As a student, David Levy ’94 was inspired by class discourse about life’s infinite questions. As a philosophy professor, he now inspires those same discussions.
By Kris Dreessen
David Levy ’94 enrolled at Geneseo with a much different career plan than his current position as associate professor and chair of philosophy.
“I grew up watching all those 1980s-era, Perry Mason-type movies and reading Agatha Christie novels,” he says. “I was going to right all the world’s wrongs in a courtroom, so I figured I had to major in political science to go to law school.”
That didn’t last long.
“My first semester, I took a class with Bill Edgar,” remembers Levy. “I fell in love with the freedom of inquiry in the philosophy classroom. You were free to explore things that interested you — even if you had no prior reason to do so. It was a transformative moment for me.”
For the next four years, Levy explored ideas, critical thinking and a new path. He became close with Edgar, Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, who died in 2011, and his wife, Stacey Edgar, associate professor of philosophy emerita. During Levy’s junior year, Bill Edgar took a sabbatical to learn about aesthetics. He had no experience and no practical need for it; he simply felt it was important to learn about it and devoted time to study it and develop a student course. Those experiences and Edgar’s teaching, Levy says, sparked his desire to teach — and participate in an environment with a commitment to lifelong learning.
Levy started teaching part time at Geneseo in 1997 and joined the full-time faculty in 2005 — in a nice coincidence, filling the open position when Bill Edgar retired. During the last 16 years, he has earned two SUNY-wide Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence, in faculty service and teaching.
Levy’s parents took a photo of him with the Edgars at graduation. He’s in his cap, tassel turned, with his two mentors smiling beside him. The photo still sits on his office desk, all these years later.
“I wanted to provide the same opportunities I experienced at Geneseo, to interact with students and encourage collaboration with their peers,” says Levy. “I have a real sense of gratitude for my experience at Geneseo. I have a responsibility to model that.”
Q: What is philosophy?
A: “It combines playfulness with unbounded curiosity and commitment to the collaborative process of giving reasons and responding to challenges. In my introductory philosophy course, I ask students to consider ‘What is a sandwich?’ It seems like a nonsense question, but there are serious, practical things wrapped up in trying to answer that in a conscientious way. What are the criteria? For example, sandwiches served in restaurants are taxable, whereas other food items aren’t. There is a New York City case in which a burrito was being taxed as a sandwich, and a legal debate ensued. In philosophy, we’re free to posit answers and consider critical responses. We develop those skills of inquiry to make the leap into bigger questions.”
Q: Why was your relationship with professors Bill and Stacey Edgar inspiring?
A: “As a student, I was treated seriously and with respect. I was challenged as an adult, and they demonstrated a commitment of mutual respect to each other. They also had a selfless willingness to share themselves with their students. They were full people, and teaching was their core. First, I was their student. They became my mentors and then friends.”
Q: Why did you choose to teach at Geneseo?
A: “Geneseo has always been a place that represents what education can and should be. The College provides opportunities for students to discover who they are and what they want and to think much more critically about the connections between the choices they make and their long-term visions. People here listen seriously to students and think about how to position and encourage them to fulfill their objectives and to continually reflect and consider new options and opportunities.”
Q: What’s your teaching style?
A: “I try to create an environment in which students are engaged in discussion with me and, just as importantly, with each other. I love one-on-one mentoring with students who come to my office and say, ‘I think this is what I want to do in the next couple of years.’ I can help them go through the Socratic process and think it through, so they are sure of their decisions and appreciate how they arrive there.”
Q: What does an ideal class discussion and collaboration look like?
A: “Students are listening attentively to each other. They are responding to each other. There is a wonderful sense of the entire class discussion being one natural, organic conversation.”
Q: What do you hope students take away from your courses?
A: “I hope they walk away with an enhanced perspective on their values, their guiding principles that lead them to act— or to refrain from acting — in particular ways, and their understanding of what they are in a position to affect in interpersonal relationships, communities and organizations. There are very few specific ‘things’ I hope they come out knowing, except that value in perspective.”
Q: What is most rewarding about teaching Geneseo students?
A: “The students are honestly and absolutely, authentically interested in seeing their education as potentially transformative for their chosen life path. Instead of focusing on a single career goal, they are incredibly thoughtful, reflective and eager to see the ways opportunities are connected. Students from all majors who take my philosophy class can see how philosophy fundamentals apply in many areas of life.”
Try this at home: Deceivingly silly philosophy questions to get your dinner discussion going:
(1) If you ate a bowl of guacamole, would you be eating a salad?
(2) How far can you deviate from a recipe and still have it count as the same dish? For example, suppose “Grandma’s meatloaf” uses fresh breadcrumbs to help bind everything together, but you’ve run out of breadcrumbs and use oats instead. Have you still made “Grandma’s meatloaf”?