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Dr. Les Wolf
by Rebecca Flores
“When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”
(Luke 14:12b-14b, ESV)
His hero is Toby Ziegler from The West Wing. He’s a big fan of Bill Cosby. His passion is social justice. He describes his mentor and dissertation advisor, Michael Della Rocca, as a true philosopher: a man of “great intellectual and moral integrity.”
And, though he describes himself as a “spectacular failure at both,” he sees his two main purposes in life as loving God and his neighbor.
He is Dr. Les Wolf, and faith is integral to the things he cares about. His vegetarianism, feminism, LGBT activism and environmentalism are all rooted in his deep Christian belief.
At heart, he is a philosopher: deeply reflective, yet with the humility of introspection and love for people and learning.
With M.A. and Ph.D degrees in Philosophy from Yale, Les’s specialties are metaphysics, philosophy of language, and ancient philosophy. His teaching and research encompass broad philosophical and religious beliefs, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and the dialogues of Plato — a philosopher Les describes as giving him “the chills.”
“I adore Plato,” Les said. “No thinker or artist in history has influenced my life as much.”
The influences that guide Les are drawn, naturally enough, from his study of religious and philosophical ethics and morality. One of the hardest things he has ever done involved putting that theory into practice.
It was May, 2012. North Carolina. Amendment One, a state ballot initiative outlawing same-sex marriage and civil unions, had just passed.
Les’s role was to serve on the North Carolina Steering Committee for the national Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) advocacy and lobbying group in the U.S. Given the polemics of the same-sex marriage debate, particularly in the South, his work with the HRC was “incredibly difficult.” Yet, as he conceded, “social progress is often slow and painful.”
Still, it reinforced for Les the belief that individuals really can — and do — make a difference.
One of his favorite places in the world is the Bay Area of California, and San Francisco in particular. Northern California also holds a certain culinary appeal, with Les confessing that, if he could, he’d drive all the way to Berkeley once a week “for a falafel sandwich at the Oasis Grill.”
Les’s musical tastes are eclectic, but classical composers are among his favorites, including Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Handel, Haydn and Brahms. Beethoven, however, “towers above them all,” due to the sheer range of compositions. His music, Les said, “displays a rare beauty: a combination of fierce passion and intelligence that I find utterly compelling.”
Les is also a fan of Lyle Lovett, Wilco, Naked Raygun, and Poi Dog Pondering — the latter a Chicago-based group whose “Searching for the Fertile Fields” is currently the most-played song on his iPod.
Music is one thing, revealing quite a bit about a person, but what more could I discover about this enigmatic and engaged educator? I asked Les what I would know about him in a year. He smiled. “I have a wonderful wife named Jill, and we have a Chihuahua/rat terrier mix named Augustine that we both adore.”
Augustine? I had to think back to my own days of undergrad philosophy, remembering that Augustine was the lofty philosopher whose writings were highly influential in the development of Western philosophy and religion. The perfect name for a Chihuahua/rat terrier mix!
And the obligatory car question? A light blue 2002 Toyota Echo with a moon roof. Nice. Practicality, reliability, and a dash of derring-do.
Describing himself as friendly, caring, and reserved, these personal qualities are evident in Les’s enthusiasm and passion for his teaching, his students, and for COD: “I wanted to teach at College of DuPage for many years,” he said. “I really enjoy the students and feel very fortunate to be here.”
A former COD student himself, Les talked at length about why the College is such a great fit. “First, I’m able to teach classes in both philosophy and religion, including introductory classes, which are my favorite. Second, I’m able to design and teach new classes on subjects like Islam and women in religion — subjects that I find deeply engaging. Third, my colleagues are terrific!”
Les spends a lot of time thinking and reading about student motivation. One of his most successful teaching strategies involves encouraging students to state at the start of semester why they think the class will benefit them, even if they’re not going on to study religion and philosophy. Instead of telling students why they should be motivated to work hard in his class, Les’s students instead make an individual case for their own motivation.
“Moreover,” Les adds, “I encourage them to be honest and not offer canned answers. I even tell them they can argue that the class is not beneficial, except to majors, if they like!” After students have made their cases, Les engages their arguments and presents his own case.
Socrates, undoubtedly, would approve.
Finally, I asked Les what was the most rewarding thing about teaching at COD, and his response again underscored a theme of our interview — and also COD itself: belief in the transformative power and possibilities of the individual. “Seeing students discover their hidden academic potential and succeeding in their studies” is a powerful motivation, he said. “Even if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d still come to work to witness that. There’s nothing like it.”
Dr. Les Wolf is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy/Religious Studies in the Liberal Arts Department and has taught at COD since 2013. He holds Ph.D and M.A. degrees in Philosophy from Yale University and teaches Introduction to Religion, Introduction to the Bible: Old Testament, and World Religions.