by Lou Mancinelli
Although he did not win, Patrick McCauley, Ph.D., a philosophy and religious studies professor at Chestnut Hill College, was nominated for Most Valuable Professor in a nationwide contest sponsored last month by Questia, an online collection of books and newspaper, magazine and journal articles in the humanities and social sciences.
Voting for the top ten finalists – professors from Boston to Michigan to California – took place in late April. In addition to the award, Questia will create three $2,500 scholarships to be awarded in the MVP’s name, according to a news release.
“I wasn’t getting too wrapped up in it because it’s kind of a national thing,” McCauley said.
If he had won, he said he might have arranged for one of the scholarships to be connected to the school’s service mission and another perhaps for a student faced with unforeseen economic misfortune.
“The very idea that I could do something that would show up in the newspaper like this and kind of give notoriety to the school is great,” said McCauley, who teaches philosophical thinking, fundamentals of moral theology, global perspectives on Christian spirituality, world religions and more.
Before teaching at Chestnut Hill, McCauley, 47, who was raised outside of Boston, worked as a camera technician for two years before the turn of the century on movies like “Analyze This,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”, and “Witches of Eastwick.” He majored in film and minored in English literature, philosophy and religion at Ithaca College in upstate New York, A few years later he earned a master’s degree in 20th century English literature and literary theory from Binghamton University.
But even before working in the world of film alongside major players, McCauley realized his future scene would be a classroom. He recalled a professor at Ithaca College telling him, “A movie is megaphone without ears.”
That’s when McCauley realized he preferred a life of discussion to a life of production. Making a movie, he said, wasn’t “as interesting to me as getting into a classroom and trying to really make a best effort to improve someone’s life – that’s where it manifests for me. And I’m not the only one like that at Chestnut Hill [College].”
After teaching at Iowa for a few years, he moved with his wife, Kathryn West, a social worker raised in Philadelphia, to West Chester in 1998. He taught at Rosemont College and then, because of what he explained as proximity, accepted an offer to teach at West Chester University, where he taught for seven years before joining CHC in 2006, the same year he finished his dissertation.
Though he finished his doctoral class work in 2001, the years in between were spent working and raising a family. He is the father of two boys, 5 and 7. And though his dissertation, “Reading by the Light of a Burning Phoenix,” published last year by Lambert Academic Publishing, is a learned, academic, Kantian interpretation of Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf,” McCauley teaches his introductory philosophy students, who are majoring in other areas, by appealing to their own sense of self-value and self-excellence.
To convey the message of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” McCauley plays clips of various commercials that he claims have a tendency to cast light-skinned people in powerful or privileged positions and darker-skinned people in service roles.
The “Allegory of the Cave” is a story in which Socrates describes a group of people who spend their lives chained to the wall of a cave looking at a blank wall. They see shadows of images projected by things that pass before a fire outside the cave, and the people begin to ascribe forms to the shadows. McCauley explained it as a parable of people being affected by a culture yet unaware of its influence.
“I’m trying to show people prejudices are in their head they are not aware of,” he said about the commercial clips. The specific casting was something he learned while working on film in Hollywood and New York.
He said students, who are often overwhelmed by or uninterested in philosophy, often responded to the subject when presented with issues like deciding what one should do or not do, or moral philosophy. Are you friends with someone because of what you get from them or because you value their character?
To do that, he leans on his movie background, where, for McCauley, a film’s themes are the most important part of the production. He has a list of dozens of films he may show during class, including American History X, with its tale of looking at the true human behind an extremist supremacist identity.
And it’s the meaningful themes of life he wants to discuss with his students and incorporate in his role as an individual, father and professor.
“[It’s] not to just to show them Socrates said ‘X’ and Immanuel Kant said ‘Y,’” McCauley said, “but, how do you decide how you behave? How do you prioritize”?
He introduces students to the idea of “eudaimonia,” a concept of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and a preferred theme of St. Thomas Aquinas. Eudaimonia is the idea that everyone desires his or her own individual excellence, McCauley explained.
“You have to figure out what is so important to you that you would do whatever it takes to be great,” he said.
He said underneath all his work and philosophical excursions runs the common theme of self-improvement and the desire for that to lead to the improvement of others, something that runs true with the CHC mission and vision of the Sisters of Saint Joseph who founded the school.
“The Sisters of Saint Joseph are built on the idea of reaching out to the dear neighbor,” said McCauley, referring to the dear neighbor concept, a social theme presented in Kant’s work that McCauley studied for his dissertation and that connected his past to the present.
“I’m a huge believer in the spirit of Chestnut Hill [College],” McCauley said. “We don’t just teach the class. We try to be a professor for the whole student. As teachers, we are as involved in the learning process as the students.”