Written by Brooke Quach.
Photos by Brooke Quach.
Dr. Pangle is a professor of political philosophy at UT Austin. She is also a co-director of the Thomas Jefferson Center. During our conversation, Dr. Pangle emphasized her desire to cultivate an intellectual environment that addresses life’s most pressing questions through the Jefferson Scholars program.
The Jefferson Scholars program consists of six courses that center around foundational ideas as found in culturally significant texts. Although she acknowledges the problematic history of Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Pangle believes that his legacy as a champion of education embodies the cosmopolitan thoughtfulness she hopes to pass down to her students.
Academia, leadership, and professorship are pillars of the UT Austin community. In the first article for our new series, Professor Profiles, Dr. Pangle shares how her intellectual curiosities have been directed towards projects that benefit UT. Her research centers around big-picture questions, like the following: “What is the meaning of life?” “What does it mean to live a good life?” “What do you have to do to be happy?” Snapshots from her journey to success and professorship are captured in the interview below.
Dr. Pangle: “I think I knew I wanted to be a teacher early. When I was in high school, I loved kids. I loved babysitting and tutoring kids, and then when I was in college, I did some volunteer jobs with kids at schools. Then I taught in a summer program for gifted high school students in Georgia. Then I became a high school teacher, so it was a while before I knew that I wanted to be at the university level. I taught for two years at the Groton School in Massachusetts and I also taught at the Community Hebrew Academy in Toronto. I enjoyed it less, although the good things about it were really great. The upsides were that I had students from 14-18, and they were just so open and they hadn’t discovered very much of anything. They hadn’t been exposed to very big questions like: ‘Do we have free will? What is love? What are the purposes of a political community? Does it squash everybody out of shape? Is democracy really good or not?’ And the kinds of fresh, open, exciting conversations that we had were really great. But then there was the problem of the kids who didn’t want to be there, and the hassles that that involved. I also had too many kids–I had 35 in each class at the Hebrew Academy. By the end of my second year of teaching, I felt like I had all of these interesting ideas in my head. I was just kind of recycling things that I’d already thought about, and I wasn’t progressing in my intellectual life. At that point I went back and wrote my PhD thesis on Aristotle’s understanding of love and friendship. For a while, I became an independent scholar without an academic job.”
“For a while, I became an independent scholar without an academic job.”
Dr. Pangle: “I became interested in this question of, “How important is love and friendship in human life? In what way is it important? Is it something we just need because we need help from other people in getting the things that we need? Or is it a real good in itself? How does it rank among the other things that we need to be happy?” So that’s just part of a project that I’m still working on, which is trying to understand all of Aristotle’s ethics and what he thinks human happiness is; what human excellence is; what the good life is–there’s a lot written about it because he’s not very clear on what he comes down to and why. I knew that I wanted to teach still, but I wanted to do it at a level where I could slow down and think deeply about these things. I feel like my whole life has been a continual return to certain questions, and digging deeper into them, both for the pleasure of just thinking and writing about them and with a view towards education.”
“I feel like my whole life has been a continual return to certain questions… both for the pleasure of just thinking and writing about them and with a view towards education.”
Dr. Pangle: “A dramatic event for me was when my husband and I were asked to take over the Jefferson Center— and I had been thinking about writing about education and we had written a book on the American founders’ views on education several years before that. I had been doing different volunteer projects at my kids’ elementary school for a while, and I tried to help shape the curriculum there. I had been a part of the steering committee of this little program, Western Civilization and Core Texts, and it had run into a lot of opposition. People thought it was too narrow, and that it was aimed at teaching people why Western Civilization was great and that the rest of the world was not, which is not the way I understood it.”
“We needed much better outreach and we needed to include things like Eastern texts and courses such as Chinese literature. When we were asked to take over the Jefferson Center, I spent a lot of time going around talking to different department heads and people who were teaching courses that we would want to include in the program. As I was talking to people both to articulate and refine what we were trying to do, we tried to meet objections and make the program really pluralistic. I felt that, in a way, everything that I had done up until that point—which included things that hadn’t worked out well—helped prepare me to do this job.”
“I felt that, in a way, everything that I had done up until that point—which included things that hadn’t worked out well—helped prepare me to do this job.”
“It was really exciting to build upon prior Great Books programs I had been a part of, and bring this program into the 21st century. I think liberal arts education has been in decline, and that students have been moving away from it, but it was nice to see the response when you got rid of all the unnecessary static.”