biographer walter isaacson ponders the challenge of holding strong beliefs while being open to new ideas and tolerant of others
Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and former chairman and CEO of CNN and editor of Time magazine, spoke to more than 750 people at the Westmont President’s Breakfast Feb. 6. He drew from his acclaimed biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger to emphasize the impor-tance of intellect, creativity and moral will in today’s world.
“Smart people are a dime a dozen,” he said. “What it really takes is creativity and moral will to turn a smart person into somebody who can serve this world.”
In the book “Wise Men,” which he co-authored, Isaacson tells the story of the men who creatively developed institutions such as NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe during the Cold War to combat the rising threat of Communism.
“We face the same kind of global crisis today between those who are open-minded and tolerant while holding to a deep faith and those who are close-minded and fanatical,” Isaacson said. “We have not been as creative in our generation in developing economic programs like the Marshall Plan or finding effective ways to communicate our values like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
“We have an opportunity now to merge creativity and moral will to address the challenges we face, but we need to work together and be humble and look for common ground. Compromise doesn’t make great heroes, but it makes great democracy.”
At a convocation on campus, Isaacson answered questions from four student panelists: Sze-Fern Lim ’09, a double major in physics and art from San Diego, Calif.; Graham Valenta ’09, a double major in philosophy and psychology with an emphasis in neuroscience from Westminster, Colo.; Michael Gardner ’09, a double major in physics and computer science from Nairobi, Kenya; and Katie Zirschky ’09 a triple major in mathematics, chemistry and biology from Salem, Ore.
Isaacson told them the most difficult challenge in life is to know when to hold true to your principles and deep beliefs and when to be open and question them. “The goal of a liberal arts college is to help you learn this balance,” he said. “There is no simple formula, and people often get it wrong.” He also told students they had to learn what was in the box before they could start thinking outside the box.
The Westmont Foundation sponsors the event, which has sold out every year, and Gerd Jordano chairs the President’s Breakfast committee. Previous speakers include David McCullough (2006), Thomas Friedman (2007) and Fareed Zakaria (2008). Plans are already underway for next year.