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Celebrating the lives of two great philosophy teachers

By Paul Menzel

George E. Arbaugh and Curtis E. Huber were great philosophy faculty, accomplished academics and gifted teachers. The university lost both professors, who taught at PLU for nearly half a century, this past academic year.

Curt came to PLU in 1964 and retired in 1991. He died Jan. 19, just short of his 75th birthday. George came to the university in 1959 and taught until his death Oct. 6, 2001, just short of his 69th birthday. His 44-year tenure is the longest term of faculty service in the history of PLU.

Together, Curt and George largely defined the PLU philosophy department for the latter half of the 20th century, and in significant part they shaped what a PLU education is. Their passion and first love was teaching. To satisfy the graduation requirement in philosophy, a great many PLU graduates took a course from one of them.

George started at PLU at the young age of 25 with a new Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, where he studied under some of the best philosophers in the country. Having received his own undergraduate education at Augustana College, Rock Island, he quickly committed himself to teaching undergraduates at his new institutional home. His teaching talents were soon recognized; he won several awards for teaching in the 1960s and was quickly promoted to professor. His courses on Kierkegaard & Existentialism and on Philosophy of Science were particularly noteworthy, though he taught virtually every philosophy course offered. In addition, he contributed regularly to the International Core and the Honors program, illustrating his commitment to interdisciplinary education.

George’s passion for philosophy was significant, not only in his own classes but in the larger university context. He strongly believed that all students must think carefully and critically about things they often take for granted, and this was one of the reasons for his influential support for the general university requirement in philosophy.

Philosophy was for everyone, he was convinced, but not in any watered down or easy-to-swallow form; the questions were too important for that. He passionately believed that everyone needs to probe larger questions about their human place in the universe and the standards for how they live their lives.

While he was trained at one of the most rigorous and "analytic" graduate departments in the country, he demanded that philosophy address important personal values and real life choices; it was no merely "academic" enterprise. Working in part out of the existentialist philosophical tradition, he thought it was crucial that people live their beliefs. Then he became his own paradigm example of that; in his struggle with longstanding health problems during his later decades, he admirably lived out his own Stoic philosophy of accepting those things that one cannot control while rationally controlling one’s reactions to the inevitable part of one’s circumstance.

George was as equally dedicated a scholar as he was a teacher. His contributions to the international Kierkegaard scholarship are still viewed as essential reading, especially the groundbreaking book he co-authored with his father, George B. Arbaugh, entitled "Kierkegaard’s Authorship." He also served on virtually every major PLU committee, most more than once. He proved that good teaching, scholarship, and university service could exist together.

Curt Huber began his professional life as pastor in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. While maintaining great admiration for parish pastors and the enormous challenge of their roles, he, like George, went on to one of the top graduate programs in philosophy, the University of Wisconsin. He obtained his Ph.D., taught for three years at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and then came to PLU.

Here Curt was an incredibly articulate and humorous, even daring instructor. He, like George, taught virtually every course in the philosophy department over the decades. His first loves were probably philosophy of religion and medieval philosophy. He brought to class deep convictions about the need to test what we believe with what we might know, and never let belief off easy.

In a departing talk at the time of his retirement he noted that he had come to believe that "what we believe, far more than what we know, shapes the course of our lives." Teaching, moreover, was to him an intensely personal affair.

Especially with the continuing growth of the sciences, he said in that same talk, "We have all been tempted to treat persons [including students] in the aggregate, as classes or groups rather than as individuals, and to think that the truth about these abstract classes is truth about their members….The psychological appeal of doing so is almost irresistible. It is easier for the mind to think of…philosophy class at 8 a.m. than of the Toms, Dicks, and Harriets in them, their needs, their problems, and their development….But it is a grievous mistake….

"There is no such thing [for example] as Good Teaching, as if that were the name for a single alchemy,…the secrets of which are embedded in some universal formula. We are—all of us—radically different persons, students and teachers alike….To be a good teacher is therefore an art, not a science, and an art of the most existential and idiosyncratic kind imaginable."

Curt Huber certainly lived that observation. On more than one occasion he was known to play preludes to his classes in Administration 101 on the piano in that room (he was an accomplished recreational pianist).

Perhaps Curt’s lasting curricular legacy at PLU is his leading work in forming an interdisciplinary option within the core curriculum in the mid-1970s. Known then as the Integrated Studies Program, it continues today as the International Core. Numerous faculty worked together to educate themselves in different disciplines that related to their teaching, and to teach courses across department lines that address enduring themes and contemporary world problems.

Curt, like George, was enormously active and influential on the campus. He even served one year as director of academic computing, as well as several years as dean of humanities. He was revered for his ability to speak courageously to the most important issues at stake for the university, and to work behind the scenes to achieve real progress on them.

The PLU community is tremendously grateful to Professors Arbaugh and Huber for their dedication to their students and the university. They were truly two giants of their time. Their families feel the loss even more deeply. George is survived by Donna, his wife of 47 years; three sons, John (Gayle), Karl (Julia) and William (Stephanie), and eight grandchildren. Curt is survived by his wife, Norma; his four children, Wanda, Steve, Brenda (Garo) and Sheila (Alan); four grandchildren; and one great grandchild.

Paul Menzel is a philosophy professor who until last year served as provost.


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