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Interview With National Security Council Former Senior Director For Europe And Russia And Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Program Senior Fellow Fiona Hill; Interview With Former Iranian Minister Of Women's Affairs And "The Other Side Of Silence" Author Mahnaz Afkhami; Interview With Columbia University Alexander Hamilton Professor Of American Studies And Teagle Foundation President Andrew Delbanco. Aired 1-2p ET

Aired March 08, 2023 - 13:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. And welcome to AMANPOUR. Here's what's coming up.


ANTONIO GUTERRES, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY GENERAL: Women's rights are being threatened and violated around the world.


AMANPOUR: On International Women's Day, we speak to those who've been in the room. First up, Fiona Hill, the former national security official and

Russia expert on how the second year of Putin's war will turn out.

Then, putting Iranian protest into historic context with Mahnaz Afkhami, who fought for women's rights under the shah.

And --



a rehearsal space for democracy.


AMANPOUR: The crisis in liberal arts education. Michel Martin speaks with the beloved Columbia University American Studies Professor Andrew Del


Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in New York, where on this International Women's Day, we're looking for light in the

darkness. While rights may be under fire in places like Iran, Afghanistan, even here in the United States. And, of course, across the world, women are

not giving up their fight for equality. Particularly in Ukraine, where Russia's war could also determine the future of democracy itself.

Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin today, handed out medals to war -- war medals, in fact, to females he called heroes. While President Volodymyr

Zelenskyy by celebrating, "The strength and freedom of Ukrainian women".


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I believe it is important today to thank women who work, teach, study, save, treat,

fight for Ukraine. To remember and thank all women who gave their lives for the country.


AMANPOUR: Meanwhile, the war grinds on, particularly in the beleaguered City of Bakhmut, where it is a battle of inches with neither side willing

to concede.

Fiona Hill served as deputy assistant to the president for European and Russian affairs under Donald Trump. Now, as Russia's war in Ukraine enters

its second year, she is urging world leaders to push Russia to the negotiating table.

Fiona Hill, welcome back to the program. Is that right? Do I have it right? If I summed up where you think, international, you know, emphasis and

effort should be right now? And if so, how do you see pushing Putin to any kind of negotiating table?


Well, look, it's not going to be very easy. I mean, the point of trying to push Putin as opposed to Ukraine and the Ukrainian's and President

Zelenskyy is a very important one. Because as we've all realized, I think at this point, it's not just Vladimir Putin's war but it's really his

decision that really counts here. Putin has to be basically convinced that the war not just -- is not going in his favor but that the war can't be won

-- that he cannot win the war on the terms that he wants to.

The only way that this war is really going to end is when Vladimir Putin and Russia itself gives up on this idea of trying to subjugate Ukraine. And

which is why, you know, we really do need a full-on diplomatic effort not just the continued support for Ukraine on the battlefield to try to turn

the tide of events.

AMANPOUR: OK. So, let's break those two down. I'm going to ask you in a moment about the, you know, a concerted diplomatic push. But first, I want

to put it, obviously, in context of what's happening on the battlefield.

And so, as we said, Bakhmut which has been, you know, the name and the city that's, sort of, you know, been in the balance for so many months, now

looks potentially on the verge of falling. We don't know. But here's what the NATO secretary general said about this moment there.


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: What we see is that Russia is throwing in more troops, more forces. And what Russia lacks in quality,

they try to make up in quantity. They have suffered big losses, but at the same time we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming



AMANPOUR: So, Fiona Hill, clearly, everybody is preparing that particular groundwork in terms of messaging, at least everybody on the NATO side.


What do you think it will mean, not just for the battlefield, but also for everything around Ukraine's ability to fight the west, and NATO's ability

to stay united. Is it that big a strategic prize either way?

HILL: Well, look, Vladimir Putin would like us to think it is, and so would Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group who has been putting

all of this cannon fodder forward to try to turn the tide in Bakhmut.

If we look back just, you know, a few weeks ago, Putin was using the analogy of Stalingrad, today's Volgograd. Marking the anniversary of the

80th anniversary of that battle during World War II, which was seen as decisive in bleeding Nazi Germany's forces in the battlegrounds of World

War II. And then having that as the decisive battle that shifted things in the Soviet Union in the World War II ally's favor. That is what Putin would

like us to think that it this.

But look, I think that there is a more sober assessment and a rational and more correct assessment outside that although Bakhmut has incredible

symbolism, given this grinding, wrenching, you know, catastrophic nature, the fights and so many casualties on either side. But it is not necessarily


AMANPOUR: Uh-huh. So --

HILL: And so, I think we have to be very carefully -- be very careful, rather, in the way that we talk about this moving forward. Not to give it

all of this symbolism and this importance that Vladimir Putin would like to fret it with.

