Jonathan Mahler, "The Thinker"

Jonathan Mahler, "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 “the barn” — or as Alabama’s legendary head football coach, Bear Bryant, once put it, to the enduring delight of his fans, “that cow college on the other side of the state.”

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 — communications, criminology, psychology, prelaw.

So it came as something of a surprise when, in the late ’90s, Auburn’s 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. “As I often put it to the dean, you’ve got a philosophy department that you have no right to have,” Kelly Jolley, the chairman of the department, told me recently. “It’s just way, way out of step with what you would expect to find at a place like Auburn.”

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 wasn’t 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.’s in philosophy at highly competitive graduate schools and go on to become professional philosophers. “I don’t know of a comparable department at a comparable school,” James Conant, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, where two of Jolley’s 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 couldn’t be further from this stereotype. He’s 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 isn’t, above all, a philosopher. It’s just that he sees philosophy less as a profession than as a way of looking at, of being in, the world. “I am convinced that philosophy is not just about theory,” he told me. “It’s about a life well lived and thoughts truly thought.”

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 department’s cramped, poorly air-conditioned lounge, known as the Lyceum, after Aristotle’s 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 it’s working properly, quickly migrates out of the classroom and into more informal settings, whether it’s 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 it’s not surprising that Jolley has spent untold hours puzzling over how to best teach the discipline itself. What he has decided is that philosophy can’t be taught — or learned — like other academic subjects. To begin with, it takes longer. “Plato said that you become a philosopher by spending ‘much time’ in sympathy with other philosophers,” he told me. “Much time. I take that very seriously.” We were sitting in his office, which was dark with academic books and journals; a large paperweight reading “Think” sat amid the clutter on his desk. “Plato,” he went on, “talked about it as a process of ‘sparking forth,’ that as you spend more time with other philosophers, you eventually catch the flame. That’s how I think about teaching philosophy.”

Jolley says he thinks of his relationships with his students less as teacher-student than as master-apprentice. His goal, as he sees it, isn’t 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 Jolley’s classes and very nearly dropped it after the first day. “I was expecting a survey course, and in walks this big scary guy, using words I’d never heard before, talking about Hume as background for Kant, telling us how hard the class was going to be,” 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 department’s current top prospects for graduate school, a rising senior named Benjamin Pierce. Jolley told me that Pierce’s gift for reasoning was first identified a couple of years ago in an entry-level logic class. “If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C,” the professor said, introducing the so-called transitive relation.

“Not in rock, paper, scissors,” Pierce volunteered.

Pierce is now majoring in philosophy. “We have high hopes for him,” Jolley told me with the pride of a football coach talking up a strong tackler with great open-field speed. “I would bet that he ends up in a Top 10 graduate program.”

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 Plato’s dialogues. An intellectually unfocused but precocious student, Jolley instantly took to the challenge of wrestling with such a difficult text. “Until then, I’d been clever enough to do whatever I wanted to do, to read with one eye,” he told me. “Then all of a sudden I ran into philosophy, and it was like running into a brick wall.”

But it was the substance of Plato’s meditations — the radical nature of the philosopher’s quest for self-knowledge — 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, hadn’t given him the tools he needed to grapple with that question. Philosophy did. “I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that the old Delphic instruction, know thyself, applied to me,” he said.

At the end of Jolley’s 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.

Jolley’s early efforts to change the culture of the philosophy department at Auburn met with quite a bit of resistance from the university’s administration. Among other things, they rejected his requests for money for more upper-level philosophy classes. Determined to build up Auburn’s philosophy major, Jolley simply taught the courses himself, free of charge.

Many of Jolley’s colleagues were similarly skeptical of what he was trying to do. Several of them urged him to “tone it down,” 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 — the club now has about 30 members — and called his approach to teaching “aristocratic.” 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 didn’t 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. (Jolley’s latest hire, Arata Hamawaki, spent 18 years finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard.) Auburn’s philosophy department is now dominated by graduates of some of the nation’s top philosophy programs.

By any measure, Jolley has accomplished a great deal. But in the service of what, exactly? During my stay at Auburn — and in our e-mail exchanges afterward — 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. “One 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,” he once wrote me. Explaining why philosophy matters, in other words, requires doing philosophy — the very thing the questioner wants explained.

While I was in Auburn, I attended a few of Jolley’s logic classes. All students at Auburn are required to take at least one entry-level philosophy course like logic. Traditionally, these “core” classes are designed to ease students into a particular subject. This is not Jolley’s approach. As he argues, core curriculums should aspire to do more than merely give students a taste of something. “Look, if the core is really going to matter for a student’s education, they need genuine exposure to that discipline,” he told me a few minutes before class. “You’re not giving them ‘the core’ if what you’re giving them is some sugarcoated simulacrum of philosophy that you’ve decided they can swallow.”

Jolley’s 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 they’re reading. “For the student merely interested in getting a degree, Kelly has nothing to offer,” says a colleague, Michael Watkins. “But for those who are interested in more, Kelly provides an example of what it means to be educated, to take one’s education seriously.”

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, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” 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.

“Not a very talkative group,” Jolley observed after the procession of flip-flops, orange Auburn T-shirts and backward baseball caps filed out of the room. “I can usually tell if students are getting it from the looks on their faces, but some of these kids were positively Sphinx-like.”

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 department’s professors. “There’s a battle at the core level here to convince students that there’s even a possibility that philosophy might have something interesting to offer them,” one Auburn philosophy professor, Guy Rohrbaugh, told me.

It seems fair to wonder whether Jolley’s approach is the best way to win that battle. It’s 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. Jolley’s goal, as he describes it, is to produce students who are “capable of genuine creative philosophical thought.” That’s a high bar to set for students in an entry-level logic class.

After class, Jolley and I walked across Auburn’s 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 — if the cost of his approach is that he’s teaching to the few rather than the many. “My 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,” he answered. “Too 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.”

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 University’s creed — “I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count only on what I earn” — 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. “The creed is a fine document in many ways,” he told me, “but it reinforces a certain picture of what you’re here for, and it can be very hard to break the grip of that with students.”

In Jolley’s 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 — 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. “It’s aristocratic in the sense that any selection based on talent is aristocratic,” he told me. “I know it offends everyone’s sense of democracy, this idea that everyone’s equal, but we all know that’s just not true.”

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. “I care about the discipline of philosophy more than the academic fate of any individual student — and I think I should,” he said. “Otherwise I’m just a baby sitter who occasionally breaks into syllogism.”



Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Challenge: Hamden v. Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power.“

The NY Times, 21 September 2008