From Single Malt to Socrates

by Steve Charles

October 3, 2006

Philosophy Professor Mark Brouwer's calling is conversation, whether he’s talking with students at a party or reception following a guest speaker, sitting at the round table in the Scarlet Inn, or moderating a faculty discussion during his Brownbag lunch sessions for the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts.

"As I begin to understand my role as a man, I see that what I want to do with my life is to help people have conversations and ask themselves important questions," Brouwer says.

And he’s good at it.

In a culture where email, instant messaging, and web-surfing are supplanting face-to-face conversation as the rapid pace of life trumps the time taken for reflection, his is a rare vocation. How he came to that calling is even more surprising.

 

BROUWER GREW UP IN FAIRFIELD, IOWA—a typical Midwestern small college town, if you call a small college owned by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi typical. The town’s Parsons College became Maharishi International University, and a mecca for transcendental meditation, in 1973.

"In Fairfield, we had townies and meditators—we called them gurus," Brouwer recalls. "I considered them the oppressed minority in the town. I felt the Fairfielders didn’t give them a chance."

He’s since reconsidered.

"Now I realize that these people practically colonized this small town with no respect for existing traditions or those who lived there," Brouwer says. "They came in thinking, We’re going to give you all the benefits of California and New York; we’re going to civilize you."

That’s just what Brouwer was looking for.

"I didn’t realize we had a civilization of our own," Brouwer laughs. "I assumed civilization was on the coasts, that we were lost in the hinterlands."

He left those hinterlands for San Francisco after graduating from Grinnell College with a major in philosophy. Classes on wine tasting eventually paid off with a job at the Cannery Wine Cellar on Fisherman’s Wharf, and Brouwer soaked up the wine business like a sponge. The store also had the largest collection of single malt scotch in the United States; the apprentice took that on as his "field of research."

"These were the early days of the single malt explosion," Brouwer says, recalling a 1993 issue of the Wine Spectator in which he was interviewed as an expert. It was a lucrative field, but not his calling.

"I loved learning new things, but it was more of a game for me."

So Brouwer studied poetics and linguistics at the New College of California while continuing to work his wine job. He hadn’t found his vocation at the Wine Cellar, but he found something even more important.

"Ann was a French exchange student working at the Wine Cellar." Brouwer smiles as he remembers meeting he woman he would eventually marry. "We became friends slowly over time, but she had to return to France. Nine months later, I gave a note to a friend who was going to France to visit her."

Thus began a four-month flurry of letters.

"We still have them." Brouwer says. "Through this correspondence, we fell in love."

After Ann joined Brouwer at his brother’s wedding on New Year’s Eve of 1996 and the two spent the following week together, Brouwer was convinced; he packed up his books and music and moved to France. It was a seemingly impulsive decision that had been a long time coming.

Brouwer immersed himself in his new country. Three months after his move, he proposed to Ann, in French. The couple was married in an 11th century chapel in the French countryside, and the groom gave a welcoming speech to the more than 100 guests in his newly acquired language.

The whirlwind of events had clarified his desire to attend graduate school in philosophy, but he now had a family to help provide for. With few other choices, he went to work in an iron foundry.

"I was a barber of iron," Brouwer explains. "My job was to shave off the edges using a grinder."This place was something out of the 19th century—an open-air building where we were freezing. People would take coal from the foundry and light it in barrels for warmth, so there was this billowing black smoke throughout the building. My job was to replace people as they got injured, which was frequently. Two people had died there two years earlier—we had an emergency meeting every week."

The philosopher’s iron barbering career lasted three months. In 1998, the couple moved to Pittsburgh, where Mark had been accepted as a graduate student at Duquesne University. In 2001, he chose ancient philosophy, the realm of Plato and Socrates, as his field of specialization. His son was born the same year.

"That’s when my role as a father and my role as a teacher began to coalesce," Brouwer says. "I began to see the connections between an Ancient Greek worldview and my own life—even my respect for my own father deepened."

Mark and Anne’s daughter was born in 2003, two days before the Brouwers arrived at Wabash.

 

PROFESSOR BROUWER HAS BECOME A FAVORITE with many Wabash students—particularly with those still searching for their own vocation. Brouwer listens carefully. He encourages ("I like that phrase," he’ll say, or "I hadn’t thought of that.") He’s one of those teachers whose manner invites you to think as you converse; you find yourself considering questions you hadn’t thought of, and sounding smarter than you thought you were.

"Education is giving people the tools and the desire to aspire to grow," Brouwer says, recalling conversations his grandmother, who is one of his mentors. " I can see that this is what members of my family have been doing for generations. In some respects, what you happen to teach is almost by the by."

So enamored with Wabash that he turned down a tenure-track position elsewhere for another visiting appointment here, Brouwer’s stay at Wabash may end in two years. But he talks like a man who has come home—as a teacher, and as a Midwesterner who treasures a sense of place, a community, and how one’s career, family, and community can be intertwined.

He believes that the twists and turns of his life have all contributed to his vocation as philosopher and teacher, though he’s not sure how all of them fit.

Those students he speaks with, especially those who find themselves still searching for their vocation on Commencement Day, could probably tell him.

I don’t know what Brouwer says to these guys. Maybe it’s enough that he just listens. And tells them to keep asking questions, taking risks for learning or for love, and looking for truth and embracing it. That yearning for home is part of being a man; that they can find it, and that it’s worth the wait.

Mark Brouwer is living proof of that.

 

Contact Professor Brouwer.

 


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