No Philosopher King

The looks I get when teachers and students hear that I have a degree in philosophy range from bemused to noddingly impressed. What was he thinking? Some seem to be wondering. What a great foundation to be a leader! I imagine others thinking to themselves. Well, I imagine it anyway.

I’m a high school principal, hardly Plato’s philosopher king, and as kooky as it sounds, in my workaday world of running a school I consistently lean on the background and perspective my philosophy major provided to me.

A part of that perspective, of course, is critical thinking and the ability to logically parse out arguments, two skills that serve me well as I work in a profession filled with decisions to be made and answers to be found. Inundated with data and opinions, provided a range of “facts” that don’t add up, evaluating situations for validity is a part of what I do every day. Years with Carnap and Quine taught me to be careful with my thinking and left me confident in my ability to put my mind to problems and be able to see the clearest way.

IMG_5346But education, and particularly the role of principal, isn’t always clear or logical, and I’m also thankful for the ability to suspend disbelief and hold various and contradicting points of view that comes from my study of philosophy. So often the right choice comes only after walking a labyrinth, a task made easier by some comfort in the world of the unknown. Paradox may be too strong a word for some of what I see, but as I work to find solutions to the puzzles of my work an understanding that sometimes Zeno’s arrow is staying in the air for a while helps put things in perspective.

Also helping with perspective are the ethical arguments I learned studying philosophy. More often than one might expect issues in education are issues of equity, fairness, and justice. Beyond those logicians or playful puzzlers, social philosophers like Rousseau and Foucault, who helped to inform my professional self, also provide a certain perspective that I use to help navigate the turbulent waters of educational policy. I’m not saying that I break out Aristotle when I need to decide if a kid should get a free bus pass or we ought to suspend a student for smoking in the bathroom, but I do believe my time as a philosophy major helped me lay a foundation from which I’ve built the approach I take to my work.

Finally, and as important as any of the other impacts I’ve mentioned, I find that studying philosophy inspired in me a profound curiosity, a desire to keep learning, to question, and to always strive to know more. This pursuit of knowing and love of learning help to define who I am as a principal and an educator. They’re qualities I hope I model for my students and school community.

While those students may or may not know what to make of my degree in philosophy, it’s a part of who I am, and that, I think, makes a difference they can feel.

Croquet in the Rain

photoTowering oaks helped diffuse the rain, though the grass was soaked and our mallets stayed slick and wet. A run of record heat had ended the day before and this Saturday a storm blew into Forest Grove with enough moisture to remind those of us flying up from California what a typical spring day in Oregon was all about.

We’d met in Dave’s empty office, eight of us there to wish him well as he finished his final week as a philosophy professor at Pacific University, thirty one years of showing undergraduates as we had been the way around a logical fallacy and appreciation of Quine’s argument for the beauty of a desert landscape.

Dave taught us about Kant and Husserl, epistemology and Eco, Foucault and the finer points of semiotics. We’d smoked cigars, wrestled with Sartre (and each other), and listened to our fair share of the exotic sounds of Martin Denny.

Dave was the heart of the philosophy department we knew twenty five years ago, and as we gathered on a campus some of us hadn’t visited since the 1990s, it was with an emotional ripple that I thought to myself: we will never all be together here again.

Maybe mine were silly thoughts; I haven’t attended a reunion before, either high school or college. I’m untempted to ask what’s become of a classmate I knew when I was a teenager, and uninterested in explaining the sundry victories and defeats of my own life. But this wasn’t that.

This gathering was for Dave. It was our chance to say thank you before he hopped on a plane to Colorado and left our alma mater without an anchor for any of our tiny craft.

We arrived singly and in pairs. Some brought gifts, a record, a box of cigars. We passed around a handful of photos and copies of an underground newspaper we’d foisted on an unsuspecting public back during the first Bush administration. We told stories and remembered others we were too polite to speak aloud. Then, tucking our chins to our chests and assuring each other that it was not too wet to play, we slipped out into the rain and walked to a grassy spot behind Marsh Hall to set up the croquet pitch.

The reality that it had been a quarter of a century since we’d all been together evaporated before our socks soaked through with rainwater. Familiar banter filled the field, familiar personalities animated faces only somewhat altered by time and experience, and the biggest thrill of the afternoon came when one of us had the opportunity to send another’s ball flying with a satisfying THWACK!

Being philosophy majors, we of course discussed the appropriate word to describe that magnificent sound of mallet on ball. THWACK!

photo 3Onomatopoetic.

I work in education now and see the connections students at my school make every day through the offhand remark, shared experience, or common language that rises up in small circles. These seemingly insignificant moments, so important as they build the structure of memory, brick by brick, will collectively last a lifetime.

Being a part of that small group of philosophy majors shivering delightedly in the rain on Saturday reminded me that the strongest ties are developed through laughter and argument. We don’t know what our lives will become, but being put in a place to look backward this weekend, I know that the person I am was built not only by what I did, but by who I did those things with.

I wish for my own students memorable experiences with interesting people, which is not necessarily the same as pleasant experiences with polite people. I wish them laughter, and argument, kindness, strife, and the opportunity for the occasional satisfying THWACK!

And sometime in the mid 2040s, I hope the students I see forming shared memories today are able to enjoy their own equivalent of gathering beneath the oak trees of their alma mater and playing croquet in the rain.

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