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Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Michael Collins on the Individual and the Collective


Bringing life to the TFAS classroom for many years, Georgetown Emeritus Teaching Professor Michael Collins taught at TFAS’s program in Prague and former program in Greece and Ethics and Leadership at TFAS Academic Internship Programs in Washington, D.C. He also previously taught Shakespeare, British theatre, and Anglo-Welsh poetry at Georgetown University and led Georgetown’s academic and residential programs in Fiesole, Italy. Mike holds a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University and both a master’s degree and Ph.D. from New York University.

In this week’s episode of the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 and Mike discuss how he incorporates movies into his curriculum, the tension between the individual vs the collective, the poetry of Irishman Seamus Heaney, the works of South African playwright Athol Fugard, why William Shakespeare is still relevant and why it’s critical for students to study history. As well as their trip to Eastern Europe at the launch of TFAS International in the early 90s, a milestone we are currently celebrating 30 years later.

Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.

Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today I have a very special guest on the Liberty and Leadership podcast, Professor Michael Collins, who I will call Mike if he doesn’t object. Mike has served on the TFAS faculty for some 30 years, both in our programs in Washington, D.C. and internationally, in Prague and in Greece. The range of what he has taught is remarkable, including ethics and leadership course in our business and government affairs program and many courses related to American culture and American society in Greece and in Prague. Mike has also had a long and distinguished career at Georgetown University, serving for many years as dean of the School for Summer International and Continuing Education. In that capacity, he was our main contact at the university where we partnered on organizing academic programs from 1970 and 2012. Mike’s academic appointment was in the Department of English, where he was a distinguished professor. I should add, Mike is also an expert on all things Shakespeare and has written extensively on Shakespeare and modern poetry. More on that later. Mike, thank you so much for joining me today.

Michael Collins [00:01:39] I’m happy to be here. Thank you for asking me.

Roger Ream [00:01:42] There’s a lot to talk about, so I’m going to get right into it. But first, could I ask if you could just talk a little about your upbringing? I know you attended Fordham University, and as I recall, you grew up in the Bronx. Is that right?

Michael Collins [00:01:57] I grew up in the Bronx, yes. The more peaceful quarter of the Bronx, I would say, but the Bronx none the less. I’m proud of it. It’s the northeast corner of the Bronx. If we had been taking a ten-minute walk, we would have been in Westchester.

Roger Ream [00:02:17] After Fordham?

Michael Collins [00:02:20] New York University, for a master’s degree, three years in the Army, and then back to NYU, New York University for Ph.D. in English and American literature, as they said.

Roger Ream [00:02:35] One question before we get to your Georgetown years and your work with TFAS I don’t know if I’ve ever asked you, but what prompted you to choose to study in graduate school, English literature and get your Ph.D. in that field?

Michael Collins [00:02:52] I just very simply, I just like literature. I enjoyed it very much. When I graduated, I was facing my three years in the Army, and one way of putting that off a little bit was to go get a master’s degree. And the impetus for that was simply myself saying, I’d like to read more literature. I’d like to know more about it. And my father very generously said, okay, I’m happy. I’ll pay your tuition for one more year. And I always appreciated that. And I did a master’s degree in literature. When I was in the Army, I did some teaching for the University of Maryland and also teaching for the Army as well. And I kind of liked it, but I went back to NYU for the Ph.D. primarily because I was interested in kind of finishing my education in literature. As strange as that sounds, I don’t think I was quite aware that the Ph.D. is a professional degree. I thought I could continue enjoying myself and reading literature, but at the same time I got interested in teaching. I enjoyed it very much. And so those kind of things came together. The education, the pleasure of teaching and the inevitable result was looking for a job and in education.

