Monday, September 29, 2008

Rick Roderick

Maybe I’m in a morbid mood today, or just a little sad. Anyway, I have to write about a man who I never knew existed ten days ago, and just found out died six years ago.

I’ve been reading some summaries and overviews of post-modern philosophy to try to better understand this seemingly incomprehensible world we live in. Also, to figure out its weaknesses and to combat it, if it can. I don’t know. Case in point seems to be that there is no single agreed-upon definition of the phrase “post-modern” as it applies to philosophy and schools of thought. But I digress; this is all the subject of a faraway post.

One of my local libraries carried the tape series “The Self Under Siege: Philosophy in the Twentieth Century” and I figured, what the heck, can’t hurt, right? I commute over seven hours a week, so I could probably finish the tapes in a week. And if the professor seemed too much of a screaming lefty I was under no obligation to listen to the whole thing. So, last week I started listening, and was pleasantly surprised.

The series of lectures were done in the early 90’s by a Duke University professor named Rick Roderick. The man hails from West Texas, and has the accent to prove it. That caught my attention within the first minute. Distracting, at first, it soon became, oddly, comforting. Like you weren’t listening to a college professor, but a crazy buddy in a bar. The voice on the tapes is funny, self-deprecating, and spell-binding as he tries to make as clear as possible such convoluted teachings as those of Heidegger, Habermas, Foucault and Derrida. It worked, as much as a 45 minute lecture can make clear the modern philosophies of such men.

I had to find more about this man, I realized. He’s quite the rarity: a teacher who made his subject come alive by sheer force of his personality. A teacher I never experienced personally in my eleven off-and-on years at three different colleges. Yes, there were the liberal jabs at stereotypical conservative values and opinions, but I didn’t mind it, because Roderick took up the Socratic role of “gadfly”, and meant such jabs to inspire me to defend my positions. Point well-taken.

The first place I turned to was the Internet. I googled his name, and the first entry was his Wikipedia entry. And then, I was shocked to learn that he had died in 2002, at the age of 53. How very, very sad. It was as if an acquaintance I just made, and wanted very much to make my friend, died suddenly.

Then, I found this tribute page to him, from his old students and other seekers searching for any information of what had happened to the man. It appears he died of a heart attack, and may have known it was coming. Regardless, he left a legacy of many whose lives he changed. He did two others series for the Teaching Company, which I’ll seek out. Apparently, he was denied tenure at Duke for rocking the boat. Why not charge him with “corrupting the youth”? Socrates would be proud. Reading through the testimonials one story stood out: He began every class by giving everyone A’s. Then, since the college wouldn’t allow him to give everyone in his class A’s, he’d hold a lottery to find the unlucky fellow who got the B+.

How I wish that I had met a teacher like Rick Roderick in my younger days! I pray the God you may or may not have believed in has welcomed you into His kingdom.

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