Faculty Spotlight: David Chambliss Johnson

Faculty Spotlight: David Chambliss Johnson

Faculty Spotlight: David Chambliss Johnson
 

David Chambliss Johnson

Education: BA, Swarthmore College; MPhil, Oxford University; PhD, Princeton University

Publications include: The Rhetoric of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Cultural TransformationThe Idea of a Liberal Theory, and A Brief History of Justice
 
Current Projects: A work with the tentative title Justice as Reciprocity and on a book with the expected title The Birth of Social Justice

One could argue that David Chambliss Johnson’s academic career started in 1965 when he was just 16 years old. The Vietnam War was raging in South East Asia, and at home in East Tennessee, a battery of questions provoked the high school student. “My father was a highly ranked captain in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was supportive of the War in Vietnam, and I was not,” recalls Johnson, Professor of Political Science and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Political Science at Columbia. 


“The better you understand the world, the better you can solve its problems. My inclination is to understand the issues, and with that, I can help other people understand the issues and give rise to solutions.”  - David Chambliss Johnson


Johnson remembers several discussions over many years with his father where they disagreed with each other. But for Johnson, it was not simply enough to disagree. Having come from a family were every adult relative he knew was a lawyer, he had to understand why his opinion differed from his father’s and be able to explain it. So, at the prompting of his social studies teacher, he read about the history of the War. But his inquiry did not end with a book or two. Johnson proceeded to survey 1000 people about their attitudes regarding the Vietnam conflict in order to form his own opinion and feel secure in his discourse. “My father was a New Deal Democrat and ex-military. Like many from his generation, he trusted his government to make good decisions—I was taught in civics classes to have faith in government too, but the War in Vietnam was a huge failure with regards to loss of life, energy, and resources,” recounts Johnson who, at the same time, was grappling with the other significant social issue of the 1960s: the civil rights movement.
  
“I was from the American South. We had legal segregation when I was growing up, which created an astounding impression on me. It was the biggest issue of my youth,” says Johnson who, as a result of exposure to such social discord, today writes and teaches classes on social justice. 
 
Although he was a college student at Harvard and Swarthmore during the 1960s’ historic anti-war and civil rights demonstrations, Johnson saw higher value in forming a strong understanding of the issues, versus participating in rallies. “I’m an intellectual. I’m interested in ideas and the world. The better you understand the world, the better you can solve its problems. My inclination is to understand the issues, and with that, I can help other people understand the issues and give rise to solutions,” says Johnson who brings that resoluteness to his writings, research, and work with students. 
 
Since joining the Columbia faculty in 1986, Johnson has challenged undergraduates to inquire and discuss social thought through courses such as Contemporary Civilization, Political Theory, Theories of Justice, and Justice, all of which consist of elements of thought history, theory, law, legal cases and writings, and applied political theory. His objective as an educator is to encourage his students to question and discuss their points of view.