Senior Shelby Mokricky makes a point during a McDowell Student Fellows discussion.

Senior Shelby Mokricky makes a point during a McDowell Institute Student Fellows discussion.

The life of the mind

March 26, 2024

Creativity, imagination, and innovation — these are the fruits of the life of the mind, according to philosopher Zena Hitz. On March 21, the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life gave a public lecture on the same topic as her book title as part of the Gary L. McDowell Institute Lecture Series at the University of Richmond.

She asked audience members why they study or attend college. Conceding that education is necessary for most forms of work associated with well-paying jobs and high social status, she nevertheless cautioned against being on “autopilot” in the pursuit of such things.

“The type of education I’m promoting is liberal education — education that makes people free,” said the McDowell Institute scholar-for-the-day. She argued that this kind of self-education is available to anyone of any class or background who is willing to apply themselves.

“It takes effort, discipline, and sacrifice to cultivate the life of the mind,” the philosopher said. “Liberal learning relies on the principle that I am most free when I live and learn for my own sake.”

Philosopher Zena Hitz gives a presentation on the intellectual life as part of the McDowell Institute Lecture Series.

Philosopher Zena Hitz talks about the intellectual life.

Sitting near the front of the crowded auditorium, many McDowell Institute Student Fellows clearly shared Hitz’s enthusiasm for the intellectual life. They read her book and discussed it with her prior to her lecture.

This year, a record 36 students from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business, and the School of Arts and Sciences are fellows, according to McDowell Institute co-directors Daniel Palazzolo and Terry Price. The fellows meet regularly in two cohorts led by Jessica Flanigan, professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics, and law (PPEL), and Kevin Cherry, associate professor of political science.

“The fellows program offers a unique space for students to read about, think about, and discuss ideas freely and openly,” Palazzolo said. “They are hungry for opportunities to converse with each other and with our guest speakers.”

Senior Tyler Concaugh concurred: “The program forces me to do my own thinking and learning. Listening to Dr. Hitz this week has made me more intentional about fostering those places of learning.”

Housed in the Jepson School, the McDowell Institute serves as a University hub to support the exchange of diverse ideas among faculty and students. The Endeavour Legacy Foundation recently awarded the institute a $500,000 grant to amplify its existing programs that include guest speakers, seminars, and conferences.

“We are currently developing plans for two new initiatives — a visiting scholar program and a conference on viewpoint diversity,” Price said.

Meanwhile, student fellows have enthusiastically embraced the cocurricular opportunity to explore, outside a traditional classroom setting, some of life’s most profound questions.

“It’s important to set aside the time to be an intellectual,” said sophomore Kate Chasin. “In theory, if people really learned for the sake of learning, everyone would be a McDowell Fellow. This program is about why we are in college in the first place — it’s a reminder that we do this because we want to learn.”