A Campus Visit: Five Things that Define the John Jay Experience

November 9, 2012

Stories from an alumnus's return to campus spotlight the things that make the Institute so uniquely effective.

Brian Brown '07

I started my John Jay Fellowship five years ago, in 2007. In the years since, I have served in public policy organizations in D.C., worked in philanthropy and economic development in Colorado, and about a year ago started what is now a blossoming businesses doing strategic communications work for small organizations nationwide. I've had interactions with many political campaigns, and most conservative research or advocacy organizations, and most of them haven’t had a lot of success achieving their goals in recent years.

Last week, during a return visit to the Institute's Philadelphia campus, I got to spend Election Day with the fall 2012 John Jay Fellows--and five stories from that visit reminded me why the John Jay Institute's vision is working when so many others are reeling. Here are the stories, spotlighting five things that define the Institute experience:

(1) Old ideas.

It was a crisp fall evening outside when I arrived on campus on Thursday, and many a yellow and red leaf had somehow survived Hurricane Sandy's onslaught a few days before. As I stepped from the cold into the warm glow of the Institute mansion's entry hall, I was greeted by hundreds of books lining the left wall. But this wasn't the trendy collection of Hayek and Ayn Rand I'd seen in so many places in D.C., nor was it merely the requisite dusty collection of Founding Fathers and Greek philosophers. Here were the complete works of great Christian theologians like Richard Hooker and St. Augustine; writings from the forgotten heroes and historians of our republic from the 17th through 20th centuries; cutting-edge scholarly research on civil society from Princeton's Witherspoon Institute...and seemingly everything in between. I was reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis:

“Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

While their peers in D.C. were getting brief remedial lectures on Reaganomics, the John Jay Fellows were being immersed in the overarching narrative of Western civilization. They were receiving the accumulated wisdom of the human species as their forefathers meant for them to receive it--not as bullet-point universal principles or as a highlight reel of 1776 and 1980; but as a whole, with historical contexts, points and counterpoints, and the ebbs and flows of cultures and policies. They were being armed able to deal with the difficult questions of our time, with tools far stronger and richer than "But Jefferson said…"

(2) New ideas.

The next day, on Friday, I accompanied the Fellows on their field studies. After visiting the oldest art academy in the country (the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), they met with a bold new civic organization (Philadelphia Rising), and engaged the latest in local economics at the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. On Saturday, I met with a classmate of mine, Peter Kim, who lives in Philadelphia and gave me a characteristically incisive analysis of the city's current political and cultural challenges (he also knows where to find the best gelato in town). While I was out, I got e-mails from two other alumni sharing superb public policy research from some prominent scholars in academia. And by the time I returned to campus, it was time to meet with several alumni friends who had driven up from their jobs in government and nonprofits in D.C. (we had a stimulating conversation about trends in corporate leadership that are hurting American for-profit and non-profit companies).

As if to balance out the collection of books I'd been admiring on Thursday, these things reminded me that John Jay Fellows--both during and after their residencies--are constantly exposed to the newest and best ideas, and constantly challenged to apply their long-term perspective and principles to the specific challenges of today. Great leaders can't get away with talk show levels of knowledge, or merely abstract concepts like free markets or limited government. John Jay alumni know this, and they live it. The Institute itself is plugged in with exciting new organizations and projects in Philadelphia and nationwide, and if a really good book or idea or policy comes out, John Jay alumni are among the first to find out about it (if they weren't involved in creating it).

(3) The moral imagination.

How, of course, to apply timeless principles in today's context is quite a difficult question. Today, most people surround themselves by the information providers (like blogs or TV networks) that reinforce their own biases, and it's almost impossible for them to think creatively outside their own personal experience about the effects of their ideas, actions, or policies on others. Most political leadership programs I've seen for young people do nothing to counteract this--on the contrary, they are concerned with "apologetics," with arming (say) college students with all the reasons why they are right. By contrast, let me describe the scene that I saw when I first entered the parlor of the John Jay Institute.

It was All Saints Day, and the Fellows had been celebrating the heroes of the faith. As I stood before a magnificent fireplace adorned with a portrait of John Jay, I was offered a hot mug of wassail (as in "here we come a wassailing…") and invited to join the lively conversation. (The Christian virtue of hospitality is something emphasized heavily at the Institute.) Somewhat to my surprise, I saw a Walker Percy novel on the couch beside one of the students. I learned that in addition to their studies in theology and philosophy, the students were reading classic novels together on the side with Vice President Douglas Minson; learning how to read a novel and, in the process, stimulating their moral imaginations.

