Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Reflection Friday with Professor Murray Dry

by Grant Olcott ’19, Social Entrepreneurship Intern

There are several different ideas of what it means to be smart. Through his experiences, Professor Murray Dry gave a new, inspirational definition: a smart person loves to learn. Smart means celebrating and respecting the role education plays in a successful and satisfying life. By this metric, Professor Dry is brilliant. He takes great pleasure in reading good books and engaging in discussion on their inquiry. Even during this talk, he could never wander into stories from his personal life without finding his way back to the classroom. To him, learning is the best pursuit. It means reading and, ultimately, the good life. A smart social entrepreneur, therefore, ought to focus on learning broadly rather than working on one particular cause.

Smart people read because they love to learn. Just as a sword needs whetstone to sharpen, the mind keeps its edge when pressed upon a book. Given the choice between rhetoric and writing as the one medium of knowledge in the world, Professor Dry picks the latter. True, speeches allow the listener to respond and ask questions. However, words vanish quickly without the chance to settle. Reading a book allows words to repeat the same message again and again. While the stubborn words don’t change, their meaning does. With patience, one can read and reread Plato and Aristotle — as Professor Dry does — to gain something different each time. It sounds monotonous and frustrating. That’s why being smart requires humility. Such disciplined reading is a challenge. One cannot presume to absorb all the ideas in the Bible on one take. By reading, smart people seek out the perspective of others so they can access the brilliance in opposing viewpoints. Smart students take classes with professor Dry.

Professor Dry’s story shows how being smart is a lifelong commitment to learning. Even on sabbatical, he runs an alumni book group out of his New York apartment where he recently read and discussed the differences between town and country in Jane Austen. Being smart means being intellectually curious, something that cannot fade, but only grows. Once the mind has been sharpened, its owner must commit to its upkeep. Professor Dry embarked on the lifelong journey of learning after studying with Joseph Cropsey and Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. Later, when a professor showed him the faculty library at Harvard Law School, he was determined to teach. He never asks what if. He simply finds it funny that he worked in Washington alongside Antonin Scalia before; did something go wrong? No. Looking back, he’s lucky. Not everyone can do what they love and afford Middlebury’s tuition. Perhaps as a professor, he hopes to serve his students as Cropsey did. His most memorable classroom experience was a display of gratitude. His students prepared their reading extra hard, knowing that the class would be under review that day. Being smart also means being generous and wishing well for others.

So what can the social entrepreneur learn from the political philosopher? Be smart. Recognize the limitations of imposing certain views on others with the hopes of effecting social change. In the Platonic Dialogues, characters grew offended when others challenged their viewpoints. Appreciate the power of restraint and self-reflection. If one has intense passion for a cause, one must support it without any expectation that others will change. This unconditional drive will encourage learning and a commitment to reading, just as Professor Cropsey inspired Professor Dry to change the world from academia. In short, Professor Dry’s words of wisdom are: look around the world for a classroom and then become the professor.

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