A glimpse into how good mentorship has a lasting impact
When John Tomasi was a first-year philosophy graduate student at the University of Arizona, he and others in his class found their mailboxes had been stuffed with the same leaflet about a summer program from a place called the Institute for Humane Studies. Little did Tomasi know that the “culprit” behind these flyers would have a profound impact on his academic interests.
“Who was this person who was sticking flyers in random graduate students’ boxes?” Tomasi recalls asking himself. “I only learned later that, in fact, it was this person, Dave Schmidtz.”
At the time, David Schmidtz was an outgoing student at the University of Arizona, preparing to make his way in a career in academia.
“He’s about to go off to Yale and yet he’s taking time to distribute literature to graduates, and not knowing whether any of us were going to be interested in these ideas of the free society, but just because he saw an opportunity to reach out, to see whether any people out there might be interested in learning more about these ideas.“– John Tomasi
That kind of outreach, coupled with Schmidtz’s often repeated words of wisdom to “never forget that you are a volunteer” are the cornerstone themes in his mentorship and teaching style.
Tomasi formed a friendship and found a lifelong colleague in Schmidtz as an upperclassman. Now a political philosophy professor at Brown University, Tomasi imparts many of the lessons he learned from Schmidtz to his own students.
“For one thing, as Dave knows, I shamelessly steal his slogans,” Tomasi jokes. “I just shamelessly rip his slogans off and use them over and over again. I mean, how many graduate students have I talked to and said to them: ‘You know, they’re not looking for a wonderful graduate student, they’re looking for an assistant professor, and the sooner you start looking the part’ – and I look at their clothes as Dave did to me – ‘and start dressing the part, and acting the part, and thinking the part, the sooner it is they’ll maybe recognize you as being right for that part.’”
Tomasi says that there is a power behind these types of slogans and that they carry special gravitas with students, particularly the idea that they are volunteers. That meaning can be expressed in a myriad of ways, and to Tomasi, it’s found in being involved in something larger than yourself.
“When I talk to the postdocs at Brown, and I’ve worked with many dozens of them through the years, I try to remember the power that lies behind Dave’s slogans… Reminding people that we’re in this for a reason, and the reason is about a better society, and also that, frankly, we’re often fighting things that we think are very worrying and very dangerous, and if we don’t stand up and fight for these things, it’s not clear who else is going to do so.“– John Tomasi
To understand what Tomasi means when he talks about the impact of ideas and the power behind these mantras, you need only look to Schmidtz’s students.
For Jason Brennan it began with a transition between philosophy disciplines. Having initially attended the University of Arizona to study the philosophy of the mind, Brennan found himself being drawn back to his first love, political philosophy.
“Fortunately for me, I happened to have applied and to have been accepted at the number one political philosophy program in the English-speaking world,” Brennan laughs, speaking of the renowned political philosophy program Schmidtz has built at Arizona.
Brennan reached out to his friend and IHS alum Matt Zwolinski, who was a student of Schmidtz’s at the time, for a better sense of the program and what it was like to work with Schmidtz. On Zwolinski’s advice, Brennan contacted Schmidtz to discuss his interest in switching fields.
That initial conversation would be a stepping stone for Brennan on a path to becoming a prolific author, including co-authoring the book A Brief History of Liberty with Schmidtz, and his current role as the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor at Georgetown University.
“My experience with Dave that has really helped shape me into the kind of philosopher I am, in part, is because I think he was very good at teaching me what it is to be able to sustain a passion for the work over a long period of time.“– Jason Brennan
To sustain that passion, Schmidtz offered Brennan a profound, yet simple piece of advice: “to not let the urgent get in the way of the important.” While that advice is straightforward, it can prove challenging to truly implement. This was one of several lessons Brennan took away from Schmidtz during his work with him.
Christopher Freiman enrolled at Arizona with the goal of studying under Schmidtz, and after taking a few of Schmidtz’s courses, knew he wanted to work with him directly.
Now an associate professor of philosophy at William & Mary where he has had the opportunity to shape and build a philosophy, politics, and economics program, Freiman recalls Schmidtz’s mentoring approach.
“The support that he gave me, nurturing my research, being supportive of my research interests, helping me get connected to IHS, which in turn helped me with my career in various sorts of ways. I think it’s safe to say my career would be much different were it not for Dave.“– Christopher Freiman
The impact of Schmidtz’s mentorship extends beyond the graduate school years as many former students look to him as a model for their careers. For example, Freiman describes the role open discourse played in Schmidtz’s classes.
“One of Dave’s most admirable qualities as a mentor, and one that I’ve really tried to adopt as my own, is he’s very open and supportive to all different sorts of philosophical styles,” Freiman says. “So I never felt pressure from Dave to believe what he believed or to not argue with him. Even though I had a disagreement, he was always interested in just having his students do good, thoughtful, interesting philosophy. Whether that sort of aligned with his view or not wasn’t really the point. He just wanted to see you grow as a philosopher.”
Freiman found more than an education in Schmidtz’s Game Theory course, as he would go onto meet his wife in that very class, and Schmidtz would attend their wedding.
When Schmidtz serves as a mentor, he views it as a relationship, and not only a relationship between mentor and mentee but also relationships that his mentees develop with each other.
“I think one thing that’s really underestimated is that a mentor has to think about how his or her graduate students can help each other,” Schmidtz says. “They are supposed to be a community; they’re supposed to be each other’s best friends for decades to come if all goes well. You have to think about what they’ve got to invest in each other and what they’ve got to make them receptive to each other and to give them something to offer each other.”
This mindset of a community fostered by Schmidtz helped to form a friendship between Brennan and Frieman at Arizona, and Schmidtz could see a special synergy between them.
“I saw the chemistry between Chris as a first-year student and Jay Brennan as a [third]-year student. And I saw how those guys reacted, how they were not best friends, but they were best colleagues. Like you could see that they really appreciated each other. They respected each other. They looked at each other and they saw someone who was making the world a better place.“– David Schmidtz
Schmidtz claims you need to “project a student into the flow and say, you are going to be good for that person. And that person is going to be good for you. You’re all going to knock each other’s sharp edges off or dull edges off. And you’re all going to come out of this as something more outstanding.”
This is the type of outlook on both community-building and mentorship that led a young David Schmidtz to leave those IHS leaflets in students’ mailboxes years ago and eventually to form a friendship with John Tomasi. It’s the type of impact that ripples through generations as each year Brennan, Freiman, Schmidtz, and Tomasi continue to impart these lessons onto new students.
The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021 with spotlights on scholars, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas. Jason Brennan, Christopher Freiman, John Tomasi, and David Schmidtz each have their own, unique IHS story, and those and many others will be told throughout the year.
For more stories like this one, visit TheIHS.org/60.