Roger Ream [00:04:20] Well, it’s been wonderful how you’ve brought so much of that to bear on the courses you’ve taught, not only at Georgetown but in TFAS programs over the years. And not only Shakespeare, of course, but stories from Greek and Roman literature, modern poetry, film, of course, a number of films that I know you’ve shown at least pieces of in the classroom. And I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in many of your classes in Washington, D.C. and in Prague and in Greece. And I think using those devices has caused you to have such a lasting impact on the students who’ve been in the classroom with you. So I’d like to spend, you know, the next half hour talking about a lot of these stories and in the literature that you’ve used and the reaction of the students to it and the lessons you’ve taught. So if I could dig in initially with the ethics and values class you taught for business and government affairs students in our program over many years, I think beginning in 1990, you’ve used a lot of different things. I know that Murder on the Orient Express was a movie you’ve shown. Can you talk about how you use that movie and the lesson you kind of drew out from students from that? Because I imagine a lot of people listening have seen at least one of the many versions of it.

Michael Collins [00:05:40] Yeah, the one that I used was with the one that was made for television. And now I’m drawing a blank on the actors name David Suchet. I used the version with David Suchet, which is different from the version that Agatha Christie wrote. And that difference is the reason why I use that particular film version of it. Of course, they’re on the Orient Express. Someone is murdered. And it turns out that 12 passengers, just the number that makes a jury, have combined together and plotted extensively to murder the victim on the train. And they want to murder him because he himself, had murdered a young woman, a child that he kidnaped. And they all had some connection with the child. But he managed to escape punishment through bribery and threats and so on. He was acquitted of the crime and they want to do justice. And so the question then becomes how they do justice, where they carry out their plan. They murder the criminal, the gangster who has done the kidnaping and Poirot, the great detective figures all this out. And then he reaches a moral dilemma. And this is the point, the moral dilemma. Do I turn these people in because they have violated the law. They become it’s vigilante justice. He says you can’t, we’re not primitive. We can’t live like this. We must have the rule of law or on the other side, should we let them go because they have actually done justice in the world. And so I present the students with the moral dilemma. There it is, now Agatha Christie, God rest her soul, ducks the issue. For her there’s no question. Poirot lets them go. And there’s no question about whether that should or should have been done. There’s a little bit of the last question in the Kenneth Branagh version, but it’s the David Suchet version that really focuses on it. And I’m not so much interested in what the students think should be done. I think and I wouldn’t even venture to guess what they think should be done. The point that I’ve tried to suggest and this is part of the film, you see this film, the anguish that Poirot goes through to make a decision. And that’s what I want him to understand. If it’s a serious moral question, it will be fraught with ambiguity. It will be painful to make the decision and then Poirot, after he makes a decision, he decides to let them go. He still has second thoughts. The final scene in the movie is him walking away with his rosary beads in his hand, still praying, clearly not at all convinced that he made the right choice. And that was the point, that it’s hard to make wise moral decisions and you’re always going to be sick if they’re serious, if they’re serious moral questions, you’re always going to be second guessing himself, because there’s no one answer to that question.

Roger Ream [00:09:11] I apologize for not having said spoiler alert at the start of this discussion.

Michael Collins [00:09:19] He owns all versions. He lets them go.

Roger Ream [00:09:23] Having watched it several times, it’s a great watch even knowing you know that how it ends. And I can picture that scene in the snow with those rosary beads in his hands as he anguishes over.

Michael Collins [00:09:37] As you may know, we snuck my granddaughter Sophia into the class. Actually, I think it was the last year I taught it. And just recently she read the novel and she said no, that’s no good. She didn’t engage with the moral issue. And I said to myself, well, maybe I taught somebody something along the line.

Roger Ream [00:10:04] Yeah, well, that does prompt a great conversation in class. I know from experience in Prague in those early years, I should preface this by saying the board of The Fund for American Studies in 1991 suggested that the Fund go explore the possibility of a program in the newly free countries of Central and Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall. And you and I were part of that delegation with two trustees who visited what Havel, Vaclav Havel, called the Wild, Wild East. Not long after those changes took place. It was a fascinating trip. I had just joined TFAS and we went to Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest and Prague and met a number of interesting people. And I remember at Charles University we met the newly elected dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences who had a business card that I still remember. It was Dean Vladimir Suehe and another name said window washer because he had been a window washer in the days of communism. He wasn’t allowed to hold an academic position. Fortunately, you never face that dilemma as a Dean at Georgetown.