AMANPOUR: Yes, and just quickly while you mentioned World War II battles that Putin constantly refers to. As he's talked about his, you know,

mission in Ukraine is to denazify. I mean, all those, you know, terms that, of course, have been debunked. Do you think that when you look at it

historically, it is more World War I style than World War II style as the fighting right now?

HILL: Well, look, it's a bit of a mixture. And certainly, when we look at Bakhmut and we've seen the aerial pictures of it, and the pictures from the

trenches, it's looks just like World War I. I mean, from anybody who has looked at those images.

But, of course, as you basically acknowledging, it's the World War II imagery that appeals the most Vladimir Putin because World War I did not

turn out well at all for the Russian empire. It was, in fact, a colossal disaster and led to the collapse of the Czarist system. It also was a war

in which Russian soldier being faced by this trench warfare and this carnage on the front, actually dropped their weapons and returned home.

So, actually World War I imagery doesn't play very much in Putin's favor, which is exactly why all the references that he is making to this great

victorious World War II which is also the defense of the motherland, as we're in March 8th and International Women's Day.

AMANPOUR: Right, right.

HILL: Putin is also fretting (ph) this with the importance as an existential set of battles to save mother Russia, although World War II

actually is known often as the great fatherland war.

AMANPOUR: Right. You know, interesting you mentioned, you know, the deserters. I mean, even now in this war, we've had plenty of evidence of

Russians who have wanted to and have fled this war, complained, on open- source telephones and other things that have been recorded and publicized about a lack of leadership, a lack weapons, a lack of ammunition.

You mentioned Prigozhin, the head of Wagner Group who has his own, you know, sort of militia, and he is picking fights almost every day with

Putin's defense himself, you know, almost with Putin himself. Where is that going to lead?

HILL: Well, look, it's not really clear. But what it is illustrating is the tensions within the system. You know, the fact that this isn't going

according to anyone's plan and that this really is a hard slug (ph) grinding war that we're experiencing at this moment. I mean, we can all see

it every single day with all of the stories from the battlefield.

And that's why we also have to keep, kind of, pushing the Russians towards taking a different track here. I think they'll -- the unfortunate situation

is that Putin still thinks that he can prevail, you know, perhaps Prigozhin just through the sheer tenacity and viciousness and brutality of his

approach, pushing more and more people to the front here, that they will as Stoltenberg, the general secretary of NATO just said, just ultimately

prevail by sheer numbers.


HILL: They're just hoping to overwhelm Ukraine, mostly frankly overwhelm everybody else, just for the nature of this carnage. I mean, it's very hard

to stomach. It's very hard to watch. And Putin is basically betting as he's hoping in the near-term future that the rest of us will be so repelled and

revolt by this, including of the memories of World War I --


-- the carnage that that also evidenced, that we will try to pull back and that we will push for some kind of resolution, you know, that will feed

into his terms. I mean, we have to be very careful about how we all approach this and how we talk about it and look at it in the coming months.

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, you have raised a really important question because we know, I'm sitting here in the United States and reading the poll

after poll is showing, you know, a gradual drop-off of public support for this war. And you know the political, you know, dividing lines, as well.

As you say, Putin is doubling down, at least with people, and he's got that long line of counteroffensives or whatever that's going on in the east

there. And so, there are, you know, people and countries and leaders much closer, who are very worried about what you just said, that Putin will wait

and grind everybody down.

The recently re-elected prime minister of Estonia, she's worried that, you know, the west might just hope that this whole thing goes away and kind of

ends itself rather than have to keep doubling down. And I spoke to the Lithuanian foreign minister yesterday. And this is what he said, he had an

even more maximalist view of how it should end. This is what he said to me.


GABRIEULIUS LANDSBERGIS, LITHUANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: If somebody suggests that we should be negotiating with Putin and I think, how do we reconcile

that with the idea of special tribunal. You cannot have both. You cannot have somebody who is actually guilty for active aggression, for ordering

his generals and troops commit war crimes, and then sitting at the same table to negotiate, you know, ceasefire or seizing of territories. You have

to decide.


AMANPOUR: So, he says, Fiona Hill, you have to decide. But what actually does that look like in reality?

HILL: Yes, look, this is going to be extraordinarily difficult. I think we have to take -- or think -- take this in slices and think about this as a

process. You know, because there's one thing about the war itself and people, basically, finding, it's just too much to deal with.

But there's another question about the outcome. And if we, kind of, think about, you know, what has happened in other conflicts, World War I, World

War II, many of the, you know, conflicts around the world, anything that we kind of think of here. Things have, rarely over all at once at the

negotiating table. The whole process of negotiation is trying to keep something going on, in parallel with the battlefield, to eventually find

some way of seizing hostilities via ceasefire but not thinking of this as permanent.

