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The Thinker

Posted: 2008-09-22

from the New York Times Magazine, Sept. 21, 2008.

âMy view is that you really fall into a trap when
you start allowing what you believe about your
students to dictate how you teach your
discipline,â he answered. âToo often these days
we end up setting up our courses in light of what
we believe about our students and we end up not
teaching them. At best, we end up housebreaking


The Thinker


With its roots in agricultural education and its

remote location in rural Alabama, Auburn

University has long been an easy target for

ridicule from its archrival, the University of

Alabama, whose students refer to Auburn as âthe

barnâ â or as Alabamaâs legendary head football

coach, Bear Bryant, once put it, to the enduring

delight of his fans, âthat cow college on the

other side of the state.â

Auburn is a land-grant university: it became one

in 1872 under a federal program geared toward

helping the working class obtain practical

college educations. That mission continues

largely to this day. A public university with an

annual tuition of less than $6,000 for Alabama

residents, it accepts roughly 70 percent of those

who apply. Among its 20,000 undergraduates,

business and engineering are the most popular

majors. When students choose liberal-arts majors,

they tend to be the more practical ones â

communications, criminology, psychology, prelaw.

So it came as something of a surprise when, in

the late â90s, Auburnâs college of liberal arts

undertook an internal ranking of its dozen

academic departments and philosophy came out on

top. The administration figured that there must

have been a problem with the criteria it used,

and a new formula was drawn up. Once again,

philosophy came in first. This time, the

administration decided to give up on the rankings

altogether. âAs I often put it to the dean,

youâve got a philosophy department that you have

no right to have,â Kelly Jolley, the chairman of

the department, told me recently. âItâs just way,

way out of step with what you would expect to

find at a place like Auburn.â

Jolley is almost single-handedly responsible for

this state of affairs. When he first arrived at

Auburn as a young professor 17 years ago, there

were just a handful of philosophy majors, and

there wasnât much interest inside the department

or the administration in adding more. Today,

however, there are about 50 philosophy majors at

Auburn. If recent history is any guide, a handful

of them will even pursue Ph.D.âs in philosophy at

highly competitive graduate schools and go on to

become professional philosophers. âI donât know

of a comparable department at a comparable

school,â James Conant, a philosophy professor at

the University of Chicago, where two of Jolleyâs

former students are now studying, told me.

This summer I spent several days with Jolley,

attending his classes and talking, often for

hours at a time, about philosophy and his

approach to teaching. At 42, he is a bear of a

man with a prematurely white beard and blue eyes.

He walks with an unsteady gait, the product of a

pair of bad knees from his days as a high-school

football lineman. You might imagine philosophers

as inaccessible and withdrawn, endlessly absorbed

in esoteric thoughts. Jolley couldnât be further

from this stereotype. Heâs cheerful and engaged,

an enthusiast about everything from college

football, which he follows rabidly, even by

Southern standards, to pit bulls (he owns two,

Ahab and Sadie).

This is not to say that Jolley isnât, above all,

a philosopher. Itâs just that he sees philosophy

less as a profession than as a way of looking at,

of being in, the world. âI am convinced that

philosophy is not just about theory,â he told me.

âItâs about a life well lived and thoughts truly


In May, when I visited Jolley, the Auburn campus

had just cleared out for the summer, but he was

teaching a summer class, Introduction to Logic.

He was also running two unofficial, noncredited

study groups, one on an early Greek theologian

named Gregory of Nyssa and another on the 20th-

century philosopher Bertrand Russell, which met

in the philosophy departmentâs cramped, poorly

air-conditioned lounge, known as the Lyceum,

after Aristotleâs original school of philosophy

in Athens.

Jolley has been running discussion groups like

these since he first came to Auburn. They are

emblematic of his approach to teaching, which, if

itâs working properly, quickly migrates out of

the classroom and into more informal settings,

whether itâs the Lyceum, a coffee shop or the

rambling grounds of a Civil War-era mansion where

he likes to go for walks with students.

Being a philosopher requires you to engage in the

practice of relentless inquiry about everything,

so itâs not surprising that Jolley has spent

untold hours puzzling over how to best teach the

discipline itself. What he has decided is that

philosophy canât be taught â or learned â like

other academic subjects. To begin with, it takes

longer. âPlato said that you become a philosopher

by spending âmuch timeâ in sympathy with other

philosophers,â he told me. âMuch time. I take

that very seriously.â We were sitting in his

office, which was dark with academic books and

journals; a large paperweight reading âThinkâ sat

amid the clutter on his desk. âPlato,â he went

on, âtalked about it as a process of âsparking

forth,â that as you spend more time with other

philosophers, you eventually catch the flame.

