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Laurence Carlin

Before every class, UW Oshkosh professor Larry Carlin psyches himself up for the next 60 minutes. He mutters to himself as a performer would before stepping on a stage or a football player before he sprints onto the field. “Here we go,” he says before the clock starts.

by Morgan Counts
Student Multimedia Reporter

game face 

Before every class, UW Oshkosh professor Larry Carlin psyches himself up for the next 60 minutes. He mutters to himself as a performer would before stepping on a stage or a football player before he sprints onto the field.

“Here we go,” he says before the clock starts. “There is a challenge before you.”

To his students, it is another hour of philosophy; to Carlin, it’s game on.

Carlin, a 2011 Edward M. Penson Distinguished Teaching Award winner, has been shaping the minds of young philosophers at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2000. He relishes in the A-ha! moments when his students realize that philosophy is not only about dead men talking and that it is an integral part of their everyday lives.

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“I say, ‘If you major in philosophy, upon graduation, you will receive a deep six figure salary,’” Carlin deadpans. Then he lets out a big laugh. “No, that’s not true. Here’s what’s true: Contrary to the myths, philosophy is very practical in the sense that it puts our most important beliefs on the table.”

It is easy to fall into Carlin’s spell. He speaks with the passion of a leave-everything-on-the-field coach. “These are the kinds of beliefs you use to confront your most important experiences,” he continues, his voice rising. “These are not the normal, everyday beliefs. These are the critical ones we argue about, the ones we hear about these days, all the political turmoil in Madison.”

Summing the evaluation of these issues into a few lines can be difficult. Carlin winces when asked for a simple explanation of “philosophy” because the definition found in dictionaries always falls short in his world. “If I had to put it in very few words I would put it as this: philosophy is the crucial examination, the critical study of our most fundamental beliefs.”

Carlin defies anyone to label beliefs in religion, morality, politics, society, science, humanity and other hotbed topics as trivial. “They are what motivate you and frame your outlook on life’s most important matters. They determine how you vote, what kind of roommate you will be, how you spend your Sunday mornings, how you raise your children, what kind of friend you are.

“Indeed, they are the very things that make you the person you are,” he stresses. “How could an intense study of those beliefs be a waste of time? What could be more practical than an evaluation of those beliefs?”

Balance Sheet to Socrates

Carlin has not always been a Plato-spewing proselyte. “When I was coming out of high school going into college, I was convinced I was going to be an accountant,” says Carlin, who earned his undergraduate degree from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., his master’s degrees from the University of Houston and Rice University, where he also had earned his doctorate in philosophy. “Of course I was convinced of no such thing; I thought I wanted to be an accountant.”

The son of a long-time Philadelphia Eagles executive and a registered nurse, Carlin was the one in a family of seven children to question everything. He loved to find out how things worked, why things worked. He read every one of the Encyclopedia Brown books. His toy box was filled with science lab kits.

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AUDIO-ONLY Podcast
video platform video management video solutionsvideo player In this podcast, Dr. Laurence Carlin talks about what sparked his interest in philosophy and the challenges he faces teaching it. Produced by Michelle Peplow.

“I wanted to be a scientist and play with test tubes and microscopes,” Carlin says. “I was a very curious kid, and I had the support around me to nurture that.”

Despite his attraction for asking questions and seeking answers, Carlin headed into college with his sights set on a career of crunching numbers. Or so he had thought.

“Thanks to the general education requirement, I had to take a course in humanities,” Carlin says. “I think it was on the recommendation of a friend to take Intro to Philosophy because he found it rather interesting.”

“Rather interesting” would turn out to be an understatement. “It changed my life,” he said in complete seriousness. “I fell in love with it.”

That course sparked something he hadn’t felt before. 
“I took another course, The History of Ancient Philosophy, and I remember being riveted by the story of Socrates, his arguments for free speech and how he died for 
the cause.”

Three weeks into his second philosophy course, Carlin changed his major. “I traded in my balance sheets, which were never balanced, for the collected works of Plato.”

Now Carlin says he spends his time sharing his love of philosophy with others, many of whom may begin as philosophy skeptics.

He often starts his first day of his Introduction to Philosophy class with these questions: “How many of you, honestly, are here against your will? How many are here because you have to satisfy a general requirement, and the truth is if you did not have to satisfy the requirement, you would not be sitting here now?”

More often than not, more than half the students would raise their hands. Undaunted, Carlin always follows with a line that generates a laugh every semester. “Good, at least little more than half of you are telling the truth.”

In the Beginning

Carlin wastes little time tackling the big questions of our times. On the first day of his Introduction to Philosophy class, he throws his students off guard with a doozy: 
“Is there a God?” From there, he’ll walk the students through the critical arguments for and against.