But think about what might happen over a longer period of time. Putin will eventually leave the scene (ph). There are other people, there are other

players in the Russian system. We have to keep pushing for an outcome that we want to see and that we want to have for Ukraine which is the eventful

(ph) ability of Ukraine to turn that tide and to regain its territory.

I'm actually sitting talking to you right now from Berlin. And you know, if we look back to the period of the 1950s and the 1960s of the crises in

Berlin and the building of the Berlin Wall, one would have thought about a divided lost territory and perpetuity. And there was a dramatic change in


We've got to start to think about how to create the circumstances for a dramatic change no matter how long it takes. It's a very different thing

from thinking just about whether one can prevail in the intermediate time on -- timeframe on the battlefield. Both of these things are important.

AMANPOUR: I mean, look, you know, you set up this next question then. I mean, Germany was defeated, Nazi Germany was defeated and that's how you

could, you know, see these, you know, developments going on. And it appears that Putin does not want to talk to Zelenskyy.

I think even you've said he just kind of wants to have a big power's discussion and divide up the world and that's his view of negotiations,

without being defeated. Doesn't he have to be defeated if this is going to end in any way that's satisfying and important to the west?

HILL: Well, look, we may not find any kind of end to the satisfying but it doesn't have to and in the way that we -- that you're describing here.

There are many different ways in which this can come out. And I think what we need to do is keep our focus on what the -- we want to see happen here.

I think the battlefield, that this is still important, as you rightly mentioned. You know, in World War II and World War I, Germany was defeated.

It came in different ways. In Verdun, for example, in World War I, one significant battle turned the tide. And World War II wasn't just, of

course, Stalingrad, that played a role as well. But there were constraints. There were, you know, difficulties that were imposed upon Germany and other

conflicts as well. There were many different international factors that brought them to an end.

So, we have to figure out here -- and diplomacy isn't just about sitting down and negotiating with Putin. It's thinking about how you would

structure a whole series of negotiations and diplomatic efforts. I think that's the best way of looking at it. That would bring other countries into

the mix to create constrains so that Russia and Putin cannot continue to pursue the war in which they are.


We have to keep on supporting Ukraine. We have to look for multiple different pathways to get to a place that we want to see.

AMANPOUR: So, in other --

HILL: And I think if we look over the world, there's been (INAUDIBLE) or recent events with many different solutions that we could envisage here.

AMANPOUR: So, in other country then would be, let's say, China has been mooted many times as trying to, you know, do the right thing and, you know,

abide by the U.N. and try to, you know, bring Russia in. It doesn't seem like it is doing that at this moment. And here's what the U.S. ambassador

to Japan has said about China's current, you know, trend towards Russia and obviously confrontation with the United States. Here's what Rahm Emanuel

just said.


RAHM EMANUEL, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO JAPAN: China is going to have to realize, if they want to be respected, which is what they want, leader of the world,

you have to actually respect the people you're interlocking with. You cannot constantly have one to -- one hammer. That is -- they have had had a

confrontation or near confrontation with multiple countries in the region, consistently.


AMANPOUR: So, Fiona Hill, what do you think Beijing's goal is here and can it be a useful ally in trying to broker an end to this?

HILL: Well, look, I'm not sure they could be an ally but it certainly could have the role to play. And I think it's also dependent on how other

countries interact with China. It's not just always about the United States. I think, you know, this is part of the problem where we look at

this. I mean, yes, American leadership is essential and has been very important, but a lot of other players in this mix here.

And if you're thinking about international diplomacy, that's what it is, it's international. And you have to create a coalition of countries that

are pushing for a certain outcome. That's why the United States and the administration has been very active in United Nations.

And that is the arena in which to try to push on China and work with China to, basically, move this situation along. And if we get other countries in

the mix here, and other pressures that are put to bear, we maybe able to make some progress.

I'm not suggesting by any stretch that this is going to happen anytime immediately. It's going to be a lot of hard work. It's going to be very

difficult. But that's what diplomacy is about. You have to have this going on in parallel. It's not a situation of sitting down and negotiating with

Putin in the way that this is described. I mean, you've pushed it and outweigh with the questions.

But that is not what a lot of people have in mind here. It's a much larger diplomatic effort to get us to a different place because it's not

necessarily all going to be resolved on the battlefield. Although a defeat for Russia in Bakhmut or somewhere else could in fact become a turning

point as we've seen in other conflicts. But we have to start working on diplomatic structures that would move us forward in parallel with that.

AMANPOUR: So, who do you see? What powers, what nations do you see as being able to assist in what you are describing? Because you've said it,

and other have, the whole global south is pretty much not on the west side. We've talked about this before, not on Ukraine's side and not on the --

HILL: Yes.

AMANPOUR: -- doesn't buy into the narrative that this is about the rule of law, about the U.N. Charter, about democracy, et cetera. About, frankly,

not in -- not a big nuclear power invading a smaller country. Where do you see that effort than needs to be directed to fulfill what you are talking

about? About more countries being on board.