The moral imagination is a term coined by Edmund Burke to describe something that had been important to ancient writers (especially Dante and Virgil) and has been largely lost by now. It is, to paraphrase Russell Kirk's definition, the power of ethical perception that allows a decision-maker to step outside his private experience, to envision the far-reaching consequences of various options, and to make wise decisions keeping in mind the goal of a well-ordered soul and commonwealth. It is nebulous, and cannot be taught in principles or maxims. Like most of the things really worth having in this life, is has to be developed over time; through experience, through the creative stimulation of great art and music and poetry, and through the influence of religion and codes of conduct. It is the crucial link between principle and practice that allows someone to be more than a knower of facts or a believer in an ideology--to be a discerning leader.

(4) Place.

A few days later, I had lunch with three Fellows who all came from Colorado. As we enjoyed our delicious-but-too-small lunches at a local Indian restaurant, we found ourselves in conversation about the future of Colorado Springs (where I currently live). Most smart young people who don't live in Manhattan want to remake their town in its image (or, rather, in their own). But these ones were talking about the local culture and its values; about the kind of people who live there and their strengths and weaknesses as a community; and about what the city might look like if it realized its full potential within the context of its time and place. They had the vision and creativity lacking in so many of the civic leaders I know, but with the sense of place and humility that leads a wise leader to make sure he knows how something works before he tries to fix it.

For this, I can partly blame the Institute's curriculum, but I can also blame its ethos--where most political institutions gravitate straight for the federal culture of D.C., the John Jay Institute is thoroughly Philadelphian by now (indeed, I think it was all along). This is obvious from everything from the architecture and big Pennsylvania trees of the campus to the immersive nature of the students' field trips. John Jay Fellows learn to understand and love a place and its people before they engage in the kind of technocratic tinkering that is the norm in our national, state, and often local politics. And they learn the ingredients of a healthy community that they can take with them no matter how high into national or international politics they might rise.

(5) Placement.

One of the things I most enjoy doing when I meet new Fellows is hearing about their plans following their residency. One current fellow is pursuing a civic organization in Prague; another wants to do research with a top academic en route to a doctorate; still another plans to go to Washington and work in public policy in one of those jobs it's almost impossible to get unless you know somebody. While the academic curriculum gets much of the attention from the outside world, much of the strategic value of the Institute experience comes after the Fellows leave campus. They are placed in internships with influential organizations worldwide. Those internships, funded by the Institute, give them real-world experience working with some of today's most thoughtful and powerful leaders, and provide invaluable springboards for their careers in public service (after all, even the best ideas are worthless without the power to implement them).

But as the Fellows scatter worldwide to pursue these internships, they also join a network of alumni that is already 100 strong--people who have had the same formative experience, who are further along in their careers, and who can give them advice and job help and continue the never-ending conversation about how to provide good leadership for a society so desperately in need of it in every arena. The new Fellows don't fully appreciate this yet, but they are joining a vine that is growing higher into every sector of public life, creating a network of strategically placed leaders who share each other's values; precisely the kind of network Professor James Davison Hunter thinks is necessary to promote political and cultural change--and the kind that allowed the American founders to build a nation.


Five years later, I believe in the John Jay Institute's vision partly because I watch it play out at the alumni level daily--Fellows disproportionately populate my lists of the savviest and wisest people I know. Still, this visit--during an election that changed nothing about Washington--was a welcome reminder to me the decline of the American experiment is not inevitable. In fact, by the time we knew who the next president was going to be, the alumni were already going back to their rooms. They had work to do.


Brian Brown is the Principal and CEO of Narrator, and the founder and senior editor of Humane Pursuits. He was a John Jay Fellow in 2007. He welcomes your feedback at bbrown@narratoronline.com.

It cannot be too strongly impressed on the minds of us all how greatly our individual prosperity depends upon our national prosperity, and how greatly our national prosperity depends on a well organized, vigorous government, ruling by wise and equal laws, faithfully executed; nor is such a government unfriendly to liberty…"
John Jay, Charge to the Grand Jury, April 4, 1790