Laurence Houlgate’s last class after 51 years of teaching ended in applause.
As the students were packing up, one turned around to address the class.
“Before anyone goes, 51 years is a big deal,” the student said. “So, let’s thank him for all his hard work.”
Houlgate smiled broadly, and motioned for them to stop clapping.
“You know, my wife refuses to believe I’m quitting,” Houlgate said. “She said this morning, ‘You’ve said that 10 times already!’”
He hasn’t spent all 51 years here at Cal Poly. He started at Cal State Fullerton in 1964, then moved to UCSB, and then spent some years at George Mason in Virginia.
“We just got homesick, my wife and I,” Houlgate said. “We’re both California natives, you know. So, when I got the job offer (for Cal Poly) in 1979, it took about 20 seconds for me to make up my mind.”
There was no philosophy major when Houlgate began teaching at Cal Poly. He and new university president Warren Baker worked together to establish the discipline.
Baker was trained as an engineer at Notre Dame, but loved taking philosophy classes while in college, according to Houlgate.
“He and I worked together to establish a philosophy major,” Houlgate said. “He was just tremendous — he thought everyone could benefit from a philosophy class, because he thought he gained so much from those classes.”
Houlgate’s role as an instructor became more active in the 1990s, when he petitioned to the Academic Senate to create a philosophy major. When it went through, he became the department chair.
“I had to become a politician to lobby with the Academic Senate in the ‘90s to get the major,” Houlgate said. “There was a lot of pushback from the Senate, but, as a result, we got an outstanding department. The young people just have great credentials.”
Houlgate specializes in the philosophy of family law, which he describes as a rare specialty in the field of philosophy. He has written four books on the subject and is concurrently working on three more.
His most recent project is writing the textbook for future Philosophy of Law classes, the last course he taught at Cal Poly. The textbook hasn’t been published yet, but Houlgate hopes to see it used in classes by 2017.
“I told my (Winter 2016) students I was using them as a human experiment,” Houlgate said. “For extra credit, they’re going to give me critiques on the textbook. I’m going to thank the whole class in the preface of the book once it’s published.”
Philosophy Department Chair Tal Scriven has known Houlgate for 36 years. He said he knows no other professor at Cal Poly who is Houlgate’s equal as a scholar and as a person.
“He is not just a teacher of philosophy; he is, deeply and fully, a philosopher,” Scriven said. “This has shown in everything he has done as a teacher, a scholar, a colleague and as a citizen … “he has left a beautiful stamp on this community, this university, his students and upon me.”
Houlgate plans on getting more heavily involved in U.S. Masters competitive swimming and continuing his hobby of collecting stamps. He also wants to concentrate more on spending time with his wife, to whom he has been married 45 years.
Houlgate considers himself very lucky – he said he’s loved teaching all his life.
“It’s time to hang up the chalk,” Houlgate said.