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
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
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
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
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
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.