Carlin is quick to say that he never reveals his personal beliefs. “I tell my students from day one that your professor believes nothing for purposes of this class. I tell them that I am the messenger. It is my job to relay both sides.”

On the Receiving End

Students share with reporter Michelle Peplow what they took away from Dr. Laurence Carlin's classes. Read on. 

The result, he says, may lead to more questions. “We must not mistake not having an answer with lack of progress. Those are two entirely different things,” he says firmly. “If you are forced to re-conceptualize your belief system based in lieu of further evidence, you’ve just been educated, haven’t you?”

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No Podium Here: Dr. Laurence Carlin keeps his students engaged by his active lecturing style.

His students, in fact, become more knowledgeable in their uncertainty. “We work very hard at critical thinking, at distinguishing bad arguments from good arguments, at putting a controversial view on the table and saying ‘What’s a good way to weigh the evidence for and against this view?’”

Carlin, who is loath to stand behind a lectern, likens the study of philosophy to a team sport. “It involves an active exchange of ideas. You want as much information as possible if you’re going to engage in critical thinking and look at arguments on both sides.”

During a recent lecture in his upper-division Philosophy and the Scientific Revolution class, Carlin discussed Galileo’s natural philosophy. Teaching, for Carlin, is a physical activity. He prowls back and forth, punctuating points with his hands in the air, pointing at the students. “Are you with me?” he bellows.

Carlin reads excerpts from The Essential Galileo, a letter written in 1613 from Galileo to his former student, Benedetto Castelli, a mathematics professor at the University of Pisa. Even while reading, Carlin is poised for action. Book in hand, arm bent at an angle, Carlin looks like a sprinter ready to take off.

Woe be the student who appears less than totally engaged. At one rare lull point, Carlin stands up 
and says an apparent non sequitur. “What does 
Mrs. Carlin say?” (He later explains that Mrs. Carlin in 
this case was his mother who had an arsenal of sayings for many occasions.)

In unison, the students respond, “If you are going to soar with the eagles, you can’t hoot with the owls.” That meant, get enough sleep so you can be prepared for class.

He smiles and punches the air once again. “That’s right! Now what is Galileo trying to say here?”

The Game of Life

Carlin confronts big controversial issues every class period. However, the issues that plague the non-academic in him are much more pedestrian. Carlin and his wife, Stephanie, are parents to three active children: Nathan, 9; Maxwell, 7; and Sophie, 4.

“Like every parent, we wonder if we are doing the right things,” he shares. “Are we setting the right rules? What will be the consequences here? Like any parent, I think the biggest concern you have in your life is your children. You want to be a good parent, you don’t want to fail your children.”

Carlin knows better than to seek definitive answers for his parenting questions. For now, it is enough to be involved parents and to see that their children are growing up happy, healthy and loved.

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  Dr. Laurence Carlin coaches his son's fourth-grade football squad.

In spring of 2011, Carlin coached a kindergarten/first-grade softball team. He currently coaches his son Nathan’s fourth-grade tackle football squad.

Like any coach, Carlin never knows what to expect heading into a new season, especially with youngsters new to a sport.

“The first day of practice you can take nothing for granted,” he says. “If they hit the ball, they start running toward third base carrying the bat. You really have to start from square one.”

Carlin takes the same let’s-start-with-square-one game plan with philosophy neophytes. “When I teach Intro, many are already convinced before I say a word that it is boring,” he says. “Can I change their mind about philosophy? Can I get them interested in something 
that, beforehand, they thought they could never be interested in?”

Carlin takes great joy with teaching successes big and small. Whether a student grasps a difficult concept or realizes how engaging philosophy can be, he sees each accomplishment as another player running toward the right direction.

 The struggle to get there is something Carlin can never give up. “I have never gotten tired of philosophy. I continue to enjoy the challenge and I love interacting with students.”

Mastery of the course material is important, Carlin says, but more important is their ability to be better and more knowledgeable defenders of their own views.

 If Carlin’s students were to walk away from his class with only one lesson learned, he knows which lesson he would want that to be.

 “I hope that they take with them the belief that what we are doing is important, that thinking hard about religious beliefs, political beliefs, these controversial issues, is relevant, is worthwhile,” he says, adding with a big grin, “and frankly, can make your head a happy place to live too.”

Student reporter Michelle Peplow also contributed to this report.

Research Matters

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Discovering New Worlds
Video Podcast


In this podcast, Professor Carlin discusses the importance of studying abroad as well as his own study abroad programs in Scotland. Produced by Morgan Counts. Original music by UW Oshkosh music composition student Grace Hennig. Photos courtesy of Laurence Carlin. For more information about Dr. Carlin' s upcoming study abroad program, please visit Reason and Religion in 18th Century Scotland.