Philosopher Perry tells students to 'care deeply' in 'What Matters' speech


From Campus Reports, June 10, 1998

When freshmen ask his advice about what courses to take, John Perry has the arithmetic ready. "Take one-third of your units to learn to do something that will give you a salary for the rest of your life," Perry, the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy, tells them.

"Then take one-third of the units for what you owe Stanford, to fulfill requirements. And finally take at least one-third for yourself, to find out who you are and what you really care about. It will be much more expensive to have a nervous breakdown in your '50s than to find out who you are while you're in college."

Perry, the final speaker of the academic year in the noontime "What Matters to Me and Why" series, shared his guidelines for a satisfying life with an audience of students, faculty and staff in Memorial Church on June 3. Noting that he had been invited by several freshmen in the Cultures, Ideas and Values track he teaches, Perry said he had pitched his remarks to undergraduates.

A specialist in the problem of personal identity and the philosophy of language, Perry currently directs the Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI), which he helped to found. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1974 and has served as chair of the philosophy department, receiving a Dinkelspiel Award for undergraduate teaching in 1990.

Perry has been known, even counted on, to add welcome twists of levity to dour debates at meetings of the Faculty Senate, and he didn't disappoint in the quiet setting of the side chapel. Explaining that he had lived his life and organized his talk around four issues, Perry ticked them off to accompanying laughter:

*Life is what happens while you're making other plans.

*What you care about determines who you are.

*Happiness is the product of the pursuit of your goals and not a reasonable goal in and of itself.

*Size matters.

Perry began his remarks by tracking down favorite moments from his childhood in the 1950s, growing up in Lincoln ­ "a nice town in Nebraska that's a little like if you took Sunnyvale and eliminated everything within 1,000 miles."

A self-described "desultory student," he said he had hoped to go to a military academy but was rejected by West Point and Annapolis because of poor eyesight. Instead, he enrolled at Doane College, a small liberal arts school near [Lincoln] where he planned to major in engineering.

"But I forgot to check whether Doane had a school of engineering, which they didn't," he said.

Perry also had anticipated that Doane would be a small enough school that he could play football, and he did land a spot on the varsity team in his freshman year. But his career was short-lived.

"At the end of the year, the coach came over, put his arm around my shoulder and said, 'Perry, you're small, but you're slow.'"

The library, which he discovered had a smaller budget than the football team, became a refuge, and there Perry sorted out his choices of majors.

"I liked literature, except for the poetry part, and history involved a certain discipline and organization that I'd always found to be elusive," he recalled. "So that left philosophy, which didn't have a lot of facts or results to keep straight. As Hume puts it, any chain of reasoning more than three steps long can be ignored, so I became a philosopher and have been happy ever since."

Plato's Republic was a required book for an introductory course, and it apparently tipped the scales for him as a student.

"I was moved by the fact that here were these words that people had struggled with for thousands of years, and I was joining that group," Perry said.

Perry and his wife, Frenchie, were married in their sophomore year at Doane and had two children by the time he finished his doctorate at Cornell University.

"My advice to students is to be born in 1943, and get your Ph.D. by 1968," Perry told his listeners. "Because everybody got nice offers in 1968, but by 1969 the bottom dropped out of the job market and it's been out ever since."

Following a three-year teaching stint at the University of California-Los

Angeles, Perry joined the Stanford faculty in 1974.

"I never could get into Stanford as an undergraduate or as a graduate student, so I took the only route I could to get here ­ as a faculty member, for which the standards are considerably lower."

The Perrys spent six years in Soto as resident fellows, an experience he calls "one of the most unexpected, most meaningful things in my university career." The couple had adopted a third child in the early 1970s and today they have 13 grandchildren.

"All our kids have been wonderful, although they go through a difficult period between [the ages of] 2 and 30," Perry said. "But having kids really forced us not to be so self-absorbed, as I think a lot of people in my generation have been."

Noting that he loves to windsurf and continues to build time into his schedule for that pastime, Perry urged students to plan their lives "so you get some moments of pleasure."

Even more important, he said, is finding out what they care deeply about.

"A way of getting depressed, in case you want to have that experience, is to focus on things that you can't do anything about," such as the lifespan of the planet or the suffering of millions of innocent children, Perry suggested.

Instead, he said he tries to care about individuals and conceive of direct routes "from the things I care about to the actions I can take."

"Appearance, money ­ well, those things actually are fairly important," Perry suggested. "But the most important things are a person's values and beliefs, and what they care about. Caring is the difference between you and a rock or a chair."

What happens all too often, Perry added, is that freshmen come to Stanford thinking, "I know I'm a premed and I'm going into medicine, going to make megabucks and cure at least one disease."

But then, "they run into the problem that they could care less about whether a protein does this or that, and they discover that it just doesn't work to derive what you care about from what you think your identity is.

"Instead, you've got to see what you care about first, find what turns you on, and then figure out something that works for you."


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