Michael Collins [00:11:24] You remember too, he said, but that was all right because you had a lot of time to plot the revolution. Not much to worry about.

Roger Ream [00:11:34] Yeah. Well, that was a great trip. And it led to the start of our program in Prague. That still goes on to this day. And you’ve taught over many decades there. It was interesting in those early days we had an un-air-conditioned classroom, so the windows had to stay open and that was right above where the tram ran the chalkboard. You had a bucket with a rag on it with water to clean the chalkboard. But you persevered and you reached a lot of students with your teaching and you called your course the good society. What led you to choose that name for it? And tell us a little bit of what that course was about.

Michael Collins [00:12:17] Well, it had many iterations and part of the way I winded up teaching, I should give credit to my colleague at Georgetown, Frank Ambrosio, a philosopher who also contributed to the shaping and making of it. And that was the question we wanted to ask. There were, as you know, there were government classes, economics classes. But there was the other question or kind of the humanistic question of philosophical question, what is the good society? And what we tried, I think, primarily to teach was the responsibility not just of citizenship, but the responsibility of persons to act morally, to form a conscience, to struggle with the ambiguities of the moral and human ambiguities of the world in which we live, to form a conscience and to have the commitment over a lifetime to question that conscience and to live by its precepts. What makes a good society? I don’t know that. I think of Thoreau who said the corporation has no conscience but a corporation of conscientious men and women is a corporation with a conscience. A nation has no conscience, but a nation of conscientious men and women is a nation with a conscience and thinking in terms of a good society, a society that does justice to all its citizens. And as I said earlier, the way that you can encapsulate the whole thing, perhaps by quoting that great English philosopher John Lennon, he said, you’ve got to get down to your own God in your own church. It’s down to you, mate. It’s down to you. You want a better world. It’s down to you. Maybe you don’t make big changes, but we tried to convince them that even small incremental changes have impacts on the lives of people and sometimes even on the course of history.

Roger Ream [00:14:37] Yeah. And I know you talked often in that course about what appears to be a tension that exists between individualism on the one hand and the sense of community or obligations to others on the other hand. You illustrated that at times by showing clips from the movie Shane and High Noon. Could you talk about why you incorporated those two films?

Michael Collins [00:15:06] Well, let me back up for a second. That idea of individual and society comes from Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address. He says the way we govern ourselves has kept us both firm and free. In other words, we’ve honored the needs of the community for order and justice. And we’ve also honored the needs of the individual for liberty and freedom of conscience. And that’s a tension that is shot through every society, every nation ever, I would say, anyway. And what I often wanted the students to understand was that in America, we tend to celebrate the individual. Sometimes I think, at the expense of the community of the times because the individual. Empowered should be celebrated. And so people like Shane, for example, are the great example of American individuals. They’re self-reliant. They live alone. They never marry. They bring justice. Some, you might argue vigilante justice, but they bring justice to the world and then get on with their lives. But the great American heroes are primarily individualistic heroes, and that’s not really true about popular culture. Shane and John Wayne are those people. But it’s also true about American literature. And I want students to realize that, well, there’s things in the culture, in the air we breathe that we should be aware of, and I was aware of. I hope to make them aware. And to realize that there’s two sides to that individual and society question.

Roger Ream [00:17:14] High Noon is the contrast, I guess, with Gary Cooper.

Michael Collins [00:17:18] Yeah, well, see in movies, the bad guys are always associated with the town, with the community of the sissies, who don’t want to go out and be gunfighters and run away. Those are the people associated with the town, the shopkeepers and so on. They depend upon this strong individual to protect them. And in some ways, that’s not fair. It makes a great story, but it’s not fair to the community in a way.

Roger Ream [00:17:53] How did you find the students, especially those, you know, not the Americans, but the students, particularly in the early years from places like Romania and the former Soviet Union, and how they react to, you know, these lessons that you and Frank would teach?

