by Dale Wisely
I have earned four degrees and attended countless post-graduate seminars and workshops. I say this only to establish that I’ve had a lot of teachers.
I know who among my many fine teachers was my favorite. I knew him when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s at State College of Arkansas, an institution that, unwisely in my opinion, subsequently changed its name to the far less poetic University of Central Arkansas. (It sounds pretty good to be the State College of a state. It sounds weak to be a university of the central part of a state. And it's Arkansas, which is a small state and so has a small center. I recently wrote the President of that institution and suggested they switch back to the old name. This is the kind of lunatic letter older men write. The President, by the way, responded with a kind letter explaining how I was wrong.)
Dr. Patrick Murray chaired the Philosophy Department, which consisted of Dr. Murray and one other professor. I recall, I think, Dr. Murray had studied at Duke.
By today’s measures, Murray’s approach to teaching would be seen as old-fashioned. Without fail, he came to class in suit and tie, immaculately groomed. He was consistently genial and respectful of us undergraduates, unlike any number of full professors who sort of ooze resentment of having to be bothered with teaching, particularly undergrads. He stood at a podium and lectured. He brought ideas to life. He took questions, posed them, listened carefully, responded with respect to student questions and comments whether intelligent or inane.
Only after I had taken a few classes from him did I learn that Dr. Murray was a minister. I was stunned. Never once, in all the discussions about religion, atheism, agnosticism, did he say anything that would have suggested he was a believer, much less a minister. My recollection, which may be false, is that he was a Baptist minister when I took his courses and later became an Episcopal priest.
I took Introduction to Philosophy from him, and a few other courses, including Ethics, a class which changed my life.
One day, I made some comment that had something to do with my skepticism that a morality could solely be derived from reason. Murray lit up and asked me if, by any chance, I had been reading David Hume.
I was 19. I had not. But then I did. It is hard to explain what that moment meant to me: An intelligent and learned man, sincerely assuming I was an intelligent and inquiring person, speaking to me in a way that I imagine would have been much the way he would have responded to a colleague. He was thinking, I guess, that it was not at all impossible that a teenager in Arkansas would have been reading an 18th-century philosopher on his own. (It really is pretty much impossible.) That moment, along with Dr. Murray’s enthusiasm about the world of ideas, set me on a path of study that I’ve never quite given up.
I have long felt that when the young are treated with respect, when their intent is presumed to be positive, when they are treated as intelligent people, they usually respond accordingly. This is why, although I am not naïve about teenagers and college students, I hate it when people presume the worst of them, describe the whole lot with sweeping generalizations, and clobber them over their heads with misreadings of the “teenage brain” research.
I corresponded with Dr. Murray for years after I moved on and he was always generous with his letters. We lost touch.
Five or six years ago, while traveling in Arkansas, by sheer chance, we stopped at a McDonald’s just off the interstate for a bathroom break and a quick burger. I saw Dr. Murray there, sitting with a few people. I hadn’t seen him in more than 30 years. I wasn't sure it was him until he smiled at someone and I saw a glimpse of the man who would ask a teenager about having read David Hume. That day, I reintroduced myself to him and got a chance to speak to him again, to tell him what he meant to me.
Here is my advice. It's unsophisticated and has been given many times by many people. Never pass on a chance to tell someone what they mean to you.
We have all these things. Clothes and telephones and computers and home furnishings and vehicles. You might as well bulldoze them all up into a massive pile and burn it all because they have no value. This is one of the central delusions of our time, valuing the meaningless and neglecting the valuable. Our enemies should not be enemies. They should just be more people to love and respect as we all make the march together to the end of our time here. It's the meaning and the inevitable outcome of that march we all deny. All we have is each other and what will unite us all at the end of the march.
So, march on. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen...
Enjoy the issue.
Rev. N. Patrick Murray