Pursuit of Knowledge as a Passion

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A Q&A with Charles Watson

Why did you pursue philosophy in your doctoral studies?

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. I like to say I grew up in the shadow of John Hopkins Hospital. I was like many undergraduates thinking about a career in medicine. I worked at Hopkins in a few research labs. I worked in a cardiology research lab and a cardiac surgery research lab. I went to Columbia University as an undergraduate.

I had an Air Force ROTC scholarship. I found that ROTC wasn’t for me and stepped away from that. That opened up space for me to consider things that I haven’t looked at before. I was very driven at that time by pursuing my passion. Many of us as undergrads are living out our parent’s dreams. Like what mothers and fathers would want for their kids.

Then, I got to Columbia and sort of explored what my passion is. At Columbia there is this core curriculum noted for its study of the great works of the Western tradition, and when I was a first-year student I took a course titled Contemporary Civilization, masterpieces of western philosophy and culture. A year-long survey course where we read from Plato’s Republic through by the end of the year and (Michel) Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment. I was introduced to this intellectual tradition and philosophy.

I thought Philosophy was the most noble of pursuits. The quest after wisdom, the search after knowledge to try to figure things out was just one of the most noble pursuits. That is what a philosopher is, a lover of wisdom. I love ideas and I love trying to make sense of things. I love talking to people about ideas.

In your bio, you mentioned education having a transformative power. Can you expand on that?

In that bio, I am invoking a reference from a paper written by Richard Rodriguez called the “Scholarship Boy.” This a sort of classic trope about a kid who grows up in one world, but studies in another. I am very much a kid in the inner-city, but I went to a prep school in Roland Park, a suburb of Baltimore.

Though I didn’t have some of the material privilege that my classmates had, I thought that the classroom was an extraordinary Egalitarian setting because I had the same book he had, had access to the same library, had access to study. Sure, I might not have everything he had in his lunch box, but I had that book and I had the chance to study. I felt like the playing field was level there in terms of learning and scholarship.

This is something my mother instilled in me, because we might not have had a lot of things, but we had a library card. We would catch the bus down to the library. The museums were free. For me, education, learning, that sort of developmental cultivation of the mind was my vehicle, not only to self-improvement and self-enrichment, but to see parts of the country. It got me from Baltimore to New York City to the San Francisco Bay Area to Richmond, Indiana, all on philosophy’s dime.

I am always going to be an ambassador for the power of learning. Being an engaged scholar, not just the scholar that is alone in the library. Take whatever learning you get and bring that into the world. I do believe that ideas can change the world. I think my life is an example of that.