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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Professor pushed students to think

Donald Clegg Staff writer

He really packed the house.

I don’t know if it’s an “over-50” thing or not, but my newspaper reading generally includes a glance at the obituaries – which recently informed me that an old philosophy professor of mine, Rex Hollowell, had died.

I wasn’t close to Rex and his wife, Joan, but I’ve seen them occasionally over the years, and they’ve purchased artwork from me.

I’m thinking of a very small watercolor that I did as a philosophical pun, a tautological joke, Magritte-influenced. Both the painting and the pun were slight, but Rex got a kick out of it.

The church was full for his memorial service, and the tributes voiced confirmed my belief that he really was one of the Fine People, even while battling multiple system atrophy, a rare neuro-degenerative disease.

With his voice all but taken, Rex still managed to say “Wonderful” when asked how he was.

I last saw him perhaps a couple of years ago, as Joan was helping him into their car, and his smile and greeting were as glowing as ever, never mind his speech. Joan said he really enjoyed my columns, which was nice to hear.

I took classes from Professor Hollowell at Spokane Falls Community College way back in 1979 or ’80, and recall his razor-sharp, yet humorous touch with a bunch of young nitwits, teaching basic logic and your basic Greeks: Aristotle, Socrates/Plato, etc.

Or, as his pastor said during the service, Rex said his job was to teach students to “think.” No small mission. I’m sure he opened the door to more advanced study for more than a few students, myself included.

So I was musing about teachers I’ve had, books I’ve read, and what’s stayed with me, sometimes decades later.

And all this intertwined with thoughts on President Barack Obama’s inauguration, which I had planned to write about, focusing on his “Recovery and Reinvestment Plan” – that is, his strategy for the restoration of both the physical and civic infrastructure of the country.

Rex’s pastor, among other speakers, made it quite clear that he was a pain in the rear, in the best way. That is, he made people examine what they believed, and why.

He was, at once, a person of great faith and great skepticism. He loved ambiguity, but didn’t hesitate to state that a belief in Jesus, for instance, should have consequences. Namely, to cause one to hold all peoples – Iraqi, Palestinian, Jewish, everyone – in the same regard as our own. This, of course, would change the world, if taken to heart.

I don’t know what kind of president Obama will be, and given the apparent disregard of Congress for the health of the commons and the public sphere, he’s certainly going to be handicapped. (Never mind the total disaster he’s inherited from He Who Must Not Be Named.)

In any case, I want to take advantage of the rather good educational foundation I received here locally, and take a closer look at our civic/public realm.

In his 2007 book, “The Assault On Reason,” Al Gore drew from the philosopher Jurgen Habermas’ notion of “the refeudalization of the public sphere.”

Here’s the pertinent quote from Gore:

“Feudalism, which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and where knowledge played almost no mediating role.”

Does that sum up the past eight years, or what?

This also describes the dominant ideology of Western religion over most of the last couple of thousand years or so, but that’s another matter.

But what would a healthy public sphere look like? Professor Paul Rutherford of the University of Toronto wrote about it in his 2000 book, “Endless Propaganda: The Advertising of Public Goods.”

Rutherford said that the sphere’s success depends upon “the extent of access (as close to universal as possible), the degree of autonomy (the citizens must be free of coercion)” and “the rejection of hierarchy (so that each might participate on an equal footing).”

Now let me replace “public sphere” with “government.” How about this? A constitutional government working for the greater good of the many (access), free from propaganda (coercion), and working toward equality for all (no hierarchy) – i.e., a true meritocracy.

That’s a hybrid of Aristotle (“Politics”) and Plato (“The Republic”), with a bit of sophistry, in regard to Plato, that I think Professor Hollowell would have enjoyed.

Thanks, Rex.

Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via e-mail at
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