself defending his old
ideas with more confidence and care.
Ohashis experience echoes a theme common in letters from Wertheimers
former students: They often say things like I never knew what it
meant to think through a problem before.
IDEAS AND LIFE
The professor got involved with creating the inaugural honors seminar
(hardly a relaxed way to spend ones last year before retirement)
because his experiences on the UVM faculty and as a UVM parent left him
convinced that the campus needed a more intellectual culture.
If were successful, well have created an intellectual
environment, he says. We toyed with the idea of having some
variation in content between sections of the first-year seminars, but
we dropped that, precisely so that people can engage in a common experience.
Honors students live together, study together, and play together. But
the honors experience operates in quieter, more personal ways as well.
Rahul Mudannayake, a first-year pre-med honors student from Sri Lanka,
says that some of the class readings and discussions have haunted him,
especially a particular essay by the famous Princeton philosopher Peter
Singer. In the essay, Rich and Poor, Singer outlines the vast
discrepancies between wealth and poverty in the world, and insists that
the wealthy have an obligation to assist. (Singer also visited campus
to speak and meet with students in the class.) After the end of the fall
semester, Mudannayake went home to Sri Lanka, just before the tsunami
struck and devastated the countrys coastal areas. The student did
what he could, helping to ferry food and medicine to affected regions
in the days after the tragedy, but the calamity made the ethical arguments
he heard in the seminar, especially Singers, immediate.
The class has stayed with me in my life, Mudannayake says.
Spending a $1.50 here on a bottle of soda is difficult, considering
what I read, what I saw in Sri Lanka. The way I spend my money now is
totally different, and Wertheimer and Singer are part of that.
And here is where Professor Wertheimers questions finally end with
an answer: A student thinking through the issues and making a personal
choice, arrived at with rigor.
On April 15, a daylong symposium on ethics in public life will celebrate
Alan Wertheimers career as a teacher and scholar. For more information
on this public event sponsored by the Mark Rosen Memorial Lecture Series,
call the Department of Political Science, 802-656-3050. Web: <uvm.edu/~polisci>.