The New Intellectuals: Q & A with Dr. Robert Mayhew
Dr. Robert Mayhew, a full professor of philosophy at Seton Hall University, is the editor of Ayn Rand's Marginalia, The Art of Nonfiction, Essays on Ayn Rand's "We the Living," Essays on Ayn Rand's "Anthem" and Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A. He is the author of Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic, The Female in Aristotle's Biology, and Ayn Rand and "Song of Russia." He is a frequent lecturer at Objectivist conferences and has participated in ARI's academic programs intermittently since 1992, first as a student and later as a teacher.
The following interview is an excerpt from a fuller interview with Dr. Mayhew that was originally published in the February and March 2002 issues of Impact, the newsletter of the Ayn Rand Institute.
IMPACT: What sort of teaching responsibilities do you have at Seton Hall University?
Robert Mayhew: I have a "3-3" teaching load—that is, I teach three courses in the fall and three in the spring. I also usually teach one summer course, because I need the money. It’s a relatively heavy teaching load.
IMPACT: How do you find teaching? Do you enjoy it as much as your writing projects?
RM: I love research and writing most of all, but I love teaching too. In an average class, there are usually enough bright, attentive and interesting students to make it worthwhile and enjoyable. I teach the standard undergraduate courses, like “Introduction to Philosophy” and “Ancient Philosophy,” and I regularly teach a two-semester set of “Great Books” courses: “Philosophy and the Classical Mind” and “Philosophy and the Modern Mind.” I also teach some unusually fun courses, like “Philosophy and Film” and “Philosophy of Love and Sex.”
IMPACT: A course on love and sex? Isn't Seton Hall a Catholic university?
RM: Yes, but these students are not little automatons. Not all of them are Catholic, and among Catholic students, there are vast differences. So they have all kinds of reactions to the material we cover. For example, during one part of the course, I have them read Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, followed by Ayn Rand's essay "Of Living Death" [from The Voice of Reason], in which she comments on that encyclical. It leads to a lot of discussion, and I’ve had students come up to me and say: “I’m a good Catholic, but I think Rand is right.”
IMPACT: How much freedom do you have in how you teach your courses?
RM: It’s pretty much up to me. I try to have fun with them, but if I get bored with a certain way of teaching “Introduction to Philosophy,” say, I can always change what I cover, and how I cover it. I have no major complaints, besides the fact that I’m required to teach a lot of courses, which takes me away from the research that I want to do. But I can usually manage to juggle both teaching and research. The last sabbatical I had helped, and having part of the summer off helps too.
. . .
IMPACT: You’ve been in academia as a student and as a professor for 20 years, at least, correct?
RM: Yes, nearly 15 years as a professor.
IMPACT: What sort of trends have you noticed in academia over the years?
RM: Well, in one sense there continues to be weird and irrational ideas, like “deconstructionism,” and multiculturalism and “political correctness” remain entrenched. In that sense, you could say things have not improved. I do think, though, that there’s a bit less hostility towards Ayn Rand in academia. My guess is that the average student walking into a philosophy professor’s office and saying “I’m interested in Ayn Rand” is better off now than he would have been in 1983, when I began graduate school.
There's another change that's interesting in this connection. I have been going to Objectivist conferences, as a student between 1983 and ’88, and from ’93 onward as faculty, and there’s a big difference in the attitude of students who are thinking of going into philosophy or into academia generally. In the 80's there would be meetings at the conferences for people interested in the study of philosophy or allied fields as a career, and these meetings were depressing. People would ask “What do we do to survive? How can we get our Ph.D.s without our teachers discovering our Objectivism?” and so on. The focus and tone was almost exclusively on the negatives—in effect, “I am about to go through horrible surgery, what can I do to feel the least pain possible?” Whereas now, especially in the last few years, if you’re a student planning an academic career, it’s more exciting and there’s more reason to be optimistic. Further, there’s the Ayn Rand Institute, giving a lot of support and advice. I think this is very exciting.
IMPACT: What would you say is the basic source of these changes?
RM: One cause is what I just indicated: the Ayn Rand Institute, and the work it does, not simply in supporting students, but their many other projects which help to spread Ayn Rand’s ideas. Another factor is simply that Ayn Rand is so much a part of the culture. It’s not that she’s exerting a major influence on the culture at present; I’m not saying the dawn of a new age, based on her ideas, has arrived. But she is a cultural icon. And academics (perhaps reluctantly) seem to be recognizing this fact, however much they might not want to. To give one example, you find her works anthologized, in textbooks, all the time—I think much more than you would have ten years ago. Finally, I think the Ayn Rand Society—which holds regular sessions at the annual meetings of the American Philosophical Association—is having a positive effect on her visibility among academic philosophers.
IMPACT: You have told me about the many projects that you are working on in your spare time. Yet you’re married, your wife is a graduate student, you have two children--so where do you find "spare time"? Have you any time for hobbies?
RM: Not really; I suppose that’s part of the answer as to what I can accomplish in my spare time. In the evening, my wife and I like to read, or watch TV or movies. And I love Alfred Hitchcock films. Do these count as hobbies?
You often hear of the low salaries that academics make, and I’m not going to deny that; but one of the lovely things about an academic life is that you get a lot of free time—mostly for research, but also for your family and for travel. My wife and I really love to travel, and we’re able to do more of it than if we merely had two or three weeks vacation time a year.
On a typical day, after I wake up, I either go to Seton Hall to teach, or I stay home and do research. If I teach, I go and take care of that, come home and hang out with my family (by which I mean my wife and I play with the kids, “remind” them to do their homework, drive them to their many activities, cook dinner, etc.). Then we relax and go to bed. Now if it’s a non-teaching day, I roll out of bed, help get the kids to school, and then get to my desk. I don’t procrastinate. I fill the day with work, which I think is the reason I am able to get a lot done, even though I have a busy schedule. I really like what I’m doing, and that helps a lot. There are days when I go to bed in the evening wishing it was morning, so that I could get back to the work I left behind at my desk. I love the projects I’m working on.
Having earned tenure at Seton Hall, I can go at my own pace. There’s no pressure to get published. That freedom is lovely, and I suppose I’m using it well. Given my book projects and my family, there’s not a lot of spare time. It’s a complete life.