"Requiem for a Philosophy Professor: Remembering David N. Mowry" Why? Radio Episode
12:07AM Apr 16, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
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Hi, welcome to why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host jack Russell Weinstein. Thank you for joining me on this special web only episode. There's no guest today, just me talking for a little while about a friend I lost a couple days ago. He was my professor and my mentor, and I wouldn't be here talking to you if he hadn't been a part of my life. I always wanted him to be on why but never quite happened. Sadly, this remembrance will have to suffice. What does one say about the teacher who saved your life? How do I memorialize the passing of the person who plucked me out of the muck, who set me on the right path without knowing it? It was just doing this job. In 1987, I enrolled the State University of New York Plattsburgh last discontented and socialized to dysfunction. I graduated four years later, following in the footsteps of one of the most honorable and impressive people I've ever met. David and Mallory passed away On April 23 2019, he was 78. When he retired, he was a Sunni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy, and the founding director of the university's Honors Program. Plattsburgh state is a small public university on the shores of Lake Champlain in northern New York an hour south of Montreal. David spent his entire career there, starting as an instructor in 1971, then becoming an assistant professor in 74, an associate an ad and a full professor in 1990. These details are of little interest to non academics. They tell the familiar story of a professor who becomes so entrenched in an institution that it's hard for students to think of one without the other. There, sparseness, however, hides the more remarkable aspects. Unlike most faculty who stayed in one place, David never gave up. He never became bitter. He was a beacon for student and institutional aspiration, channeling his energy into a groundbreaking honors program that accomplished something astonishingly rare in higher education, a curriculum that prioritized learning over accomplishment. There was nothing about me that suggested I would end up in a college Honors Program. I grew up in an environment broken by addiction, anger, envy, self deception and self destructiveness, manipulation, and the complete inability to envision a future. I almost failed my way through the number one academic public high school in the country, capping off a water treading for years with a Muslim illness that required 24 hour care. No one thought I would graduate, at least of all me, but I did. And I ended up at Plattsburgh state by default. They invited me to enroll in the new experimental Star Program, which I later found out stood for student at risk. I went hoping to write the great American novel but was quickly drawn to philosophy by a temporary instructor who despite years of googling, I still can't find I'm pretty sure In my first class with David with Symbolic Logic my sophomore year, I would end up taking six classes with him and teaching a course under his supervision. I remember the very first conversation we had in class was not about logic but about happiness. I don't remember the exact question, but my answer was, money doesn't make you happy. Look at Donald Trump. He's rich, and he seems miserable. This would have been back in 1988. David glowed with appreciation, which he always did when a student offered a meaningful response. That glow was the most vivid form of acknowledgment I had received to date. We would spend the next three years regularly walking around the landscaped pond outside his office. He a dapper gentleman and a blue blazer smoking a cigar with a bald spot I would ironically inherit me. A thin punk rocker was shredded clothing towering over him by oxblood. Doc Martens, plodding along to match his easy stride. David was a naturalist who would buy a piece of the Adirondack Park 45 minutes away from campus to build a retreat. He spent years working with the state to minimize its environmental impact. I was still in New York City boy from a crack ridden neighborhood, who thought that the fountain in the pond was nature. If he noticed the contrast, he never commented on it. Many years later, I would email him to ask what kind of telescope to buy my daughter when she became interested in the stars.
