We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets“
Nearly every semester, a student comes to me with an interview request– an assignment from another teacher. I’m usually happy to comply. Often as not, lately, the interview is conducted quickly and impersonally via email. But late on Friday we spent a solid hour in my office, after classes and other student consultations ended, discussing my background, influences, reasons for taking the path less traveled, advice for young people treading the same road. (My advice is short and simple: find your passion. Don’t major in, say, concrete unless you’re pretty sure that’s what you want to do with your life, lest you get stuck for good. For bad.)
Oddly, despite the gorgeously-beckoning weather outdoors and the pull of the weekend ahead, and at the tail end of a week of conceptual shot-gunning (in other words, way too much talking), I found myself in a talky mood and enjoyed the interview. A person really ought to look over the shoulder periodically, pace Satchel Paige (“Don’t look back”), to trace the footprints back to their source. It’s low-tech GPS, Hansel & Gretel-style.
So there I sat, volubly recounting those long-ago days at Enormous Midwestern State University, under the tutelage of Professors M. and S. and B.and B. and vS. (having bailed on PoliSci, after learning that what I cared about was really not comparative statistics). I’m grateful for the fine introduction to philosophy they furnished, even though I sometimes gripe about the absence (then and now) of American philosophy from their curriculum.
EMSU was smaller then, but it’s grown into a larger and more epistemologically-oriented program. A fine one, but not fine enough– last time I checked– to provide a corner for the likes of William James, John Dewey, George Santayana, or Josiah Royce, let alone the Concord Transcendentalists they probably still consider too literary to count as philosophers at all. (As though being artfully adept with language disabled the reasoning function.) This is a sensitive point for me, as wave upon wave of freshmen, year after year, arrive in my Intro classroom without even the barest recognition of the giants of their own tradition. It’s as if a Greek student hadn’t heard of Socrates, a French frosh of Descartes, a German of Nietzsche, an Aussie of Peter Singer. (OK, I suppose there are Aussies who don’t know Animal Liberation.)
So my road in the woods has diverged sharply from theirs, as regards content-provision. But the point I made in the interview is that my profs were first-rate, and the first cause of my presence in this role now. Young Dr. M., fresh from UMass, was our pal. He had us over to his apartment, he joined us at our “Hegel Society” Friday afternoon sessions in Michael’s pub, now just a bulldozed memory. (But I don’t think he was there the day D.R. tried to demonstrate his free will via violent confrontation with a beer mug– an event I’ve gotten lots of mileage out of, over the years.) He was an analytic philosopher, treating it all as a fun and challenging puzzle but nothing to be solemn about.
Dr. vS., on the other hand, was older, more serious and intense in demeanor, mysterious and cryptic and continental. We lined up to be humbled in his Heidegger seminar, where we understood a tiny fraction of what he said about Sein und Zeit, but that didn’t matter. I recall giving up at least one weeknight when several of us met at the department after hours, trying in futility to comprehend dasein and its discontents. (But how grown-up we felt when Herr Doktor Professor wandered in unexpectedly at around 9 pm and saw us sweating over our text!)
What we got from him is what philosophy students– not just philosophy students, but them possibly more than most– should always be most grateful to receive from a teacher: an urgent sense of the power and importance of ideas and thinking (and, my pragmatist models added, the equal urgency of connecting them fruitfully to experience and action).
As William James said in Pragmatism of C.S. Peirce, his lectures “delivered flashes of brilliant light relieved against Cimmerian darkness! None of us, I fancy, understood ALL that he said…” To say the least. But we were elevated by the effort, and improved by the habit of stretching.
It was vS. who first introduced me to Plato’s myth of the cave, inviting us to think of ourselves as fellow cave-dwellers seeking the light. Another humble pedagogical metaphor he offered portrayed us as fellow ladder-climbers, with himself just a rung or so ahead of us.
And it was vS. who gave me my first solid reassurance that I wasn’t wasting my time and talents in a philosophy classroom. He told me I wrote like T.S. Eliot. I’m still not sure what he meant, I think he was being kind but also corrective. But as a St. Louisan with a touch of anglophilia, I wasn’t insulted.
He also gave me my first real encouragement to pursue graduate studies. “I think there will be a place for you.” Doesn’t look like much, in so many words, but it meant everything. It’s what got me to Vanderbilt, into the life-changing orbit of John Lachs, and put me onto the American philosophers I’ve been wrestling with for most of my adulthood.
And so I returned in memory to the place where I began, beginning to know it for the first time.
BTW: my peers at EMSU were mostly first-rate, too. There turned out to be a place for many of them as well. And remind me to tell you about “Cruisin’ Cal” sometime, and C.M. who was fond of the poet “Cool-ridge” and who provoked my California-cool Journalism School roommate at a party, repeatedly addressing him as “Snide.” Are you out there, guys?
Who’ve I forgotten, Andy?