HILL: Look, I think you've just laid it out, Christiane. We have to work on exactly those issues. And, you know, try to counter the misperceptions

and the different framing of this which is, you know, being shaped by Putin and the Kremlin.

But I think we also have to work with some of the other big players. Often, we neglect and we, you know, forget to factor them in as having major

influence. Brazil, under President Lula, s wanting to play a larger role internationally. You know, obviously, we've seen some, I think, rather

troubling responses from South Africa which recently took part in some naval and exercises with both Russia and China. We need to engage with

South Africa to figure out, you know, why they've been taking that position. India, you know, is another obvious one.

We've seen other big players in the G20. We have to work with some -- more closely with some of our own allies, like Turkey, you know, for example,

that can play an independent role, not just a role within NATO. We've seen Ghana and Kenya and some other major African countries stepping up and

actually seeing some of these issues for themselves.

So, I think we have to be creative about this, we have to remain engaged, and we have to remain focused. And all of the issues that you've outlined

and the others have outlined has difficulties, those are absolutely there. But, you know, we basically have to tackle those and keep on pressing

forward. As I've said, we need to have this accompaniment to what's already happening on the battlefield.


Because as we can see, the battlefield at the moment is grinding down into that kind of trench warfare, that catastrophe, that tragic senseless loss

of life that we didn't see in World War I.

AMANPOUR: Fiona Hill, thank you very much, as ever, for your unique perspective there and experience.

As Iran grows ever closer to Russia, supplying drones and other military goods for the war Ukraine, which it strenuously denies despite the

evidence. At home, some protests for women, life, freedom do continue despite a brutal government crackdown.

These protests are the latest expression of a fight for women's rights with a long and distinguished history in Iran. Back in the 1970s, the shah

appointed Mahnaz Afkhami, a prominent activist, as the country's first minister of for Women's Affairs to oversee equality on things like

marriage, custody, divorce, and other legal issues.

Those laws were swept away in the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And Afkhami was forced into exile. She has just written about her

work for women in Iran and around the world in her recent memoir which is called "The Other Side of Silence" and she's joining me now.

Mahnaz Afkhami, welcome to the program. Can I just start by asking you on this International Women's Day just to reflect before we get into the

history of what you accomplished on what's happening today in Iran and the world, compared to all the progress you made decades ago.


amazing frequency and amazing set of events. It is actually the first global revolution that is begun and created by women and shaped by women.

And most importantly, not only shaped by women, but including men as collaborators as allies.

And I think that we hope -- as we hope that this will lead to a new kind of government and a new kind of equality and human rights for women, we hope

that what has happened in terms of global reaction to it from the grassroots level all around the world, ordinary people at every level of

society to the parliaments and governments, and so forth. We hope that this will be that, sort of, the match that lit a fire, that it will also help

create a united global women -- women's movement. And it seems that way so far.

And no wonder, because these people, as you mentioned, are many generations ahead of what the Khamenei regime wants and tries to put into action. And

what they have had is something that is not reversible. That is, they have had awakening. They have had mobilization. They have had awareness of what

they want. And they -- that cannot be taken back.

AMANPOUR: So, let's --

AFKHAMI: It's something -- yes.

AMANPOUR: Let's go back to when you started. I mean, look, you were actually, I believe, a professor of literature. You studied in the United

States, you then went to teach at Tehran University, and that led to a lot of activism, and finally, you being named as the first female cabinet

minister in the history of Iran, I believe. And certainly, the first ever position that was a minister for Women's Affairs, and that was mid-1970s.

How did that -- when that happened, what did it mean for women there? What were you able to -- what rights were you able to bring women that they did

not have before?

AFKHAMI: Well, just as you mentioned, I was the second woman in the world to have that title. And the second woman in Iran in the cabinet, but the

first in for Women's Affairs. And what it meant really, potentially, nobody knew because it was a completely new thing that Francoise Giroud in France

began, and mine was the second.

But we tried to implement whatever we had dreamed of. And organized and learn from people themselves to put into action. So, we suggested things

and since sense we suggested connected to ideas of development, modernity, and cultural progress.


As well as, you know, education, better democratic interactions among ourselves and so forth, nobody really objected in the cabinet. All you had

to do is to connect it to the plans, development plans, and the ideas that the cabinet officers, who by the way, were -- most of them are part of the

60,000 students who were sent by the government outside to pick up the skills that they needed in order to reach the development goals of the


They were not feminist. The word did not even exist. But they were not opposed to any of the things that we connected to the progress into

development. So, we were able to do a lot. Some of the things that we achieved then, including the family's law -- change in family laws which in

every way, basically, are the foundation of the structures that are practiced and believed in every other level, in any country in the world.