David was an Aristotle scholar. So happiness and morality were among his primary concerns. Aristotle's fundamental insight was that a person could not be happy if he or she did not commit to a life of personal progress. That's a modern phrasing. Aristotle wouldn't recognize it. But what it means is that before we are happy, we have to be excellent. Aristotle argues that human beings are designed to do things. Were supposed to be citizens, care for ourselves, physically. Commit to friendships, explore knowledge and cultivate good character. Happiness is the culmination of each of us spending a lifetime doing all of these These activities better and better. We're all also subject to the vicissitudes of life what philosophers have called moral luck. It's hard to be excellent if tragedy strikes. And Aristotle understood that his theory meant not everyone could meet his standards. he famously wrote that we couldn't determine if a person was happy until after they died. As far as I know, David was the happiest person I know. By the time I had met him, David had moved away from Aristotle and devoted his time to the Scholarship of Teaching honors. Here, some of the academics listening to this will scoff research on teaching is reputed to be the realm of the stagnant an unsophisticated diversion to hide a lack of meaningful work, but this is unfair. There's plenty of crap in philosophy journals to even the most prestigious ones. And David was doing something admirable. He was externalizing. His honors experimentation. He was being Aristotle and Plattsburgh state was his lab. He wanted to see whether what he tried could be replicated and reproduced, and of course, it was for almost 30 years under David's tutelage. By the time David and I became close, I was a solidly standard gifted student, coasting through my classes on instinct and relying on my ability to think on my feet. I resisted affiliation with the Honors Program. I couldn't get past the sense that it was elitist. But I ended up doing a senior honors project anyway, I spent the fall semester writing a paper on philosophy of activism, and then the spring teaching and honors seminar on what I had learned. David mentored me and stayed in the room while I taught as an undergraduate there had to be an Instructor of Record, but it was my course and my love of teaching unfolded before me. I didn't realize that David had been waiting for the right student to experiment with undergraduate instruction. I couldn't see that my own presence in the program was itself the argument against its elitism. David was a remarkable teacher. He wasn't entertaining and he didn't pander. Anyways, his classroom pedagogy was old fashioned. We read and discuss primary texts. He asked leading questions he probably didn't write on the board enough, he tried to get the students to talk with one another. But David understood the dignity of a student better than any other person I've ever met. He had a remarkable sense of what not to say in the classroom of how to leave enough space for Active Minds to make their own connections. Teaching was a joy for him. But bearing witness to student learning was his greatest pleasure. It was this that led him to design his own seminar room and tables, and to commit full time to teaching small honors courses, where the students figured out how to see one another, possibly for the first time. I learned to teach in that seminar room. I learned classroom management and how to modulate my expectations. The very first day right before the first class David and I had a jovial disagreement, because I wanted to talk about the premeditative nature of Rosa Parks his protest, he insisted that the students wouldn't know who she was. I thought he was crazy. But of course he was right. The closest we got was one African American woman who admitted that she knew parks had something to do with civil rights, but didn't know what. I think that's changed a bit since the spring of 1991. education about the civil rights era has gotten better, but I can't promise anything. My students have gotten really good at hiding from me what they don't know. The fact is, every time I walk into a classroom, David is with me. every conversation I have with a student in my office, I feel his presence. He showed by example, the classrooms or for teaching and office hours or for mentoring, although that's not an absolute distinction. I inherited from him the insight that every one on one meeting with a student is a unique opportunity. Perhaps it is too intimate to admit but of all of the parent figures I've had in my life, including the two that raised me. David is the only one I was afraid of letting down. My father acknowledges this, in a sense Anyway, when I first told him how upset I was that David had cancer he remarked, of course you are. He gave you everything you have.
Despite my increasing abilities, I still wasn't competitive enough to get into grad school. David suggested that I apply to the Boston University university professors program, an interdisciplinary doctorate that interviewed students looking past the traditional application process. They accepted me. And less than a semester into my graduate career, I was asked by the chair of philosophy to transfer into his department. That was David's alma mater. he too had a PhD in philosophy from Boston University. I didn't walk when I graduated, so I never got the chance to celebrate my degree. But 21 years after I received my doctorate, when I became a Chester Fritz distinguished professor at the University of North Dakota. I had the Boston University regalia shipped to me, so I could wear it for that ceremony. In my mind, I wasn't wearing be used colors. I was wearing David's as I progressed in my career, David did He was promoted to the rank of Sunni Distinguished Teaching professor. He received the Sunni Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. The year after I won the equivalent award at my own university. I got to write a recommendation for him. He spent some time filling in for some administrators raised a ton of money for Plattsburgh state and had a seminar room named after him in the honor Center. This, as you will see is where he and I are still joined together. When I was an undergraduate, David read me the final paragraph of Alister McIntyre's after