Great Professor

UCSB Courtyard

UCSB Courtyard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


A few words about my UCSB mentor/professor/friend:

Dr. Douwe Stuurman


Some time ago I received an interesting request to say a few words about Douwe Stuurman, who was my supervisor at UCSB. Here is the exchange.

Dear Bob,

Many of the Plato Club students went on to become academics. I suppose most of these self-identified as Christian scholars, but not all—a significant minority put lesser or greater distance between themselves and Christianity.

I’m planning to do capsule biographies of some of Jellema’s more talented students in the 1930s and the 1950s. (Stuurman was class of ’31.) I want these to show the variety of directions (intellectually, philosophically, and religiously) that Jellema’s students ended up taking. My goal is to draw lines of continuity and discontinuity between Jellema and his academic “progeny” to see what can be learned from that.

By the way, the reason I’m not doing students from the 1940s is because Calvin’s leadership all but forced Jellema to leave. For 11 years he chaired the Philosophy Dept at Indiana University before returning to Calvin. Part of the reason he was run off is because he was fond of asking students hard questions (e.g. about the problem of evil) and he willing to leave these questions unanswered, which of course left students to stew over them. The best students loved it; the conservatives who controlled the Christian Reformed Church at the time couldn’t stand it.

Feel free to skip any questions you feel you can’t answer, but for the ones you can, it would be extremely helpful if you could give me a brief illustration.

  1. Did Stuurman have an identifiable philosophic position? By this I mean to you remember him ever talking about idealism or realism or naturalism or any other classic philosophical question?

Here’s context: Stuurman did his MA thesis on Plotinus; this is no surprise to me because Jellema was a Platonist. The crucial choice here for Jellema was idealism vs naturalism (the term Jellema preferred instead of realism). Jellema wasn’t a Kantian idealist, ie, there is no reality except ideas. Jellema thought matter was objectively real. But the issue for him was the nature of values like the good, the beautiful, the true, which he believed are as real as matter. He thought that if you aren’t an idealist then values can’t be real; they have to be epiphenomenal (ie products of physiological processes) and subjective. But he thought if you believe that the good, the beautiful and the true are objectively real (and for him, universal and eternal), then you have to be an idealist.

  1. Did Stuurman have an identifiable or distinctive approach to history?

Context: Jellema’s way of doing philosophy was actually very historical, and it had two signal characteristics. 1) His lectures are sometimes described as “the drama of the panoramic sweep of ideas,” for he specialized in painting the big picture, making connections, and carrying a few key themes throughout the different philosophic periods. (He usually lectured without notes, and students were spellbound.) 2) He was also fond of talking of “the mind of an age,” epitomized in a given text or set of texts. He divided Western intellectual history into four minds: The Ancient Mind (Plato’s idea that humans are rational beings seeking the eternal), the Medieval Mind (the Christian answer to the nature of the eternal that humans seek), the Modern Mind (replacing the Medieval answer with science and naturalism), and the Contemporary Mind (the emergence of relativism as the logical consequence of philosophical naturalism. So I’m wondering here if there were any echoes of these characteristics in Stuurman’s lectures?

  1. Did Stuurman have an identifiable religious position? In other words, do you have any idea if he thought of himself as an atheist, agnostic, pantheist, theist, liberal Christian, or …? Did he have any affiliation, formal or informal, with any religious organizations? Did he retain any religious practices that you know of?
  2. Did you notice any retentions of Calvinism in Stuurman? In one place you wrote that his background was Freudian/Eastern/Calvinist/Proustian, which makes complete sense. But did he retain any noticeable Calvinist ideas, or patterns of thought, or attitudes; or had he sloughed off all of that by the time you knew him?

  3. Did Stuurman teach small seminars using the lecture method, as in a large class, or did he use more discussion?

Context: It’s clear from student reminiscences that Stuurman was a brilliant lecturer, so here I’m wondering about his style in smaller seminars. In smaller classes Jellema loved to teach by the Socratic method: he would pick a student at random, ask what seemed an innocuous enough question, and then keep asking deeper questions that would ferret out overlooked possibilities, unexamined assumptions, and the like. But he was always genial and encouraging about it, so that even when students floundered, or talked themselves into a corner, they never felt bad about it. (However, when his brighter students used this form of questioning on the other professors in order to harass them, look out! It generated a lot of resentment among some of Jellema’s colleagues.) Here again, I’m wondering if there were any echoes in Stuurman of Jellema’s “teaching by asking questions.”

  1. I read in an interview with a former UCSB prof (Gerrett Hardin, a microbiologist) that Stuurman was a strong force for trying to keep UCSB’s undergraduate program focused on traditional liberal arts. Do you think this was true? If so, do you know anything about how Stuurman conceived “the liberal arts” and what was his rationale for their educational importance? In other words, what did Stuurman think the educational value of the liberal arts was, and what would be lost if the school gave its undergraduate program over to pre-professional studies?
  • In an Amazon user review someone wrote that Stuurman used the Bates “Living Literature” edition of the KJV of the Bible in his Bible as Lit course. Do you recall this?

