Wednesday, April 25, 2012


By Salman Ahmed Rasul
AUI-S Voice Staff Reporter 

Bryan H. Smith is an assistant professor and Convener of International Studies at AUI-S. He teaches philosophy, and a few weeks ago he started a philosophical club with Athanasios Moulakis, the Provost of AUI-S, James Harrigan, the Dean of Students, and Louis Petrich to provide more philosophical material for the students, and to make the students to be more familiar with philosophy texts. This time AUI-S Voice chose Bryan to respond our questions about several different issues here at AUI-S.

Would you tell us about your academic background? And if you want to tell us a little bit about your personal life, it will be gratifying.
The most important part of my academic background is that I studied as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). That this is important—in fact the most important fact of my academic background—may be surprising. It may be surprising for a couple of reasons.
First, as an undergraduate, I was directionless and not particularly interested in school. If I had a reason for going to the University of Alberta it was to play sports, indulge in other entertainment, and because this is what I was supposed to do in order to eventually find a career.
Second, the University of Alberta was not particularly good either. No serious attempt was made to educate students. “Liberal” education was often a dirty word. Professors were more interested in publishing than teaching. And the education that was administered was often hyper-specialized, democratized, and politicized. In short, it was a typical over-sized under achieving North American university. Quite the opposite of what we have here at AUI-S.
Given, then, my disposition as an undergraduate and that of the U. of A., it might seem a little surprising that this is the place I would specify as the most important part of my academic background. My youthful disposition aside, the U. of A. seemed an improbable place to discover anything, let alone anything great. As chance would have it,however, I did.
I came across two teachers who were great: Professor Leon H. Craig and Professor Heidi D. Studer. They were the single greatest influence on my academic career. More importantly, they changed my life. Because of these teachers, I started to study. Because of these teachers, I wanted to study. Because of these teachers I eventually decided to go to graduate school and try to become a teacher myself. For me, they are living the standard to which I aim and measure my success.
These teachers showed me the nobility of philosophy. That studying political philosophy could “be a students’ most sobering, enlivening, refining, and liberating experience” and that the questions of political philosophy not only address the perennial questions facing mankind(What is justice? and What is the best regime?) but that it also addresses questions of the great personal importance, questions of immediate concern to us all: “What is the best life? What is the best life for me?”I still remember these words from my Introduction to Political Philosophy Syllabus.
This changed everything for me. This unlikely place in the middle of nowhere became the best place on earth. These two teachers made school and learning important. School became something great, real, and personal.School became the place where I was encouraged to learn from the great books in order to learn how to live my life, in order to maximize the best things in life. Before studying under these teachers,I was not a good student (and probably the less said about that the better). After,I wanted to do nothing but study great books and consider the great questions of political philosophy. I was bitten by the Gadfly and couldn’t think, dream,or want much of anything else.
From there, in order to pursue graduate studies, I moved to New York. I received a Masters of Arts and Ph.D. from Fordham University.Graduate School was good for me for many reasons. Besides living in New York on my own, I was able to teach throughout my graduate school education. For those years, then, I taught and learned about the great books and when I wasn’t studying or in the classroom, I could go out and play in a city filled with some of the greatest art currently collected by man.
What is your responsibility and task here at AUI-S as an assistant professor and Convener of International Studies (your role)?
My highest responsibility here at AUI-S is as a teacher:to educate the students;to not make students worse—but hopefully and perhaps better—in respect to human excellence; and to help elevate, free, and refine students’ souls. In short, my most important task—my best task here at AUI-S—is to provide students with a liberal arts education.
As the Convener of International Studies, I facilitate and coordinate the administration of this Major by managing the curriculum, by helping in the University’s hiring process, by supporting the Provost, and by promoting, reviewing, and evaluating the International Studies Major.
You have said before that philosophy has something in common with the liberal arts and that AUI-S is a “university offering a comprehensive American-style liberal arts education”.But International Studies students only take “Political Philosophy” and “Philosophy and Ethics”.Still less, the other students from other Majors take only one course in philosophy. Don’t you think that AUI-S should offer a new field in philosophy, or at least gives the students more opportunity to study philosophy by offering more courses for the university requirements?
Starting with the first part of your question, yes, philosophy and the liberal arts do have much in common. I have heard one teacher here describe philosophy as the core of the Core. Philosophy, in part, aims to go beyond one’s time and place to find something true, not something true here and now but something true simply, always and everywhere. Plato’s Socrates wonderfully illustrates this in his Allegory of the Cave (Plato, Republic, at the start of Book VII). Likewise, the literal meaning of a liberal arts education points to the same end. The literal meaning of a “liberal” arts education is to free you. Hence, the aims of a liberal arts education and philosophy in this sense are the same.
Philosophy, however, is not simply the pursuit of truth, or at least should not be. If it were, Socrates would have legally deserved the hemlock and should not deserve our admiration.
