Sam Moyn, a professor of intellectual history, does not like smart phones, and is not down to chat about cheese. He claims to be neither famous, special, nor wise, but we beg to differ. Here is his Actual Wisdom:
Justify your existence in 30 words or fewer: I teach existentialism in my classes, so I find it hard to see the argument that anyone’s existence is justifiable. These days, I mostly live for the sake of my children–including sparing them for as long as possible from the truth that there may be no meaning in life. Is that depressing? Sorry.
Your claim to fame: I’m neither famous nor special. See above.
What’s your most valuable or unexpected college experience? Where I went. I wasn’t permitted by my parents to take out the loans it would have took to enroll at Harvard College, which admitted me. I’ve had a completely different—and I hope far better—life because of it.
What’s the craziest student excuse/extension story you’ve heard? I’m a softie, so I’ve never demanded that students come up with whoppers as part of the time-honored ritual of getting an extension. I do like the look of surprise I sometimes get when a sick grandmother is enough to do the trick. (PS: If your grandmother really was sick, I hope she’s better now.)
Would you rather give up oral sex or cheese? N/A
Back in my day… Unlike when I started, it’s routine today for students to spend lecture classes on their smart phones multitasking (or simply ignoring the teacher altogether). I still find it amazing that students seem to think their teachers are oblivious. But what else could people be doing—at least without breaking the law—when they stare for long periods at something they’re using their hands to manipulate in their laps out of sight?
Three things you learned at Columbia. I learned that from some perspectives there is not much difference between the academic scene and everywhere else, but from others there is all the difference in the world. I was unbelievably lucky to avoid a real job and to have the opportunity to teach college instead. The Core Curriculum is a privilege for its professors, and lecturing to the few students still listening in the age of smart phones is a thrill.
What’s your advice to students/academics/the human race in general? I don’t give advice, mainly because I don’t have any wisdom. At least none that isn’t pretty obvious. Of the goals that people pursue to provide meaning (or distract from meaninglessness), justice is underrated alongside the more usual strategies of God, pleasure, and love. Best of luck in your choices!