The Privilege of a Lifetime: Studying with John Rawls

Amy Gutmann, "The Privilege of a Lifetime: Studying with John Rawls," Princeton Independent, January 29, 2003.


Is justice possible in light of the apparent evil in the world? This question animated John Rawls’s passion for philosophy back when he was a Princeton undergraduate and graduate student. I recently learned this by reading his student files where Rawls’s teachers also write of his intellectual brilliance. What they could not know, and did not anticipate, was his tremendous potential not only as a scholar but also as a teacher.

I first met Rawls when I was an undergraduate at Harvard. He admitted me into his graduate seminar on justice, and treated me with the respect of an intellectual peer, subjecting my writing to far more critical and constructive scrutiny than I had ever expected, or experienced. In the classroom, Rawls modeled thinking about justice with the greatest of rigor and intensity. He plumbed the depths of some of the greatest philosophic texts of all time, reading them always both critically and sympathetically. He inspired an independence and impartiality of mind combined with a devotion to the idea that justice must matter if human beings matter.

Princeton Independent