Featured Faculty: Professor Jamie Aroosi
AS: What did you study in undergrad at University of Toronto? Where did you earn your PhD? What (and where) did you teach in the CUNY system before coming to YU?
JA: I studied Political Science, but mostly, I was taking classes in Political Thought. I also minored in both History and East Asian Studies. I earned my PhD at The Graduate Centre, City University of New York. And before that, I earned a Master’s Degree from York University, in Social and Political Thought. I primarily taught at Hunter College, teaching classes in political thought and American politics.
AS: I know that one of the thinkers you like to reference most is Soren Kierkegaard. What is it about Kierkegaard and his thought that particularly resonates with you?
JA: Well, for one, Kierkegaard just might be the best writer in the history of Western thought, and if not the best, right up there. He’s a real pleasure to read. He’s funny, ironic, clever, sophisticated, provocative, and even though he’s writing about some of the most esoteric topics out there, such as the nature of religious faith, he’s extremely down to earth. But more than that, the purpose of his writing really struck a chord with me. Rather than a “speculative philosopher,” who is interested in offering a theoretical account of an issue that reveals its truth, be that issue politics, religion, ethics, or what have you, Kierkegaard was not interested in capturing the truth within his writing, but in using his writing to provoke his readers into seeing it for themselves. In other words, reading Kierkegaard is like having a dialogue with him, where’s he’s constantly trying to provoke you into seeing something that you don’t yet see.
AS: Ditto with Karl Marx.
JA: Unfortunately, Marx is possibly the most misunderstood philosopher in the history of Western thought, but also one of the most important to read. A lot of people have the mistaken belief that Marx spent his time writing about some “utopian” communist society, in which we would all live bleak lives mired in grey, but he spent almost no time talking about the future. In fact, for all intents and purposes, he loved many of the wonderful things that capitalism had been able to produce, because capitalism revealed to us what human beings were capable of creating. You just have to look around this wonderful city, with skyscrapers seemingly built overnight, helicopters and planes zig-zagging across the sky, subways gliding by beneath our feet, and all of the people from all corners of the world intermingling with one another, to really marvel at what human ingenuity has been able to bring about—and Marx knew that it was capitalism that helped us do so. In fact, Marx is often at his most poetic when he’s talking about the wonders of the modern world.
But what Marx didn’t like was the inhumanity of the way in which these things were produced, nor the inequality in how they were distributed. So Marx turned to the study of political economy, because he thought that both of these problems stemmed from the very nature of capitalist production. Moreover, Marx also noticed the way in which individuals had to conform themselves to the needs of the economy, instead of having an economy that changed itself to meet human needs. For example, for a long time the United States has been suffering from a loss of manufacturing jobs, leaving many here unemployed, while many of those jobs have moved to China, where people work in often horrendous conditions. And most people feel bad about these types of things, but we also feel helpless about changing them. But this is symptomatic of the way in which we take the economy for granted, allowing it to shape our lives, while we feel powerless to shape it. Marx spoke of this, noting how it’s like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as with every day, the world seems less and less under our control—and this is often true of both the poor and the rich alike. But Marx also thought that if we understood the economy, and if we took democratic control of it, we could use its productive potential to serve our own human needs, rather than having to conform ourselves to the needs of our economic system. So, rather than looking to the Soviet Union for an example, which Marx would have been the first to criticize, if we look to the social welfare systems of Western Europe, and to the improved quality of life they have been able to provide, we can see something of which Marx would approve. He’d think they haven’t gone far enough, but he’d approve of the direction.
And like Kierkegaard, Marx didn’t lecture or moralize to his readers, prescribing certain ways of life for them. Instead, he offered a number of sophisticated critical and philosophical tools, so that we, his readers, might better understand our world, so that we might also be able to change it. There’s therefore something very empowering in reading both Kierkegaard and Marx, precisely because they are uninterested in telling their readers what to believe, and are instead interested in helping their readers learn to navigate the world for themselves. And I find that very appealing.
AS: Have you noticed anything in particular that distinguishes the YU student from students you have encountered in other settings? How has your experience teaching in YU differed from what you expected coming in?
JA: Well, I honestly didn’t quite know what to expect before I started teaching here two years ago. I myself am Jewish, but I wasn’t raised in the Modern Orthodox community, so it was pretty new for me. I knew about the dual curriculum, and was curious about what that might mean in my own classroom, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
What I’ve found is that YU students are extremely well prepared for what takes place in many of my classes. Not all students might think of it in these terms, but YU students have been studying philosophy for years. It might primarily take place within a Jewish context, and so students might not have a familiarity with the canonical thinkers of Western thought, but when it comes to thinking philosophically—using abstraction, analyzing and making logical arguments, etc.—YU students are wonderfully prepared. So, when students read Kierkegaard in my Religion and Politics class, for instance, the content might be new, but their ability to analyze and understand the text is already quite sophisticated. This makes it a real pleasure, as we can often jump quickly into very high level conversations, whereas I might have to lay more groundwork at another school.
Beyond that, I think the general thrust of my research (and hopefully my life too) is something that I share with our students, and that’s led to often fascinating conversations and classes. Specifically, in my work, I explore the relationships between faith and ethics and politics. Ultimately, like most of us here, I’m trying to think about what it means when a faith based ethics has to confront social and political issues. I approach these questions from within the discourse of Western philosophy, and YU students are usually thinking about these questions from within Judaism, but it’s been really nice, and intellectually rewarding, to be involved in a parallel project to that of so many of our students. Even though we might approach these issues from different perspectives, I’ve found that this has only added a richness to our conversations, as I get to provide students with a perspective they might not yet have, while I’ve also found myself learning quite a bit from them too. In many ways, YU was a perfect match for me.