It starts in the family and moves on to various other organizations.

So, changes in family laws, bringing possibilities for women to be able to have support when they are working. For instance, up to three years of a

child's life, a woman could work halftime and get full-time benefits. The childcare center on the premises of the workplace. And pregnancy leave up

to seven months. So, these were things that allowed women to work. And women have been starting this process at the turn of the century, actually,

at around the constitutional revolution. Starting with education and moving on to social interaction and political leadership.

And so, since 1963 they had gotten the right to vote and to be elected to parliament. And of course, that in itself was where the first revolution of

Mr. Khamenei happened. The women being allowed to vote and to be elected became the cause for the first Khamenei uprising which --



AMANPOUR: -- let me quote something from your book because I think that's -- that is really interesting, that often goes unnoticed. That when all

these, in the early 60s, these rights were coming to Iranians, and particularly women, the mullahs, the ayatollahs, the Khameneis felt a

direct threat, and there was a backlash.

And you write that, the basic unity of society is the family. Religious fanatics are, more than anybody, aware that if you shake up that structure,

the architecture of human relations in the family, it's going to spread out through the society and change everything. And that, of course, led to this

backlash not just in the 60s from Khamenei but when he came back at the head of this revolution. What were his first actions then in the field of

women's affairs?

AFKHAMI: The very first one was to nullify the family law. And that, of course, is the structure of the family. And then the next one was to

segregate women and to make them wear the veil. And also, at the beginning, he also ordered some 40 majors in universities to be banned for women. And,

of course, this was something like two weeks after he came to power.

And, of course, this was in February when he came to power, and on March 8th, women came out very much aware of the mistake that we had made as a

country, as mostly middle-class intellectuals who had pushed the revolution, they were the first ones to discover that. And of course, men

gradually also did, but women were the very first to realize that.

AMANPOUR: And we have this amazing picture, obviously there are plenty of them but we're going to put up one and it's during the '60s when women were

in the streets welcoming the visit -- the state visit of the French President, Charles de Gaulle. And of course, here you see these women, I

guess they're more educated. They're more middle class. But they're certainly not wearing the veil. And there was a huge ability for women to

choose back then, whether they wanted to wear it or whether they didn't want to wear it.

And I wonder whether in all your studies, you've noticed or kind of try to asses why, as somebody just quoted, autocrats fear women.


AFKHAMI: Well, because women are not only 50 percent of the population, they are the 50 percent that trains the other 50 percent. And so -- and we

are, ourselves, very much of the people who will shape and structure how we work in the family, which is the first unit and then, we pass it on to

schools, we pass it on to businesses, to other political institutions and so forth.

So, once the women get aware and mobilized and start taking their rights, everything else moves as well. And that is why I am hoping that this

extraordinary movement by our colleagues in Iran is going to spread to others. And we, as feminists, who have been sometimes limited to parts of

our needs and parts of our complaints, to be able to get more holistically working for the 100 percent of the participation that we deserve and need

and should have in order, in effect, actually, Christian, to save humanity.

Because unless we take our role and our responsibility seriously and snap out of just the limitation to the reproductive part of our function, then

we will not be able to do what we want for our children for the next generations for the whole world, which is in a dire state right now.

AMANPOUR: You know, when you talk about generations, and you mention this woman's movement, really started in the early 1900s, around the

constitutional reform that you talk about there. I want to put up a picture, during the '60s again, of a group of women, including your mother

in Iran in -- I believe it's Shiraz, near the ancient site of Persepolis.

And you can see that she is dressed in this very, very distinguished looking modern suit. She is the one in the white there. And it was your

mother who moved to the United States, to get educated after she divorced from your father. What did she have in her -- back in -- you know, in the

early 1900s that caused her to take this huge and dramatic stance, and then bring you along for the U.S. as well?

AFKHAMI: Well, for one thing, she was also a daughter of a radical woman. My grandma, 100 years ago, was the first woman who went from a conservative

Muslim faith and became a Bahari (ph) and started her own entrepreneurial work with, you know, sewing and dressmaking. And she is the one who trained

my mom. And my mother was one of the three women who first went to the university. And she always wanted to be independent. She always --

everything else aside, she just wanted to be in charge of her own life. And she passed on to us.

And one by one, she brought the three children to America. And we had to work our way through college and we had to learn from the new setting that

we faced. And of course, what I learned in America was also very helpful when I went back, to connected to what we had in Iran. For example -- and

one of the things that I learned was that even though the students in America all wanted the same things.

What happened was that they also wanted it culturally implemented, you know, so that it doesn't destroy everything in the system, but adjust to

the cultural needs of the family and the country. Two things, one was and the other was the first thing that I learned when I went to Iran that you

have to go back to people, to see what it is they want and need and I try to learn from them how to shape programs.

