Friday, July 06, 2007

In Memoriam: Thomas B. Colwell, Jr.

The following was written earlier this year and read at a memorial service for the late Professor Tom Colwell held at New York University in April. Professor Colwell passed away in 2006.


Tom Colwell was a formative influence on my identity as an intellectual and as a teacher. When I first applied to the Environmental Conservation Education program in 1993, I was an idealistic twenty-something fired up by some ideas on environmental ethics and philosophy I had been reading. I had been working in the entertainment industry and not feeling much of a connection there. The Buddhist idea of right livelihood was foremost in my mind as I sought answers to the big questions before me.

One of my first distinct episodes of intellectual interaction with Tom was in the unassuming, yet piercing way he deflated my idealistic bubble by means of a simple query.

Charles Sanders Peirce, in his essay, “The Fixation of Belief,” wrote: “The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. I shall term this struggle inquiry ...” Tom had performed the first great function of a teacher by instilling a doubt about the certainty of things in my mind. No true learning can occur without this irritation called doubt. A teacher can exhaust herself in vain if the student is certain they already know the answer. With a simple question, Tom opened me up to an adventure that was to span 8 years.

During my first semester at NYU, I had not one but two courses with Tom. Class with Tom was unlike anything I had ever experienced as an undergrad. Particularly memorable was Tom's “Frontiers of Knowledge” course. The class was small enough for us to sit around a large table and simply discuss the ideas we were encountering, with Tom acting as goad and facilitator. It was common practice for Tom to invite several of us to dine with him after class. This seemed to me an academic nicety more suited to another, more civilized time. Needless to say, I loved it. Never before had I encountered a teacher so willing to spend time with students beyond the usual contractual obligations.

More than once, Tom quoted Alfred North Whitehead on the role of the university: “Ever since the invention of the printing press, the university has served no purpose – except for the discussion of ideas.” Tom lived by this motto. And all of the classes he taught sought to bring the discussion of ideas to life. We should ponder further what our role is in the age of the Internet.

In K-12 education there is currently an obsession with content. Somehow if the teachers know more stuff, and succeeding in cramming more stuff into their students' head, then no child will be left behind. In my job as a science teacher it is certainly important to know what I'm talking about. But more important is enabling each student to think for himself – to truly develop the skills of inquiry. Mere information or knowledge was of little interest to Tom. What mattered was the play of ideas and their impact on human life and experience. He was fond of saying that philosophy was a winnowing of the intellectual grain from the chaff. In his use of this metaphor, Tom displayed a conviction not popular in recent decades that such a thing as truth exists, and that rational discourse can eventually reveal it.

Tom was strongly devoted to the ideas of John Dewey and sought to rescue Dewey – and therefore naturalistic empiricism -- from the scorn of so many environmental thinkers; I hope that the scientific community's leadership in addressing climate change will serve to at least partially vindicate naturalistic empiricism in the eyes of its detractors. Tom was my first introduction to Dewey, and then to James and Peirce and ultimately to Alfred North Whitehead.

Notwithstanding his frequent use of catchy Whitehead quotes, Tom was a bit mystified by my intense interest in Whitehead, but nonetheless encouraged me to pursue my interest. I confess that even today my mind doesn't travel far without seeing a connection to Whitehead as well as with all the other American philosophers I've mentioned. I also can't travel far without seeing my connection to Tom.

Tom was well known for his cantankerous resistance to computer technology. Although he eschewed computers he was not entirely a luddite. The last time I saw Tom was at the memorial for his dear colleague, Millard Clements, who passed away in 2005. Tom had just bought a brand new Toyota Prius and was quite eager to show off this promising new technology. I believe that Tom had a deep and abiding commitment to our Earth. Ultimately, this is what drew us together.

Tom always hoped that one of us would continue the championing of John Dewey in environmental circles. I can hardly claim to have done that or to have achieved the status of a Dewey scholar, but I think it fitting nonetheless to quote from Dewey a passage I think captures Tom's intellectual approach and influence on me:

An empirical philosophy is in any case a kind of intellectual disrobing. We cannot permanently divest ourselves of the intellectual habits we take on and wear when we assimilate the culture of our own time and place. But the intelligent furthering of culture demands that we take some of them off, that we inspect them critically to see what they are made of and what wearing them does to us. We cannot achieve recovery of primitive naivete. But there is attainable a cultivated naivete of the eye, ear and thought, one that can be acquired only through the discipline of severe thought.” (Experience and Nature, p.35)

The influence a teacher can have is truly incalculable. But sometimes we can't see the effects of our actions for a long time; perhaps they won't truly be recognized until after we have passed away. I invite all of us to consider our roles as teachers, as parents, as stewards of wisdom and as stewards of the Earth. What effect will we have on our world? What will be our legacy? What truly is the role of the university, or of schooling? Shall we help our students find their own great doubt? Or entomb them alive in the dead certainty of fixed opinion? It may be a sad fact of life that most students would rather be buried alive. Tom Colwell is no longer with us and yet he lives on in each of us. How will we live on? I'll honor Tom with one of the many gifts he gave to me by quoting Whitehead once more: Whitehead urged us to never forget the “ever-present, unfading importance of our immediate actions, which perish and yet live for evermore.”

What we do, say and think matters. Ideas matter. Let us give thanks for all that Tom gave to us, forgive him his foibles and resolve to live up to his example as teacher and mentor.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Well put...
I too was in that program (1994-1996) with Tom and loved every minute of it...