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The Thinker

Publication Date: 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
them.â


THE COLLEGE ISSUE
The Thinker

By JONATHAN MAHLER

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
thought.â

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
him.

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
volunteered.

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
said.

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
matter?

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
swallow.â

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
silence.

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
class.

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
them.â

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
syllogism.â

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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