Doane alumnus, renowned philosopher Dr. John Perry ’64 gives annual Dredla Research Speaker Series lecture
When Dr. John Perry ’64 first stepped onto campus at then-Doane College in 1960, he expected to leave as four-year football letterman and a future attorney. Instead, he found himself a new path, as a philosophy major.
Perry went on to get his doctorate at Cornell University and became Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, writing 11 books (including one on the subject of procrastination) in the process.
On Sept. 25, he returned to Doane University for the first time since his son graduated in 1985, and presented the annual Dredla Lecture on the value of the liberal arts in understanding one’s true identity.
“I want to convince you that philosophy is one of the most practical activities you can engage in while you are at Doane, or for the rest of your life, for that matter,” Perry told a standing-room audience, comprised predominantly of students. “Practical. It doesn't have that reputation. Why would I say that? Because it will help you with a very important, practical problem.
"What is this problem? Figuring out who you are!"
And then he got down to it, starting with what we are. Physical beings, taking up space, bound by gravity’s laws, pretty rock-like. But unlike a rock, he said, humans also possess motives, desires and beliefs, many of which, he emphasized, are initially inherited.
"If you're freshmen, I'll tell you where they came from,” he said, smirking just a smidge. “A little bit insulting, a little obnoxious to say this, but they were poured into your head by your parents, your teachers, maybe your church, your culture, TV. This is the time, and really the only time most of us have in our lives to hold those up and say, 'Is that really me?'"
Perry offered up his freshman year at Doane College as an example. After graduating from Lincoln Southeast High School, he enrolled at Doane in 1960 with two intentions, to play football at a school small enough to let someone like him on the squad and become a lawyer.
While Doane had an enrollment of fewer than 300 or so, Perry said the football team was made up of a disproportionate number of freshman bruisers who didn’t want to wait a year to play varsity ball like they had to at big universities back then. He lasted one season, and still remembers what his coach told him after the season’s final game: “Perry, you're small, but you slow. Have you ever heard of the humanities?”
He had. That same year, in a required religious studies class, his professor assigned the students a lofty essay topic -- discuss your ideas about God. He had a few brewing.
“A week later, he read my paper to the whole class as an example of what the paper should have been,” Perry said. A fellow student who went by Frenchie called him out for his showcased work, asking him why on earth he wrote a paper about the chances of God’s existence when everyone else wrote about God’s love.
“Well you know, that's an interesting question,” Perry thought. “I think I really am interested in philosophy! Three things changed in my life (while at Doane). Four years later, no more football. Philosophy major. And Frenchie and I had been married two-and-a-half years (by the time he graduated, and have been together 56 years).”
Perry weaved together a collection of anecdotes about self-examination -- a professor unnerved after mocking his own reflection, an amnesiac war hero who unknowingly reads a biography about himself, an Argentinian author who grew to despise his own persona that he created -- and told the students that he found himself so fascinated by questions about the nature of the self, the soul, right and wrong and up and down that he couldn’t fathom becoming an attorney.
“I needed to pull that stuff out of my head that was there when I arrived (at Doane) in September of 1960 and hold it up, toss some of it away and put other stuff in,” he said. “That's what you're here for. That's the most important thing you can do here. It's the most practical thing you can do here, and philosophy helps.”
He suggested that the students find room in their schedule for an intro philosophy class, perhaps, and probably a few coding courses, too.
And after he delivered the Dredla Lecture, he pulled up a chair and fielded questions on Plato’s cave, psychological egoism and the possibility of defining a self that is forever in flux. For recent graduates (and sisters) MaKayla and Jaci Parriott, this bonus round of Q&A came as no surprise.
Like Perry, MaKayla Parriott didn’t enroll at Doane expecting to major in philosophy, but became fascinated with the subject after taking Associate Philosophy Professor Patrick Monahan’s Liberal Arts Requirement course during her freshman year, where the topic was “The Problem of Evil.”
“Honestly I expected it,” she said. “I’ve taken Pat’s philosophy classes and there’s always a thousand questions at the end of class,” she said.
She and her sister, a philosophy minor, stayed until the end of the night, as did about 25 other philosophically-minded current and former Doane students.
"It's great seeing their curiosity compels them to go above and beyond in terms of inquiry, and asking questions," said Monahan, who invited Perry back to campus to give the speech.
“It's one of my favorite places,” Perry said.
The Dredla Research Speaker Series is named after Doane alumni Alberta M. Dredla (1905-2003) and Bernice C. Dredla Sanderson (1909-2000). The annual lectures gather students, faculty, and the larger Doane University community into challenging consideration of research in the liberal arts and sciences.
Alberta Dredla graduated from Doane in 1926, majoring in English and history majors. Bernice Dredla, a 1935 Doane graduate, majored in English. Natives of Crete, the sisters went on to have distinguished careers in teaching. The lecture series continues the Dredla sisters’ long-time commitment to education.