Michael Collins [00:18:10] In a variety of ways certainly. I think with all humility, they responded well to what we were trying to do. I must admit, over the years, I pulled back on the Western movies for the students who weren’t American because, you know, some of them knew Clint Eastwood. And towards the end I was using the same thing, Clint Eastwood movies. But I pulled back on those because I’m not sure they were as effective. How do they respond in general? They were certainly willing once I made clear to them I’m not here to impose or celebrate necessarily American values, but use them as illustrations of certain moral and social questions and political questions that you are facing in your own country. But let’s find something neutral to talk about. And I think they responded very well to that kind of approach. You know, we read Martin Luther King and the letter from the Birmingham jail. And the point was to show how King used the values of his society, both religious and political values, to validate his position and his quest for justice, hoping that there were comparable articulations in their societies that they could call upon to do the same thing, to in a sense indict those people who are failing to live up to the promises and to the values, articulated promises and values of the society. And that, I think, worked very well or worked well. I would say.

Roger Ream [00:20:10] Another theme that I can pull out easily from your courses was this phrase the murderous and the marvelous. And I think almost every student who’s in our program who’s taking your course, that’s stuck with them. Could you give us some background on that?

Michael Collins [00:20:31] Well, I cannot take credit for that. That was drawn from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel lecture in 1995. And he talks about the famous story of the minibus that gets stopped along the road.

Roger Ream [00:20:51] And if I could just interject that for some people who may not know Seamus Heaney, poet who lived in Ireland. And, if you want to give more background than that, I know you’ve brought him to Georgetown, I think, just to speak and whether that background’s important, I don’t know.

Michael Collins [00:21:09] Well, to some degree it is. He was and maybe not to tell the whole story about the Nobel lecture and he is a poet who won the Nobel Prize. For many people perhaps the best poet in the English-speaking world in the second half of the 20th century. For some people at least. But in any case, he tells the story of an atrocity that takes place in Ireland. Some people machine gunned along the side of the road. And the presumption of the people who are lined up to be machine gunned is that the gunmen are, I may not remember it. The gunmen are Protestants and the one among the workers who are lined up along the road is a Catholic. And as they’re about to be executed, the Catholic feels somebody squeezed his hand. Don’t worry. We won’t betray you. Well, as it turns out, it’s the other way around. The Protestants are massacred, the Catholics survived. And what Heaney is saying is the gunfire is real, but so is the shake, the squeeze of the hand. The murderers is real. Yes, but so is the marvels. And we must make space, as he puts it, in our reckoning and imagining for the marvelous as well as for the murders. That’s the way I started the class for years and years. Same bases of the kids. If you don’t believe that, if you don’t believe that, some of that. I wish I could remember the other lines where poetry and history rhyme or the idea. If you don’t believe that there’s a possibility of goodness, of progress, some change. If you don’t believe in the Marvelous. Then you might as well go home because you will live in despair. The idea is don’t presume it’s a murderous world. But don’t despair either. Make space for the marvelous. And again, you’ve got to begin with that hope. And you hear that from Havel. You hear that from Athol Fugard, another writer we talked about that this idea that you must have some grounded sense not silly optimism, but some grounded sense of possibility. Do I presume? Do not despair.

Roger Ream [00:23:59] Yeah, that no doubt is powerful in a classroom where at times you’ve had students who come from countries that might have been at war with each other or had great tensions with, you know, Israelis and Palestinians and Croats and Serbs and Bosnian students and other conflicts, both in Prague and in the program we had in Greece a few years ago. To begin with that is probably an important message to have the students address, right?

Michael Collins [00:24:28] Yes. The other thing we did that I stole from Seamus Heaney, he talks about local stories, myths, stories and stories in the larger sense and tell them. And we used to try to suggest that the stories that we tell the Bible, the Koran, the the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, other great works of Scripture and literature. The stories we tell remind us that we’re different. But what those stories reflect, the questions that they’re trying to answer, the human issues that they’re dealing with or what joined us together. Because across cultures are differences, but also across cultures are a shared desire to answer. Find answers to fundamental human questions. Death. Love. How should we organize ourselves as a society? We tell stories and answer to those questions, but we all share the questions. And in a secular age, in the postmodern world, you know, some people said yes. What we share is we’re all children of God. And that was hopeful. Or some said, yes, what we share is human nature. But you can’t rely on that because in many areas those are discredited concepts. So we look for something that you might be able to get everybody in the class to buy into.