And this was, for instance, when I heard in a factory in Isfahan, where we kept talking about family law change and the woman kept saying, yes. But

what is the use of me having a divorce, the right to divorce, if I can't support myself and my children? So, I'll have to go for my husband's house

to my father's.

So, this idea of going from practice to theory, instead of what we sometimes do in the West, is going from theory to practice. So, it helped a

lot. And we focus on education, focused on economic independence and skills building. And this is what helped us to have something like a million

people coming to the organization every year.


AMANPOUR: Amazing. Yes. Well, it's -- this has been a great history lesson and not many people realize how long ago this woman's movement was started

in Iran. Thank you so much. Mahnaz Afkhami, thank you very much indeed.

AFKHAMI: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And that incredible story, of course, is a history lesson in itself. And the importance of that subject and other humanities is where we

turn to next. In the decade following 2008 in the United States, here, the share of people graduating with bachelor's degrees in humanities dropped by

a third. So, what's at play here and why does it matter?

Andrew Delbanco is professor of American Studies at Columbia University and the recipient of a National Humanities Medal from President Obama. He talks

to Michel Martin about the importance of reversing this decline and learning the humanities.


MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Thanks, Christiane. Professor Andrew Delbanco, thank so much for talking with us.


MARTIN: So, the immediate impetus for our conversation is a recent "New Yorker" article, by Nathan Heller. It's titled, "The End of the English

Major." He starts with a study of English, but he kind of expands to sort of the humanities in general saying that, you know, the study of English

and history has fallen dramatically. And he says, well, that's a problem.

So, like, what's your top line reaction to that?

DELBANCO: I think it is fair to say that the article is a little too bleak. That is the numbers that he cites are sobering and they're accurate

as far as they go. But if you are only looking at English majors, you make it a different impression than if you also look at students who are

minoring in English and students who are taking courses in English but not necessarily majoring.

So -- and there's also a significant oversight in the article, which is that he doesn't really speak about the very large sector of higher

education, which is the community colleges, where something like 40 percent of undergraduates attend where humanities and the liberal arts are actually

thriving there.

So, the first thing I would say is, let's take this picture with a little bit of a grain of salt. But look, having said what I just said, there --

it's certainly true that the humanities are in decline, that student interest in the humanities is falling rather than rising. So, one wants to

think about, now, why might that be? And I think there's no single answer.

One answer that I would propose is that we all instinctively know that reading, at least reading something longer, let's say, than a tweet, does

not occupy the central place in our culture that it once did. In my own teaching, I have been moving emphatically towards asking students to read

shorter works, novellas, stories, speeches, poems and the like.

Another factor, science or the STEM fields, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, which so many students are gravitating today.

Science is exciting. Science is about the future. Technology, which is the byproduct of science, promises to help us solve the climate change problem.

Some people even believe that computer science, artificial intelligence, will someday make human beings immortal. But my point of view, it is

perfectly reasonable to expect young people to be more interested in the future than in the past, which is fundamentally the subject of the


Now, another reason, and this is a different kind of reason, is the place of money in our culture. When I was an undergraduate, if someone in the

dining hall had said, my ambition is to become an investment banker, it would've been a conversation stopper. Today, it's norm. It's understandable

as colleges have opened their doors to a broader demographic of students, many students who were first generation college students come from families

for whom debt is a serious challenge. It's perfectly reasonable that students are focused, sometimes single-mindedly on studying something that

they think is going to lead to a remunerative job and a career.

MARTIN: And it's also the fact that the cost of a college education has escalated far beyond the rate of inflation. So, it's not an idle concern.

So, there is that. OK. So, you've identified that there are certain trends that are moving away from people studying, you know, English and perhaps

other humanities as their main focus while in college. Is this a problem?


DELBANCO: I am committed to the proposition that yes, it is a problem. It is a problem for young people individually and it is a problem for our

society and its future. Young people still have an appetite, indeed an urgent need, I think, for what the humanities have to offer.

Young people, indeed all of us, grapple with questions every day to which there is no right answer. They grapple with questions in their own lives

that are the subject of literature. For example, what is the difference between love and desire? A central theme in many of the great novels of

Europe and our own country. What is my responsibility to myself as opposed to my responsibility to others and how do I find the right balance? What is

the shape of a meaningful life? What kind of life do I want to live?

And my sense is that students have those questions on their minds at least as much as ever before, maybe more so given all the stresses that they are

under. And in fact, there is evidence that there are some ways in which colleges meeting that need, for example, at Yale, one of the most popular

courses is, of course, on happiness. At Harvard, for many years, there's been a popular course on the theme of justice. These are the fundamental --

these are core themes of the humanities.

And frankly, one reason, I think, we are seeing this stampede away from English departments, if that's the right word, is that English departments

have not been stepping up and meeting this need as well as they could have done. They seem to expect that students will be interested in literary

history or the theory of how to read. And in some ways, English departments have been in a sort of weirdly hostile relationship to literature, where

these themes are to be found and explored.

