David N. Mowry (1941-2019): “What does one say about the teacher who saved your life?” (guest post by Jack Weinstein)

David N. Mowry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) Plattsburgh, has died. 

Professor Mowry went to college at SUNY Oswego, and earned his MA and PhD in philosophy from Boston University in 1974. He began his teaching career at Plattsburgh in 1971, moving up through the ranks and retiring as a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy and director or the school’s Honors Program.

Professor Mowry seems to be the kind of professor that had a significant impact on his students. One of those students is Jack Russell Weinstein, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota and host of the public radio show “Why? Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life.”

Professor Weinstein posted a beautiful, moving tribute to Professor Mowry on his Philosophical Questions Every Day site. I read it and thought that this is something you all should see. We often discuss the ways in which philosophy can make a positive difference to the world. We shouldn’t forget that one way to do that is to make a positive difference to the lives of our students.

David N. Mowry

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, yet who was just doing his job? In 1987, I enrolled at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh, lost, discontented, and socialized to dysfunction. I graduated four years later, following in the footsteps of one of the most honorable and impressive people I have ever met.

David N. Mowry passed away on April 23, 2019; he was 78. When he retired, he was a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy and the founding director of his 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 1974, an associate in 1980, and a full professor in 1990.

hese 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 is hard for students to think of one without the other. Their 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 had almost failed my way through the number one academic public high school in the country, capping off a water-treading four years with a months-long illness that required 24-hour care. No one thought I would graduate, least of all me, but I did, and 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 my first class with David was 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 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.

The pond outside of David’s office. Walking this with David is almost always among his students’ favorite memories.

We would spend the next three years regularly walking around the landscaped pond outside his office. He, a dapper gentleman in a blue blazer, smoking a cigar, with a bald spot I would, ironically, inherit. Me, a thin punk rocker, with shredded clothing, towering over him, my 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 a 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. We are supposed to be citizens, care for ourselves physicality, commit to friendships, explore knowledge, and cultivate good character. Happiness is the culmination of each of us spending a lifetime doing all of these activities better and better. We are all also subject to the vicissitudes of life, what philosophers have come to call “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 can tell, David was the happiest person I know.

By the time I had met him, David had moved away from Aristotle and had devoted his time to the scholarship of teaching honors. Here, some of the academics reading 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 is plenty of crap in philosophy journals too, 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 thirty years under David’s tutelage.

The course description advertising Philosophy of Activism.

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 an honors seminar on what I had learnt. 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. In many ways, his classroom pedagogy was old-fashioned: we read and discussed 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 the student better than any person I have ever met. He had a remarkable sense of what not to say in a 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’s 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 very 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 that classrooms are for teaching and office hours are 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 the parent figures I have 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.”

David and I on my graduation day, in 1991 (during a brief stint with longer hair and having no idea what to do with it), and me, in 2016. In the latter picture, I am the same age David was when we met.

Despite my increasing abilities, I still wasn’t competitive enough to get into grad school. David suggested that I apply to Boston University’s University Professor 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 Ph.D. in philosophy from BU. I didn’t walk when I graduated, so I never got the chance to celebrate my degree, but twenty-one 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 BU’s colors, I was wearing David’s.

As I progressed in my career, David did too. He was promoted to the rank of SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor. He received the SUNY 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 Honors 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 Alasdair MacIntyre’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 from being both arbitrary and corrupt. The last passage, the one that David read to me, was about moral dystopia, a passionate plea for creating small communities “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 aimed to do with the honors program, a fact that, I am embarrassed to admit, I didn’t realize until just now.

My second book was on Alasdair MacIntyre, although that was a total coincidence. I dedicated it to David and sent him a copy. Quite a few years later, for reasons I still cannot quite 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 honors center. That shadow box now hangs permanently, in the David N. Mowry Seminar Room, in Hawkins Hall, at Plattsburgh State. When I finally saw it during the room’s dedication ceremony, the last time I saw David, I chastised him. The books are closed. They show only the covers, with my name, and there is no sign that they are his books too. There is no indication that if the students open them, they would see the room’s 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 we have in common). He was fastidious and dignified, permanently formal and gracious. He was quiet and smiled to himself more, I think, than he laughed out loud. But he loved a good joke and 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 success 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 him, he wouldn’t have it otherwise. I am pretty sure he would be livid that I am calling attention to him and not all those around him, whom he adored. The fact is, I am and will always be his student and I cannot tell his story without telling mine. Thus, we have the teacher’s imbalance. For me, David Mowry was a singular figure who has irrevocably marked my life, but for David, there were thousands and thousands of students, who came and went as the semesters changed. I was but one. I can think of a handful of people who have stories with David that rival mine: Toni; Joe; Doug; Owen and Angie; Steve; Cindy; and John, the student carpenter who built David’s seminar tables, then died tragically. John’s name lives on in a plaque David attached to the sides of tables, 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 anyone else. Quite the contrary: what David’s career illustrated was that 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 student of David’s to become a professional philosopher. He was proud of this as he was all of 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 and his private life, a task I, like most academics, struggle with every day.

David as he would most want to be remembered. Photo courtesy of SUNY Plattsburgh.

David and his wife Ruth have one child, a daughter named Melissa, whom he loves beyond 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 Ph.D. and to be a college professor, as well. He talked about her endlessly, every utterance a universe unto itself, a practice that only expanded once she gave him two grandchildren, whom 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 am deeply honored that he shared it with me.

David taught me a little bit about everything, including what fatherhood could look like, and I have spent the last thirty-one 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.

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Tom Robotham
4 years ago

Thank you for this lovely tribute. I went to Plattsburgh from ’74 to ’78, and David was my favorite professor, though I only minored in Philosophy. So many fond memories: Our Plato seminar meeting at his home to discuss the Symposium–with wine; a retreat he led at Miner Center; drinking beers with him at the Monopole; working with him while I was editor of Cardinal Points to battle the college president’s 5 Year Plan, which would have severely diminished the humanities programs. His office door was always open, and I’d frequently drop in to discuss one idea or another that was suddenly burning in my mind. I now teach at a university, and he is always in the back of mind as a model of a great educator.