Choosing Leadership or Scholarship?

In my narratives class, I give the students an assignment asking them to tell their own story. I believe in teaching (or leading) by example, so I tell them my story. After doing this in class last week, one thoughtful student asked if I had any regrets. My off-the-cuff reply was that I wished I had made a greater effort to learn French early in life, which would have given me more opportunities to engage in Canadian political life.

I’ve thought about my answer over the last week and want to expand on it, as it opens up a broader internal dialogue. The specific choice I was referring to was taking Latin rather than French in Grade 13 because my grades were slightly higher in Latin than in French. I wish someone older and wiser, aware of the growing importance of bilingualism in the sixties, would have slapped me on the side of my head and said, “Look, Borins, Latin is great if you want to run for pope, but French is preferable if you want to run for Parliament.” Had I taken French in Grade 13, I might have continued in university, cementing my knowledge. (As it turned out, I improved my French in subsequent years by doing research on the bilingual air traffic control conflict, which occurred primarily in Quebec, and by taking courses in university; still, my French would have been stronger had I studied it in my teens and early twenties.)

This small choice speaks to a larger choice. When I was completing high school I was intensely involved in leadership, as President of students’ council as well as President of a region of the Reform Jewish youth movement, and also intensely involved in scholarship, standing near the top of the class in a competitive urban high school. By choosing to go to Harvard I ended up opting for scholarship over leadership. In the era of the Vietnam War, I did not have as much at stake as my American classmates, for whom it was a life-or-death issue. I flirted with radical politics, but was aware that the true test of that political stance was the willingness to break the law, and I knew that choice would lead to my being deported. Ultimately, I could not authentically pursue an interest in political leadership while a student at Harvard.

I chose scholarship, getting into the Social Studies program, at a time when admission was competitive, and focusing on my studies. Having a mentor or role model who was an academic – MIT Economics Professor Jerry Rothenberg, father of my first serious girlfriend – pushed me in that direction.

What would have been an alternative path involving engagement in political leadership in a Canadian context? The obvious choice would have been to stay in Canada, study political economy at the University of Toronto, and engage in student politics as a young Liberal in the (Pierre) Trudeau era. I was forcefully reminded of this option reading Michael Ignatieff’s memoir of his political career Fire and Ashes. Ignatieff wrote of his own and Bob Rae’s engagement in the student political scene at U of T at the time. Ignatieff and Rae are only a year or two older than me, so I might well have become part of that scene. And perhaps I would have directed my interests more towards politics than academics, say by going to law school.

On the other hand, I wanted my independence at that point in my life, and going away to university was a way of taking that step. My imaginary interlocutor might also say “Borins, your essential character is as an analyst and thinker, rather than as a decision maker and possibly politician.” My answer to my imaginary interlocutor is that identity is fluid rather than formed in one’s teens, and had I chosen a different path at that time, a different identity would have been the result.

Speculation of this nature can be endless and without closure. But I will close this post by recognizing that going to Harvard turned out to be a critical decision in my life, and it very much influenced the person I became.

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