Thatâs how I think about teaching philosophy.â

Jolley says he thinks of his relationships with

his students less as teacher-student than as

master-apprentice. His goal, as he sees it, isnât

to teach students about philosophy; it is to show

them what it means to think philosophically, to

actually be a philosopher. When the approach

works, the effect can be significant. Several

years ago, a student named Zack Loveless wandered

into one of Jolleyâs classes and very nearly

dropped it after the first day. âI was expecting

a survey course, and in walks this big scary guy,

using words Iâd never heard before, talking about

Hume as background for Kant, telling us how hard

the class was going to be,â Loveless told me.

Loveless, who grew up in a working-class home in

a small town in Alabama, stuck with the course

and soon switched his major from psychology to

philosophy. He took at least one class with

Jolley for each of his remaining semesters at

Auburn and did several independent projects with

him and is now getting a Ph.D. in philosophy at

the University of Chicago. He describes Jolley as

more of a collaborator than a professor; rather

than answer his questions, Loveless said, Jolley

tried to work through philosophical problems with


Jolley is always on the lookout for students with

a philosophical bent, and has urged his

colleagues to recruit aggressively as well. While

I was at Auburn, he introduced me to one of the

departmentâs current top prospects for graduate

school, a rising senior named Benjamin Pierce.

Jolley told me that Pierceâs gift for reasoning

was first identified a couple of years ago in an

entry-level logic class. âIf A is greater than B,

and B is greater than C, then A is greater than

C,â the professor said, introducing the so-called

transitive relation.

âNot in rock, paper, scissors,â Pierce


Pierce is now majoring in philosophy. âWe have

high hopes for him,â Jolley told me with the

pride of a football coach talking up a strong

tackler with great open-field speed. âI would bet

that he ends up in a Top 10 graduate program.â

Jolley grew up in Gallipolis, Ohio, a small town

in the Appalachian Mountains. He first felt the

tug of the philosophical life during his freshman

year in high school, when a teacher gave him a

copy of Platoâs dialogues. An intellectually

unfocused but precocious student, Jolley

instantly took to the challenge of wrestling with

such a difficult text. âUntil then, Iâd been

clever enough to do whatever I wanted to do, to

read with one eye,â he told me. âThen all of a

sudden I ran into philosophy, and it was like

running into a brick wall.â

But it was the substance of Platoâs meditations â

the radical nature of the philosopherâs quest for

self-knowledge â that really grabbed hold of

Jolley. This was partly a function of his

religious upbringing. His parents attended a

Church of Christ three times a week. Listening to

all those sermons about heaven and hell turned

Jolley inward, made him wonder about what kind of

person he was. But the church, he felt, hadnât

given him the tools he needed to grapple with

that question. Philosophy did. âIâve never been

able to shake the feeling that the old Delphic

instruction, know thyself, applied to me,â he


At the end of Jolleyâs junior year in high

school, the College of Wooster offered him a

four-year academic scholarship. He skipped his

senior year and went straight to college,

declaring his intention to major in philosophy on

the first day of class. Jolley went on to get his

Ph.D. at the University of Rochester and was

still finishing his dissertation on Plotinus, the

founder of neo-Platonism, when he and his wife

packed up their apartment and drove to Auburn in

the summer of 1991 with their 15-month-old son.

Jolleyâs early efforts to change the culture of

the philosophy department at Auburn met with

quite a bit of resistance from the universityâs

administration. Among other things, they rejected

his requests for money for more upper-level

philosophy classes. Determined to build up

Auburnâs philosophy major, Jolley simply taught

the courses himself, free of charge.

Many of Jolleyâs colleagues were similarly

skeptical of what he was trying to do. Several of

them urged him to âtone it down,â he recalls,

when they noticed the intimidating syllabus for

his first class, the history of ancient

philosophy, taped to the door of his office. They

advised Jolley against wasting his time trying to

start a philosophy club at Auburn â the club now

has about 30 members â and called his approach to

teaching âaristocratic.â In particular, they

objected to the fact that he was grading students

not on how well they learned philosophical

terminology and definitions but on their ability

to think philosophically.

Jolley gradually built allies within the

department while at the same time looking to

bring in like-minded professors. He didnât expect

Auburn to be able to land top candidates, but he

was convinced that a lot of talented young

philosophers were slipping through the cracks,

often because they had the misfortune of

specializing in an especially popular area, or

because they had been stigmatized for taking too

long to finish their degrees. (Jolleyâs latest

hire, Arata Hamawaki, spent 18 years finishing

his Ph.D. at Harvard.) Auburnâs philosophy

department is now dominated by graduates of some

of the nationâs top philosophy programs.

By any measure, Jolley has accomplished a great

deal. But in the service of what, exactly? During

my stay at Auburn â and in our e-mail exchanges

afterward â Jolley and I returned again and again

to that very question. Why does philosophy


Jolley could never seem to come up with a clear,

settled explanation, and since clarity is a

philosophical virtue, on one level this obviously

bothered him. Yet his failure to give a simple

answer was, in a way, the best answer he could

have given. Philosophy is so much a part of how

Jolley thinks, talks and writes that his attempts

at an answer were themselves invariably

philosophical, which is to say, aimed as much at

exploring the assumptions behind the question as

at answering it. âOne reason it can seem so hard

to see how philosophy relates to life is that we

have often already decided that philosophy is

thinking, not living,â he once wrote me.

