Professors of Influence: Dr. Stephens

Written by Aaron Andrews

A short, square man strides confidently into a classroom full of chattering freshmen. They don’t notice him. They are too busy arguing about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, attempting to show off all that they learned from the preparatory assignment that Hillsdale prescribes to all incoming freshmen. The short man stops at his desk, looks ‘round the room quizzically, wondering at the air rich with arrogance, and slams his portfolio down hard. The sharp slap of paper on desk mutes the debate, and all students turn their heads to wonder at the man standing before them.

In a voice as delicate as a leafy breeze he mumbles something that the students can’t hear. The man looks down at his chest, crinkles his spectacled brow as if thinking a silent prayer. He nods his snowy head and looks up addressing the class in the same leafy voice: “Welcome, freshmen, to Introduction to Philosophy.” Little do these students know that their academic lives as they know them have just come to an abrupt end. This class will tear each of them down to an admission of ignorance and set them on their feet once more, a little wiser, and a little more humble.

Whatever Dr. Jim Stephens lacks in volume he makes up for in intensity and expressivity. He pounds everything: the desk, his chest, his brow. The freshmen can’t believe that the little man isn’t black and blue all over from his own method of teaching. He looks like the quintessential philosopher with his snow white beard and his naturally pensive expression. All he’s missing is the toga.

Last semester, I was one of those freshmen. I followed Dr. Stephens through the world views of Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, and Lewis. My head spun as I tried to wrap it around the concept of Plato’s teleologically organized cosmos. (What’s the difference between final and formal cause? I still don’t know.) My forehead furrowed in consternation as I contemplated Descartes’ proofs for the existence of God, and I balked at the stark simplicity of Hume’s bombshell: “2+2=4” is an analytic truth which tells nothing about the world but simply defines how we use words. Yeah, chew on that for a second. Every class was a new opportunity for this quiet, short man to blow my mind by quietly presenting me with the ideas of the great thinkers of the West.

I loved every minute of it.  At the end of the class, I thanked Dr. Stephens. I told him that I felt as if he had handed me a bunch of brand-new toys that I would play with for the rest of my life, and I knew that my way of looking at the world would never be the same.


Aaron Andrews is a freshman at Hillsdale College. He grew up homeschooled in rural northeastern Washington, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. He has recently discovered people and the internet and is thriving here at Hillsdale.