The University of Texas at Austin
  • The education of the guardians

    By Hans Mark
    Published: May 2, 2011

    Dr. Hans Mark is John J. McKetta Centennial Energy Chair in Engineering in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the university’s Cockrell School of Engineering.

    A very long time ago, I was an undergraduate student at the University of California in Berkeley. I was interested in physics, engineering and the Navy, in that order. I religiously avoided all humanities, social sciences and arts courses that I possibly could. Eventually, because it was a university requirement, I was forced to register for one course about Shakespeare taught by Professor Ernest Tuveson. I remember almost nothing about the course because my mind was clearly focused on the scientific, technical and naval studies.

    Fast forward to 1963. I was working at the University of California’s Nuclear Weapons Laboratory at Livermore as the Experimental Physics Division Leader having earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics at MIT. It was in that year we concluded a treaty with the Soviets to stop testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.

    My superiors thought I should go to Washington and be one of the people to testify before a Senate committee that the treaty would hamper our weapons development work. I agreed with that position, and I thought I could do a competent job since I was directly involved in related experiments. I felt pretty good about appearing before a congressional committee because it had never occurred to me that I would be asked to do so. In short, I had the confidence of ignorance.

    To prepare me for the hearing there was a “Murder Board” at the offices of the Atomic Energy Commission. The members of the board played the parts of individual senators.

    Well, I got clobbered! The board members used appropriate quotations and epigrams from the classics to people like Will Rogers and Yogi Berra which totally destroyed my testimony in the question period. None of the sayings they quoted had anything to do with the subject, but they were devastating in debate. A skilled debater could select the perfect analogy and then use the literary skill of some long dead author to destroy any argument. I was not allowed to testify and I was sent home with my tail between my legs.

    All of this was a major shock to my then overly developed ego. At the advanced age of 34, I learned that it was not enough to be a technological hot shot. One of my friends, who had also been in Professor Tuveson’s class, suggested that I go see him and get a reading list. And so, I finally began to read the great books.

    I was able to spend the time to do this because my job required me to visit Washington three and sometimes even four times a month. I would board United Airlines flight 56 at midnight in San Francisco –- this was the famous “red eye special.” The airplane was almost always empty (this was before airline deregulation!) so I could read for a couple of hours, then go to sleep for a while stretched out on a row of three seats and start my visits in Washington at 8 a.m. On the way back in the evening, on United Airlines flight 57, I had a nice dinner (they used to do that!) and then read some more before we arrived in San Francisco about 10:30 p.m.

    It was on these flights, that for more than a decade, I began to read, first history, biographies, politics and then the great plays. Much to my surprise, I began to enjoy all of this immensely and so I stopped confining my reading to airplane flights. In addition two other Berkeley Professors became my mentors, Tom Parkinson (English) and Paul Seabury (Government).

    Fast forward to 1988. I was the chancellor of the University of Texas System, and I had created a position for an “academic assistant to the chancellor.” I wanted to have someone in my office who would occasionally remind me and the UT System staff that we were running a university, not a law office, or a lobbying firm, nor an investment house.

    University of Texas at Austin English Professor Larry D. Carver held this position from 1986 to 1988. He once told me that my acquisition of a liberal arts education was exactly what Plato prescribed in the Republic.

    He pointed to a discussion between Socrates and Glaucon in Book 7 talking about the education of the “guardians” (i.e., people with high SAT scores!). They concluded that between the ages of 20 and 30 they should study “arithmetic, geometry, the motion of solids (mechanics) and astronomy.” For five years thereafter, they should study “philosophy” and at age 35 the “guardians” would go out and do “useful things” for 15 years. If they were still alive at 50, they again would “return to the study of philosophy.” So, quite by accident I followed Plato’s sequence for acquiring an education.

    I was 34 when I began “philosophy” rather than Plato’s 30, but better late than never! Probably, I made more trouble for myself by doing all of this but I also had much more fun. Now I am back studying “philosophy,” but I am only 82 so there is still much to read and to learn.

    I am grateful to Professors Tuveson, Parkinson and Seabury for tolerating me, and especially to the people who had faith in me so many years ago without any real evidence that it was justified.

