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A ‘Swarthmore’ For All

At Swarthmore, Josef Joffe ’65 found the ‘epitome of an education’

“Being at Swarthmore in the ’60s was a wondrous privilege,” says Josef Joffe ’65, H’02, editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, author, consulting professor of political science at Stanford University, and unremitting intellectual. 

“These years marked the high point of liberal arts in the United States,” Joffe recalls. “Swarthmore was the High Church of the creed. Liberal arts as an indispensable body of knowledge—the epitome of an education—has since been fading in the American academy.

“But I still make an intellectual living off what I learned then in philosophy, economics, psychology, art history and literature—fields outside my honors political science major.”

A master’s at Johns Hopkins and doctorate in government at Harvard followed. The then-editor of Die Zeit, visiting Harvard, urged Joffe to try journalism. After six years as a political writer and senior editor for that newspaper, he moved to Munich as opinion-page editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Fifteen years later, he returned to Hamburg as executive editor-in-chief of Die Zeit

As an established journalist, Joffe, with other like-minded scholars, had long dreamed of bringing back the “artes liberales” to their source—Europe. In 1999, they created the European College of Liberal Arts (ECLA) in Berlin. It attracted students worldwide, and at the first degree ceremony, former Swarthmore president Alfred Bloom uttered the ultimate compliment: “I would admit one-third of these students to our college sight unseen.” Later, ECLA ran afoul of funding problems and the rigidities of Germany’s state-run university system. After two changes in ownership, ECLA became Bard College Berlin. 

“I still believe that anybody should have his or her Swarthmore: a broad-based grounding in the arts and sciences, philosophy and literature, social science and history—as opposed to the one-discipline training prevailing in Europe since the war,” Joffe says.  

“But I had an inkling early on that we were entering the Age of Journalism—the quick essay, the punchy column,” Joffe says. “The attention span of even the most intelligent reader has been shrinking—to 800 words, 3,000 maximum. Compare this to the three to five years it takes to write a book, which only some professional colleagues will read.”

“Besides,” he adds, “punditry is much more fun. Get a finite number of facts and tie them together in such a way that you don’t lose your reader after the first paragraph. It’s like a quick high, and then you proceed to something else to galvanize your curiosity.”

In 2005, with Zbigniew Brezinski, Eliot Cohen, and Francis Fukuyama, Joffe co-created The American Interest, a bimonthly magazine that, he says, “would explain the world to America and America to the world” and comprises topics that “demand more than 800 words but avoid the tedium of a 400-page academic treatise.” 

Happily “blaming” Swarthmore for his academic orientation, Joffe recalls: “It sounds kitschy, but Swarthmore is where I became addicted to a much bigger high than punditry: the kick of crystal-clear thinking and intellectual exertion, the allure of ideas, the pleasure of a hard-driving debate. I suspect that kids today, even at Stanford, are less interested in ideas than in how to get there fastest and most efficiently.” 

A resident of Germany and the U.S., pursuing two professions, Joffe sees life as more than a bowl of cherries.

“It’s both cherries and pits,” he says. “The sweet part is the constant stimulation of changing vantage points, absorbing ideas and experiences in one place that are missing in the other—multiculturalism at its best. 

“The downside is foregoing on one side of the ocean what you treasure on the other. But I’m not complaining. The pit, after all, is the smallest part of the cherry.”