We Want Great Things for You
University of Detroit Mercy  
UDM  
About UDM
Academics
Admission and Financial Aid
Student Life
News and Events
Athletics
Future Students
Current Students
Faculty and Staff
Visitors
Alumni
 

University Honors Program

The Final Lecture

The "Final Lecture" had its origin in the Honors Program at Mercy College of Detroit. Every year during the 1980s, Honors students at Mercy selected a speaker from the faculty, who was asked to imagine that "This is your last chance to speak to your students. What is the most important thing you have to say to them?" The "Final Lecture" was re-inaugurated in October 2002 by the University of Detroit Mercy Honors Program. The Final Lecturer is selected by a poll of the general membership every Winter term.

The "Final Lecture" of Elizabeth Oljar, Ph.D.
UDM Honors Program Induction Ceremony and Dinner
October 3, 2004

For my remarks this evening, I was asked to imagine that “this is my last chance to speak to my students. What is the most important thing I have to say to them?” You’ll be relieved to know that the most important thing I have to say to all of you is not “go forth and read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason” – a suggestion that would make even Dr. Koukal shudder, and he is a professional philosopher.

It would be really easy for me to repeat some of the things you’ve been hearing throughout your time at UDM: never stop learning, education is a lifelong process, do your best to think carefully and critically, value the diversity in America that is the source of its unique strengths, fight against injustice wherever you find it, etc. And those are all important things that I believe you should do.

But the most important thing I have to say to you is both more mundane and more profound than the things I just mentioned. The last thing I have to say to you is “thank you.”

I have the best job in the world. I get to hang out all day with interesting people and talk about the greatest subject of all, and I even get paid for it (which strikes me as an incredible luxury in the working world). In fact, I’d continue doing it even if I won the lottery (but with even more office supplies than I currently have)! Together with my colleagues, you are the reason why I have the best job in the world, for you have challenged and inspired me in countless ways. From your questions and comments in my classroom to your requests and input into courses in the philosophy department, you have enriched my days.

I thank you for making me a far better teacher than I thought I could be.

Because of you, I am constantly on the prowl for better examples, clearer explanations, exciting lecture strategies, and new ways to spark your interest in philosophy. More handouts!

Because of you, we revised the requirements of the philosophy major.

Because of you, I’ve developed a fairly unique set of pre-law philosophy courses.

Because of you, I’ve gotten over my fear of teaching Symbolic Logic (and believe me, if my graduate school friends and professors were here, they could tell you how astonishing a feat that is for me).

Because of you, I’m now in the process of team teaching a wonderful course in political philosophy with Dr. Koukal; one of the courses that reminds both of us why we wanted to do this for a living.

Because of you, the philosophy department added the enormous talents of Dr. Koukal, Dr. Leever, and Dr. Presbey, enriching my intellectual and pedagogical life more than I would have thought possible. Without you, we would not have formed either our professional relationships or our friendships with each other.

Because of you, discussions of ethics and social justice issues in my classes are both pervasive and rewarding. I know someone at another university (names omitted to protect the innocent) who has told me that he has difficulty getting his students involved in discussions of social justice issues. Needless to say, that’s not a problem I have ever encountered with UDM students, who are immediately engaged in discussions of this kind; not very surprising, given that a number of students are attracted to UDM because of its diversity.

I’m thankful for your eagerness to consider racism, sexism, homophobia, affirmative action, abortion, and the death penalty in the way that philosophy requires: with rigorous impartial consideration of the other person’s point of view as well as your own, by setting aside where your emotions or personal background lead and following, however briefly, where your rational assessment of the evidence leads you instead. I’ve never tried to be anything but brutally honest about how difficult this is for all of us. So, I also have to thank you for the moral service you’ve done me in forcing me to confront my own race and class privileges; which has truly been one of the most valuable lessons of my life. In making me a better teacher, you’ve made me a better person. Because of you, I have been able to bring to life my views about education as a source of empowerment and so make a contribution to my society. Thank you for holding me to the same standards to which I hold all of you.

Because of your goals and interests, I’ve been able to pursue a passion for law that initially made me decide to major in philosophy even though I ultimately decided not to attend law school (though I confess I still want to).

Because of you, I was able to publish a paper on using judicial opinions to teach philosophy.

Because of you, I was able to ‘road test’ my analysis of an argument against abortion that resulted in another published paper. In making me a better teacher, you have made me a better and more careful philosopher.

