Philosophy, The Cosmos, and Terry Brown

Another story about wisdom not found in books

By Oliver W. Cummings

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, universities around the world are rethinking how to best provide the university experience going forward. We saw basically everything go online in the second half of the spring 2020 semester. I think many schools will move much more online in coming years and there are many benefits to doing that. One thing that we need to figure out is how not to lose some of the important social aspects of a university education. To wit:

The Lesson

Terry Brown introduced me once as a metaphysician. I am not sure whether he referred to my desire to understand the nature of reality and the relation between mind and matter or to a less complementary comment on my reasoning powers (subtle and recondite), but I took it as a complement and hope, indeed it was. Even if he was thinking the latter, from him it was probably still a complement. Terry was not a particularly subtle man.

Mr. Brown, as we called him most of the time, was a graduate student friend of the third roommate in the house my high school buddy, Richard McKenzie, and I inhabited as our first apartment as freshmen at Southern Illinois University. Bill Middleton was our housemate and the three of us had half of Mrs. Ellis’ house. We shared two rooms and a bathroom. Mrs. Ellis lived alone in the other half of the house and we rarely saw her, except when rent came due.

Terry and Bill were both PhD candidates in English. Richard was destined to become a physicist and professor, and me, well I’ve had a pretty good career in education, corporate training, program evaluation, and related stuff.

Terry was a frequent visitor at the Washington Street house in Carbondale, IL. It was just a short walk down to the Italian Village, a place we frequented for Italian sausages and Italian beef sandwiches – health food for a bunch of college boys. A couple of blocks further on was Piper’s Steak House, an occasional Friday night place for us to splurge on ribeye steaks. I think it was a good thing for Richard and me to be hanging around with these PhD students.

We were given the opportunity to learn a lot from them.

One late fall evening Terry came over just as the sun was going down. Richard greeted him as he came into our room, which was in the front of the house-half that we rented. Bill had the back room, so his visitors were always greeted by a freshman doorman.

As Terry came in, Richard said, “Come in Mr. Brown. Sit down and tell us what you know.” Terry took a seat by the small table in our room, Richard took the other seat at the table, Bill brought in a chair from the back, and I sat down on the bottom bunk.

Mr. Brown then proceeded to begin to tell us what he knew.

We covered everything from the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to nuclear physics, and from the civil rights movement to the military-industrial complex. The discussion continued into the night, the coca cola was totally consumed, the ashtrays were all full and still Mr. Brown continued to tell us what he knew: the geography of the Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin and how it was formed; the place of the solar system in the galaxy; how the Kennedy presidency would be remembered; the best and worst of American-made automobiles, and on it went.

The next morning, before any of us had to go to classes, we four walked down the street to a diner for breakfast and Terry continued to tell us what he knew.

Nights like these do not happen online.

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