Exploring Freedom and Justice with Professor Isaac Kramnick

By Ivy Wang and Hazel Weng

Although, Professor Isaac Kramnick’s Freedom and Justice in the Western Tradition was ranked one of the top twelve best Pre-College Summer Programs by Huffington Post, that’s not the reason why students should take it. Prospective Summer College students should consider taking it because it offers an excellent introduction to the founding political thinkers in the West; ranging from 5th century Plato to liberal Locke and even touching on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Do not make the egregious mistake of stereotyping the course as a “whimsical-thinking” class. Freedom and Justice is a combination of philosophy and political science that looks at great thinkers from the past but also practices applying those principles to current and past societies through debate and discussion.

Professor Kramnick, a distinguished, now-retired professor of Government at Cornell, says in an interview, that these principles can be found right here on campus.

“I came here after a very turbulent period of Cornell system,” said Professor Kramnick. “A period of intense student protests, when Cornell’s graduates protested against what they considered injustice on the campus. The university itself has dealt with questions, and the students have confronted issues of freedom and justice. And while we were able to become one of the first universities to accept both women and students of color, it took some fighting to get there.”

Prof. in his office
Photo by Ivy Wang

Professor Kramnick has been teaching the class since 21 years ago, since Summer College first started, because he believed and still believes that the material is part “of a general education.”

“These are very important features of our inheritance, of our legacy, in the West, and are just as important to the students who are going to computer science, business, or physics,” said Professor Kramnick. “They should know the history and culture of their civilizations. It also helps of course if you want to study political science, law or any social science later on.”

The purpose is twofold, Kramnick states.

“On one hand, it’s to introduce them to the college experience…sure it’s intensely condensed into three weeks but if you add up the class hours, in terms of the number of hours of lectures and discussion sections, it comes very, very close to the class hours in a regular course.”

“The second purpose is substantive; that is to introduce the body of ideas, what great men and women have thought about society and political arrangements.”

Prof. Kramnick Teaching
Photo by Ivy Wang

This course, originally for Cornell freshmen and sophomores before Kramnick retired, is very similar to the college course. Regarding the similarity, Professor Kramnick states “Of course, you have to make choices. You can’t read as much in three weeks as you can 14 or 15 weeks. In terms of the ambition from Plato, from the 5th century B.C., to the late 20th century, we have to cut out some topics, cut out some texts, so we have to drop some important figures like Machiavelli. However, the tests are equally difficult, or you can say the opposite, equally easy. The class set up–lecture and discussion with teacher assistants–is the same as well.”

In the end, when asked what the most important thing students should take away from Freedom and Justice in the Western Tradition, he replied, “People in high school cannot understand why great thinkers, and great texts, contradict with themselves. And somehow, they think this is a great sin, or if not a sin, it at least undermines their importance. What you will learn is that this is the beauty of those texts and those thinkers. That is why they remain timeless and successful, because they represent multiple points of view and present these wonderfully complicated questions about human nature, government, and society, to think about.”