Roger Ream [00:26:13] I very much recall one of the very early programs we did in Greece. This would have been in the late 1990s at the closing ceremony, one of the Turkish students you had in your class got up to say how much he came to appreciate the value of the program, that he had formed a bond, a friendship with one of the Greek students. And being from Turkey, he thought he would never say anything along these lines, that he had a friend he loved from Greece. And it was just a marvelous testimonial to what we were trying to accomplish at that program. And I asked him afterwards if he could put that in writing for us to use as a testimonial to show our donors the importance of the program. And he said, Are you kidding? If I was identified with the statement I made, I’d get in trouble back in Turkey with my friends. He wasn’t quite ready to go public with it, but he came there and like you were just saying, I mean, he realized how much he had in common with a classmate. You know, their cultures are somewhat similar. Their food, their music.

Michael Collins [00:27:20] Yes.

Roger Ream [00:27:22] The Turk and Greek had more in common than say, they had with the Croat or the Palestinian or the Egyptian, certainly. And, you know, I think that was the value of your course in that program, as well as in Prague, of helping these young people realize that they do have common questions they have to answer.

Michael Collins [00:27:42] I remember Randall Teague, our chairman saying, let’s hope though, that ten years, 20 years from now they’ll remember that, pick up the phone and prevent the war. Again, metaphorically but we would hope they would remember that. I always think of it as we set off in 1992 or one whenever when we did our trip to Eastern Europe shortly after the war, we set off with such bright hopes and expectations. Well, bright hopes and bright dreams, and I guess some of them actually have come true, although many of them have not.

Roger Ream [00:28:27] Yeah, I think we were told it was the end of history.

Michael Collins [00:28:30] That’s right. How foolish we were. We should have known better.

Roger Ream [00:28:36] Let me ask just a broad question which could apply to TFAS programs or your teaching in general. How have you, if at all, seen students change over the years? You know, teaching at Georgetown for, you know, 40 years almost. Do you find that students come with the same questions and concerns in life, or maybe they’re less prepared for what you do in the classroom, but can you reflect more broadly about that?

Michael Collins [00:29:08] I would say at Georgetown. I wouldn’t say they were any less well-prepared. I got to Georgetown and started teaching there in 1982 and gave up in 2020. So I wouldn’t say they were less well-prepared. They may not have as rich a background in humanistic things. They were not certainly experts in Greek mythology in 1981. Part of the problem is they know things you don’t know and you know things they don’t know. So it’s easy to say, well, you know, they don’t know anything anymore. I wouldn’t say that’s true. They’re certainly as well prepared. The difference that I saw, it’s much more pragmatic. You know, a grade is much more important because that’s what gets you into law school or gets you a job with Morgan Stanley or whatever it is you’re interested in. So that and you know, those statistics nationwide tell you that. Was it 4% of the graduates last year majored in history, philosophy or English? I think it was that, I just read the statistics might have been a little more, but certainly very few students are majoring in the traditional humanities. And that’s what sort of I have seen over the years. And the other problem, at least in my discipline, is that I want to put this not too controversially or I try to be polite, is that the drift has been from literature to what we call now or what is called now, I should say, cultural studies. And I think that’s you know, I think that we can agree that is a great loss, that so many people who profess in humanities are not teaching literature anymore, but teaching something they would call cultural studies.

Roger Ream [00:31:32] Well, that brings up an obvious question, I guess, as someone who’s absorbed much of their career in Shakespeare, is Shakespeare relevant today? He seemed to be for several centuries at least. And today there seems to be an attitude in much of academia that he doesn’t have much to teach us, I suppose. And that may go as well for works like Antigone that you use. What are your thoughts about that? I mean, I know the obvious answer you’d give, probably, But I’m curious.

