Vassar Stories

What’s your major, Spencer Davis?

Photo by Karl Rabe

Spencer Davis, class of 2016

Hometown: Leawood, KS

What’s your major?

I’m a philosophy major.  I came to Vassar with the desire to be a history major. My freshman writing seminar was a history course called “Europe at the Crossroads” with Professor Sumita Choudhury, which was really fantastic, but one of the other courses I took that semester was Philosophy 101, “Ancient Greek Philosophy,” with Professor Mitch Miller.  I still remember that someone on “Rate My Professor” wrote that Professor Miller sends you off into aporia, and then reorients you towards a higher understanding. They asked—and I agree—“Where else can you get academic credit for becoming a better person?”

I came into that class thinking of ancient Greek philosophy as sort of a historical curiosity, and I expected to learn facts about what these thinkers thought.  But something else I learned in that class was how to make elegant and beautiful arguments in pursuit of true sentences. I was so intrigued by these beautiful and dizzying turns that I wanted to take more classes with Professor Miller.  By the end of my freshman year, I had taken three courses in the Philosophy Department, so how could I not pursue the major?

What was your favorite class?

I think the first class that began to answer some foundational worries I had about the conceptual structure of the world that I see before me was “Phenomenology and Existential Thought” with Professor Giovanna Borradori. The conceptual framework the Franco-German philosophers we studied in that class were challenging was my own--the Western metaphysical structure that had been in place since Descartes.  To see philosophy really engaging with the basic assumptions we make about the world was fascinating and dizzying.  It reopened questions that I had thought settled. 

That was also the first course in which I read Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish-French intellectual who was prominent in the ‘60s, whose writings and thinking I’ve since encountered many times. The figure of “the Other” is of extraordinary importance to Levinas.  Philosophy isn’t only about sitting by a fire in your armchair with your chin on your hand trying to figure out whether all the people in the courtyard outside your window are automata.  It’s also about you and me sitting across from each other, trying to figure out how to be with each other.  In traditional metaphysics, you might ask a question like, how can I really know what you are thinking?  But for Levinas, that isn’t the important question.  We beings are always already out in the courtyard with the Other—who we call the stranger, foreigner, or guest in ordinary language—so what we’re left with is what to do for them. That foundational commitment to hospitality to the Other is an ethical commitment to opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, Islamophobia, discrimination, transphobia, ableism, and anti-semitism. That is something I could not have seen without Professor Borradori’s help.

What other subjects have you explored?

I’ve taken a lot of art history. Had I taken one more course, I could have had a correlate sequence in it. Art history has been helpful for me; it’s taught me the tools of historical analysis and rendered our visual and material cultures as legible to me as texts are.  I’ve also taken some political science courses, most of which explored postcolonial studies, and two Jewish studies courses. I fulfilled my quantitative analysis requirement with computer science and my foreign language was German. But other than that, I’ve taken exactly 50% of my credits in philosophy.  If I had taken one more philosophy course, I would not be able to graduate because I wouldn’t meet the distribution requirements.

What are you hoping to do after graduation?

I would like to continue with philosophy. When I arrived at Vassar, it was with the intention of becoming a professor of history.  So the field has changed, but the career desires have not.  What has changed is what I want out of a career.  The way in which I thought of a career before I came to Vassar had more to do with the trappings—having a benefits plan, having health insurance, all those things.  Those are still important to me, but they aren’t what motivates me. What I want is to live a meaningful, purposeful, ethical, and good life.

What would you say is the value of a liberal arts education?

A liberal arts education is not the only way to become a good person, but it is one way. Becoming a good person is hard work, not to be taken lightly. A liberal arts education teaches us how we ought to care about the projects, causes, and people in our lives and comforts us when we doubt our capacity to do so. It is the foundation upon which both meaning and happiness rest in my own life. 

Posted Monday, April 18, 2016