Professor at Large: The Cornell Years

Professor at Large: The Cornell Years

by John Cleese

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And now for something completely different. Professor at Large features beloved English comedian and actor John Cleese in the role of Ivy League professor at Cornell University. His almost twenty years as professor-at-large has led to many talks, essays, and lectures on campus. This collection of the very best moments from Cleese under his mortarboard provides a unique view of his endless pursuit of intellectual discovery across a range of topics. Since 1999, Cleese has provided Cornell students and local citizens with his ideas on everything from scriptwriting to psychology, religion to hotel management, and wine to medicine.

His incredibly popular events and classes—including talks, workshops, and an analysis of A Fish Called Wanda and The Life of Brian—draw hundreds of people. He has given a sermon at Sage Chapel, narrated Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with the Cornell Chamber Orchestra, conducted a class on script writing, and lectured on psychology and human development. Each time Cleese has visited the campus in Ithaca, NY, he held a public presentation, attended and or lectured in classes, and met privately with researchers. From the archives of these visits, Professor at Large includes an interview with screenwriter William Goldman, a lecture about creativity entitled, "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind," talks about Professor at Large and The Life of Brian, a discussion of facial recognition, and Cleese's musings on group dynamics with business students and faculty.

Professor at Large provides a window into the workings of John Cleese's scholarly mind, showcasing the wit and intelligence that have driven his career as a comedian, while demonstrating his knack of pinpointing the essence of humans and human problems. His genius on the screen has long been lauded; now his academic chops get their moment in the spotlight, too.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501716591
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 10/15/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 731,325
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John Cleese is a comedian, actor, producer, and director, as well as the Provost’s Visiting Professor at Cornell University. Cleese is best known for his work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, as well as numerous other on-screen performances, including as Q in the James Bond franchise and Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter movies. Cleese holds an M.A. in law from Cambridge University, and an honorary LL.D. from St. Andrews University, where he was rector for several years.

Read an Excerpt




APRIL 4, 1999

MAY I SAY HOW DELIGHTED I am to have been asked to speak to you this afternoon, because usually when I appear in public, it is a show business occasion and I am therefore expected to be funny and entertaining.

So it's a great relief to me to know that there's no expectation of that here at Cornell. So as I have some forty minutes to pad out, I thought I'd start by recommending a book.

It's called Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. It's a book that addresses a danger that has been developing in our society for several years. This danger is based on three separate wrong beliefs. The first is the belief that being decisive means taking decisions quickly. The second is the belief that fast is always better. The third is the belief that we should think of our minds as computers.

Let's look at these forms of insanity in more detail.

First, the belief that decisiveness means taking decisions quickly, that you ask a decisive person a question and [snaps fingers] just like that — you get a decisive answer.

Well, let me tell you the most important lesson I have ever learned in my twenty-six years with Video Arts. I learned it when I was writing a film on decision-making. It is this: when there is a decision to be taken, the first question to ask is, when does this decision need to be made?

And that's when you take the decision. Don't take it until then, as new information, unexpected developments, and — perish the thought — better ideas may occur.

So although making decisions very quickly [snap, snap, snap] looks impressive, it's not only show-off behavior but actually a bit cowardly. It shows that you'd rather create the impression of decisiveness [snap, snap] than wait to substantially improve your chances of coming up with the right decision.

Second wrong belief: faster is better.

Of course, I know that this is sometimes true. If your office catches fire, you don't need to call in the whole department to brainstorm before you call the fire brigade. But in business life such urgency is the exception, not the norm. And yet, more often than not, we unthinkingly take it for granted that fast is more desirable.

I'd like you to listen to some classical music. [Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is played for the audience at three times its normal speed.]

That was the latest, "fast" version. The question is, is it better? Because thanks to modern technology, you can now listen to everything Beethoven ever wrote in just twenty minutes. And that's while eating lunch and riding an exercise bike. Wonderful what we can pack in these days.