So, what I'm trying to say is I think the appetite for the humanities is still there, the need for the humanities, that is the value of confronting

these questions with the help of rich text, a good teacher, and your classmates, who are grappling with the same questions, that need is

unabated and I don't think it ever will abate. The question is whether our colleges and universities can meet that need, and I think there are ways

for them to do so.

MARTIN: There has been this sort of movement that, you know, dead white guys have nothing to teach us. And I just wonder if that point of view,

that dead white guys, as it were, have too big of a footprint in the literature and that there is something about that that's taken hold in a

way that kind of the profession is sort of eating itself. Does that -- could not be true?

DELBANCO: Well, first of all, English departments have spent a lot of, I think, unproductive time arguing about exactly which books, by which kind

of authors they should teach. There are powerful texts by dead white guys and by living writers of color and by woman and by non-western authors, old

books and new books and medium paged books. Our problem is there are too many good books rather than the opposite.

So -- but yes, this sense that the subject of the English department is somehow a tradition that we should discard as oppressive and irrelevant is

part of the problem. I don't think it is the core problem. And I think, actually, English professors are waking up to this problem and are moving

more in the direction that I've been talking about. But it is a problem and perception becomes reality, as we all know. If that's what students think.

MARTIN: One, among your many books, is a book about college. Like what is college for? What it has been? What it could be? But one of the things that

you pointed out in your book is that these kinds of hand wringing about college and the quality of teaching and what we are teaching, is not new.

But there does seem to be something new here.

I mean, if you look at the number of people who are rolling in English departments in a number of institutes, it really has fallen precipitously,

at least in certain some of these four-year universities that you -- that Nathan Heller writes about in his piece. He talks about Harvard but he also

talks about Arizona State.

So, do you think this is kind of a particularly -- I don't know if I want to say precarious moment, but a particular moment where something really

specific is going on here that we need to pay attention to?

DELBANCO: It is, absolutely. It's a particular moment when people who believe in the humanities need to step up and thinking fresh ways about

what it means to teach the humanities and whether it's really appropriate to worry so much about how many English majors there are. That's really --

you know, I don't think that's a productive path to go down.


I can't make a good argument, in most cases, for young person to choose an English major, unless they happen to aspire to a life as a college

professor, which is a risky bet. But I can make a very good argument that they should read books and debate and discuss the themes of those books

with their peers in a classroom with a sensitive and interesting teacher.

And I think we see evidence, that's why we didn't want to say that the problem can be turned into an opportunity. We see evidence that at many

institutions that do not make it into Mr. Heller's article, the faculty has woken up to the reality that their -- if they sit back and wait for the

students to come to them, they're going to be waiting a long time.

What they need to do is get up and go to where the students are. And where the students are, in most places, is in the general education program,

which is that sort of interval between arriving in college and choosing a major when students are asked to explore subjects to which they may not be

familiar and which the institution thinks is important to them as adults and as citizens.

So, Purdue University, which is a very STEM-centric institution, the vast majority of students arrive there aspiring to become engineers or

scientists of one kind or another. They got a new dean a few years ago who discovered that fewer than 10 percent of the students there were -- had

ever taken a literature class or even a history class. He said, this is not OK.

He identified a magnetic and charismatic history professor, named Melinda Zook, who went to the English department and to other humanities

departments as well and said something like, hi, colleagues. You may have noticed that we don't have any students. Your classes are emptying out. Why

don't you come with me over to the general education program? We are going to meet the new students, the 17-year-olds who are coming in or planning to

become engineers. We are going to have a small class for them and you're going to teach them what we're going to call transformative texts. Not

great books, not classics, but transformative text by which they meant a text that has changed the world and retains the power to transform

individual lives.

That program began, and full disclosure, with a grant from the foundation over which I preside, about five years ago, with 60 students. Today, there

are 4,000 students each year at Purdue voluntarily enrolling in those classes in their first year, what we used to call freshman year. In which

they are reading, yes, some books by dead white males. They're reading the ""Odyssey" by Homer. Why do they respond to that? Because every student is

trying to figure out what kind of voyage they are on in their lives.

"Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. Because lots of students are concerned about the uses and abuses of technology, can it take over from us? "1984,"

because lots of young people are worried about whether we're drifting toward totalitarianism in our society. These books are immensely popular,

the students are having a powerful experience and a few of them will, yes, become English or philosophy or history majors, but not so many, and that's

OK. They're having a humanities experience.

MARTIN: I'm going to push you again on why this matters because there are a lot of people who will listen to this conversation and be like, sorry,

that's too bad. We need people to write code. We need people to do your back surgery when you get to that point. You know, look, you know, love you

all, but that's great, but that's -- you know, literature is a hobby. It's not a job. And so, this -- the society really needs people to do these

other things. What do you say to them?

