Andy Ingalls' Student Testimonial
Andy Ingalls: Phronesis broadened paths and library alike
Phronesis has been the unexpected treasure of my undergraduate experience. Before coming to the University of Houston, I read only the Arts page of the newspaper, shied away from political discussion, was bored to tears by philosophical types, and gave little more than a low groan at the mention of historical study. I was confident that I could whip out wildly impressive essays on a wide range of subjects, dazzle my core class professors, and be done with it, spending most of my time in the music school, where my major classes would be. I expected the Honors College to add yet another academic feather to my many-feathered cap and afterward leave me in peace. I have never been more mistaken.
The Human Situation course jarred me sharply from every delusion of ease. The intensity and expectations of the Honors professors caught me off-guard and I reeled and gabbled and struggled and stammered, having never been so scholastically uncomfortable or so rigorously challenged. And to my great surprise, this sensation of being utterly lost, stutteringly wordless, painfully ignorant, this feeling thrilled me!
I was daily walking through hallways full of people so far beyond me intellectually that I couldn't stand to just move past this, I wanted to be part of it, I wanted to know what they knew, to argue the way they argued, to write the way they wrote, these fascinating people with their theories and theses and readings and many-sided interpretations of every text from the Odyssey to The Road. I sought out a fight with Prof. Little on his structural interpretation of Machiavelli, I disagreed openly with Prof. Harvey's take on Beckett, I argued tooth and nail with Prof. Morrisson about Leibniz, and I tried to take a stab at Prof. Peebles with an alternative reading of Cormac McCarthy's later novels. I lost every last argument. For months, I was beaten back by the overpowering weight of reason and scholarship on the part of my teachers, patient as they were with me and my attempts. It was not a gluttony for punishment that I developed, but rather a hunger for the materials of discourse, a need to exercise my reason, and an undeniable compulsion to be part of these conversations that somehow had a gravity to them that I had never witnessed elsewhere.
This was the Human Situation, the foundational course of an Honors education and my first taste of what a program like Phronesis (if there are other programs "like" Phronesis) could offer. Needless to say I was hooked.
With Honors-standard enigmatic flair, one professor once told me that "every question is the same question." As any student here is wont to do, I nodded knowingly and gave an affirmative grunt, without the foggiest notion what this space cadet meant. Months later, in my first Phronesis-intensive semester, I was studying John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, Nietzsche's Daybreak and On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Gandhi's writings, and the UN human security debacle in Srebrenica; I stopped reading one day and pulled my head out of a book for what felt like the first time this millennium, stacked the books next to me and just let it all steep. A dozen paths of inquiry I was trying to follow were all converging, collapsing into one another and filling out this deeply-textured context for one another: a web, or a knot, or some delicate-fingered deity's cosmic knitting pattern. The sheer persistence of exercise to my reasoning faculties had my forehead pulsing (probably in a visible way) and connections sprouted left and right and otherwise between political theory on one hand, historiography on the other, and philosophy on yet a third hand. Every question may not be the same question, I thought, but there is little separation between the more important ones. Call it a moment if you like; it was certainly the most significant event in my progression toward recognizing the interconnectedness of every line of human inquiry.
Another enigmatic professor told me in my first week at the Honors College that an undergraduate education was about starting to build a library. Young, impressionable, and aching-to-dazzle as I was, I responded "I have a library already!" This long-suffering professor gave a polite giggle and an "Alright, Mr. Ingalls" and was pleasantly on his way. I have read dozens of books since then, bought many more and built two bookshelves in my apartment to hold them all, but again I find that I'm reconsidering his statement's meaning. If I have repeatedly come into contact with any one fact in my college experience, that one fact is my own cosmically voluminous ignorance. Every good conversation reveals whole histories of thought and argument I've never studied. Every good book I read necessitates that I read five more, whether to better understand that first book, to better enjoy it, or even to better criticize it. This is an exponential progression; it is one that I do not foresee ever ending. If I was to sum up the way Phronesis has enriched my undergraduate experience, I would have to say that it has filled me with an entirely unfamiliar enthusiasm to daily face my own ignorance and go searching for its remedy among the great thinkers, the great thoughts, among the timeless great conversations that have had our neurons firing and reasoning faculties dancing about since man could form words. You could say that Phronesis has had this effect.
Would you believe that I didn't actually declare Phronesis as my minor until I had completed the requirements? Until I was signing up for my final semester of Phronesis classes, I didn't even realize I was so near completion in the program. I took classes that looked intriguing from professors I respected or about whom I had heard good tell, and they fell together into this marvelous program. There were no slogging, "do I really have to take that? Eurghhh," classes involved, and it really just fell together of its own accord. I find it funny because I didn't ever feel as though it was a conscious choice that I was going to be a Phronesis student (in fact, I at first shied away from the program expressly because of its esoteric name and the aggravating explanation it would necessitate for every last person who ever asked what I studied in college or looked at my resume, but this is now less worrisome than strangely exciting), but my growing enthusiasms led me toward the program nonetheless.
Phronesis has pretty near debilitated my post-bac decision-process for the time being. Doesn’t that seem negative? Before starting the Honors College and before starting Phronesis, I was fairly certain of the path I would take upon graduation, and there was only one path, and that path did not appear likely to broaden or meander to either side. Due to my experience with Phronesis, I have come into close contact with a hundred other possible paths, each with a good many plausible reasons to follow them, paths I now consider and deliberate over and read very glossy brochures about, and my will to choose only one out of so many (as opposed to the piddly-sized will required to choose one out of exactly one paths before) has faltered.
Does this worry me? It does not. Does it excite me? Tremendously.
In three years of college, my awareness of the size of the world and the number of its myriad and many-faced opportunities has increased a hundredfold. If I keep my eyes and ears open to the same flow that has led me here, if I put myself into the projects that present themselves as fully as I have been able to do, how many more doors might open? I am personally itching to find out.