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Michael James O’Neill

Old Fart

Portrait of a Man with a Monocle by Lajos Gulácsy

Philosophy 101. The final class. At long last. This course has been a grind for me and my classmates. Here comes Hannigan in his regular outfit – a rumpled tweed jacket, a faded blue button-down shirt, and a plaid tie, sometimes with a mustard stain. Martin Hannigan was once a renowned epistemologist. I had seen two Socrates Guild awards in his office. He now taught this basic course to obligated students. Had Hannigan also been forced to give this course? There was a nagging rumor that Hannigan had been in line to be head of the philosophy department, but his colleagues had gone against him because of his outspokenness and belligerence. So, he ended up teaching Philosophy 101.

Most of his students considered him an old fart with outdated ideas. Only a dozen students attended out of routine and perhaps out of a bit of respect. I was always present and punctual. This was my duty, for my parents had re-financed the mortgage on their modest house to pay for my studies.

Hannigan started,

“Thank you for your presence today as this last class is not compulsory. Your mark will be available tomorrow. Do not complain or protest about your grade. Nothing will change. I will be long gone by tomorrow. I retire immediately after this class and head to a wonderful place far away. To end this course as well as this career, I wish to share some thoughts I have gathered during forty years of teaching and over a lifetime of learning. I will talk about knowledge, the sum of what I know and of what I think you need to know, all of which I have acquired through happy and bitter experiences.”

Hannigan sounded relaxed. His discourse was steady and his tone almost conversational. This was new for Hannigan since he had earned a reputation for being formal and cantankerous. During a class months ago, a pretty coed stood up to display her symmetry and to ask a dumb question: “Sir, could you please explain what a syllogism is?” Hannigan’s response was brutal. “Miss, if you have to ask that, you don’t belong here.” The poor girl’s proportions collapsed as she plopped back into her seat.

Hannigan asked us to move closer. He sat at his desk, loosened his tie, and stayed away from the lectern, his usual remote stance. I took notes, my remedy for distraction. I expected to be bored but his ideas were significant. Here are the highlights and my comments.

    • We all want to know, to know as much as possible. Knowledge is the key to success in your life and in your career. Knowledge is not static; it evolves.
      Right, but get on with it.
    • The right knowledge at the right time is power. That is why dictators and demagogues seek to control access to knowledge.
      That summarizes fascism, communism, and authoritarianism.
    • You must keep up with the changes in your profession or field of expertise. That goes for your personal life as well. You must adapt and adjust to new realities and calamities.
      My mother always said you should go see a doctor who keeps up with new practices.
    • Beware of erroneous knowledge. Uncertainties can become half-truths. Flawed knowledge has deceptive labels like common sense and everybody-knows-that. Error and untruth creep in. Some people never question the errors; they accept them as truth. They are content and cocksure in their ignorance. Urban myths are created.
      And with social networks, the falsities are circulated repeatedly rendering them valid for many people. Someone behind me said, “Enough of this geezer,” and slipped out,
    • Be a skeptic. Be curious. Question. Keep on learning. I have questioned my so-called learned colleagues (not the brightest career move, I may add) who have become comfortable with their outdated knowledge which they advance in sophisticated bromides and platitudes. Their witty speech belies their dull minds. These tenured types are quite a menagerie of pretentious poseurs. They can sabotage innovations that threaten their limited thinking.
      So even academics love the coziness of obsolete ideas. Eight students had now left.
    • Back to you, dear students. When you figure that you have learned a lot or enough, you might say to yourself, ‘I am an expert in my field. I know it all.’ Stop, you are in big trouble. You have stopped learning and have become complacent. Alexander Pope advised that you must drink deep of the fount of knowledge for a little learning is a dangerous thing.
      I will drink deep.


At the end of the class, we were down to four students. Hannigan opened his old leather bag and took out a single malt whisky and filled small glasses for the four hangers-on and himself.

I’d like to share a dram of whiskey with you brave souls who have made it to the very end. Don’t tell anyone because it’s illegal. But what the hell, I’m out of here after this drink.”

We gathered around his desk.

“You have been patient. I know that listening to an old guy like me can be trying, even if he is knowledgeable. We have endured each other during this course. And now a toast to knowledge.

We sipped the smooth whisky.

“And another to the old lion, once golden, now grey, who is about to move on. I wish you the best since most people you’ll meet will wish you the opposite.”

Hannigan’s last class was a treasure. For the first time in my two college years, I had connected to a subject. Sure, I could get B’s and A’s handily. I just did the assignments and regurgitated what the profs wanted. I passed everything but I was just passing through. Hannigan made me stop and think. He was relevant. What Hannigan delivered would serve me well during my future career as an educator.

Martin Hannigan knew.

About the writer:
Michael James O’Neill is from a francophone town in Québec, Canada. He has a B.Ed. and a B.A. from Université de Montréal. He is a career educator with postgrad studies at McGill University (Master of Education). He is the author of several textbooks and activity books for the teaching of English. He has published a few flash fictions most recently in Lothlorien Poetry Journal Vol. 16. He now lives in sunny Bolivia with his wife, Ana Guardia.

Image: Portrait of a Man with a Monocle by Lajos Gulácsy (1882-1932). Oil on canvas. No size specified. By 1932. Public domain.

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