Michael Collins [00:32:05] Shakespeare has become as they say, fashionably safe now for a kind of political discussions.  Well, for some people, Shakespeare has relevance because he can tell us things about the world in which we live. There are political issues, social issues, gender, race. And Shakespeare has, depending on who you ask, is either a negative example or a positive example. I have taught The Merchant of Venice, for some people that plays is, I don’t think it is. But for some people it is inescapably anti-Semitic and it is therefore used as to serve certain political purposes. For other people, the play is extraordinarily inclusive, as we say now, which I think it is. It’s not just because I don’t want people to think Shakespeare was Anti-Semitic. It’s because I read the play that when it seems very clear that it is not an anti-Semitic play. And so I teach from that point of view. So, yes, Shakespeare still has relevance, but for some it’s kind of, if you like, a negative relevance. He’s representing things that are abhorrent. And the obvious plays are The Merchant of Venice, for example, Othello. And then there are other plays as well. And it really rests on the interpretation of the person, I think. But from another point of view, you know, Shakespeare is not often in the curriculum. That wasn’t put right. Very often you can major in English and not take a course in Shakespeare. Sometimes because it’s just irrelevant and sometimes because it’s pernicious.

Roger Ream [00:34:26] Well, you mentioned that in comparing students today with students in the past, it’s not that they know less, it’s what they know is different. And I remember you telling me once about the time that you vividly remember, I think mentioned the Vietnam War in class and seeing the students eyes glaze over. You’re talking ancient history. And here this event that was probably one of the most formative events in your life. And my generation was something that students today.

Michael Collins [00:34:58] Somebody else’s war.

Roger Ream [00:35:00] But as is shown by your comments already today, you’ve been great at adapting your curriculum and your stories and your lessons over the years to make them relevant to students today. Is social media having a pernicious effect on this generation, you think, in terms of their academic performance? I know one of your colleagues, for instance, who teaches with us over the years, Joshua Mitchell, from the government department at once said he tells his students Facebook is death. Turn off Facebook, put your cell phones down. What are your thoughts on that?

Michael Collins [00:35:43] Well, I think the problem is that so much misinformation and disinformation is being spread on social media. Just listening to the radio this morning. You know, newspapers are in desperate, desperate situation. Nobody reads the newspaper and they get news such as it is true or false from these social media sites. And I think it’s dangerous. I really do. And the other problem is, of course, everybody’s constantly checking to see what the latest news is on their cell phone. And they’ve forgotten how to talk to one another. Have you seen families? Four people, five people, all playing with their phones. And you want to say talk to one another. But putting that aside, I think there is a real threat that, you know, responsible journalists and responsible journalism is being shunted off to the side and people are getting news from less than reliable sources. And if I would have one other thing to say about that. Don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys. Don’t let your sons grow up without taking history. Take history, learn about the past, and understand by learning about the past. You’ll understand a lot about the present. That worries me. A friend of mine, he teaches in an English department and he said, forget English, take history.

Roger Ream [00:37:22] Well, your influence at Georgetown has been great. I have to mention I had lunch with a Georgetown graduate today and at the end of lunch, I was excusing myself and I said, I’ve got to go to our studio to record our Liberty and Leadership Podcast with a professor who has taught for us and in fact taught at Georgetown. You might know him. And then I said, oh, wait, you graduated with Bill Clinton in 1968, so you wouldn’t have had him. He said, well, what’s his name? And I said, Michael Collins. He said, oh, sure, he was the dean. And I remember doing a literary tour of Paris that he led.

Michael Collins [00:37:58] Yes. Yes.

Roger Ream [00:37:58] And I said, that’s right. You’ve done these alumni college programs around the country, around the world. You’ve done a lot in your career that involved international programing. You were responsible for the Georgetown villa and busily Italy. You’ve done a lot in London at the Globe Theater and worked with colleagues in the U.K. That’s been probably not something you were contemplating as a student studying English literature. Can you reflect on those experiences in general?