Philosophy at its height, then, seems both noble and good. Our liberal arts education attempts a similar high and difficult aim. At AUI-S we attempt to not just make you smart about this or that but we aim to make you good as well. The introduction to philosophy at AUI-S takes place alongside an introduction to ethics or as its titled, “Philosophy and Ethics” (PHI 202). The aim of “Political Philosophy” (POL 401) takes a similar consideration and aim.
Hence, philosophy and the liberal arts education here at AUI-S doesn’t attempt to free students from all restraints. Our aim is not to make students wild. Our aim is to open students to the best parts of themselves,to unbindyou from the shackles of mediocrity, to open your world to the highest possibilities and to the biggest questions, to cultivate a taste in you for the very best things a human being can expect or want from this world.
This is also why philosophy and the liberal arts are also the best way to prepare students for the everyday realities of post-graduate life: employment, family, politics ...etc. Our recent victories in Computer Science demonstrate our students are not hurt but helped by studying Plato. Why? Because both philosophy and a liberal arts education aim at a comprehensive understanding of our world.By seeing the big picture, you see all the possibilities. By training yourself to look for all the implications, all the scenarios, all the parts and how they fit together to form a whole you prepare yourself to be able to think through any difficulty and to tackle any and all problems. The comprehensive education of both philosophy and the liberal arts, then, makes students good in the sense that it makes you competent to understand and deal with this world.
By aiming to educate the whole soul, the entire human being, and not merely one part, we at AUI-S attempt to prepare students to see the entire world in all its beauty and glory, to help you make sense and be able to read the wonders of nature and convention.Liberal arts education, then,aims to educate the entire human being by exposing students to the most important questions a human being can ask as well as how they can be met here and now. Living as well as living well, combining the real with the ideal, the noble with the good, this is what we aim for here at AUI-S.
This accords with the understanding of philosophy at its foundation. It was only later, that philosophy or the sciences (knowledge) became separated into distinct sub-disciplines. It is in modernity that philosophy abandons the attempt at a comprehensive understanding or wisdom. The education here at AUI-S isn’t partisan or restricted to the weaknesses of modern education. We do not aim low to only give you a partial understanding of yourselves and your world.We aim high for the best reasons as well as the most practical.
Perhaps to best see how philosophy and liberal arts education are similar, consider Aristotle. This philosopher’s written works touch every part of life, not just metaphysics and epistemology. His works, like the works of all great philosophers, show a considered study of our entire world. Hence, to directly address the second part of your question, we needn’t necessarily give more philosophy courses here at AUI-S. All the courses here at AUI-S already help students to explore the world in all its wonder. In this sense, Ms. Lora’s “Macro Molecule Lab” is as philosophically important as your introduction to Aristophanes’ Clouds and Plato’s Apology of Socrates.
The practical virtues of studying Aristotle are exemplified in his best student, Alexander the Great. The American tradition inherited this liberal arts tradition and, hence, is why we, in part, have the word in the name of our school.
Having said that, philosophy does have a beauty all its own and as the university grows, it is quite reasonable that more courses devoted to philosophy could become available to students.
For the first time, you offer a Philosophy Reading Group or Philosophy Club. Can you tell us what this club is about and what the purpose of the club is? Who can attend? Who is in the panel to lead the discussion? What is the material that you cover during the sessions? And how is the contribution of the students?
This is an after school reading group. It was initiated by former students, particularly Bahman Abdulrahman Hassan and Krekar Muhammad Mustafa. The purpose of the club is simply to allow interested students, staff, and faculty the opportunity to gather to read, to discuss, and to study philosophy.
Anyone at AUI-S can attend. Regardless of your experience, all are welcome. You need only to be willing to cultivate an open mind and a desire to learn.
Dean James Harrigan and Mr. Louis Petrich lead discussion on Mondays (4-5pm). Dr. Moulakis and I lead discussion on Wednesdays (3:45-4:45pm).
We are reading Plato’s Republic. (We are going at a pace comfortable to the students, given students are already studying a minimum of 12 hours a week per class.) We usually try to cover one argument a week. The amount, then, ranges from 2-10 pages of reading.
Student participation has been good. Some are carefully listening, while others are asking very good questions that range from important practical questions of interpretation (How can you read a book this way, asking questions of every word and line?) to difficult questions about human sexuality and the proof of the soul.
What do you think about philosophy in general? Is it “destructive”? Is it constructive? Or both?Why?And why not?
Philosophy can be very destructive and harmful. It doesn’t have to be, however. Philosophy, or political philosophy, philosophy that is both noble and good, was born in the death of a man some 2,0000 years ago. Socrates showed that philosophy can be noble and good. In fact, Socrates showed that, arguably, it is the best life for a human being. This is, arguably, how our tradition of philosophy was founded and how it has perpetuated itself throughout the vicissitudes of time.
Who is your favorite philosopher?And, why?
I’m a bit of a glutton and have many favorites throughout the tradition. My teachers cultivated in me a taste for the great books: philosophic poets like Homer, Aristophanes, and Shakespeare as well as poetic philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon, Locke, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. If, however, I had to pick one, I would have to say my hero was Socrates.
Why Socrates? ... Come to the Philosophy Reading Group and find out for yourself.

This interview first appeared on 

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