virtue, a discipline changing book that argued it was time to bring Aristotle's ethics back into the mainstream of moral philosophy. In it, MacIntyre postulates that without a clear conception of virtue, without falling back on the idea of human excellence, ethical thinking will always be irrational. virtue, MacIntyre argues, saves our moral thinking for being both arbitrary and corrupt. The last passage, the one that David read to me was about moral topia, a passionate plea for creating small communities quote, within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new Dark Ages which are already upon us. This was precisely what David aim to do with the Honors Program, the fact that I'm embarrassed to admit, I didn't realize until I wrote these words. My second book was on Alistair McIntyre. Oh, that was a total coincidence. I dedicated it to David and sent him a copy. Quite a few years later, for reasons I can still not grasp. A young scholar from Iran translated the book into Persian. I sent that to David as well. He arranged to display both books side by side in the honor center. That shadowbox now hangs permanently in the David and Mallory seminar room in Hawkins Hall at Plattsburgh state. When I finally saw it during the month dedication ceremony, the last time I saw David, I chastised him. The books are closed, they show only the covers with my name. There's no sign that they're his books. There is no indication that if the students open them, they would see the rooms namesake. He waved away my concern he wanted none of it. He wanted to celebrate me and would never assent to it being the other way around. There are no doubt students and colleagues who will have found David arrogant, something else he and I have in common. He was fastidious and dignified, permanently formal and gracious. He was quiet and smile to himself more I think that he laughed out loud. But he loved a good joke, and he was more rebellious under the skin than he would have ever let on to me. Despite appearances, he was the humblest of people and he never took credit for his own successes. his speeches at the various events honoring him were simply anecdotes and interminable lists of all those who were responsible for his successes, except himself. Like Aristotle, David had genuine faith in people. He liked them. So I take solace in the fact that despite this memorial, being as much about me as it is about him him, he wouldn't have it otherwise, I'm pretty sure he'd be livid that I'm calling attention to him and not all those around him, all those who he adored. The fact is, I am and will always be his student, and I could not tell his story without telling mine. Thus we have the teachers in balance. For me, David Mallory was a singular figure who was irrevocably marked in my life. But for David, there were thousands and thousands of students who came and went as the semester changed. I was but one. I can think of a handful of people who have stories with David that rival mine, Tony Joe, Doug Owen and Angie, Steve, and john, the student carpenter who built David's seminar tables and died tragically, John's name lives on a plaque attached to the side of a table for all the students to Muse about when they get distracted during their classes. I don't mean to suggest that I wasn't important to him or that I was interchangeable with others. Quite the contrary. What David's career illustrated Because it is possible to have a steady stream of students and still respect each one's uniqueness to see their individuality.
I am, I believe the only students of David to become a professional philosopher. He was proud of this as he was of all his other students accomplishments, but I also know that I bear the responsibility of his legacy in a particular way. And I accept this burden with the lightest of hearts. I will spend the rest of my life trying not to let him down happily knowing that David's fulfillment was not dependent on my success or failure. He was more than just a professor. He seemed to balance well his work in his private life, a task I like most academics struggle with every day. David and his wife Ruth have one child, a daughter named Melissa, who he loves without measure. In 1990. She was the student worker at the BU university professors program, which is what gave him the idea for me to apply there. She went on to get a PhD and to be a college professor as well. He talked to Better, endlessly, every utterance a universe unto itself, a practice that only expanded once she gave him two grandchildren whom Of course he adores. This was something I enjoyed in moderation, the way that most people do when someone talks incessantly about their own kids. Then I had my own daughter, and I finally understood. David talked about her, not simply because he was proud of her, but because when he uttered her name, it put her in the room next to him. Being with her was his greatest joy. And I'm deeply honored that he shared it with me. David taught me a little bit about everything, including what fatherhood could look like. And I've spent the last 31 years playing catch up, however long I live, however much philosophy I read, however many students I teach, David will have already prepared the way for me. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities he made for me and the life I have because of him. The fact that he did something similar for so many others Just makes it all the better. David is too great a gift to want to keep for myself. If you're interested in the text, or want to see pictures of David, and David and me, you can find it all at pq ed.org philosophical questions everyday the official blog of wire radio. Other than that, I thank you all for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
Why is funded by the Institute for philosophy and public life, Prairie Public Broadcasting and the University of North Dakota's College of Arts and Sciences and division of Research and Economic Development? Skip what is our studio engineer? The music is written and performed by Mark Weinstein and can be found on his album Louis soul. For more of his music, visit jazz flute Weinstein calm or myspace.com Mark Weinstein philosophy is everywhere you make it and we hope we've inspired you with our discussion today. Remember, as we say at the Institute, there is no ivory tower.