Teaching Philosophy from Experience

Teaching Philosophy from Experience

Fr. McNellis has plenty of lessons from his own life to offer students

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Signing up for the Perspectives on Western Culture class taught by Adj. Asst. Prof. Paul McNellis, SJ (Philosophy), may be the closest some students ever come to boot camp.

Adj. Asst. Prof. Paul McNellis, SJ (Philosophy): "Thinking seriously, reflectively, is a liberating experience. It can give you a kind of freedom that no one can ever take from you." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
A philosophical-theological boot camp, that is.

Class rules are tight: no unexcused absences, hats are forbidden, and papers must be written and rewritten until they are right.

The drills come in the form of daily quizzes and discussions of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and Descartes, among others.

"The best preparation I ever had for teaching was being an infantry officer in the Army," chuckled Fr. McNellis. "It was good training in the practical psychology of motivation.

"My hope is that by reading the works of the some of the greatest minds who ever lived, these students will also learn to think for themselves. Thinking seriously, reflectively, is a liberating experience. It can give you a kind of freedom that no one can ever take from you."

Fr. McNellis' own experiences include military service in Vietnam, stints as a relief worker, war correspondent, and more recently, as a Jesuit priest and scholar of social ethics and political philosophy.

He shared some of his insight with the wider Boston College community last semester when he participated in one of many University-sponsored discussion sessions on issues raised by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"For the students of this generation, this has been a time unlike any other in their lives," said Fr. McNellis.

"They don't remember the Gulf War; they were eight and nine years old then. But Sept. 11 has shown that no generation gets a vacation from history."

Fr. McNellis was not much older than his current students when, in 1968, he volunteered for military service at the height of the Vietnam War.

"As a sophomore at the University of Minnesota I was reading about Vietnam and receiving letters from friends who were already there," said Fr. McNellis. "Today people merely smile at you indulgently when you say it, but I actually believed what President Kennedy said about why we were there, and I felt I had a duty to go."

Following his enlistment and basic training, he graduated from Officer Candidate School and then completed Airborne, Ranger, and Special Forces training.

After arrival in Vietnam in 1970, he was assigned as an advisor to a South Vietnamese Army reconnaissance company in the central highlands, near the Cambodian border.

"So much of what happened in that war has been misreported," said Fr. McNellis. "I almost despair that this generation will ever hear a balanced account of what really happened. There are a few good histories, but they're largely unknown.

"I believe the American commitment to South Vietnam was a just one, though I have serious criticisms of how it was carried out. But the most serious mistake of all was the way we got out. It was a betrayal of an ally."

In 1972, Fr. McNellis returned to Vietnam as a free-lance journalist, and eventually worked for the Associated Press.

"Many of the reporters over there were opposed to the US policy and it was evident in their stories," said Fr. McNellis, who spent a year reporting on the war. "One of the reasons for returning to Vietnam as a reporter was that I wanted to see for myself what was happening."

After a period of intensive Vietnamese language study in the US, he went to Cambodia in 1974 to work with Catholic Relief Services.

Returning to the US, Fr. McNellis finished his undergraduate work at Cornell University and entered the Jesuit novitiate in Syracuse, NY, in 1977.

"Many people assume I entered religious life because of some life-changing event that occurred during the war," said Fr. McNellis, when asked about the apparent dichotomy between soldiering and the priesthood.

"That wasn't the case at all. You don't become a priest to escape anything. In both cases, I simply asked how I could serve. In both cases, prayer and discernment were involved."

Following ordination in 1987 in the New York Province of the Jesuits, Fr. McNellis finished his doctoral studies in political philosophy and was then assigned teach at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

A medical condition brought Fr. McNellis to Boston and its world class hospitals several years ago. He resumed teaching only last year, at Boston College.

"God has been very good to me," said Fr. McNellis. "To be a priest and teacher. Who could ask for more? I love teaching, and I look forward to every class."

Fr. McNellis said the attacks of Sept. 11 have left him concerned about the impact on his students and what they will learn from the tragedies. At the discussion session last semester, Fr. McNellis asked those in attendance to make a small sacrifice that he said would make them better prepared for the future.

"I asked the students to give up two Thursday nights a month and devote them to reading about current affairs so they could better understand the world they are about to inherit. I also asked them to think seriously about a life of public service of some kind.

"I hear some of the criticism of this generation of students, but I don't share it. I don't think they're less serious or generous than previous generations. I'm proud of my students."


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