Professor Profile: Chris Surprenant at the University of New Orleans

Chris Surprenant understands the importance of college classes in exposing students to different opportunities. His own career was launched because of a freshman-level course. Faced with a semester filled with chemistry and physics, Surprenant signed up for a “light” liberal arts class as a means of self-preservation.

“I took an environmental ethics class my first semester of college,” Surprenant comments. “It raised a number of questions about what it means to live well, what we should value, and why.”

Now associate professor of philosophy at the University of New Orleans, Surprenant engages students with questions similar to those that set his own mind afire.

Surprenant has received support from the Charles Koch Foundation for several years, first while at Tulane University and currently at the University of New Orleans. He organizes public lectures, academic seminars, conference travel, and student fellowships.

“The goal of all activity is to provide students with the type of opportunities I had, or wish I had, as an undergraduate,” Surprenant says. “Students are at an age where they want to figure out why they are here—in college, studying particular topics—what is the purpose? They have to answer these questions for themselves. Our role is to get them thinking and share how others before them have answered those questions. The driving force is making students better off than when they started, allowing them to become more thoughtful citizens.”

Much of Surprenant’s scholarship focuses on Immanuel Kant. He notes that Kant “has much to say on the role of moral education, virtue, the family, and the community.” In nearly the same breath, Surprenant allows that “after working on a particular area of philosophy for 10 to14 years, I can’t expect students to care about the same things I care about.” Furthermore, “I don’t want them to. My job is to identify what interests students and then connect that to some of these foundational philosophical questions—instead of forcing my own scholarship and work on them.”

Gaetano Venezia, a former student, recalls that he became interested in philosophy because of Surprenant’s approachable teaching method. “I enjoyed the way he taught. It’s a hands-on approach, where Professor Surprenant really wants to hear what students have to say.” Venezia, who is now pursuing a master’s in philosophy at Georgia State University, says, “If I hadn’t taken courses with him, I probably wouldn’t be doing philosophy at this point.”

Surprenant’s impact also echoes in another former student’s experience. Christopher Clark recently finished a master’s degree in economic development at the University of Cambridge in England. “My work with Surprenant did influence my degree in economic development because it gave me a different perspective. Some of the speakers I listened to opened my mind to how economic freedom is not out of line with the work of economic development. The two can inform each other.”

Surprenant notes that a common trait among college students is a desire to “change the world—speak first, think second,” However, “What you notice from their freshman to senior year is—they’re pausing, and thinking. There’s a maturity in how to think about the world. They’re more thoughtful.”

“Everyone has a set of values that is different—a different idea of what it means to live well,” Surprenant acknowledges. “I want to offer educational experiences that give students the resources to explore these things for themselves, and then go about that in practice.”

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