Thinking out loud: Philosophy Dialogue Series promotes informed discussions on campus, in community

Thinking out loud 

by Salwa Choucair Lanford

Philosophy Dialogue Series promotes informed discussions on campus, in community

The college experience is more than attending classes, living away from home, and studying into the wee hours of the morning. One of the greatest experiences of college life is discovering oneself in this big, crazy world.

College can be the time when young adults learn to question their childhood belief systems; wonder how and where they fit into the universe; and hopefully discover how they will use their newfound knowledge to become productive citizens.

The Department of Philosophy at Texas State University has played a big role in cultivating students’ ability to engage, question, and evaluate diverse views. Offering more than 75 interactive events each semester, the Philosophy Dialogue Series covers topics of general interest and controversial and timely issues.

“The Dialogue Series is uniquely dedicated to the critical and creative exploration of ideas,” says Dr. Craig Hanks, chair and professor of the Department of Philosophy. “I want students to learn the power of their own agency and voice on campus, because campuses like this only exist for the students, to help them learn. They have a considerable amount of power in a setting like this, and I think it is a good place for them to practice engaging that which they can then take with them when they graduate as citizens and members of other communities.”

To understand the purpose of hosting dialogues, it is necessary to understand the significance of the word “dialogue” in philosophy and its origins dating back to ancient Greece. Plato wrote many of his famous philosophical works in dialogue form. “From its beginning, Western philosophy has been a dialogic activity where humans engage with each other to try to learn from one another, whether it is learning to ask questions, how to solve a problem, or how to know what a problem really is,” Hanks explains. “The idea that our thinking is improved by that type of interaction is central to the history of philosophy.

“Part of what we are trying to do with the series is to make it a part of the everyday life of this campus in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen elsewhere,” he says.

The Department of Philosophy, spearheaded by professor and former department chair Dr. Vincent Luizzi, started the Dialogue Series 23 years ago. The aim was to connect with other departments,  share philosophy more broadly within the university, and attract more students to the study of philosophy. Luizzi, now the dialogue director, works to ensure that the series has the resources to continue for years to come. In 2017, a gift of $50,000 was given as seed money to establish an endowment. Further contributions to the endowment will help fund prominent speakers, their travel, and the overall purpose of the series.

Today, the series hosts daily dialogues — often several per day — featuring a variety of topics led by students, faculty members from across the university, and guest speakers as well as a weekly community outreach dialogue at the San Marcos Public Library. In addition, students may enroll in Dialogue: Theory and Practice, an undergraduate and graduate course that has been incorporated into the department’s curriculum. The series has become the backbone of the department and uses its platform to help fulfill Texas State’s mission.

“The idea is that diversity comes in through the wide range of topics offered and nothing is too controversial to discuss. We want to pave the way for people to respect diversity and inclusion.”

- Dr. Vincent Luizzi

“We intentionally choose the topics with a primary driving force to contribute to the university’s mission of creating diversity and promoting inclusion among people,” Luizzi says. “The idea is that diversity comes in through the wide range of topics offered and nothing is too controversial to discuss. We want to pave the way for people to respect diversity and inclusion.” For Dr. Gene Bourgeois, provost and vice president for academic affairs, the  dialogues reflect a signature purpose of Texas State and academia in general. “They catalyze a deeper consideration for and understanding of issues essential for improving our communities and the lives of our students,” he says.

Students such as Harrison Hutcheson, 20, a junior business management major from San Antonio, find the dialogue model to be eye-opening. “The whole idea of college is to enhance your learning experience and viewpoint,” Hutcheson says, “and I definitely found that in my philosophy class.”

Recent dialogue topics include immigration, patriotism, democracy, violence, and justice, says Dr. Jo Ann Carson, senior lecturer and  coordinator of the series. Carson has worked alongside Luizzi since the early days of the Dialogue Series. She gathers suggestions for weekly themes from students and faculty and schedules specific speakers and topics. She also designed and teaches the dialogue class, which became part of the series in 2004.

“Topics are chosen in a collaborative effort with an operating assumption that philosophy is relevant to everything,” Carson says. “One of our goals is to try to connect the topics we choose to philosophical issues, themes, and backgrounds.” Since she works closely with students, Carson has a  firsthand view of how dialogue affects them, and she explains that the two big takeaways she has heard are the words “transformative” and “respect.”

“Philosophy is not about providing answers, but it’s really about asking the right questions, and asking people or inviting them to give their beliefs opens a space where everyone hears these beliefs, and everyone changes a little bit. You don’t come out exactly the same person as when you went in, and that’s a good thing.

“At the same time, there is an ethical dimension to the Dialogue Series. Students learn that you can listen and show respect for those with whom you disagree rather than demonizing their view, and something we are lacking right now both socially and culturally.”

As a contemporary form of a tradition dating back to Plato and Socrates, the Dialogue Series at Texas State will continue to provide opportunities for engagement and learning on campus and in the community for many years to come.