“Public intellectual” doesn’t do Dr. Mark Kingwell justice. The award-winning author of A Civil Tongue, editor at Harper’s, and The Walrus, with a B.A, M.Litt, M.Phil, PhD, D.F.A., he also regularly teaches PHL100.
Kingwell began as an undergraduate student at St. Mike’s in the early 80s. He skipped Frosh Week in favour of a Queen concert, studied philosophy and political science, and bunked with a group of friends in Kensington Market.
Kingwell describes his most valuable undergraduate experience as one that happened outside the classroom. “I think, actually, the most important thing I did was edit The Varsity,” he said. He got involved with the paper in his first year, and went on to be editor-in-chief in his upper years.
Due to his extracurricular involvement, Kingwell made the decision to get his BA in 5 years – a move that was not common at the time. “If you wanted to get more involved, you either had to have no life, or you had to stretch out your degree.”
When asked what he thinks about taking more than four years to finish an undergraduate degree, Kingwell was supportive, but with one condition. “It’s great if it means you get involved,” he said, “I’m glad I made that decision.”
Kingwell was never sure what lay ahead of him after school. “On the contrary,” he said, “even through my PhD I didn’t have any plan on being an academic. It didn’t seem like a proper occupation.”
Kingwell’s current research area of political theory and philosophy of art were interests from his time as an undergraduate. “U of T philosophy was really good for me because then, and now, it has a strong historical orientation that helps you situate whatever your interests are in a wider narrative of philosophy.”
At the same time, his interests shifted over the years. “I took a philosophy of art class as an undergraduate that I really hated,” he admitted, adding that it wasn’t until he was a TA at Yale that he became interested in the field.
Before deciding on philosophy as a career, Kingwell was shooting to be a journalist. He worked as a reporter for the Globe and Mail every summer after his undergrad, and was even offered a full-time job at the Globe after his MA at the University of Edinburgh. He turned it down, though, in favour of a doctorate at Yale. “I just thought, ‘Oh, I really like it…I don’t want to stop doing philosophy yet.’”
Apart from the summer that he landed an internship with his future employer, the Globe and Mail, Kingwell worked a variety of summer jobs between his years at U of T. Once, he worked in a video store, which he said was fun in a Quentin Tarantino-esque way. Another time, he had a gig handing out flyers for a record store on Yonge Street sporting a clown suit.
His decisions ultimately led him to success, but he wasn’t always so sure of himself. “I remember those terrible moments that I would wake up and realize that I had no idea what I was going to do when I graduated,” he recalled.
Sometimes he left things to the last minute. “I had a lot of dumb luck in terms of things working out,” he said. He went on to recount asking a professor to write a reference letter for a graduate school application that was due the following day. “He just said, ‘You’re crazy.”
Things certainly did come together in the end for Kingwell and, to the outsider, it appears that his path to success was very focused on journalism and academia. “It didn’t feel like that at the time,” he noted. In fact, in his opinion, specializing too early can be a mistake. “Generalists are always more adaptable than specialists.”
From Kingwell’s experience, U of T gives excellent preparation for graduate school. “It was expansive and open minded, but rigorous,” he said. The fact that his fellow students shared his passion for learning made it all the more enjoyable. “All the people I knew as undergrads were genuine humanists,” he said. “We’d have conversations about the meaning of life and what we were going to do and the contributions we’d make.”
According to Kingwell, graduating now isn’t too different from when he wore a cap and gown. “I don’t think it’s any worse or better now than it was last year or the year before or 20 years ago,” he said. Ultimately, the most difficult tasks that students face is figuring out which direction they’d like to take their lives. “The economy is maybe slightly worse than it was,” he continued, “but you still have to face those hard choices.”
To Kingwell, the value of an undergraduate degree is the same now as it has always been. “It’s about training your mind and yourself,” he argued, “It means that you are going to be able to do all kinds of things.”
Kingwell is well aware of the fact that most students in his introductory level course may not take another philosophy course in their lives. But to him, there is great power in the notion of learning for learning’s sake. “The point is to expose them to the most interesting arguments that have been made about what [we’re] doing here,” he said.
It truly irks Kingwell when people question the validity of an undergraduate degree, especially one in philosophy. “Are you trying to tell me that the time I spent thinking about the world and my place in it wasn’t worthwhile?” he retorted, “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
And for those who think that philosophy is impractical, Kingwell is not one to reckon with: “It makes you think more clearly about yourself and the world. It makes you a better citizen, ultimately, and maybe even a better person,” he countered, “And there is nothing of practical value that you could rate higher than those things, in my opinion.”