“Needership is not Leadership: Giving Up on Politics is Not an Option, and Other Reflections” was the title of Professor Tom Cronin’s lecture this past Tuesday in the Tutt Library Event Space. In addition to celebrating the career of Cronin, this lecture was the start of a new initiative called the “Last Lecture Series.” This lecture was his response to the prompt: If this were the last lecture you ever gave, what would you say?
The prompt is rhetorical; even though Cronin officially retired as of Sept. 1, 2017, he is still teaching a class Block 8 and plans to teach next year if the college allows it. This ‘last lecture’ is more symbolic than literal, and this type of last lecture series honoring senior professors is celebrated nationwide. Cronin was honored to kick it off for CC.
“Meaning isn’t something you stumble across like the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build out of your life, out of your experience… All the elements are there; you’re the only ones who can put all the elements into that special patent that can define your character and your integrity,” started Cronin, followed by many more inspiring words for past colleagues and students whom Cronin kept on the edge of their seats.
Cronin has just released “Imagining a Great Republic: Political Novels and the Idea of America.” This provided much of the fuel for his lecture, focused on his reading and analysis of 50 great American political novels and “what they teach us about the American Political Experiment.”
Put most simply, politics in America are truly an experiment: “Experiments can fail, they are not guaranteed, there are set backs, it has to be reinvented, reimagined, revitalized,” said Cronin in his lecture. “Books change people,” he said. They inspire and influence people’s paths and purposes; “they can change lives, but they can also change a nation.”
Cronin quoted many of the lessons he learned from his analysis of the books: some important reads common for high school curriculums that he actually read for the first time in preparation for his book.
He was also apt to quote other figures, such as U2 singer “Bono” in talking about the differences between Ireland and America. America isn’t just a country. “America is an idea,” said Cronin referencing “Bono”. And one, according to Cronin and his references, that shouldn’t be given up on.
Cronin emphasized the importance of storytellers in giving the country “moral fiber” and keeping fresh in our minds the lessons of history we must learn from. There is a “need for courage and what it means to be human in America […] and many of our authors have encouraged us” about this moral responsibility.
During the lecture, Cronin pointed out that while many of the books he chose were commentary on racial tensions throughout American history, others had obvious themes of liberty, personal initiative and hard work, and networking.
Cronin underscored his message before the talk, saying, “Even in times like this you can’t give up.” He believes the country will persist. Cronin continued to say that we have many painful times in our history, and while there’s “not always a linear direction of progress… Pessimism and despair are not the way forward.”
That is a thruline from American literature for Cronin: how to be better human beings. America is “an exceptional, unprecedented experiment in political democracy… It’s easy to talk about the flaws and mistakes we made, but we can’t give up.” The underlying tone of his lecture and book is hardheaded optimism.
This lecture was particularly sentimental for Cronin, as his first ever lecture was given in the old Tutt Library in 1976 as part of the Presidential Symposium in response to his book on the American Presidency. Speaking 41 years later for a “last lecture” in the same space is “kind of symbolic,” said Cronin.
Cronin left the crowd with the inspiring words that change comes most often from the bottom up, and just like there are bullies in school, there are bullies in Washington. But Cronin remained unrelenting in his message, saying that there is “all the more power to those who try to run uphill battles.”
Another admonition from the lecture was that we must not teach ‘needership’ in this country but leadership. For Cronin, ‘needership’ is this idea of egocentric narcissism that yearns for and constantly needs praise and flattery, associated with a swollen ego, when politics, as Cronin views them, are about collaboration, compromise, and talk.
Cronin not only speaks of leadership, but, according to former students, he acts the part. Sophomore Sam Mayer reminisced about Professor Cronin in his FYE: “Tom embodies everything you look for in a professor. He’s easily one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met.”
Mayer continued, “He was always able to articulate and transfer that knowledge in a warm and welcoming classroom environment, and his ability to form connections with students and make them feel at home is second to none.”
Senior Jack Connors had similar praise saying, “I was always amazed at how genuinely invested Tom is in the lives of his students. He took great pride in seeing his Tigers excel! He was also the first teacher to be frank with me. He saw me trying to coast by and told me if I didn’t better myself as a student I wouldn’t be here long. And he was right. I’m fortunate he was my first professor.”
Cronin’s final message for the crowd was, “These Tigers have the courage to transcend racism and prejudice […] resist complacency and join with us to imagine a better American Republic.” This republic, being a place in Cronin’s mind’s eye where everyone is treated fairly, race doesn’t predetermine your fate, a place without hatred, homelessness, sexual harassment, lying, poverty, or drug addiction—a republic that emphasizes community over accumulation of wealth. Cronin ended by pleading, “This is a lot to ask, this is a lot to imagine, but we must imagine a better American Republic to have a chance.”