Our SAIS-Bologna group here is becoming rather close knit. And as I’ve heard it told to me, that insularity flows into the second year in Washington, DC. But really, when you cram around 200 people into a single building day in and day out and give them two options, either get along or don’t, such an outcome does not seem so strange.
Spicing up this recipe for lasting friendship are the moments when professors break down the wall between teacher and student. When I was at Marquette it was not totally uncommon for a professor to grab a beer with students (of appropriate drinking age, of course) after a late class. But it didn’t happen regularly, at least not to me. And as I think I’ve covered in earlier entries, I’m rather new in this space, so you can imagine my surprise at being included in a group invitation to dine and discuss political events with one of our professors. In fact, he happens to also be my academic advisor here. In our first meeting, he asked why I was here. “You have an engineering degree. Are you crazy? I hope you’re not doing this for the money. If you are, you’ve made the wrong choice.”
The professor is a native Italian, teaches at SAIS and the University of Bologna, and is painfully smart when it comes to international relations. He will not hesitate to listen to your neo-liberal theories and approaches to international cooperation and mutually beneficial outcomes – and then tell you in no uncertain terms why you are wrong. He is realpolitik incarnate.
He is also genuinely enthusiastic about lively debate, particularly with his students. When I asked him why that was, he answered that it was something he learned working on his PhD in the States. He laid out the difference between a European system, where the professor is correct and not open to being questioned, and his experience in America where he could challenge a professor in class, which led to exciting debate. He wanted to foster that here. So much so, he invited a group of us to his apartment for pizza and wine (it’s Italy after all) and our thoughts on international relations in light of current global goings on. The crowd was split quite evenly between those who believe the strong survive, and those who believe everyone does better when everyone does better. I’m still of two minds on the subject, though the latter camp is my usual starting point. However, having seen my little bit of the world and the flaw and folly we call “human nature,” I know realism is a necessary sobering agent.
The night went by quickly. At 1:30 in the morning, with the pizza a distant memory, our host offered to make a batch of pasta. There was more to discuss and plenty of unopened wine. Our discussions ran the gamut: the stupidity of the Iraq invasion (“Yes, countries act in their own self interest but if that interest is framed through, at best, a misperception, then it’s just a warmongering state.”), the future of the European Union (“It’s known peace for only fifty years. Fifty years! That’s nothing.”), nuclear proliferation, (“It seems a bit hypocritical for the world to condemn Iran’s secret nuclear program when they’ve really just stolen a page from Israel’s playbook.”), etc. I never led the charge on any one point. I’m still in more of an absorbing phase. However, I participated the best way I know how: listening, analyzing and then punching holes through everyone’s point of view. It’s the best way I know how to stir the pot.
We finally wrapped up at four in the morning. We resolved nothing, but that wasn’t the point. Each person has his or her own takeaway but for me, it was as if my advisor wanted to show me that, despite my self-doubt, I can do this. I might not be able to blindly reach for my well-worn copy of “Thucydides On War” and instantly turn to an earmarked page to support my argument (no joke, our host actually did that), nor am I about to espouse the Konold Doctrine (“Be excellent to each other”), but I’ll get there. Or relatively close to it.
But I will say this: when the heat is turned up and the sauce starts to bubble, stir the pot again and again.