October 10, 2003

Hendrix Asks All the Questions of Life

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“I had a professor when I was an undergraduate who said, ‘The job of the philosopher is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,’ and I feel like when we’re here [at Cornell], we’re all pretty comfortable,” said Prof. Burke Hendrix, philosophy, during a recent interview with The Sun.

His goal as a professor is to engage young minds into asking hard questions in a clear and constructive manner. Why does the world work the way it does? What are our values within our society? Hendrix has a penchant for asking the unanswerable questions.

“The basic point of moral philosophy, a lot of times I think, is not to say what is right or wrong but to help outline the options in a clear way so that people have a set of arguments for and against,” Hendrix said.

Hendrix is a native of Alsea, Ore., a small town about 20 miles inland of the Pacific Ocean and two hours southwest of Portland. Life was generally good, but drugs and illegality were more common than the small-town stereotype might have one believe. When a town is, according to Hendrix, “three blocks long and three blocks wide,” with nothing but a general store, gas station and high school, it is no surprise that a few of Hendrix’s closest friends from childhood spent time in jail for drug use.

“I’m sure it’s no different from living in the city; it’s just that it’s more obvious because they’re all the people you know. The people that are crashing in life, you know them really well,” Hendrix said.

Despite his surroundings and the connotations his last name carries, Hendrix was able to steer clear of small-town temptations.

Alsea was a blue-collar town when Hendrix was raised there. His family owned over 1,000 acres of land, but most of the money they earned was reinvested into his father’s logging business.

“We had a working-class background,” Hendrix said. “My dad, when he was 70 years old, decided he was going to retire, which for him meant that he was going to stop working Saturdays.”

Familial expectations and fraternal competition drove Hendrix to intellectual pursuits.

“It was ingrained [in me]: you’re not going to cut timber, you’re not going to drive a log truck, you’re going to college,” he said.

Hendrix’s older brother, Scott, currently an English professor at Albion College in Michigan, provided the motivation for Hendrix’s own doctoral endeavors.

“I think somewhere I thought, ‘You know, if [my brother] has a Ph.D., I’d better have one,'” he said.

In the pursuit of his interests, Hendrix was drawn to the intricacies of philosophy and teaching. However, finding a job to fulfill these interests did not come easily. Hendrix’s position at Cornell was landed primarily through “blind luck,” he said.

Several months removed from completing his Ph.D. work at the University of Colorado with still no reply to his applications, Hendrix resigned himself to spending his postdoctoral year working at Colorado. His disappointment was relieved when both the University of Chicago and Cornell called him almost simultaneously offering employment. Hating the notion of a fast-paced and heavily populated city, Ithaca was his natural choice.

“I feel like I’m ready to go when I stand out here in the morning with the animals looking at me like, ‘Why are you bothering us, we live here too,'” Hendrix said.

This is Hendrix’s second year at Cornell. This semester, he is teaching a graduate course, Government 661: Secession, Intervention, and Just War. The questions raised in the class have to do with the conditions under which states achieve legitimacy. He is also teaching an undergraduate course, Government 460: Justice Toward Indigenous Peoples. He plans to change the name the next time he teaches the course.

“Everyone is terrified by the title. People will say, ‘I don’t know what it means and it’s quite scary,'” Hendrix said.

Next semester, Hendrix will be teaching Government 161: Introduction to Political Philosophy for the second time. When Hendrix taught the course in the spring of 2002, it was at the time the largest class he had ever encountered.

“The first day when I walked in there and I saw all those people, I thought, ‘There’s a lot of people who are going to listen to me — I have to be clear in what I’m saying and try to get through to as many of them as I can so that they’re not wondering, “Well what is that supposed to mean?”‘ It was a little scary the first few weeks.”

Hendrix will also devote time next semester assuming the role of the acting director of the Program on Ethics and Public Life. The group, consisting of four professors, is intended to call attention to the ethical questions a public figure must inevitably face. The group also sponsors the Young Scholars Weekend and presentations by various philosophers.

Hendrix compared the members of the program to one particularly famous philosopher — Aristotle — who was known to roam various Grecian gardens offering philosophy to all who might listen.

“We all hope to develop that sort of depth of thought, that absolute clarity of focus where, when the question hits us, we can stop and focus on it until it’s solved. Of course we never get that; we fumble about blindly.”

Archived article by Clark Merrefield