A professor writes philosophy concepts on a whiteboard A professor writes philosophy concepts on a whiteboard
Arts & Culture 

Shaping students’ lives

College of Arts and Letters Hooper Undergraduate Research Award Philosophy

Everything you need to know about the value of philosophy in the 21st century is on full display inside Dr. George Rudebusch’s classroom.

After more than three decades at Northern Arizona University, the specialist in ancient philosophy and ethics is a caring and committed professor who—not unlike Socrates at the Agora–holds his students responsible for their own learning and identifying what they aspire to.

The most important thing is not life but the good life … and the good life, the beautiful life, and the just life are the same.

Socrates

Students file into the classroom. They arrive having read a challenging primary source assigned by Rudebusch. All raise what the professor calls a “critical question” about the reading. Each student chooses a passage to thoughtfully interpret, evaluate, and decide whether the author’s assertion is true or if the value expressed is a good one.

Whether they agree with the author or each other, the budding philosophers begin to dabble in persuasive rhetoric. Rudebusch puts students who wrote on the same passage into small groups. They summarize their evaluations on the board—along with their names, so they accept responsibility for their claims—and present their views in front of the whole class.

Then, the students go at it for up to an hour, debating, defending, debunking—always, Rudebusch insists, with civility.

  • They experience the critical thinking that occurs when students welcome the greatest thinkers of all time into their lives.
  • They take responsibility for their assertions.
  • They follow a welcoming path from individual study to connected teamwork to passionate defense in front of a large group.
  • They display the maturity of engaging in discussions with kindness.
  • When necessary, they accept the gentle prodding of Rudebusch to ask the next tough question.
Rudebusch sits in a circle with his students during a discussion.

Is it any wonder the philosopher watching this all unfold loves the academic discipline he chose?

Philosophy as job security 

“They aren’t going to outsmart Kant or Hume,” Rudebusch says. “They’re like puppy dogs chewing on these texts to sharpen their teeth. That’s the part of the class that’s fun. This is skill-building. They’re learning how to hear objections, listen to what people say, and reply to the objections.”

What he will never do in his classes, he says, is ask students to recite “Socrates’ 10 greatest quotes.” Philosophy—arguably the most ancient and wide-ranging of the academic disciplines—is much more practical than that. It is where we turn for answers and guidance when seeking our goals in an increasingly automated and specialized world.

Figuring out what jobs won’t succumb to robots is society’s new parlor game. Could it be that studying philosophy is the best way to protect yourself from being replaced by one? Rudebusch is not using some silver-tongued logic to make that case. Philosophy gets back to the basics: The ability to reason, apply ethics, rigorously debate, and identify what has value are all critically important in the job market and in fostering a better society.

The learning outcome in his approach is honing the skill of interpreting and evaluating texts about the nature of reality, how human beings can know, and how we can live well.“If you’re painting signs or scraping teeth, you learn practical skills to do that job,” Rudebusch said. “If you think of your life as a whole, though…how you want to live your life, that’s the most practical question. We don’t know what jobs are even going to be around in 20 years. Philosophy is the best way to prepare for the future.”

Applying philosophy to the world

Since philosophy is all about the long game, Rudebusch mentors students to apply it to the ever-changing world around them.

Brianna Zgurich, a Gold Axe Award winner and Hooper Undergraduate Research Award winner, credits Rudebusch for piquing her interest in philosophy and connecting her to prominent figures and graduate students in the field.

“This experience in expanding my professional network was invaluable, and I believe that the introductions to these contacts greatly influenced the course of my life,” Zgurich wrote in a nomination letter on Rudebusch’s behalf for the NAU Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Scholarship.

She now is working toward a PhD in philosophy at Cornell University. The work she did as a teaching assistant was critical in gaining that opportunity, Zgurich said.
“On my visits to graduate colleges, I have learned that the work I did for Dr. Rudebusch is at a higher level than most of the graduate student teaching assistants are doing for their professors,” she said. “He has prepared me amazingly well for my future as a graduate student since he has always challenged me.”

Continuing a legacy of mentorship

Rudebusch insists the emphasis on strong teaching at NAU has been a consistent thread since he arrived on campus in 1988.

“My job satisfaction improved dramatically when I moved here because I loved teaching more,” he said. “My colleagues were good teachers, and we talked about how to teach better. Everyone shares a love of teaching, and it’s been a characteristic of my department that’s continued. That’s got to be my favorite part of my professional life.”

Rudebusch emphasizes a point during a discussion.

Personal connections and mentoring with faculty such as Rudebusch provide NAU students a campus life that blends compassion, wisdom, practical knowledge…and a head start toward shaping a life well lived after graduation.