By Matt Krupnick
Contra Costa Times
At 76, not much has slowed for UC Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle.
"I'm in fine shape," he said in a recent phone interview, as he took
a break from skiing at Squaw Valley. "I've lost a couple of seconds
on my giant slalom, I'll admit."
Searle, a key figure in the Free Speech Movement, has zipped around
his share of obstacles in 50 years on the UC Berkeley faculty. On
Monday, the philosophy department will honor his half-century with a
reception featuring stories about his career.
Although professors are often feted on college campuses, rarely does
it happen for a septuagenarian who continues to teach courses and
write books and who is not ready to retire. Last semester, Searle
taught two undergraduate classes with a total of 250 students, and he
plans to finish three books this year.
Searle's enthusiasm for working with undergraduate students is rare
at large research universities such as UC Berkeley.
"There's a certain vitality to the campus, and particularly to the
undergraduates," he said. "You can get good graduate students
anywhere. But there's a sense that you make a greater difference at
the undergraduate level."
His courses have essentially become a rite of passage, said Jay
Wallace, the philosophy department chairman.
"His classes are always oversubscribed," Wallace said. "He's probably
the most famous philosopher in the world. Many students feel that
it's something you have to do before you leave Berkeley: take a class
from John Searle."
Searle's work, including 14 major books, covers a wide variety of
subjects including the philosophy of speech, artificial intelligence,
rationality and social reality.
One reason Searle is such a draw could be his role in the Free Speech
Movement of the 1960s. He was the first tenured professor to join the
movement, and he became a driving force alongside Mario Savio, who
was one of his students.
Aside from a brief period of satisfaction brought on by the movement,
Searle does not have fond memories of the 1960s and 1970s. Even the
Free Speech Movement changed for the worse and became violent, he said.
"People like to sentimentalize that period, but it was just awful," he said.
He eventually worked against the movement once it became clear it was
trying to politicize the university, he said. The change of heart
didn't win him friends among former supporters, but he has no regrets.
"It was much easier to run the revolution than it was to run the
counterrevolution," Searle said. "A lot of people hated me. But if
you're not willing to do things people are violently opposed to,
you're a coward.
"I'm always amazed at how conformist professors are."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or
Honoring educator What: Reception honoring John Searle's 50 years at
UC Berkeley Where: Maude Fife Room, Wheeler Hall, UC Berkeley campus
When: 2 to 4 p.m. Monday