Philosophy Weekend: My Education

These are the books I kept. I probably threw out or lost about as many from the five years I spent earning a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the State University of New York at Albany. But these books followed me in all my life’s travels, and the ideas they held did too.

The University at Albany was a good school, and I got a strong education there. I didn’t appreciate the college as much at the time as I do now — but it’s hard to feel special inside an education factory with a population of 18,000.

The Philosophy department was a small, slightly quaint and dusty retreat inside the giant factory, notable for its complete lack of career focus. I liked all my professors (though I find it odd to realize, now, that I never knew any of their first names). Prof. Cadbury taught the proverbial Philosophy 101; he introduced me to Rene Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant. (These names thrilled me strangely, then, and they still do today. Call me a philosophy nerd, I don’t care.)

I learned about the Athenians in a 500-person lecture center from Prof. Gould, the chairman of the Philosophy department, a big man with an antique demeanor and a prominent beak. I studied Symbolic Logic (and surprised myself by picking it up easily) with Prof. Thomas, and Aesthetics (my favorite essay was “Form in Art” by Clive Bell) with Prof. Grimes. I was introduced to existentialism and analytic philosophy by Prof. Morick, an odd and nervous younger man, who had authored the textbook we used for his class, Challenges to Empiricism (one of the ones I kept).

My favorite teacher was Prof. Garvin, an elegant bohemian who resembled Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and maintained a sort of distant Gary Snyder-esque Zen mystique. His course in Comparative Religion helped me understand how closely philosophy and religion had always been interwoven, and reinforced my regard for Buddhism as an intellectual discipline. Ironically, I remember that I often couldn’t follow Garvin’s actual lectures, which were poetic and diffuse; it was rather his mystique, or his image, that inspired me so much.

My philosophy education was a crooked path. Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were big eye-openers, but after falling into Nietzsche I became less confident that a degree in Philosophy could provide the sword and shield I would need to survive in the nasty adult world outside the Albany campus. I had to think about a career, and began enrolling in Computer Science courses. Coincidentally, one of my favorite professors was making the same transition. Prof. Thomas announced one day in Advanced Symbolic Logic that he was leaving the Philosophy department to become a grad student — from a professor to a student! — in the Computer Science department because, he told us, that’s where the future of applied logic could be found.

Philosophy was changing. Newly arrived Prof. Meyers, younger and less dusty than the Goulds, Garvins, Cadburys and Grimes of the department’s old guard, was also fascinated by the philosophical implications of the computer age, and helped me fashion an independent study project involving artificial intelligence and natural language processing, which I implemented in LISP. By now I was a double major, Philosophy and Computer Science. I had to work much harder for my Computer Science courses than my Philosophy courses.

It took me five years to complete both majors, and in my fifth year I earned a seat in a great graduate level seminar in Plato taught by Prof. Gould. There were only six of us in that class, and Gould gave me an A for my paper on the Gorgias. I felt I’d come a long way from my freshman year, when I’d sat among 500 other students in his introductory course.

But my last philosophy class was a disappointment, not only to myself, but to gentle Prof. Grimes. I’d taken his advanced course in Aesthetics on bad faith, believing I could sail through it while juggling my tough final semester courses in Advanced Assembly Language, Database Programming and Discrete Mathematics. But Prof. Grimes didn’t want me to sail through; he wanted me to dig in and really understand the stuff he was teaching, and in our final oral exam he told me he couldn’t accept my performance. I had clearly not done the required readings, and he wanted to grant me an extension so I could come back in a month and take the exam again.

It was the end of my final year of college, and I only wanted him to give me a C- and let me pass so I could get the credits and graduate. Summer was about to begin, and so was my first job as an entry-level software developer for an aerospace firm on Long Island. “I can’t come back,” I told Prof. Grimes. “I’m sorry.” I knew I’d earned a passing grade, just barely, in his class, though I’d clearly ditched it.

It was a sad end to a rewarding five-year run. I hated the look of disappointment I saw on Grimes’s face. He was no existentialist, so I didn’t bother trying to explain to him that I was doing it because of Nietzsche. Still, his textbook was one of the ones I kept.

7 Responses

  1. Levi, this is a very touching
    Levi, this is a very touching look back on your study of philosophy. You benefitted from a very diverse program, from what I can see (read). Usually, continental philosophy in particular gets dropped by the wayside from the curriculum in the U.S. What you say here also shows how much more we learn from professors we can connect with. I hope the human element, which can be the most memorable in our education, won’t be replaced forever by online courses.

  2. I remember my Comp Sci
    I remember my Comp Sci courses…and not fondly. Philosophy sounds like a lot more fun as a major and I can definitely see its impact in your posts.

    You are absolutely right about the practical and financial benefits of comp sci though. I wonder what the world would be like if philosophy majors had as many job choices and as much utility to society as comp sci majors. Most likely be a better place…

  3. Levi, this is one of your
    Levi, this is one of your better entries. Some combination of the subject matter and the way you tell it, makes it fascinating. And so the book grows.

  4. You are a wise man. I kept
    You are a wise man. I kept on the philosophy road longer than I should’ve. But in all honesty, I wouldn’t have been able to jump to computers. I just don’t care enough. Do you care for both phil and comp sci equally, or do you think it was matter of being practical.

  5. Taoist, I definitely care for
    Taoist, I definitely care for philosophy (and literature, and music, and art) more than for computers. I just like getting paychecks.

  6. Taoist, I went to Albany with
    Taoist, I went to Albany with the alleged Levi Asher, and he is no wise man. Just ask him, he’ll tell you!

    But he did put together some mean mix tapes, and he knew how to hang out. Just saying.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!