    • Quote 2
      AK said on May 13, 2011 at 1:06 p.m.
      An absolutely fantastic story. I was fortunate to have been introduced to C. P. Snow's "The Two Cultures" about 15 years ago and have not stopped believing in the crux of the message, i.e., the significance of both liberal arts and science in our lives. However, I find that the problem with our society today is not the awareness--nor the aptitude--at the concept of two cultures, but deploying the philosophical thinking in our daily practice. In other words, put your money where your mouth is! I hear leaders of our community quote great minds and they are, no doubt, skilled at debate, but rarely is there any meaning behind the talk. The idea is not to win a debate, but to improve mind and spirit. And, this to the point that actions automatically become a reflection of our inner spirit. The recent budget crises at the university provide a good example of how the UT administration (educated & skilled at debate) has demonstrated their inner spirit. I frankly can't hear Mr. Powers complete a sentence before I start yawning! Does Mr. Powers even know: That administrators/managers are using the budget crisis to get rid of employees they don't like for personal reasons and that HR is working overtime to support management at the expense of staff? Indeed, a mind is a terrible thing to waste and we should strive to educate our children and prepare them for a better living. On the other hand, education doesn't mean anything if you are not willing to walk the talk no matter how difficult the prospect. That is where, in my humble opinion, we as a society fail.
    • Quote 2
      Wayne Hardin said on May 12, 2011 at 3:17 p.m.
      Please share your list of books.
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      Jay Rubin said on May 12, 2011 at 2:15 p.m.
      Doesn't Stuyvesant H.S. in NYC deserve some credit for your liberal arts education as one of our many distinguished alums? In between, biology, chemistry and physics, I remember some phenomenal literature and history teachers and classes and more than a few great books. Hope the same applies today.
    • Quote 2
      Pud Patterson, UT Cheerleader 53-57 said on May 12, 2011 at 10:38 a.m.
      Forget Dr. Kozuh's comments...legend in his own mind...I appreciated your comments any my "education" mirrored yours...I was clueless at 20...curious at 30....and still reading at 75.
    • Quote 2
      Charles Wetegrove said on May 12, 2011 at 9:51 a.m.
      What a great story. Such a gifted man continuing to learn from the great books. Access to the list would be most appreciated. Where and when?
    • Quote 2
      John De La Garza said on May 12, 2011 at 9:18 a.m.
      Your comments are much appreciated at this particularly difficult time for public higher education here in Texas. You are a "truth teller" to us much as Dr. Carver was to you. Please do share your short list of book to which Sharon Hehmsoth referred.
    • Quote 2
      Joseph Allen Kozuh, Ph.D. said on May 12, 2011 at 5:39 a.m.
      Sorry, I don't buy your politicized story. While your story panders to naive Philosophers and English majors, I suspect that your initial failing before the MURDER BOARD, was because of your ... WEAK STRATEGIC ARGUMENTS ... or your inability to communicate ... GOOD STRATEGIC ARGUMENTS ... . PS: So, when are you going to get the Philosophers and English Majors to master PHYSICS and ENGINEERING ... ???
    • Quote 2
      R Malcolm Brown Jr said on May 10, 2011 at 2:04 p.m.
      Dear Hans The Geheimrat would be very proud of you and your many accomplishments!
    • Quote 2
      Sharon Hehmsoth said on May 8, 2011 at 6:07 p.m.
      I am past all but not last age requirement. However, I believe learning continues until (if we are lucky) we die. Could you share a short list of the books that prepared you for this journey? I have been happily retired from UT for almost 11 years now.
    • Quote 2
      Lorraine Pangle said on May 6, 2011 at 10:33 p.m.
      Hans, I loved this story when you presented a version of it to our student symposium in the fall and I'm glad to see it getting a wider circulation. We would love to have your list of recommended books to post on the website of our great books program here at UT, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas.
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      Commissioner Marcos de Leon said on May 5, 2011 at 9:04 p.m.
      Hans, now I know why when we met, you took such an interest in my position as Travis County Commissioner back in 1991. Great teaching moment for all of us. Enjoyed the story.
    • Quote 2
      Mark S said on May 4, 2011 at 9:50 p.m.
      I feel that making a liberal arts education "required" is somewhat ironic. It is good to keep an open mind
    • Quote 2
      Dan C. said on May 4, 2011 at 5:04 p.m.
      My first mentor, an English major working in a large defense firm, used the classics to great advantage in every challenging spot we found ourselves. I often use his quotations today in an attempt to make the complex simple and to humanize our increasingly technical world. Thanks Dr. Mark for reminding your readers of the importance of balance and diversity of thought.
    • Quote 2
      Joshua Smith said on May 4, 2011 at 4:57 p.m.
      Inspiring story..
    • Quote 2
      Mark Warr said on May 4, 2011 at 1:55 p.m.
      Your courage to step outside your own box, Professor Mark, is remarkable and inspiring. You have been a model to me and many others for many years.
    • Quote 2
      John Doggett said on May 4, 2011 at 9:55 a.m.
      Hans, Great story . . . but you have to share your list of books with us. John
    • Quote 2
      Tyler Megehe said on May 4, 2011 at 8:13 a.m.
      Thank you for posting this article and thank you Mr. Mark. This is one of the best examples I have read on the importance of a liberal arts education. This should be required reading for many young students wondering why they are taking a classical literature class or some other class that they may feel at the time does not or will never benefit them.
    • Quote 2
      Josh said on May 3, 2011 at 8:43 p.m.
      Excellent article. Do you have a reading list of your own "great books" you would recommend that got you hooked on history/politics/philosophy/etc.?
    • Quote 2
      John said on May 3, 2011 at 2:40 p.m.
      A very nice story, but a list of the great books you have in mind would be good to follow up with.
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