Column

All About Alumni: Dr. Christopher Gilbert

by Arhana Aatresh (’23), Louis Chavey (’22), and Will Li (’23)

Photo provided by Dr. Gilbert (’87)

A number of Saint Francis alumni have taken the leap from student to teacher. One of them is Dr. Christopher Gilbert (’87), who participated in everything from tennis to theater to community service during his time as a Lancer. Inspired by his own teachers, he would eventually transform his passion for acting into a rewarding 22-year-long career as a philosophy professor at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. This interview has been edited for length. 

TL: How did Saint Francis prepare you for your career as a philosophy professor, and life in general?

CG: I came out of Saint Francis well prepared to succeed in college. The academic rigor at Saint Francis — particularly, the emphasis on careful research and writing — prepared me for my classes in college.

I was also generally more prepared philosophically. There’s a line in Plato’s Republic, where he says that most people think of education the wrong way. They think of education as filling up a soul with knowledge, as if you could unscrew the top of somebody’s head and impart a bunch of stuff, give his head a little shake, and say, “Now, this is a wise, knowledgeable person.” Plato says that’s not the point of education. The point is, you got to turn their soul away from darkness and toward the light. Saint Francis takes that kind of thing seriously; they very much have that idea that education is helping [students] develop in all the aspects that they have as people. Their intellect is one, but their emotional maturity is another. A good education helps a person develop emotional maturity; they understand how to feel about things, and why they feel the way they do, through an emphasis on service and the idea that none of us are alone in this world. Becoming educated means understanding your place in a much broader world and understanding that you probably owe something back to it, both of which are really important in any level of education. I benefited from the fact that Saint Francis took those things very seriously.

TL: In one word, what was Saint Francis like in the ’80s? 

CG: Awesome, because that was the word we used in the age: we used awesome for everything. I always felt that the teachers really cared about us. I also formed a very strong bond with a few people. Those three guys that I became close to in high school are still my best friends to this day; we still are closer to each other than we are to any of our other friends. Our friendship was forged in the fires of Saint Francis, if you will. 

We also had a “preppy period.” Everyone had this preppy look, which buttoned-down collared shirts and argyle sweaters were a big part of. I still wear argyle socks and cuffed pants with pleats; I think they’re still cool now. 

TL: What did your academic journey after high school look like?

CG: I was in school for a very long time. I went straight from Saint Francis to Loyola Marymount University, where I earned a BA in philosophy. I went from there to Boston College for two years because I was in what’s called a Terminal Master’s Degree program — Master’s only and then out. Then, I came back to California and attended UC Riverside where I earned my PhD in philosophy. Once I had finished the degree, I was on the job market, working several different part-time jobs while looking for a full-time job. That took a couple years before I landed the position here at Cuesta [College]. I’ve been here ever since I started during the fall of 2000, so I’m in my 22nd year here now.

TL: What inspired you to pursue your current career?

CG: I entered LMU as a Theater major. I acted in high school, and I really enjoyed it, so I thought I would major in Theater. I really enjoyed working on those plays with Laura Rose. We did Blithe Spirit, a Noël Coward play, in my junior year, and Flowers for Algernon my senior year. Anyway, once I got to LMU, I started to have second thoughts (not to denigrate the LMU Theatre Department), especially because I was unsure if I was good enough to compete with all the other people who wanted to make it. 

I had also started taking philosophy classes just for fun. I had the very good fortune of having really outstanding philosophy instructors at LMU. They helped me understand philosophy, which I could not have done without their help, because it’s a very difficult subject. For anyone coming into it for the first time, it’s almost like a foreign language, it’s so strange. They knew that, and they made it accessible to students like me, and helped me cultivate an interest in the subject matter by enabling me to understand it in a way I couldn’t have done on my own. Then they also inspired me. I realized these people love what they do. These instructors love coming in here and talking with students about philosophy every day. I wanted to enjoy [my work] as much as they enjoyed their work. After about a year of that, I decided to pursue a major in Philosophy. I set my goal on graduate school so that I could ultimately pursue an academic career. 

TL: How did your interest in theater influence your teaching career?

CG: Teaching is like performing in front of an audience. There’s a theatrical aspect to teaching; an actor on stage tries to stay in character, react like that character would, and so forth. But there’s still got to be part of you, the actor who’s conscious and thinking about what’s going on, so that you can monitor the play.

While I’m talking about philosophy and logic, I’ve also got to be reading the room and say, “How are they taking this? How are they reacting? Are they getting it? Are they paying attention? Is someone distracting someone else?” Similarly, there is that element of having to do two things at the same time in front of this group of people: presenting a whole bunch of stuff to you, and also monitoring the situation. In ways I couldn’t have possibly anticipated, that acting experience ended up helping in the career I eventually chose.

TL: Do you have a favorite philosopher? 

CG: My favorite philosopher is René Descartes, whom I did a large part of my dissertation on. Descartes is famous for the line, “I think, therefore I am.” What he means is that one can’t hope to control most of whatever else may be going on outside of them. And if one tries to control it, they will probably go crazy. Instead, I need to remind myself that there’s a much more secure internal world that is truly mine: it is my mind and self-consciousness. To all appearances, I am completely in control of what goes on inside my mind. I can think about what I choose to think about, I can choose how I’m going to speak, how I’m going to act. I think that’s something that’s important for everyone to remind themselves of, from time to time.

TL: Do you have any advice for current students?

CG: When you’re in high school or college, you’re about to finish one thing and start something else. For everybody, that “something else” is different. The trap that I see some students falling into is thinking, “I’ve got to make the right decision right now because if I don’t, the rest of my life is doomed.” I try to dispel this thinking. There are lots of choices you could make, and one of them could be a good choice; you will never know until you pick one. If it ends up not being the right thing, it happens; you’re not stuck with that. You can always try something else. I think it’s helpful for people to remember that, because it lifts some of the pressure they may be feeling right now about college.

And if you yourself end up thinking “Maybe, this was not the right move for me. Maybe I came to the wrong school. Maybe I picked the wrong major or wrong career.” That’s okay. You can get a do-over. We have affordable community colleges, where people come to restart their education or train for a new career, and they’re ecstatic. I think it’s always helpful just to remember that when you make choices, you have not cut off access to anything else. There are always going to be other choices available to you at various points.

Categories: Column, Features

2 replies »

  1. He is definitely proud to be a St. Francis graduate. I am impressed with his achievements, and his positive attitude for his students. Having a professor who encourages, is significant. The student reporters did an excellent job of revealing Chris Gilbert’s strengths.

    Like

  2. Dr. Gilbert is the most AWESOME professor I have ever had to this day. I still think about his lectures and the way he is able to describe very difficult concepts. What a great guy.

    Like

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