Explaining why philosophy matters, in other

words, requires doing philosophy â the very thing

the questioner wants explained.

While I was in Auburn, I attended a few of

Jolleyâs logic classes. All students at Auburn

are required to take at least one entry-level

philosophy course like logic. Traditionally,

these âcoreâ classes are designed to ease

students into a particular subject. This is not

Jolleyâs approach. As he argues, core curriculums

should aspire to do more than merely give

students a taste of something. âLook, if the core

is really going to matter for a studentâs

education, they need genuine exposure to that

discipline,â he told me a few minutes before

class. âYouâre not giving them âthe coreâ if what

youâre giving them is some sugarcoated simulacrum

of philosophy that youâve decided they can


Jolleyâs classes are famously demanding. Instead

of assigning relatively accessible books on

philosophers, he loads up his syllabuses with

primary texts and asks his students to record in

a notebook their thoughts on what theyâre

reading. âFor the student merely interested in

getting a degree, Kelly has nothing to offer,â

says a colleague, Michael Watkins. âBut for those

who are interested in more, Kelly provides an

example of what it means to be educated, to take

oneâs education seriously.â

Logic met at 9:45 a.m. in the Haley Center, a

dreary-looking, 10-story building that would have

been right at home in Communist East Berlin.

Jolley had assigned a short essay by Lewis

Carroll, âWhat the Tortoise Said to Achilles,â an

imagined dialogue in which the Tortoise flummoxes

Achilles by repeatedly refusing to accept what at

first appears to be an easily justified deductive

argument. Looking a lot like a forest ranger in

his army green shirt, khaki pants and heavy brown

boots, Jolley recapped the essay and ran through

several opposing interpretations of it. At every

turn, he was greeted with an uncomfortable


âNot a very talkative group,â Jolley observed

after the procession of flip-flops, orange Auburn

T-shirts and backward baseball caps filed out of

the room. âI can usually tell if students are

getting it from the looks on their faces, but

some of these kids were positively Sphinx-like.â

For all of the success Jolley has had creating a

thriving philosophy program at Auburn, the core

classes still represent the bulk of the teaching

load and the biggest challenge to the

departmentâs professors. âThereâs a battle at the

core level here to convince students that thereâs

even a possibility that philosophy might have

something interesting to offer them,â one Auburn

philosophy professor, Guy Rohrbaugh, told me.

It seems fair to wonder whether Jolleyâs approach

is the best way to win that battle. Itâs been

years since he has taught, say, a student on a

football scholarship, and the size of his classes

tends to shrink substantially after the first

meeting. Jolleyâs goal, as he describes it, is to

produce students who are âcapable of genuine

creative philosophical thought.â Thatâs a high

bar to set for students in an entry-level logic


After class, Jolley and I walked across Auburnâs

mostly deserted campus and into town for lunch.

It was oppressively hot and humid; Jolley wore a

fraying straw boater to keep the sun off his

face. Over pizza and iced tea, I asked him if he

ever wondered whether his style of teaching might

be inappropriate for a large state school like

Auburn â if the cost of his approach is that heâs

teaching to the few rather than the many. âMy

view is that you really fall into a trap when you

start allowing what you believe about your

students to dictate how you teach your

discipline,â he answered. âToo often these days

we end up setting up our courses in light of what

we believe about our students and we end up not

teaching them. At best, we end up housebreaking


In a sense, what Jolley is engaged in at Auburn

is nothing less than a defense of the liberal-

arts education. As he points out, the opening

stanza of Auburn Universityâs creed â âI believe

that this is a practical world and that I can

count only on what I earnâ â conveys a certain

kind of hostility to the world of ideas in which

philosophy and for that matter the rest of the

humanities plainly reside. âThe creed is a fine

document in many ways,â he told me, âbut it

reinforces a certain picture of what youâre here

for, and it can be very hard to break the grip of

that with students.â

In Jolleyâs ideal world, every student would

catch the philosophy flame, but he knows this

will never happen. He says that philosophy

requires a certain rare and innate ability â the

ability to step outside yourself and observe your

own mind in the act of thinking. In this respect,

Jolley recognizes that his detractors have a

point when they criticize his approach to

teaching. âItâs aristocratic in the sense that

any selection based on talent is aristocratic,â

he told me. âI know it offends everyoneâs sense

of democracy, this idea that everyoneâs equal,

but we all know thatâs just not true.â

Perhaps the dispute between Jolley and his

critics boils down to how you define great

teachers. You typically think about them as being

devoted, above all, to their students. Jolley

says his first priority is to philosophy itself.

âI care about the discipline of philosophy more

than the academic fate of any individual student

â and I think I should,â he said. âOtherwise Iâm

just a baby sitter who occasionally breaks into


Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer. His

most recent book is âThe Challenge: Hamden v.

Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power.â

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