January 20, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Two Cheers for the Late Prof. Isaac Kramnick

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To the Editor:

I was saddened to learn that Prof. Isaac Kramnick, the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government Emeritus, had passed away late last month. Kramnick had an impact on me and countless other Cornellians, helping us feel that we belonged at Cornell, connecting our present to the democratic promises of the past and modeling how to stand up for what is right and just. These few anecdotes will not depict the depth of his impact, however, they remain clearest in my memory.

On one of my first days of class as a graduate student in the Fall of 2013, I remember Kramnick making me feel like I belonged at Cornell. Kramnick shut down an elitist comment that a fellow student made about the private school where he had earned his undergraduate degree. And Kramnick assured me that my studies had taken place at “one of the gems of public, higher education in the world.” It was one of the last times I remember a Cornell professor explicitly make me — the first person in my family to set foot in any Ivy League institution — feel like I was enough for the hallowed halls of the University.

In my time as a graduate student at Cornell and in my career since then, I’ve reflected and acted on the lessons of Enlightenment political thought that Kramnick drew out of us during my first semester. I’ve been inspired in my political activism and in my professional work to think about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s promise of a political community achieving civil freedom through self-imposed restrictions on unfettered natural freedom. In a broader sense, Kramnick taught me that there might yet be something to learn from the “old, dead white men” whom many of us were/are tired of reading. That despite their deep imperfections and the flaws in our canonizing reading practices, we might yet recuperate and redeem some necessary ideals that could liberate disempowered people all these years later.

Indeed, it is truthful to write that Kramnick was a virtuous man who embodied the principles that ought to be the bedrock of democracy — those that our leaders too often abandon or even weaponize. Kramnick was not afraid to point out such abandonment of principles, as he did publicly in the spring of 2015 when the Cornell University Police Department  undertook an unnecessary investigation of a student organizer on campus. I was thankful that while administrators at the highest level of the institution were petty in their abuse of power, Kramnick modeled for other faculty how to critique one’s own institution with dignity and commitment to deep principles. I only wish that many other tenured faculty could similarly appreciate the power they wield and act on it for the health of an institution as influential as Cornell.

Perhaps the greatest lesson that Kramnick has offered me and many others is that political philosophy is so much more than ideas to be debated in the seminar room. Rather, the ideas we debate ought to impact our personal value systems, transform our actions and affect the communities we create and inhabit. May generations of Cornellians continue to contest, define and ultimately practice freedom, democracy, justice and virtue.

Thank you, Isaac Kramnick, for helping us feel the weight of our shared responsibility.

Alex Brown M.A. ’17