What I learned in an 8 am philosophy class

By Joseph Simmons, SJ, Arts ’04

There’s no delicate way to put this: I hated philosophy.

When I studied at Marquette, we in the humanities “had to take” four philosophy classes, and it was a study in frustration. It didn’t start well with my Intro to Logic course, meeting at the ungodly hour of 8:00 am, every MWF.

I was betraying the family name: my own grandfather, Dr. Ed Simmons, was a philosophy professor at Marquette and literally wrote the book on Logic.

My friends and I argued — philosophized? — all the time about the merits of each other’s degrees. We went around in circles — is it practical? Will a humanities degree do anything for you in the “real world”? Does the world really need another Philosophy (or Classics, or History) major?


Fifteen years later, I see the wisdom in studying philosophy. A Jesuit, liberal arts education won’t give us a list of practical skills and professional competencies that will be outmoded and surpassed. That’s not the point of a Jesuit education.

The point of a liberal arts education, simply, is to make us more human.

Education comes from a Latin word that means to ‘draw out,’ as if the knowledge was already within us, and the teacher was the pump. I’ve come to think of my Marquette education as drawing me out — of my own preferences, forgone conclusions, easy answers, and plans for life.

Thank goodness I “had to take” philosophy, because it made me more human in a complex world.

A liberal arts education does not pin down right answers, but opens our minds to the right questions.

Marquette prepared me to face important questions of meaning in a world that moves quickly — Is God real? If so, how does that influence how I live and love? How do I account for the good and evil I find in our world, our country, and in my own heart?


St. Ignatius, whose feast we celebrate today, recognized that if he was to be of service to God and world, he needed a liberal arts education. So at 33 he began to study at a public grammar school in Barcelona — alongside children 8–14 years old. (Suddenly an 8 am philosophy class with peers doesn’t seem so bad.)

To engage the world as it was, Ignatius needed to be familiar with the questions facing humanity. Ignatius’ liberal arts education — in Barcelona, Alcalá, Salamanca, and Paris — drew him out of himself and made him more receptive to God and his own humanity.

Jesuit education around the world began with humble beginnings: a proud 33-year-old, sitting among children. I wonder if Ignatius hated his studies when he began, too?


Joseph Simmons, S.J.

I am 33 now myself, and have been a Jesuit in training for the priesthood for nine years now. I have taught languages and theology at several high schools, and I even spent a year teaching philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha.

Søren Kierkegaard writes that we live life forward, but only understand it in reverse.

At 18, I didn’t always appreciate the questions my education introduced me to at the time — but now I treasure every minute of it.

It drew me out. It made me more human. It shaped me to be the difference in a complex world.

Ed Simmons would be proud that his grandson taught philosophy at Creighton University from 2013–2014. Joe is currently studying theology at Boston College in anticipation for ordination to the priesthood in June 2017.

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