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Students Talk Philosophy with Visiting Alum

Students Talk Philosophy with Visiting Alum

“How can philosophy be used in real life?” 

“What value does the study of philosophy have?” 

“What happens when we die?”

 “What are the challenges of diversity within the field?” 

Jay Garfield ’71 recently spent the better part of a day at NMH fielding these and other questions from students in philosophy and humanities classes. Garfield is a Smith College philosophy professor and an author specializing in Tibetan Buddhism. He has a cheerful demeanor and passion for working with students of all ages and has been talking with Pete Masteller’s philosophy and religious studies students once or twice a year since 2020. 

“Jay's visits are always delightful,” Masteller said. “He's incredibly generous with his time.”

During his recent visit, Garfield was both playful and thoughtful with student questions. When Ben Rosenthal ’27 kicked off the humanities discussion by asking how Garfield came to study philosophy, he answered, “Wow, that's a really funny question. I mean, that's not a funny question. It's just really crazy. Someone asked me this question yesterday, and when I answered, she thought I was joking. Let’s see what you think.”

As a college freshman, Garfield told the students, he was frustrated by the lack of interesting classes in the course catalog. So he decided to close his eyes and sign up for whatever class his index finger landed on. It landed on an introductory philosophy course. 

“About two weeks into that class, we read a section from David Hume’s ‘A Treatise of Human Nature.’” The book, which argues that human knowledge is based on direct experience and observation and that human behavior is based on emotions, hooked Garfield. “I said, ‘Wow, if philosophy can do this, I want to do philosophy!’”

Junsang Ryu ’27 already knows that he’s interested in studying philosophy. His question for Garfield was about how the study of philosophy could be practical. “He gave me two answers,” Ryu said after class. “He told me that life isn't as long as we think, and philosophy gives one a better life. He gave me a quote from Socrates: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ The second answer he gave me was that philosophy helps one to build skills in everything. It helps you develop the ability to pay close attention, to read effectively, and to formulate arguments.” 

For Ryu, the most provocative part of the conversation was about systemic racism in philosophy and “how we could demand a more diverse education.” Garfield has lobbied for more diverse perspectives in the philosophy field for many years. He told students that a “little op-ed” he co-wrote in 2016 with colleague Bryan W. Van Norden on a napkin for the New York Times was perhaps the most important writing he has produced. The piece, “‘If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is,” suggested that it was time for philosophy departments to either start diversifying their curricula or simply rename themselves departments of European and American philosophy.

Masteller uses the article to frame this important subject for students. “Philosophy is systemically racist, and this article gets to that in a very accessible way,” he said.  

class dialogues in circular form with visiting professor

Joshua Nazaire '27 posed a question about the long-term impact of the piece. Garfield said that he recently conducted an assessment by reviewing course offerings in college philosophy departments before and after the piece was published. He noted a discernible increase (from 1 to 12%) in the number of courses focused on non-western traditions in the eight years since the piece was published. “Sometimes you can make a difference,” he said. 

Garfield also urged students to have culturally immersive experiences, through travel and language. “Learning language is really fun,” he said. “Languages are portals. They enable you to get deeper into a culture that you can’t experience in translation.” 

Students always enjoy Garfield’s visits, and this year was no exception, Masteller said. “Their questions for Jay are always thoughtful and human, and he delights in sharing his knowledge and wisdom with them,” he said. “He's a great teacher — charismatic and smart and funny and irreverent. He takes their questions seriously and answers them in sophisticated, accessible ways that prompt further thinking from them.”

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