There's something about Michael

Mitu Jayashankar
Updated: Mar 18, 2012 12:02:15 PM UTC

I'm a Delhi girl who managed to embrace the quirks of the South Indian way of life after moving to Bangalore. A sceptic but not a cynic, I'm lucky to have been a part of the Garden City’s journey from a sleepy paradise to a bustling high-tech metropolis. I'm interested in technology and business, education, social entrepreneurship and philanthropy. I began my journalistic career at A&M and passed through the portals of Businessworld and The Economic Times before coming to Forbes India.

Decoding charisma is difficult. It is never easy to pinpoint the exact reason why someone is immensely popular. Is it because they are really good at what they do? Is it because they are good-looking? Or is it because they have a certain charm that appeals to everyone?

Since yesterday, when I squeezed in with 1500 other people at the Infosys campus to listen to Michael Sandel, America’s best-known contemporary political philosopher and a Harvard University professor, I have been pondering this question. In the evening I attended a small private dinner in his honour, and all the while I kept observing him to get some clues on just what makes this man the most famous professor in the world right now. For those of you who have just landed from Mars and don’t know who I am talking about, Sandel is best known for teaching a course ‘Justice’, which is Harvard’s most well-attended course till date.

Back at the Infosys campus, I am crouched on the auditorium’s steps, squeezed tight between people’s legs. Someone’s boots are sticking in my back and as I try to balance my notebook on my knees, and start taking notes, I can’t believe I am doing this to hear a lecture.

Right through the ninety minutes that Sandel is on stage, I am struck by how complete his connect is with the audience. We are all packed in like sardines, but no one is fidgeting, yawning, or even texting to a friend. This despite the fact that many of those present are young engineers, who are notorious for having the attention span of two-year-olds.

Sandel’s charisma is not of the physical kind; he is slight, has a receding hairline and he doesn’t even have a deep voice. But the man is an academic rock star, someone whose lectures have been watched on YouTube millions of times, who has a whole series on the BBC. What gives?

After much pondering, I have been able to come up with three reasons for Sandel’s popularity: his technique, his manner and his subject.

Let’s start with his subject. Sandel's talk at Infosys was titled "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? Is it always wrong to lie? Is killing sometimes justified?" Philosophy, and particularly topics like justice and ethics, strike a deep chord within us. All of us wrestle with small and big moral dilemmas everyday. Should I lie to my boss and take the day off? Should I tip the beggar at the street? Should I tell my husband I am bunking office to watch a movie? The course Sandel teaches forces us to examine ourselves. Are we really as good as we think we are? And how do we compare with others?

Take the question with which he begins the talk at Infosys. Imagine you are a train driver, your brakes fail suddenly and your train is hurtling towards five people repairing the tracks. Suddenly you find a small turn on the left. There is one person working on that track. You can turn the train on the smaller track, kill that one person, but save five lives. Will you do it? Believe it or not, there is a divide in the audience. Now he says imagine you are an onlooker on the bridge and there is a heavy man standing next to you. If you push him down on the track, his body could block the train and save those five lives. Will you do it? The divide in the audience gets sharper. He goes on with the questioning, forcing you to examine yourself. Forcing you to examine the person sitting next to you who is voting completely opposite to your choices.

These are big questions to ponder but instead of making it all serious and formidable, Sandel makes it light and easy to grasp. And he does all of this while making fun of himself and even at times of the great philosophers like Aristotle and Kant. So that’s it then, his secret, I think. That he is so friendly, and witty and charming and extremely gentle. In the evening at dinner, I cannot help notice that he eats a completely Indian vegetarian meal with absolutely no fuss. And throughout that time he is still answering questions. He has no airs of a rock star, or even of an Ivy League professor. It is this quality of his that encourages the audience at Infosys to bombard him with statements and answers throughout the morning session. There is even a mad scramble to speak. People yell from the balcony when he cannot see them, trying to get his attention, fighting for the microphone. Is this really happening? I ask myself. People are fighting to engage with a professor? What is wrong with them?

And that is when it strikes me: the most important reason for his success is his technique. Sandel came to the morning session without a presentation, notes, pointers, or aids. Instead he delivered his talk through a question-and-answer session, cleverly interjecting philosophical theories of Aristotle and Kant. Wikipedia describes this method of teaching as Socratic. He began his talk with a question for the audience. And he keeps using that technique right through the talk. What would you do? How would you react? He keeps throwing the question back to the audience, till he becomes a voice in our heads. Since the audience is now co-opted into the lecture, they have as much of a responsibility to keep the discussion interesting as Sandel does. It works brilliantly, and by the time he brings the session to an end you are hungry for more.

Why can’t more teachers teach like this?

But maybe the technique worked too brilliantly. At dinner that night, one CEO complained to Sandel that the audience got carried away and the desire to participate was so much that we spent too much time listening to the audience. She says she found it irritating. “We came to listen to you, we should have heard you more.” Smug as I am over the fact that I have cracked a reason for the man’s charisma, I have to agree with her observation. Maybe if these were his students back in Harvard, he would have interjected. But being a guest at Infosys, he perhaps didn’t want to be rude.

At some point during dinner I ask him how he was so patient with the crowd this morning? He doesn’t answer it directly, just gives me a big smile.

Decoding charisma is difficult.

[See also my colleague NS Ramnath's take on another Sandel lecture in Bangalore.]

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An evening with Michael Sandel