Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy Louise Kleszyk was born and raised in Minnesota, but her academic career began as far away as Austria, where she taught for two semesters at the University of Salzburg, and southern California where she got her Ph.D.
“This is my first teaching appointment in the Midwest. … There’s a little bit of reverse culture shock, it’s very different from southern California, it’s very different from Irvine,” she said.
Kleszyk described Galesburg and Knox as bringing her back to her roots, having grown up in a similar rural midwestern town. She noted that she attended Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. as a first-generation college student, like many at Knox.
She described her research as focusing on ethics and existentialism, the two philosophies she noted are usually not considered compatible.
“However, ethicists talk about what is a good life, how should I live my life, what makes life worth living. Existentialists are likewise interested in questions about value …” Kleszyk said. “So they’re quite compatible philosophies in my mind.”
Kleszyk began as a student at Hamline intending to be a Legal Studies major, looking to follow the track towards law school. However, after taking an ethics class in her first year, she immediately began taking as many philosophy courses as she could.
“Philosophy really was the first set of classes where I wanted to do the reading,” she said. “I wanted to do the work because I was excited about it … in a certain sense I think I’ve always been interested by ideas and philosophical questions.”
Kleszyk received a PhD from the University of California at Irvine, teaching there as well as at other regional schools like Irvine Valley and Chapman University, spending most of the last ten years in southern California.
Kleszyk suggested the first sign of her future career path in philosophy was through her favorite show growing up, “Star Trek.” Kleszyk, who has a figure of the “Star Trek: Next Generation” character Captain Jean-Luc Picard in her office, described it as unique, from most other media in the 90s in its approach to philosophical concepts.
“I often times ask myself, ‘Was I a Star Trek fan because I was a philosopher, or did I become a philosopher because I was a Star Trek fan?’” Kleszyk said. “I think Star Trek does a good job of using these alien scenarios to illustrate or challenge certain principles.”
Kleszyk gave her job talk on the subject of “White Power, White Guilt, and White Fragility,” concepts she explores utilizing the ideas of famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
“It’s very easy to see that so much of what fuels [white nationalists’] online forums … [is] reactive,” she said. “So things like race war, things like white genocide … it’s a lot of anti-civil rights, anti-black rhetoric. For Nietzsche that’s the sign of a very weak moral psychology. Somebody that has a strong, healthy, robust moral psychology, they don’t need to define themselves in terms of a negative reaction against others.”
Kleszyk believes Nietzschean ideas about moral responsibility can facilitate more productive discussion about race, stating that many white people have an immediate defensive reaction to discussions about racism.
“There is an incalculable debt, that specifically having been the historically advantaged group, that white Americans owe to people of color and I think that’s a really scary thought for a lot of white people,” Kleszyk said.
Kleszyk attempts to frame discussion about historical racism not as discussions of personal responsibility, but as discussions of historical debts and issues of power, believing this combats the response she refers to as white fragility.
“We’re not talking about your moral character, we’re not denouncing moral character, when we’re talking about racism. We’re talking about history, we’re talking about things that exist out in the world that we can measure,” Kleszyk said. “I think de-emphasizing moral responsibility is a very Nietzschean thing to do, and I think it can also help to make a more productive conversation.”
Kleszyk noted her awareness of the discomfort discussions about race can cause in the classroom. While she understands this as a natural response, she attempts to challenge students without attacking them.
“That’s not my role as a professor of ethics. I’m not there to assess anyone else’s morality or to make judgments on their moral character,” she said. I’m here to talk about the arguments of the philosophers that we’re talking about.”
So far, Kleszyk says she has been impressed by Knox students and their engagement with the subjects she brings up, saying that the Knox culture lends itself to approaching difficult subjects like race.
“One thing that makes it easier to talk about race in the classroom is when you have a bunch of different ethnic and racial groups represented,” Kleszyk said. “… When there’s no clear majority in the classroom, I think that makes everybody feel a little more comfortable, and maybe a little less comfortable but in a good way.”
She further compared Knox favorably to other schools, unlike businesses rather than focused on the liberal arts.
“At a time when so many institutions are sort of backing down on things like liberal arts and humanities, Knox is really proud of that identity and that’s really special,” she said.