It is because of our class discussions that I want to think more carefully about the relationship between the Constitution, gay marriage, religious freedom, and Mill’s ideas in On Liberty; that I want to work on the question of ‘battered women’s defense’ as a specific legal strategy, that I’m excited by investigating how the techniques of formal symbolic logic can more directly apply to exams like the GRE, LSAT, GMAT, etc.

Because of you, the hero worship of Socrates that started when I was 18 and first read the Apology has been transformed into an ongoing opportunity for me to share his lessons on the care of the soul, having the courage of one’s convictions, and what really matters in life. The actor and musician Henry Rollins once described the experience of seeing Led Zeppelin live as like ‘being hit in the chest with a Buick.’ That’s how I felt when I read Plato, Descartes, and Hume. But it’s because of you that I have a daily opportunity to try and transmit that enthusiasm and passion to others.

Most of you know me because you’ve had classes with me. And since with me what you see is pretty much what you get, you also know that I’ve worried a lot about the challenges that philosophy is facing at the moment (more on that in a minute). But no matter how frustrated or worried I’ve been at times, you all make me forget that when I walk into class. For that 50 or 75 minutes, nothing matters but us, and this amazing subject that calls us to stretch our minds in ways we didn’t think possible. Everything else just kind of fades away. This has made my classroom a truly magical place for me.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to try and meet the two challenges philosophy faces today: one is the demand that education be made more practically relevant by being able to prove its contributions to the economy; the other is the constant and seductive pull away from the critical examination of beliefs, ideologies, and dogmas – a critical examination that is the heart and soul of philosophy.

The first challenge comes from those who regard philosophy as useless because it produces neither food, housing, computers, SUV’s and consumer goods, nor does it produce engineers, computer technicians, accountants, or nurses. Universities themselves have not been immune to this pressure; if we had 50 philosophy majors – a larger number of repeat tuition paying customers - we’d have a bigger philosophy department than we currently have and such a thing is one kind of mark of success in the academic world. Fortunately, the faculty in the philosophy department feel pretty strongly that 10 majors are just as deserving of 110% from us as 50 would be, and we are super conscious of our responsibilities to all UDM students through the Core Curriculum.

But I’m grateful to all of you for accompanying me on the journey toward wisdom, in discussing with me the question of which things are valuable and why that is so, and for openly embracing a much richer view of human nature: a view according to which our unique (and uniquely developed) capacity for reason is the source of our distinctive human excellence, and that to do anything less than exercise this capacity to its fullest is to sell ourselves short as human beings (hard to get away from those ancient Greeks – and the rest of the Western philosophical tradition). I’m grateful that you’ve allowed me to participate in your journey toward moral integrity and intellectual autonomy by working through these questions about value with me. I’ve watched it change your lives, and I can’t imagine any greater honor.

I’m equally grateful for your willingness to face up to the other challenge philosophy has faced since its beginnings: the challenge that we live up to our potential as rational creatures by avoiding the temptation to ‘go with the crowd,’ rely on common sense or some authority, to simply accept majority opinion as obviously right. You all know that nothing of the sort is allowed in philosophy – where evidence is everything, especially evidence acceptable to other reasonable people, even if they disagree with us. I have not made any secret of the fact that philosophy can be dangerous: its demand for justification of the status quo, its demand for an argument that the Old Way really is the Best or Only Way, its demand for reasons in support of what seems obvious to others. As I tell my intro students every term: even if you live in the worst sort of dictatorship or some other system of political tyranny, if you are occupied with the study of earthworms or dinosaurs, you’ll probably be reasonably safe. If, on the other hand, you are caught reading Mill, or Marx, or Locke, if you advocate rebellion against unjust governments in writing or speech, if you suggest that civil liberties are worth some sacrifice of security – then you may well be awakened to face hours of questioning (or worse) under a strong light (or maybe your credit card records will be searched to see what kind of books you buy). There’s danger in opposing power – whether it’s the power of one or many. There’s danger in questioning authority, in claiming that faith, tradition, authority don’t count as evidence for something. Philosophers from Socrates to Martin Luther King Jr. have been facing that danger, and I’m grateful for your willingness to take up the challenge yourselves. The moral success of any democratic society depends on the willingness of its citizens to do precisely this.

I’m grateful for your willingness to see the world in a different way, in the big picture macroscopic way that philosophy looks at life. Because of course that sort of picture doesn’t always mesh well with the activities of daily life: when my car needed extensive repair for the second time, I started thinking about whether it’s the same car (because there’s an important question here about the identity conditions for a physical object). As often happens with me, I thought it and so I said it – and got a pretty strange look from the mechanic. But with all of you, the quirky story about me becomes an opportunity for demonstrating the irresistible lure of philosophical questions. Thank you again.