DELBANCO: Well, a couple of. First of all, it's not an either-or question. All the best doctors I've ever known have a humanistic interest, have had

some liberal education before they became pre-med and then, scientific specialists. And I think that goes for creative scientists as well.

In fact, I think one of the secrets of our country has been that our science has proceeded out of a sense of curiosity and adventure that you

get from getting a liberal humanities-oriented education. So, it's not an either-or. But more broadly, yes, we need all those specialists. We need

all those competent people. We need experts in this and that. But we also need citizens, right?

Those people are all citizens. They have to grapple with the tough questions, like, where do I find the right balance between personal

liberties and the public interest? The kind of question that we were dealing with during the COVID years. How do I think about the nation state

in a world where microbes and refugees from vicious regimes don't care about national borders, right? Those are hard questions. There are no right

answers to those questions. And if we're going to have a functioning democracy where politicians can be called to account when they talk

nonsense about such questions, we need an educated citizenry. Democracy depends on that.


So, yes, we need the technical training but we need people who are capable of thinking about complex problems, listening to other points of view and

coming to a reasonable consensus about what is best moving forward. That's the fundamental case for the humanities. And whatever is going on with the

enrollments in English departments, we cannot afford to lose the humanities in our colleges and universities.

MARTIN: Are we relying too much on colleges and universities? Do you think that there are perhaps other places in society that should be stepping up

to promote the humanities, reading, you know, English, ideas, history and so forth?

DELBANCO: There surely are. People are joining reading groups. People are participating in public events where they get to discuss these kinds of

issues and hear thoughtful people talk about them. It is critically important that students get introduced to these opportunities in high

school, before they get to college.

But I would say that there is something special about those years between, say, 17 and 20, roughly 21, where students, young people are sort of in

that space between adolescence and adulthood, where they have achieved a measure of freedom, but not full freedom compared to when -- where they

were when they were living with their families. That's a very special time of life. It's a time of life when the kinds of issues that we have been

talking about have a great intensity, they feel dangerous, they also feel exciting.

So, college is a really good places to promote the habits of mind that I've been talking about. And while other places could be doing it too, we don't

want to lose sight of the centrality of these institutions.

MARTIN: Are you worried about whether or not, as citizens, as our country, that people are absorbing the tools to make these kinds of decisions, to

function as citizens in a way? I mean, the fact of the matter is when it comes to things like, should we, you know, wear masks or not and when and

if so and when, like, you know, those are the kinds of things where there isn't always one right answer.

If you take the argument that, you know, a functional understanding of humanities, of English, of science, of history is necessary to that

project, are you worried that we don't have it? That we're not getting it? We're not doing it?

DELBANCO: I'm very worried, but I'm also resolutely optimistic. I think in that little book that you kindly mentioned, I said something like, a

college classroom is a rehearsal space for democracy. The college classroom is a place where we can't retreat into our ideological corners, ff the

future doesn't let us. We have to be open to alternative points of view. We want to leave the room not sure that we have the right answer, but actually

having doubts about the answer with which we came into the room that we were certain about. That's the place where you learn to be a participant in

democratic society.

So, I'm worried that we're not doing enough of it, people don't value it enough. But I'm optimistic that if we recommit to that aspect of what

college is about, we can make a significant contribution to the strengthening and maybe even the saving our democracy. College is a

powerful institution, and that's why it's so important. I think that everybody who wants to go to college and have the opportunity to do it in

an affordable way. College is a place where you can figure out how you want to live in this messy, complicated, maddening democratic culture that we

have and that have to do everything possible to maintain

MARTIN: Professor Andrew Delbanco, thanks much for talking with us.

DELBANCO: Thank you. I appreciate it very much.


AMANPOUR: And finally on this International Women's Day, we end with the resilience of women all over the globe in the face of serious setbacks. In

the past year alone, we've seen more than a dozen states in the U.S. ban nearly all abortions after a shocking ruling by the Supreme Court. But

women made their voices heard loud and clear in the midterm elections, exacting a political price from those trying to suppress their basic


As we discussed earlier in the program, in Iran, the death of the 22-year- old Mahsa Amini unleased a wave of protests and the movement, Women, Life, Freedom. Despite of fierce response from the regime, women are risking

their lives to stand up for their rights.

And in Afghanistan, the Taliban has tried to erase women from the public sphere. Banning education beyond the sixth grade, and yet, still they

protest in the hope that their basic human rights will one day be restored. Late last year, the Taliban added another decree, banning women from

working in NGOs. Shortly afterwards, two anonymous women release this video. A song of empowerment inspired by their resilience. The Afghan

National Institute of Music created this piece that we want to leave with now.


So, goodbye from New York and a happy International Women's Day to everyone.