Photo of Elizabeth Minnich

APA Member Interview: Elizabeth Minnich

Elizabeth Minnich, Senior Scholar, Association of American Colleges and Universities, teaches moral philosophy at Queens University. She has taught and been a dean at Barnard College, held named chairs at Scripps, Brooklyn College, Evergreen, and East Carolina University. Her publications include The Evil of Banality: On The Life and Death Importance of Thinking (released Dec 2016), The Fox in The Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy (with Si Kahn), the award-winning Transforming Knowledge (2nd Edition), as well as papers in 20 anthologies and three textbooks. She has also chaired the APA’s Committee on Public Philosophy.  

What are you most proud of in your professional life?

The moments in class when people discover the intense aliveness, interest, connection of thinking with others (in person, in texts – wherever), of drawing out and exploring what someone means, turning it around, questioning together until there is clarity and trust enough also to ask, is that what you or I really want to mean, to value, to do, to be? Choice, and so freedom, and so responsibility are then possible. All of which is to say: when we succeed in philosophizing, I am grateful (which can be akin to “proud”), especially when this happens among people who had no idea they were so interesting and could think so well.

What are you working on right now? 

A book on teaching, taking up the challenge of The Evil of Banality: On The Life and Death Importance of Thinking by thoroughly exploring how education really can enable as many as possible to “think without a bannister,” as my teacher, Hannah Arendt put it, particularly when the “bannisters” offered as support actually contain, constrain, and can finally channel us into collusion with otherwise unthinkable but ‘normalized’ actions.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

With others on hundreds of campuses, elucidating why we must and then how we can liberate scholarship and teaching from the conceptual errors built in by centuries of exclusions, devaluations, misinterpretations of the majority of humankind and, with these devalued ‘kinds’ of people, subjects such as peace, which was also invisible in histories organized around wars.  “Greatest” isn’t my choice of term, but it was my first years-long project of what I called “fieldwork philosophizing” in the book that resulted, Transforming Knowledge, so it looms large, as the Beatles used to say, when I think back.

What do you like to do outside work?

Sit in a coffee house–wooden tables, soft lights, hum of voices because people are still talking to each other in person–with someone who startles me into fresh thinking with a turn of phrase, a good story, a confessed experience, an insight I would never have on my own. Good music, many kinds and countries’, should be playing softly. Or, on the contrary, moving: dancing, swimming across lakes (well, ponds), walking on the edge of oceans. Or, if I can get away, wandering narrow back streets in ancient cities where feet bend over cobblestones, heavy doors open onto hidden courtyards, markets where you can buy anything at all take over blocks with smells, colors, sounds as much as goods.

What time of day are you most productive and creative?

Morning. I don’t mean I am a “morning person,” a phrase that evokes a terrifying image of someone who is perky and talkative as the sun, itself perhaps reluctant, rises. But I protect my mornings, particularly when I am writing. It is a fine thing to take your time re-entering the noisy, messy, clichéd world, to leave space and time for thoughts to surface, play with each other, and — as they sometimes are gracious enough to do, clarify. Most philosophical moral, political, public work is fully conscious at least in crucial part because it must be communicative, but unconventional insights, which I love most, may need to sneak in from mistier mind levels.

Where would you go in a time machine?

Not really up for that. I can imagine having been burned as a witch, or going mad if not allowed to live openly as a thinking, talkative woman. I am also worried about the future. I might take myself back to Obama’s Inauguration, when for a fleeting moment it seemed as if perhaps a very large “we” might take another few steps toward a world in which identities, lives, riches dependent on systems of dominance might unclench.

What’s your favorite quote?

Interest in learning from all the contacts of life is the essential moral interest.

– John Dewey

Find out more about Elizabeth here.  

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This section of the APA Blog is designed to get to know our fellow philosophers a little better. We’re including profiles of APA members that spotlight what captures their interest not only inside the office, but also outside of it. We’d love for you to be a part of it, so please contact us via the interview nomination form here.

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