You think I'm joking? Take a look at this irresistible offer from American Airline's current mail-order catalog [shows "Famous Books" advertisement]:

The World's 100 Greatest Books Audio Cassette Collection. If you were to read each of these 100 great books at the highly ambitious rate of four per year it would take twenty-five years to read the entire collection. But now with each book condensed onto a forty-five-minute sound cassette, you can absorb much of their knowledge, wisdom, and insight in just a few weeks and acquire a depth of knowledge achieved by only a few people who have ever lived.

Now there's efficiency for you!

Let me tell you a story. In the 1920s a professor at Oxford and a professor in Beijing communicated with each other by mail for many years. Eventually, the Chinese professor wrote saying that he was coming to visit Oxford. The Oxford professor thought that he would like to show the Chinese professor something quite outside his normal experience, so he took him to an athletics meeting. After one race there was a lot of cheering and excitement, and the Chinese professor asked what it was about.

"Well," said the Oxford professor, "The man in the red shirt has just run the one hundred yards one-tenth of a second faster than it has ever been run before in this country."

"I see," said the Chinese professor, "and what does he propose to do with the time he has saved?"

There is, of course, a point in doing some activities quickly, but there are some processes in which it is pointless to hurry. Hence the Polish proverb, "Sleep faster, we need the pillows." But in corporate and business life in the West today, hurrying has become a sort of mind-set; we do it automatically.

Yet after decades of inventing timesaving devices, we have less time than ever to do the things we want. So doing everything faster is not necessarily the answer. Nor, paradoxically, is it necessarily very efficient. Remember the old IBM maxim: don't confuse activity with achievement.

So, second wrong belief in contemporary business is, faster is always better.

Third wrong belief: we should think like computers.

Let me read you what Neil Postman, a professor of communications theory, says about that in his wonderful book Technopoly:

The computer, in fact, makes possible the fulfillment of Descartes's dream of the mathematization of the world. Computers make it easy to convert facts into equations. And whereas this can be useful (as when the process reveals a pattern that would otherwise go unnoticed), it is diversionary and dangerous when applied indiscriminately to human affairs.

And later on Postman says that behind our computer culture lies an erroneous assumption that most serious problems are technical and generally arise from inadequate information.

If a nuclear catastrophe occurs, it shall not be because of inadequate information. Where people are dying of starvation, it does not occur because of inadequate information. If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information.

And if a firm goes out of business because a competitor has come up with a fresh and original idea, the odds are that had very little to do with inadequate information either. So the computer does not help us in these situations. As Thoreau pointed out, technology is simply an improved means to an unimproved end.

These three beliefs — being decisive equals making decisions quickly, faster is always better, we should behave like computers — come together to form the very dangerous idea that the kind of thinking business managers should be using all the time is fast, purposive, deliberate, logical, computer-type thinking, and that this mode of thought represents the highest intellectual achievement of man.

Codswallop. Horse feathers. Hogwash. Fiddlesticks. Balderdash. Flapdoodle. And Poppycock. To clarify, I disagree.

Because I know that there is a slower, less focused, less articulate way of thinking that for some problems works much better. Silly example: sometimes people come to interview me about my comedy and ask, "Where do you get all your ideas from?" I always reply, "I get them every Monday morning on a postcard from a little man in Swindon call Figgis. I once asked him where he gets them from and, apparently, it's from a woman called Mildred Spong, who lives on the Isle of Man. But he tells me that she absolutely refuses to say where she gets hers from."

The point is, we just don't know where we get our ideas from, but it certainly isn't from our laptops. They just pop into our heads. The greatest poets and scientists freely admit that they have no control over the creative process. They all know that they cannot create to order. They can only put themselves in favorable — usually quiet — circumstances, bear the problem in mind, and ... wait. Indeed, the whole creative process is so mysterious that academic psychologists, who've studied creativity in depth in the '60s and '70s, eventually just gave up because they couldn't get any further — they literally couldn't explain it.

But although we can't explain it, we do have descriptions of what happens. Albert Einstein, for example, said of his own creative process:

Words do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought; I seem to use more or less clear images of a visual type, combined with some almost muscular feelings. These vaguely play together, combining with each other, without any logical construction in words or signs which could be communicated to others.