Michael Collins [00:38:35] A curiosity, I would say, is what drives it. But a friend of mine who got a Ph.D. in English, he worked with me at Georgetown, and he said, you know, I had a Ph.D. in English literature before I ever went to England. He said, that’s crazy. And in some ways, going to England helped, even as a young man helped me to kind of understand what I was trying to understand better. But also, I think it’s important for the students. And that’s why I supported all those programs. It’s important for students to have some sense of the global reality in which we live. I think only one third of all Americans have a passport or something like that, maybe a little more. But you say so many people have never, now some have never had the opportunity, but some people have had the opportunity or haven’t taken it. And I think as a result, their vision of the world, their imaginative capacity is limited by the fact they haven’t traveled and seen different things. You don’t have to go and you know, live in a French village for four or six months or anything like that. But just to go, do some of the major tourist things, see some of the great works of our time and I say of our culture, this is all very important. And, you know, for students and for citizens to have just a wider sense of the world and that it can’t hurt you and it might very well help you.

Roger Ream [00:40:26] I’ve been handed a note by the engineer that we’re coming up on our time limit, and I have trouble believing it because it’s been such a pleasure to talk with you. And I would like to ask you to reflect on another story before we close. And that’s a story you often tell to all of our students in the program by Ethel Fugard, who you mentioned earlier, South African playwright, My children, My Africa. Is that the name?

Michael Collins [00:40:56] Yes, that was one of his plays.

Roger Ream [00:40:59] Can you talk about how you use that story with our students?

Michael Collins [00:41:05] Fugard came to Georgetown and gave a talk. We asked a number of distinguished people to choose a book that meant something to them. Fugard chose Thoreau’s Walden and he told how he was depressed. His play wasn’t going well. South Africa was a mess, he said, And he was in great despair. And then he read  Thoreau about the ability to shape the day. No matter what the circumstances are. You find yourself, an individual has the ability to affect the quality of the day. I think that’s exactly the way it was put. And the point was that and he goes on to say that, you know, I am responsible for my soul. I and nobody can interfere with that unless I let them. And what we were trying to get the students understand is the difference between freedom and liberty. People can constrain your liberty. They can put you in jail. They can pass a law that says you can’t do this justly or unjustly. But they cannot take away your freedom. They cannot take away your freedom to respond. Your choice of how to respond to the situation in which you find yourself. And of course, a great example of that was Viktor Frankl. But what we wanted the students to understand is, they don’t have to be in the end prisoners. They have freedom of conscience. They have the freedom to respond. They always have something of themselves that has autonomy and independence. And it took some time for them because many languages don’t even have a distinction between freedom and liberty. It took some time to get them to see it, but they did. I remember explaining and re-explaining it to them, and of course, some of them were skeptical. That’s not true. They can drug you and so on. But we said, you’re never ever without your freedom to respond to the situation in which you find yourself. And I hope that did them some good as well. And that’s really what freedom is. The Fund for American Studies, we teach freedom. That’s what freedom means. We also teach liberty. But if we teach freedom, that’s what freedom means.

Roger Ream [00:43:42] Well, Mike Collins, this has been such a pleasure. We’ve only scratched the surface of what you’ve taught in the classroom over the years, the lessons you’ve conveyed to students. But I think this has been at least a small sample of the importance of the programs we do and having professors such as you in the classroom, with students who will be leaders in the future, helping them develop and have a moral compass, develop courage to make a difference, and to live lives as free individuals, even if they don’t have the kind of liberty that we might wish they had in many places in this world. So thank you for your service with TFAS. I hope it will continue in other capacities going forward. Now that you’ve retired as a professor in the classroom, because you still have so much to impart on young people, and we’ll be calling on you to continue to offer those lessons to our alumni and our students in the future.

Michael Collins [00:44:44] I would be happy to and thank you for having me. I’m honored to think, you think I’m worth listening to for an hour. So thank you very much. And also for your very generous words about my work and teachings.

Roger Ream [00:44:59] Well, I know what we do is worth it because we’ve given you an opportunity beyond the classroom at Georgetown to reach students around the world. And so thank you for taking time away from home in the summers to teach around the world. Mike, it’s been a pleasure. All the best to you and thanks for joining me.

Michael Collins [00:45:22] Thank you. Thank you very much.

Roger Ream [00:45:24] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at the podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time, show courage in things large and small.


About the Podcast

TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.

Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.

If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.

View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.


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