AS: Could you tell us briefly about the classes you will be teaching next semester?
JA: I will be teaching American Constitutional Law, which takes both a philosophical and historical look at Constitutional Politics, and which leaves students prepared to think more deeply about the relationship between ethics, politics and the law. I’ll also be teaching my Core class, Cultures of Revolt, which is a lot of fun. In it, we read works of psychology, philosophy, politics, literature, and drama, and we explore what oppression, emancipation, and freedom look like, but from the point of view of the individual experiencing them. So, we get a really intimate look at what these look like, but from the inside out, so that we might better understand some of the pressures that weigh down on all of us, but also, some of the possibilities that are open to us too.
AS: Your classes - even those not offered as part of the YC Core curriculum - are remarkably interdisciplinary. You bring in political science, classical philosophy, psychology, history, political philosophy, sociology, and literary analysis. The reading lists for your classes very much reflect this diversity. What do you see as the advantage of bringing in so many different approaches, including such unconventional moves as assigning students in a political science class to read multiple plays?
JA: One of the reasons I fell in love with political thought is that I think I was always motivated by an interest in exploring some of the more fundamental questions of what it means to be a human being. And political thought is really motivated by an interest in asking a couple of questions: What are we? And how should we live? There’s quite a lot more to it, but at base, those are the fundamental questions of the discipline. And while political philosophy is excellent for providing an intellectual structure for thinking about these questions, we look for insights everywhere. And poets, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers, artists, music composers, and the various forms of popular culture, are often extremely insightful in exposing new dimensions of the human condition. So, we like to grab these insights wherever we can. The challenge, then, is to take something like a novel, which isn’t necessarily concerned with offering explicit answers to these questions, but is instead interested in telling a story, and extracting the philosophical truth. I think it’s very rewarding to read these types of works in conversation, so that we don’t get lost in the abstract accounts we often find within philosophy, nor in the specific examples we find within the world of art, but that the truth really emerges when they’re placed in conversation. But more simply put, our questions don’t always fall within neat disciplinary boundaries, so we shouldn’t force our answers to.
AS: You have been known to laud the Canadian healthcare system in class. Could you say a few words about what you see as the advantages of that model over the American model?
JA: Well, if I was being brief, I could sum it up like this: in Canada, everyone has access to healthcare, our life expectancy is several years longer, and the quality of those years is also better. It’s hard to argue with hard numbers, right? I joke with my students that in moving to the United States, I’ve shaved three years off my life expectancy, only that it’s not so funny, when you actually think about it. Unfortunately, over the past years, all of the empirical studies have been indicating that not only are things like life expectancy lower in the United States than in almost all other Western countries, but that the number of “healthy” years that people live in the United States is far lower than they would live in other places. Interestingly, this is true for both the poor and the rich alike—being rich certainly offers individuals better healthcare, yet you’d still typically be better off if you lived in Canada.
But beyond this, the level of worry that the average American has about healthcare is staggering, at least from a Canadian point of view. And I’m not talking about those without healthcare, or with inadequate healthcare, but even those with a good plan have many worries regarding their coverage. Co-pays, deductibles, coinsurance, in-network vs. out-of-network, benefit maximums, premiums, denial of coverage, and unfortunately, the potential loss of a job. In Canada, though, the only healthcare related worry is this: our health. We never have to worry if something is covered, if a doctor is in our network or out, if we’ll receive a bill, if we’ll lose coverage if we lose our job, if we can afford a procedure, or anything else, and this is tremendously liberating, because it frees us to worry about the only thing we should have to worry about when it comes to healthcare, which is the state of our health. I also think it gives Canadians a great sense of pride, because it honestly feels pretty good to know that I live in a country where part of my tax dollars are being used to ensure that no one that I pass in the street will ever go for want when it comes to medical treatment. I could certainly think of worse ways for my tax dollars to be used.
That said, there’s a lot of things that I wish Canada would learn from my adopted homeland of the United States, not least of which is the vibrancy and vitality of American political culture, but I’ll save that for the next interview.
AS: I have heard you speak many times in appreciation of Dr. Bevan's work, both in terms of what she does on behalf of the political science department specifically and what she has done for the university more generally. How has your experience been with the political science department at YC?
JA: Well, I have to say that without a doubt Professor Bevan has been the main reason my time at YU has been so wonderful, notwithstanding my many other wonderful colleagues, not to mention my great students. But not only has she made me feel like YU is a real home for me, but she’s done the same for our students. Over the past few years, we’ve all been through some difficult times, but rather than seeing the Political Science Department suffer through them, we’ve really been thriving! And it’s really her work, optimism, and steadfast leadership that’s led to the creation of a stable, welcoming, rigorous, and not to mention a fun, department. It would have been so easy to despair, but instead, she came out with initiative, hard-work, and creativity, offering a number of programs and ideas to help build the esprit de corps of the department and of the school, and both the school and our department are so much better for it.
You can see this at our regular end of term Political Science Soiree, which have become a welcome tradition in our department. There, after all the hard work of the semester, we all get together to enjoy one another’s company, and to share a nosh and a laugh. But aside from the fun we have (and I do think that having fun is part of what makes intellectual life so wonderful), I think you’d also see a department built on honesty, integrity, camaraderie, and hard work, which are values I see in so many of my students, but that I think Dr. Bevan really instils as a department wide ethos. I’d encourage everyone, both Political Science students and those who are not, to drop by for our next Soiree on December 15, and you can see for yourselves what our department is all about.