And a range of Nobel Prize winners agree: "After months of frustration, seeing the solution in a flash"; "It must be like this ... it's intuition"; "It's a feeling ... I must follow this path"; "Not reasoning, not calculating, not making an effort; simply bearing in mind what you need to know."

Okay, okay, all that creative reverie is all very well for Einstein and Shakespeare and Seamus Heaney and the boffins at CalTech, but the rest of us slaving away in our offices have more pressing and practical problems on our minds. True. But it's also true that one of the most pressing and practical problems, often the most pressing and practical problem we face is, where we can find more innovative ideas and more creative solutions? By putting ourselves in precisely the same relaxed, attentive, open, and inquiring states of mind that I've been talking about.

Because the whole point of what I'm saying today is that it's not just scientists and poets who rely on intuition and promptings from their unconscious. The same is demonstrably true in the business world. And if you talk to really successful innovators in the world of technology and business, you find them describing their major breakthroughs in exactly the same kind of language as poets and physicists. Bill Gates, Ross Perot, Robert Bernstein (of Random House), Joyce C. Hall (of Hallmark), John Teets (of Greyhound), Sir John Harvey-Jones all pay glowing tributes to the power of hunch and intuition.

These are words that you will not find in the curriculum of business schools, and which in most corporate cultures are treated like the plague, even though we happily rely on them all the time in our everyday lives. For example, we all know the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon: we can't quite remember a name and the more relentlessly we pursue it, the more resolutely it evades us. Yet if we stop thinking about it, five minutes later it pops effortlessly into our minds. That is not the result of fast, purposive, logical thinking.

And we also know the kind of problem that we need to sleep on. It doesn't have a logical solution like a math problem. It needs us to plumb our feelings, our assessments of situations and people, our intuition — all of which takes time. And the next morning we know how to proceed. A course of action feels right to us although it may take us some time to explain it in words. Please note, in this kind of thinking, the solution precedes verbalization: like all seeds, it needs a period of peace and quiet in which to germinate.

So we all know at a gut level that this slower way of thinking works for us. Yet we don't quite trust it. We somehow believe that the faster mode of thinking is more reliable, more realistic, more respectable, more scientific — despite what scientists tell us! Sadly, most of us believe today that a computer is of more use to us than a wise man.

This is why I was overjoyed to find this book, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, written by Guy Claxton, an academic psychologist who is familiar with all the psychological research about thinking, and who is therefore able to prove, with hard scientific evidence, that slow thinking is just as valid as fast thinking — for certain problems.

To clarify, by hare brain Claxton is referring to the sort of practical, workaday thinking which involves weighing up known pros and cons, constructing logical arguments, using measurements, and consciously solving problems. An engineer working out why a power switch keeps shorting, a project manager checking the cost of materials, a job applicant wrestling with a multiple-choice examination question — all are employing a way of knowing that relies on the application of reason and logic to known data or deliberate conscious thinking.

Tortoise mind is the way Guy describes our slower way of thinking: an endangered species in corporate life these days, where the word slow has come to be synonymous with stupid. Tortoise thinking is less purposeful and clear-cut, makes fewer assumptions, is more playful, leisurely, or dreamy. In this mode we are ruminating or mulling things over, being contemplative or meditative. We may be pondering a problem, rather than earnestly trying to solve it, just bearing it in mind as we watch the world go by.

And he says this: "These leisurely ways of knowing and experiencing are just as 'intelligent' as the other faster ones. We need the tortoise mind just as much as we need the hare brain." In other words, in many situations it offers an infinitely more resourceful and inventive approach to problem solving than our quick logical, but conventional conscious minds.

Let's be clear: we need both. Because some of the problems we come up against need hare-brain thinking, and some of the problems need tortoise-mind thinking, and some problems need the two together working as a team. Hare-brain thinking works best when the problem is straightforward, logistical, clearly defined. We know what kind of an answer we need, we know what factors are involved, we have all the information we need, and we can rely on the measurements we've been given.

On the other hand, tortoise mind works best in complex, ill-defined situations when we are not quite sure what sort of an answer we are after, where it's not clear how many factors are involved, where we may not have all the information, and where it's hard or impossible to measure the factors. Like a lot of real-life problems — how to manage a difficult group of people at work, how we can best handle a child who is having problems at school, or whether we need a completely new approach to our marketing.

