Meet the Prof: Mark Ralkowski

5 Oct

Prof. Mark Ralkowski

This post is written by UHP Professor Mark Ralkowski.

Africa changed me twice. The first time it happened I was twenty years old, standing on a beach and swinging a piece of kelp at a troop of baboons who had stolen my backpack. I was drenched and short of breath from almost drowning. They were waddling through the white sand, one with my backpack in its mouth, determined to get away and gobble up my nectarines. That was the moment I decided to get a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Like a lot of people who decide to live the life of the mind, I was first brought into my field by an inspiring teacher who turned my life upside-down. I was a freshman in college when Bill Prior, a scholar of ancient philosophy at Santa Clara University, introduced me to Plato’s dialogues. I was hooked almost immediately. At first I was most attracted to the depth and power of Plato’s philosophical vision, a theory of everything whose contemplation promised the greatest of all pleasures and the highest fulfillment of human nature. I was enraptured, completely absorbed in these new ideas, as if I had been invited on a marvelous quest. I lost patience with anything less ambitious. Plato had linked politics with psychology and metaphysics, education with democracy and ethics, mathematics with theology, and aesthetics with the social disorder that destroyed Athens during the Peloponnesian War. His thought seemed to offer a tool for untangling the complexity of the world, and I wanted nothing more.

Two years later I left for Africa to live and study in Zimbabwe. This was early 1997, a little more than three years before Robert Mugabe advocated violent land reform. While I was in Africa that year, I traveled extensively. I met and worked with some of Sub-Saharan Africa’s poorest and wealthiest people. I watched the sunrise from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I lived with a middle-class Shona family in Harare. I walked the streets of Mandela’s recently liberated South Africa, and I became close friends with many Zimbabweans my age, whose parents and family members fought against the Rhodesians during Zimbabwe’s war of liberation in the late 1970s.

All of these experiences were extremely important to me. They changed the way I look at the world and understand myself. But it was the smaller, simpler things that left me awestruck with wonder: camping under the stars of a vast and cloudless African sky, falling asleep to the sound of lions calling to each other for the evening’s hunt, recovering my lunch from the troop of hungry baboons at the Cape of Good Hope. These are the memories that stick, the sensations that never leave your body: what it tastes like, what it feels like, what it sounds like. Socrates’ teacher, a woman named Diotima, said that the love of wisdom begins when one falls in love with beauty. I had never seen so much beauty, and I had never been more in love.

When I returned home to the States that summer, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. American politics (several years before September 11th) seemed trivial and unimportant. My old social life felt superficial, and my plans for the future had lost their appeal. The world was larger and more extraordinary than I had ever imagined. One year later I moved to Massachusetts to begin graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College. I wanted to understand the world’s complexity and history, and I was certain that philosophy, whose ultimate aim is wisdom, could help me achieve my goals better than anything else. When I finished my M.A. two years later, I intended to complete a Ph.D. But I wasn’t finished with Africa, and Africa, it seems, wasn’t finished with me. Before I did anything else, I had to go back, whatever it took. I contacted the University of Cape Town (UCT) and asked if I could work for them. Fortunately for me, they had a year’s work, and so I returned to Sub-Saharan Africa, this time to Cape Town, where I lectured for UCT’s philosophy and commerce departments, and resumed my travels all over the continent.

During one of my semester breaks I drove to Zimbabwe to visit friends and revisit old haunts. I was excited to smell the air, see the land, and hear the music again. Nothing could have prepared me for what I would discover when I returned to Harare, however. It was December 2001, about one and a half years since things had changed in Zimbabwe. In 1997, my friends and I would roam the streets of downtown Harare at all hours. We went to the clubs. We ate at the restaurants and watched soccer games at the bars. We learned the local Shona slang, and we always felt safe. The Zimbabwean people were employed and prosperous, helpful and generous. They were proud of their country and anxious to share it with visitors. By 2001, however, Zimbabwe’s economy had collapsed. Mugabe had placed himself and a select few “war veterans” well above the law, and the country was suffering by every measure.

I had read about Zimbabwe’s economic and political problems, and my friends had told me that everything had changed, that nobody felt safe, that people had to take bags of cash to the grocery store in order to buy bread and other staples. But I didn’t appreciate these facts until I experienced them firsthand. My first night back in Harare I found myself running from a policeman who had raised his whip at me. I had just been mugged by a gang of street thugs, and the policeman, who watched everything from twenty meters away, threatened me with more violence because I asked for his help. “Welcome to the new Zimbabwe,” I thought.

This was the moment Africa changed me a second time. We all know, as a point of theory, that without the law everything is darkness. But as I stood there in Harare, this matter of principle became a heartbreaking fact of life that pumped adrenaline through my veins. I was standing in the middle of a lawlessness that was impoverishing millions of educated people and destroying a beautiful country that had been my home. When I returned to the States after my second stay in Africa, I doubled down on philosophy, now with a new and personal interest in political theory and ethics. I finished my Ph.D., wrote a book about the dangers of political utopianism, and spent several years teaching courses on ethics, political values, and ancient Greek philosophy.

And now I am here at GW, teaching for the Honors Program and the philosophy department. I am extremely happy to be here working with all of you. I really couldn’t be happier. If you ever want to talk philosophy or Africa, or anything else for that matter (like good live music in town), please come by my office, Rome 456, any time. I’m always happy to talk.

Please also check out my classes in the future! I teach the Origins sequence, the history of ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, phenomenology and existentialism, and ethics. At some point, I would also like to offer specialized seminars on important philosophers such as Plato and Heidegger, the two philosophers I work on most in my own research.

If I don’t see you in class, maybe I will see you on the basketball courts, on a hiking trail, skiing in Vermont, snorkling in Mozambique, or learning how to kite surf next summer!

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One Response to “Meet the Prof: Mark Ralkowski”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Honors Prof. Ralkowski to Live on Vern « theUHP Blog - April 5, 2012

    […] you haven’t seen this great article over at the Hatchet, go read it now. Our own Prof. Mark Ralkowski will be living on Mt. Vernon campus next year as a “faculty in […]

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