Interview with Scott Samuelson

By Theodore Nollert

Scott Samuelson graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Grinnell College in 1995 and received his Ph. D. from Emory University in 2001. He began teaching at Kirkwood Community College in 2000, and was inspired by his students there to write his first book, The Deepest Human Life (University of Chicago Press, 2014). He has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Christian Century, and The Philosopher’s Magazine; his article “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers,” written for The Atlantic, drew wide attention. A regular speaker, he has been interviewed on NPR and gave a TEDx talk entitled “How Philosophy Can Save Your Life.” In addition to working at Kirkwood, he teaches at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, writes movie reviews for Little Village, hosts Ethical Perspectives on the News, a Saturday-morning talk show, and works as an occasional sous-chef at Simone’s Plain and Simple. He is at work on a second book, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering.

Samuelson is the 2015 recipient of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s prestigious Hiett Prize in the Humanities. The Hiett Prize is an annual award aimed at identifying candidates who are in the early stages of careers devoted to the humanities and whose work shows extraordinary promise and has a significant public component related to contemporary culture. The Hiett Prize seeks to encourage future leaders in the humanities by recognizing their early accomplishment and their potential; more materially, it assists their ongoing work through a cash award of $50,000.


You’re a recognized advocate for the liberal arts, as your receipt of the Hiett prize demonstrates, and we often read today of defenders of the liberal arts, which implies that they are embattled. What challenges do you see the humanities facing, and perhaps overcoming, at present?

There are challenges both from without and from within.  

From without, the main challenge is a mindset that reduces education to training for economic and technological power.  This challenge doesn’t just concern the humanities; it concerns all the liberal arts, including science and math.  It’s true that science and math are more easily enlisted to economic and technological training than philosophy and literature, but in some ways that makes matters worse for science and math.  We in the humanities may be more likely to have our funding cut, but they experience more pressure to sell their souls.  I wish it went without saying that the point of education was preparation for and participation in the whole adventure of being human, and not just preparation for one small part of it.  The fact that we think in reductive terms leads us to cut public funding in education (why should I have to pay for your kid’s economic pursuits?), which makes education more expensive, which makes it harder for students and parents to justify spending a lot of money on studying the liberal arts, which makes those of us who care about democracy and the liberal arts very worried.

From within, the big challenge is that we in the humanities sometimes lose sight of what we’re all about.  We get caught up in our own somewhat silly form of professionalization and lose sight of the great questions, ideas, books, and artifacts that make the humanities so wonderful and so universally appealing.  

But we should remember that the humanities are always embattled.  Part of the excitement of being human is grappling with the unique challenges posed by one’s current age.  Things could be worse.  My God, I’m a philosopher who gets paid by my fellow citizens for doing philosophy—that in itself is, by historical standards, miraculous!  Plus, no matter how dark things get, people are always going to come across Plato and Shakespeare and be enlarged. 

The Deepest Human Life is written in a more popular style than a scholarly monograph. Do you think that the American academy can do more to develop students who are lifelong learners and readers of less accessible texts? 

I’ve always liked that aphorism of Lichtenberg’s, “It requires no especially great talent to write in such a way that another will be hard put to understand what you have written.”  I hope that my book encourages people to read what you’re calling “less accessible texts.”  But I don’t think of books primarily in terms of accessibility.  I want people to read really good books, some of which stretch our reading abilities but some of which happen to be pretty accessible.  For instance, I’ve found that many of Plato’s dialogues are more accessible to my students than most New Yorker articles.  

I’m very concerned about the fate of reading.  From kindergarten on, students are given the impression that reading is primarily about the extraction of information, which is only one very small part of the imaginative, critical, challenging, enjoyable engagement that is reading.  

My advice, for what it’s worth, is that teachers should assign fewer textbooks, which are generally boring and give a bad impression of what reading is all about, and more really good books, especially classics.  Then we should teach those books in ways that shows why we love them so much.

The memories you share of interactions with your students are an engaging and persuasive part of your book; do you think that such interactions are given adequate weight both within the university and in the representation of university teaching to the public?

Many defenses of the liberal arts, even when they’re making a good point, are unpersuasive.  “They improve our critical thinking.”  “They give us portable skills to rise in an unpredictable economy.”  “They enhance our abilities to participate as citizens in a democracy.”  “They make us more human.”  All true, but do opponents of the liberal arts read these defenses, slap their foreheads, and say, “What was I thinking”?  The best way to defend the liberal arts, in my view, is to show them in all their glory.  Stories about real students who’ve been ignited by the study of subjects like philosophy mean more to people than abstract statements about the value of the humanities.

How did you learn to connect with your students?

I love my subject, and I want to share it with them.  That’s pretty much it.  When I’m teaching, I try to remember the line from William James that inspired the title of my book, “The deepest human life is everywhere.”  I try to remember that no matter who my students are, no matter how bored or shallow or hostile or crazy they sometimes seem, they contain in them the whole mystery of being human, and it’s my job to try to put that mystery in contact with philosophy.

One reviewer wrote of your book that “The Deepest Human Life serves as a nice reminder that one can find ways to be productive as a philosopher even in more adverse circumstances,” referring to the heavy teaching load you and many professors carry in the United States. This also suggests a perceived difference in value between teaching and research in the academy. What do you think it means to be a productive philosopher?

I once heard of a poet who put a sign over his bed that said, “Do not disturb: poet at work.”  To modify a line by Cato, “Never are philosophers more active than when they’re doing nothing.”  Or at least that’s what I’ve been trying to tell my dean!  

I think that there are lots of ways of being a productive philosopher.  By far the most important thing that most academics do is teach.  And yet many institutions put the majority of professional pressure on research.  In my utopia, a few would exclusively research and write; a few would focus exclusively on teaching; and most would be engaged in a mixture of research, writing, and teaching—with an emphasis on teaching and mentoring a not-overwhelming number of students.  Also in my utopia, books and articles would never be written mainly for the purpose of fulfilling a research requirement, and more academic writing would communicate the value of their disciplines to the public at large.  This would be good not just for the public but for the academics themselves: it would help to keep them honest.  

Your love of cooking is apparent from its appearances throughout your writing. Is there an overlap between your study of philosophy and your culinary undertakings?

I hope someday to write a book called The Flavors of the Universe: A Philosophical Cookbook—sort of a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, only about philosophy and cooking.  I see cooking as the art of bringing out the deepest flavors in food, and I see philosophy as the art of bringing out the deepest human life.  

Theodore Nollert is a senior at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, studying English Literature. Rhodes is home to the Gamma of Tennessee Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.