My Socrates

On March 23rd, 2009, a great man passed away. I meant to post this on the anniversary of his death, but I’m off by a few days. I have recently been talking more about him, as he inspired one of my tattoos (that story is for another entry someday).

This is what I wrote, the day of his funeral.

I was a student at Manchester Community College from June 2002 until May 2005. One of my very first classes was Critical Thinking with Eugene Rice, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9:30-11am. I was 14, he was 72. Our connection was dynamic – we were both full of questions and answers. I developed my questions through rebellion and discovered my answers through speculation, and presented both arrogantly. He achieved both through experience and trial and error, and presented both in various fashions, from elegance to antagonism.

What we had in common was a desire for thorough knowledge, and an antagonistic spirit to achieve said knowledge.

He hated the word “teacher” he told us, one class, due to his belief that it implies indoctrination, preferring to refer to himself as a “mid-wife”. Knowledge was already inside us, you see, and he was simply there to assist with the birth of it. 

His classes were tests, without multiple choice or essay, just constant streams of information and the collective and individual processing of such. He’d occasionally just randomly call a name and ask them to summarize or comment on the previous week’s reading. He’d entertain most ideas, theories, arguments, and often the dialogue in his classes would switch and swerve and tangent and resurface back to the point at such a speed that some would find themselves only able to pick up a few bits and pieces of the concepts – like holding your hand to a stream for a drink. There was something for everyone, but not everything for anyone.

One day he walked into class, wrote “flag burning – ethical or unethical?” on the front board, then made his way to the back of the room in silence and observed us for an hour. First, the confusion – would he start class soon? do I have to raise my hand? should I speak first? And then the opinions would start flying. I did my best to argue the minority viewpoint as often as possible – something he both scolded me for and praised me for on various occasions. That class, for the record, ended with me and a Marine standing up and slinging insults like “tyrant”, “lemming”, “liberal” and “terrorist” back and forth. Gene just smiled.

Every class, someone at random would be called to summarize the previous class’ discussions, and oftentimes that would result in a continuation of that debate or topic, much to the pleasure of about half the class and the dismay of the other half.

He had these sheets, he’d hand write them and photocopy a billion of ’em – these sheets referred to as “summary/opinion” sheets. If we had any sort of reading as homework, these sheets were automatically expected – we were to read the materials, re-explain them in our own words, and then feel free to free-form comment on them. I remember reading and intensely disliking the story of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and proceeding to summarize it in scathing tones, and write “this story sucked” on the other side. His response was simply “why?”. He didn’t mind my dislike of it, but expected me to give some reasons.

He told me once that you’ve never learned anything until you can teach it to someone else. That was the purpose of our papers, to reword and explain to our fellow classmates something we were in the process of learning.

He and I would spend hours before and after classes discussing philosophy – I liked to take one solid idea from our readings and speculate outwards – he would prompt me to read materials along the same lines, but I wanted to form these ideas myself, and he seemed willing to placate me often.

His Ethics class was where I found my academic calling. I’ve never loved any class more. When I finished that class, I still arranged my later class schedules around it every semester, so I could visit as often as possible.

I visited for years after I graduated in 2005. He would request my presence for at least one class a semester – his Ethics class had these projects where we’d each individually have to take a controversial topic and give our reasoning for whether or not it was ethical, and then the whole class would debate it. He’d ask me to sit in on the discussions for gay marriage and abortion, knowing that my indignant refusal to let things be would prevent the entire class from falling into a stupor after the tirade of propaganda from the side I opposed.

He and I used to have long discussions on the legal vs. the ethical, and to what extent these things needed to and/or did coincide.

He was an avid lover of movies and once asked my advice for a modern philosophical flick he could show in class. We screened The Matrix in his office soon afterward, and he was excited to show it the very next week in class. I remember him sitting there taking notes the whole way through, references of various theological or philosophical perspectives and his annoyance at their brief and non-thorough appearances.

I once borrowed a book from him during class, and the margins were filled with his notes. When an author wouldn’t actually close an argument, wouldn’t complete a thought or would presumably intentionally ignore a hole in their own logic, he would underline the offending passage and make notes directly next to it. Or if he wanted to know more about something that was only briefly delved into, he’d make notes reminding himself, “why?” or “how?”.

Much to most people’s surprise, I’ve always disliked school, and found textbooks, tests and term papers frustrating. My starting college at fourteen and first graduation at seventeen was actually not because of high academic aspirations (though I appreciated and met the challenge itself), but a desire to get through my least-desired experiences quickly.

Gene Rice made me love school. I would have attended his classes with pneumonia (I did once) to have the opportunity to just talk about whatever I was inspired to by the readings he assigned, and to listen to him scold me for my tangential nature – it’s because of him I’m better able to focus and stay on topic, bringing my conversations back around to the original point.

Gene Rice taught me that it was okay to just think, and it was okay to have that thinking broken down. That it’s okay to break someone else’s thinking down, though sometimes more polite to check the appropriateness of the situation first before doing so out loud. He taught me what school and educational institutions are supposed to be all about – a safe haven to develop your mind, without fear of reprecussions for not knowing the answer – just motives to learn it.

Gene Rice died on March 23rd of 2009. He was 79. This loss affects me profoundly. I took for granted my ability to just waltz into his classrooms or office and go over my latest theory, speculation and/or idea. I’ll never be able to do that again, and that blow leaves me breathless, for there’s so much more I wanted to learn from him.

Gene Rice was a Benedictine brother at St Anselm’s Monastery for many years. He left the order in mid-life, fell in love, and married at 49. His step-children never used the word “step” in conjunction with the word “father” when they described him. I never asked about his life at home, I never knew he played guitar or that he used to write movie reviews for local newspapers under the pseudonym “Maxwell Wheat”. I feel sad for not having experienced that side of him. I knew him as my “mid-wife”, and he helped me carry and bear knowledge, like a child, I’ve given birth and now I simply try to nourish it and let it grow.

Thank you, Gene. My personal Socrates.
I love you, and miss you, and hope I make you proud.

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