  • Did you ever hear Stuurman reminisce about growing up in the Christian Reformed Church, about his experiences at Calvin College, or about his connections with people in the CRC or at Calvin after he finished college? If so, can you remember any interesting bits? (By the way, you probably know this, but the reason Stuurman knew Peter De Vries is because they graduated together at Calvin, both class of ’31 [which consisted of a total of 49 men and women]. There was another interesting fellow in the class of ’31, also in the Plato Club: Cornelius Plantinga Sr., later to become a Psychology prof at Calvin and father of the famous philosopher Alvin Plantinga–himself a student of Jellema’s in the 1950s.)

  • OK, I’m sure that’s more than enough. Please don’t wear yourself out over this, but any help you could give me in drawing lines of continuity or discontinuity between Stuurman and Jellema would be much appreciated.

    Thanks again, and I hope all is well with you.

    Michael S. Hamilton
    Associate Professor and Chair, Dept. of History
    Seattle Pacific University
    3307 3rd Ave W Ste 210

    1. Let me start by quoting myself: “After a few years in public schools and four years in the United States Marine Corps, I learned about sex and violence in more direct ways, and stopped reading the Bible until I was in university. At the University of California in Santa Barbara I was assigned as a teaching assistant to Professor Douwe Stuurman, who taught a course on the Bible. His classes were always full of interesting people. In the front row were the nuns, who, he said, were there to spy on him. Then came the middle-aged students looking for therapy, the literature and philosophy students, and the atheists who sat in the back. I tried to sit in a different part of the room each time. Stuurman had a Freudian, Eastern, Calvinist, Proustian background and the ability to mesmerize an audience. Above all he opened up the text for me. I read it with fresh eyes. These stories were marvelous works of art! Stuurman’s lectures were inspiring (I used to call them “Stuurman on the mount”) and unlike my Lutheran pastor, he asked questions all the time. When not at the university I spent my time cleaning the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, which meant that I had the  opportunity to talk with Lex Crane, who was ministering there then. His background in literature was extensive and we used to have long talks about “meaning” while I should have been cleaning the toilets. I flirted with the idea of becoming a Unitarian minister, but never got the “call.” Because of this and more, I believe the Bible is worth reading and studying, not as moribund scripture but as living literature.” (from Reading the Bible)

    It was Stuurman’s brilliance as a teacher that launched me on my own career. He became a friend of the family and visited us in Canada after we moved here. He was an existentialist who constantly reminded us to live in the moment to the best of our ability – “life is a scene; not a plot,” he would say. As a graduate student I did a directed studies course with him on Camus. It was excellent: read Camus’s books in English and write a paper on each. It was actually fun to do!

    Stuurman on Platonism: Plato was the worst thing that ever happened to the world of ideas. Plato’s other-worldly make-believe had directed our attention away from the world of reality, the world of the senses, the natural world; and his world of Forms had done terrible damage to the human condition.

    1. on history: the modern age starts with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky. The Christian/neo-Platonic world view was a hangover filled with dreams and hopes but philosophically not valid.
    2. on morality: there are no absolutes. “Weeds are flowers that we do not like.”

    On religion: Atheist. Made fun of organized religion and its practices. Used a rich vocabulary from religion (the elect, redemption, sacrifice, etc) but only to contrast it to an atheistic existentialist attitude. He gave a lecture (at my invitation) at the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara to a rapt audience about the early stories in the Hebrew Bible. He had dismissed Calvinism by the time I studied with him and spoke of it as a silly belief system spawned by an up-tight death fearing leader. Religions were all merely fictional attempts by death fearing individuals to assuage their fears.

    When I was his TA for the two years at UCSB he taught large lectures, and had his TAs hold the seminars. He met with us every week to go over the material to be covered and to discuss ideas about how to teach. I remember a student evaluation of his Continental Lit course. I lectured in it on several occasions and the evaluations indicated that students liked the “team teaching” we provided. S provided the BIG picture and I insisted on close analysis of the text.

    S and I talked a lot about the early days at UCSB after I had come to a new college here in Canada. Yes, in the early days he was trying to keep USBC more like Reed College and less like UCLA. Hardin was a friend and colleague, as was Kelly in math, and an artist and a historian. They used to play golf and hold discussions every fortnight. S believed that art was the highest achievement we humans are capable of and that reading, particularly Proust, was the only salvation available to us. Interestingly though he was also a capable carpenter who, when he visited us once, remodeled (minor but difficult) our living room to open it up to light. He also went for long walks on Gabriola Island and purchased a miter box (still have it) so he could make some picture frames for some of our pieces.

    S talked about escaping from the CRC and from Calvin.

    I have a copy of S’s reminiscences for the student newspaper when he retired from UCSB and there he writes about the importance of teaching and being honest (‘authentic’) in the craft of teaching – reading books and talking about them. He was a great influence on me. I last saw him when the devils of Shy-Drager had attacked his body. He had to be helped to walk.

    I miss him still. We talked on the phone, exchanged a few letters, and to this day I can hear him Stuurmanizing from time to time as I “walk toward my grave”.



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