Asking hard questions takes courage and, of course, answering difficult queries requires even more. Dr. Jim Allis has spent his 30-year Hope career dedicated to the intrepid insistence of doing both toward the betterment of his students and himself as well.
It has been his mission to not only form mindful scholars but caring people, too. This is the way of any good philosopher, after all, and so it is the way of a man who knows that in life’s messiness, there is meaning.
“Philosophy's questions are real and important and have enormous implications for how we live our lives, and if you take a class from Jim, you learn that in spades,” says colleague Dr. Jack Mulder ’00, associate professor of philosophy and chairperson of the department. “Jim is an extraordinary teacher, and he cares deeply for his students, not simply in regard to their academic development, but in regard to their development as whole people. I should know. I was one of his students.”
Using the context of ancient philosophers’ writings to audaciously probe the contents of 21st century minds, Allis prods at young intellects to uncover gutsy answers necessary for their fuller lifetimes to come. As Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and Allis is sensitive to the old Greek’s wise words. What results is a cavalcade of powerful ideas that are always punctuated with question marks.
Here are a few of his tougher questions. And don’t even think about considering them in cursory, pat or superficial ways. Allis would not have it. Answers to these are not for the faint of heart, but what brave thing ever is?
- What are you afraid of?
- What are you willing to stand up for?
- What laws would you challenge?
- What is justice?
- Oedipus was known for his scars so what are yours?
- What matters to you?
It’s that last one, the question about a person’s priorities and concerns, that is the ultimate question Allis loves to ask. It is what it matters to him most; that is, what concerns him is what it means to be human in a difficult world.
His path to fearless question-asker started during his undergraduate days at Dartmouth University and continued on to Harvard for his master’s and the University of Pittsburgh for his doctorate. But it was a four-year stint teaching at an inner-city, parochial middle school in Jersey City, New Jersey, that taught Allis as much as any Ivy League university or graduate-level program could about wild and worldly life.
Fresh out of Dartmouth and before heading to Harvard, the philosopher took a job teaching eight math and science classes a day, with 35 kids in each, “not because I knew a lot about the subjects but because that’s what they needed.” Educating youth in a city ranked 275th of the 275 big cities in America by Time magazine in the late 1970s, Allis found challenge and joy working for “three crazy, phenomenal nuns” who were determined to educate students whom the public schools had rejected. He, of course, became dedicated to the same mission, too.
“I felt my first year was pretty much an unmitigated failure in terms of teaching the kids, but I didn’t want to leave. Not then,” says Allis in his soft, even voice. “The principal, who was one of those nuns, had the grace not to kick me out. It turned out to be a place where I learned more than I could ever describe about teaching. About life.”
And obviously about courage, too. It’s a topic that keeps coming up in conversations with and about Allis. In fact, he created a unique First Year Seminar class simply called that – Courage – in order to allow incoming freshmen to deal with their fears and how they can overcome them. To do that, he takes 20 of them backpacking in the wilderness of northern Michigan the week before their first Hope semester starts. No student comes back to campus the same.
“I thought, well, let’s start by going out into the woods,” explains Allis, the father of three grown daughters. “For most of the students, they had never done this before. There we talk about how we wrestle with some of our fears. Then I see a lot of the masks that students wear when they come to college disappear on that backpacking trip. We’re all dirty, grubby, tired, grumpy. There is not as much opportunity to hide behind the masks of everyday life up there. So very quickly, we break down barriers when it comes to talking about hard stuff. I found that exciting and valuable.”
In his cluttered office in Lubbers Hall, a place he has called his academic home since 1986, Allis is not surrounded by his diplomas or his awards that indicate he is a decorated educator adored and admired by a generation and a half of Hope students. Instead he sits at ease and unfazed amongst numerous paper stacks, piled books, project heaps, and plastic clam-shell holders with store-bought cookie remnants, treats given to his classes the day before. “I’m organizationally challenged,” he confesses.
Yet when visitors sit amongst his office chaos and listen only to the professor’s calm voice, it becomes clear again. Messiness does not bother or matter to Allis; messy questions do. That is why he’ll continue to ask them, even in retirement. He has plans for his newest students to be prisoners and veterans. Reading the Iliad and the Odyssey can be helpful for those who have endured violent situations, he’s convinced. “Homer knew things that we’ve forgotten and we’re just now beginning to remember them,” says Allis who is also a black belt in the Korean marital art of Tae Kwon Do. “There are examples of post-traumatic stress disorder with Achilles, with Odysseus. I think the connections between the stories of those two ancient men and today’s veterans who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are very real. I think it can be helpful.”
Along with the ancients, Allis will be helpful. Questioning but helpful. He knows no other way.