Professor Art’s political tenure

October 23, 2015

Professor Robert Art (POL) came to Brandeis in 1967, immediately after attending graduate school at Harvard. This was because, as Art said, “The Vietnam War was on at that time, and if you didn’t teach, you would’ve been drafted.” He chose Brandeis because he wanted to stay in the Boston area and be at a good school.

Art has become a distinguished fixture of the Brandeis politics department. Specializing in national security affairs and foreign policy, Art teaches various politics courses, from undergraduate intro courses to graduate seminars. Currently, he is teaching an introductory course on international politics, an upper-level seminar on national security policy, a course on American foreign policy from 1890-present, a field seminar in international relations and a course on war and world history, starting with the Greeks.

Although he says he doesn’t have a favorite course to teach because each is different, he said, “I really enjoy teaching the Intro to International Relations, because beginning students always ask the most naive, which are always the best, questions.”

In addition to teaching all these courses, Art was invited to be a member of the Council on Foreign Relations in the early 1980s. People are invited to be members based on their prominence in the field. “The Council on Foreign Relations is kind of the mainstream organization for American foreign policy. I’m a member … by invitation, but there are a lot of people that are members: people interested from the private sector, the government, from academia interested in American foreign policy.”

Indeed, his favorite aspect of working at Brandeis is that he gets to teach; the meetings, he doesn’t enjoy as much. “I was the dean of the graduate school for six years here back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and I developed an allergy to meetings after six years of doing that,” he said. It’s no surprise Art would rather be in the classroom. He remembers the challenge of coming to teach during a very turbulent time in American history.

“I think the most difficult [time] teaching I had was that first semester, when I had the president of the local student chapter of SDS,” Students for a Democratic Society. SDS was a radical leftist student activist organization known for opposing the Vietnam War, so Art knew he would have a relatively hard time teaching a class on American foreign policy.

“I remember [a student] standing up in my class and saying “Professor Art, I’m not going to take your class, but I disagree with the way you’re teaching it.” And then he decided to take my class. This was my first course that I’d ever taught, and we basically had a duel throughout the whole semester. It was extremely difficult. It was a trial by fire. But I survived. It worked out well.”

Art says one of the common misconceptions about his area of scholarship is that people assume he loves war. “My goal is to try to figure out how to avoid war, and how to resolve things without going to war. But you need to understand the function of military power and how to achieve that. So I study war in order to try to keep the peace.”

To students who are unsure about taking a politics course, Art recommends trying different things while at school; after all, that’s the purpose of a liberal arts education. “The more you know, the richer your life can be. You shouldn’t pile up courses in a pre-professional way. Take some music, take some English, literature, take some fine arts.” Art himself said he took five fine arts courses while he was an undergraduate.

Although he came to Brandeis during a difficult time in American history, especially for a politics professor, Art said, “I’ve really enjoyed my years at Brandeis. It’s been very fulfilling. I can’t believe they pay me to do this.”

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