A simple example: If you want to know the fastest, most efficient way to drive from Chicago to Tulsa, hare brain directs you to the freeway. If, on the other hand, you want to know what kind of people live in the Midwest, how they earn a living, what the landscape is like, how the economy is going, and so on — if you want to understand and get a feel for the Midwest — tortoise mind will meander south, follow its nose, explore interesting byroads without worrying where they may lead. You may arrive a lot later, but you'll be a lot wiser.

Because that's how tortoise-mind thinking works — it's curious, open-minded, follows its nose. Unlike hare brain, it has no problem with vagueness or confusion. It looks, without deciding in advance what it's looking for. Because, in Claxton's words, "The fundamental design specification of the unconscious brain enables us to find, record, and use information that is of a degree of subtlety greater than we can talk or think about."

The bottom line is this: hare-brain thinking works well when we need to make smallish modifications in an otherwise satisfactory way of doing something.

Tortoise mind is needed when we are after a really new and creative idea. And Guy Claxton argues that, in this technological age, we've all started to neglect tortoise mind. If you want to get an MBA, you'll find that the entrance exams and the GMAT test to the college will only test your hare-brain thinking capabilities. In business the tortoise is disqualified before the race even starts.

So why is tortoise mind neglected? One reason is that hare brain is articulate. It can explain its thoughts and solutions because it's consciously aware of its own activity. As the math teacher says, you can show your figuring as you go along. We cut the advertising budget, the sales figures went down; therefore, the sales figures went down because we cut the advertising budget. You have a hunch there may be another reason, but you can't quite express it ... so you forget it.

It's the opposite with tortoise mind. If you're in tortoise mode you can't possibly describe how you are thinking because you've no idea what's going on below the surface of the mind where your intuition resides.

This must be why hare brain has established an advantage over tortoise mind: because hare brain can always sound good and logical. Imagine a situation where two people are contemplating a marketing problem. One is very experienced. This person likes to sense how the marketing campaign might work, feel what's going on, based on years of experience of the firm's customers and previous campaigns. So it may be a long time before his tortoise mind comes up with a hunch that the marketing campaign will work — or won't work. And it will be even longer before the person can articulate the feelings and reasons underlying the hunch.

On the other side of the table is an articulate young person thinking about the same marketing campaign in hare-brain mode. This person may have joined the company last week, may know nothing of the company's customers or previous campaigns, yet this person, having read three books on marketing and having verbal facility, may sound much more persuasive because they express their ideas so well. This kind of executive can fall into a category of manager known as the "articulate incompetent." They're very good at manipulating words and phrases and ideas impressively — it's just that they don't really, really understand what they are describing. But the danger is that they will sound better than someone who does, and we will therefore believe them. So we must not mistrust tortoise mind just because it's not articulate. We must wait for it to express itself before we let hare brain analyze and criticize it.


Excerpted from "Professor At Large"
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Copyright © 2018 Cornell University.
Excerpted by permission of Cornell University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Stephen J. Ceci
1. Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: JOHN CLEESE • APRIL 4, 1999
2. Screenwriting Seminar: JOHN CLEESE AND BILL GOLDMAN • OCTOBER 14, 2000
3. Sermon at Sage Chapel: JOHN CLEESE • APRIL 22, 2001
4. The Human Face: JOHN CLEESE AND STEPHEN J. CECI • APRIL 28, 2001
5. What Is Religion? Musings on Life of Brian: JOHN CLEESE • OCTOBER 22, 2004
6. Creativity, Group Dynamics, and Celebrity: JOHN CLEESE AND BETA MANNIX • APRIL 19, 2009
7. A Conversation with John Cleese: JOHN CLEESE AND DEAN JOHN SMITH • SEPTEMBER 11, 2017

What People are Saying About This

Bill Maher

"John Cleese is the whole reason I love the British when, frankly, there are so many reasons not to. I went to Cornell in the 70s, and if John had been making these speeches there back then, I would have had a much better time."

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