There are some philosophers we hear a lot about—not just those in the canon, but also the “superstars” of today. These philosophers can often be inspirations on the page, motivating students to take up philosophy as a major course of study. But just as important—probably more so—are those undergraduate professors who inspired or motivated you to take philosophy seriously, or who helped cultivate your interest in the subject.
Just owing to numbers, it is unlikely that these people are among the relatively few “superstars” of philosophy. They may not be “philosophy-famous,” yet, without them, many readers here would not be, uh, readers here; that is, they wouldn’t be current or aspiring academic philosophers. So these folks are crucially important yet, in some cases, largely unknown.
In this week’s edition of The Stone in The New York Times, Simon Critchley (New School) notes this disparity between individual influence and social recognition:
Behind every new graduate student stands an undergraduate teacher. This is someone who opened the student’s eyes and ears to the possibility of the life of the mind that they had perhaps imagined but scarcely believed was within their reach. Someone who, through the force of their example, animated a desire to read more, study more and know more. Someone in whom the student heard something fascinating or funny or just downright strange. Someone who heard something significant in what the student said in a way that gave them confidence and self-belief. Such teachers are the often unknown and usually unacknowledged (and underpaid) heroes of the world of higher education.
Some lucky people have several such teachers…. But there is usually one teacher who sticks out and stays in one’s mind, and whose words resound down through the years…. It is also very often the case that the really good teachers don’t write or don’t write that much… They teach. They talk. Sometimes they even listen and ask questions.
Critchley then proceeds to pen a paean to one of the unsung heroes of his undergraduate philosophy education, Frank Cioffi.
It’s a good idea.
So, consider this an opportunity to acknowledge the teacher(s) who was able to spur or encourage or enhance your pursuit of philosophy when you were an undergraduate, to write down their names in a place for all—including their descendants and the philosophers of the future—to see. Add as much or as little detail or story as you like.