David Abernathy explained what he was going to do in his seminar the evening I was visiting Stanford University. "I'm going to explore this question: "What differences in values lead conservatives, liberals, and radicals to support different sides in an international dispute (in this particular case, famine), and to argue that quite different policies ought to be adopted?"
Before exploring this question with about 100 undergraduates and graduate students, this political scientist revealed his own focus, and rather electrified his young audience when he asserted, "Food is power in a starving land. Hence, aid will be used as a power stroke by the agencies which can get it."
He then spoke of the conservative's interest in caring first about "national interest." And of the conservative argument that there "should be a close connection between cause and cure."
He formulated as well the conservative notion that often "the best relief is no relief," letting nature "do its own pruning."
Next he spoke of the liberal's concerns for charity and justice as their reasons for becoming involved. As Dr. Abernathy explained, "Liberals would accept multiple causes and not find it necessary to make any connection at all between cause and cure."
The allocation, according to liberal values, should be for those with the greatest need.
The radical position, as sketched by Professor Abernathy, was one of concern, but of a belief that the famine had to be related to poverty and to poor distribution of resources. Famine, the radical might argue, was caused by colonization, and if so, then "the people themselves must be the ones to solve the problem."
And he concluded the radical stand by asserting "that you give the best relief by changing political power, not necessarily by giving food."
During the question period that followed, no one challenged his description of conservative or liberal values as apto the specific national famine emergency he had detailed during his lecture, but one young overseas student did challenge his description of the radical point of view.
He was thoughtful and objective, but did not satisfy his questioner. And so he left the exchange saying, "We disagree." This was not said negatively, but accurately.
While many of the students who attended the seminar then left, more than half stayed for another hour, dividing into groups and simulating some decisionmaking group faced with the decision whether or not to provide food, which might be used as a political weapon in a famine-torn nation.
Dr. Abernathy made very effort during his lecture to present the three points of view, drawing smiles and laughter when he moved from the rostrum standing first to his right, then dead center, and finally to the left.
I was reminded of something he had said earlier when we were talking about whether a college or university should actively attempt to see that the members of its faculty taught in a balanced, unbiased, objective manner. If he, for example, were in charge . . . what then?
"I would explore with faculty the role which their own personal and professional values play in teaching and the extent to which explicit statements of these values are, or ought to be, conveyed to students."
When I shared that with a professor at another institution, he smiled and whistled. And quietly said, "Heavy."