Philosophy student awarded Dean’s Medal after 20-year break from studies
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates.
What do you do when school doesn’t work out for you? In the case of Jonathan Liechty, he gave it another try. He attempted to get his degree right out of high school, but he struggled to keep his grades up.
“The level of discipline, planning and commitment required were things I personally needed to mature into,” said Liechty.
He decided to come back to school after taking 20 years off. He returned through the Starbucks College Achievement Program and will be graduating as the Dean’s Medalist from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. His professors say he displays the intellectual virtues cultivated by the study of philosophy in his writing and his interactions with other students. He cares for rigorous and precise definitions, patient and methodical reasoning, clarity in argumentation and both civility and interpretive charity toward others who disagree.
“Jon shows an interest in applying philosophy to practical issues facing our world, such as questions about global population, or the ethics of farming animals,” said Jeffrey Watson, a philosophy lecturer. “In particular, one of his projects was a study in epistemology of the concept of ‘fake news’ and the origins of polarization in public discourse, and what might be done about them. Overall, Jon displays a commitment to clear thinking, good scholarship and hard work.”
Liechty will be graduating with his bachelor’s degree in philosophy this semester. He was humbled and shocked when he found out he would be the Dean’s Medalist. It was hard for him to believe he had developed so much in his time away from school.
“Having this opportunity to return to school and complete my studies only reinforced growth for me,” said Liechty. “If anything, I now know for sure that our lives at a young age are far from determined. There’s no way that someone could look at my GPA at 19 years old and predict a Dean’s Medal 20 years later.”
Below, Liechty answered a few questions about his experience at ASU.
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
Answer: I’ve been reading philosophy for as long as I can remember so it’s tough to pinpoint an “aha” moment that inspired my formal studies. There are certainly a couple moments that stand out to me as emboldening the venture, however. The first was reading Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” in my younger years. Nothing I had read up to that point truly framed the ethical consequences of our otherwise unconscious daily decisions in such a powerful way. Rather than just an esoteric study, the questions we grapple with are quite practical. Examining our choices, as Socrates points out, is truly what makes life worth living. The second was encountering Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism.” The thrown gauntlet of personal responsibility for our place in the world and the choices we make on behalf of all humanity is something you either pick up and use to create meaning in your life or flee from in terror. I’ve been doing my best at the former ever since first reading it. The opportunity to engage it in further detail last spring term was a highlight of my studies.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: My biggest takeaway at ASU was the power of shared learning experiences. What surprised me most was how effective the online platform could be in creating them. As a lifelong learner but lapsed student, I’m not sure I truly appreciated just how important discussion, debate and critique could be in cementing my learning. It’s never been lost on me that having your ideas challenged is beneficial in either strengthening them or abandoning them altogether. Contributing to a larger discussion, though, and seeing our ideas shape and be shaped by a diverse community of fellow students was something else. This is definitely something that I will keep in mind and seek out more proactively in my future studies.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: As a leader at Starbucks, our partnership with ASU is something that I am incredibly proud of. The opportunity to complete my education after a 20-year gap has given me enormous insight into the power of this program and the impact it can have on so many of my fellow partners. The flexibility offered through the online offering was also attractive given my work travel schedule. The number of papers I have written and exams I’ve taken on a plane somewhere over the Pacific are cornerstones of a very special educational experience!
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: I was fortunate enough to take Dr. Botham’s “Philosophical Argumentation & Exposition” class right off the bat once completing my prerequisites. I won’t pick the obvious skill of formal argument extraction and presentation as the important lesson though. Rather, my takeaway was the confidence necessary to critically engage the source material directly. The canon of dead philosophers was not meant for us to merely read, recite and maybe interpret if we felt like engaging our hubris. There are actually glaring holes in many of their arguments once you consider them formally. That we were not just capable of critiquing their arguments but expected to do so for a passing grade was an important lesson. One that was continually reinforced by every subsequent instructor I had the chance to learn from at ASU.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: In the case of my fellow liberal arts students, I’d reinforce the idea that while the learning experience is a significant investment in your future career, the specifics of course selection are best considered as an investment in yourself. When I think about the application of my studies to my professional life, it’s the curiosity, critical thinking and clarity of exposition which serve me well. Skills that can be encouraged in just about any class as long as the subject matter is engaging to you as a student. At its best, the liberal arts education experience is training for life, not for a job.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: I don’t do well with idle time, so I’m currently shopping endeavors to fill that void. Getting my pilot’s license is high on the list, as is taking advantage of my recently sharpened study skills and locking in some GRE/GMAT scores just in case. I never really considered graduate school, but I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed the experience at ASU that I want to leave the door open there. Luckily, I’m not short of work to keep me busy. I’m approaching 20 years with a company I wake up proud to work for every day. So, in the absence of a new hobby to fill the spare time, I have a very fulfilling career to continue learning from as well.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: Without question, I would be contributing that money toward the research around lab-grown meat. There is no doubt in my mind that future generations will look back on the current treatment of factory-farmed animals with a well-warranted degree of horror and shame. That we choose to inflict unnecessary suffering on billions of sentient beings is, to me, the greatest moral crisis of our time. The challenge is getting people to apply moral beliefs which they already hold for the most part to their dietary and lifestyle choices. A challenge that can be wholly sidestepped by removing the worst outcomes of those choices. Everything we can do to accelerate the clean meat revolution will not just eliminate this needless suffering, it will also advance global health outcomes and have a meaningful impact on our environment.