The mind-blowing education of Alan Fox
Let there be light,” says the philosophy professor, smirking slightly as he flips on the switch of the shadowed classroom. The students shift in their chairs, watching the man in jeans and sneakers, short-sleeved shirt and tie, briefcase in one hand and Styrofoam coffee cup in the other.
It’s the first day of World Religion, PHIL204, and Alan Fox is worried. Not about any one thing in particular, but rather, the intellectual laziness he’s been noticing. The growing inability to follow logical arguments or vet sources of information. The fake news. The online groupthink. (Which is not to say that Fox is anti-Internet. Books he had to literally travel to China to read he can now access on his phone.) “But there’s all kinds of crackpot garbage out there,” he warns the class. “Misinformation intentionally designed to manipulate the masses.”
It’s pretty scary when you stop to think about it.
And therein lies the problem. Because who’s stopping to think? And why would anyone need to? This is 2020, for heaven’s sake, where answers are obvious, opinions are amplified, and information flows like the air. To think, then, is to question, and to question is to challenge the very foundation of our assumptions, our beliefs and, ultimately, ourselves.
Fox quite enjoys using world religion to subvert this point. It is better to have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned, he argues. And so, in the humble confines of the classroom, he wages an earnest crusade against one-mindednesses—not by forcing students to think differently, but by enticing them to see more.
To do so, they look to the philosophies of the past: the Old and New Testament, the Koran, even Native American ruminations on Earth, soul and spirit.
In the Bhagavad Gita, man wrestles with duty, discipline and the immortal soul, while the Daodejing of Laozi, written during the turbulent political times of 200 BC, offers spiritual guidance while denouncing unbounded greed.
“These are books people have been arguing about for 5,000, 6,000 years,” he tells the students. “Understanding is not our goal. I’m asking what you think. That takes courage on your part.”
"These are not simple questions"
A professor of Asian and comparative philosophy and religion, Fox makes a conscious effort in every class to “blow minds.”
In one of his favorite course evaluations, a student said she could feel the neurons forming in her brain. Fox thinks of it as “meta-learning,” the process of showing young adults, “Yes, you’re right. But there are all these other ways of looking at things, too. Whatever you see, try and see something more.”
Take, for instance, the New Testament tale of Barabbas, who was freed from jail as another prisoner was nailed to the cross. “Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas or Jesus which is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:17).
As Fox explains to his students, Barabbas’ first name was also Jesus, and his surname translates to “Son of the Father.”
“So how do we know they got the right guy?” he asks. “Christianity says they did, while Islam insists Jesus did not die on the cross.” [“That they said (in boast), ‘We killed Messiah…but they killed him not, nor crucified him. But so it was made to appear to them….” (Qur’an, sura 4 (An-Nisa) ayat 157-158).]
It’s all mind-blowing stuff, from the parallels between Hinduism and quantum mechanics to the Buddhist notion that there is no “self,” and that we are simply too distracted by our thoughts to reach a higher level of consciousness. (For his part, Fox—who began his career “studying religion as a psychological experience” while working with paranoid schizophrenics—refers to Buddhism as “the most sophisticated psychological system on the planet... as far as I can tell.”)
“Prof. Fox is like a performer, always holding something back,” says Deepthi Cherian, AS09, a pediatric emergency room doctor in Denver. “He never answers a question for you. I think he doesn’t necessarily think there is a right one. He makes you want to ask them for yourself.”
“I always pity someone who hasn’t taken class with Dr. Fox,” adds Jay Valentine, AS02. “His class taught me not to put one religion on a pedestal and kick the others to the curb. Instead, you learn something deep and interesting in every one.”
Now an assistant philosophy professor at Troy University in Alabama, Valentine teaches world religions and other classes in ethics and philosophy, always working to impart in his students the same wisdom he gained from Fox.
“Perhaps the most important lesson of ethics is that these are not simple questions,” Valentine says. “If you can’t find nuance on both sides of the argument, you’re probably missing a lot of what’s going on.”
The limits we impose
But who really knows what’s going on?
In 1967, Richard Alpert, one of the early investigators of LSD, carted his psychedelic pills halfway around the world hoping to find someone who better understood their properties. In India, he met Neem Karoli Baba, a Hindu guru and mystic intrigued by the hallucinatory drugs. “Do you have any?” the yogi asked of the pills, and indeed, Alpert did. But after handing over 900 micrograms of the world’s purest LSD, he watched in astonishment as the mystic swallowed the massive dose and simply laughed in Alpert’s face.
“So either he’s tripping all the time,” Fox says, while relating the story to his students, “or his body was able to render the drugs inert.”
As it turns out, Harry Houdini was also a yogi, and advanced yogis claim to slow their heart rate down to a near-stop, Fox explains. The philosophy professor is giving a lesson on meditation, on how “breathing can get you pretty high,” and it’s here that he explores breathing’s unique property: something that is both voluntary and not; a bridge between the things we have control over and the things we don’t.
Perhaps then, it is not unlike the human brain.
When Fox reflects on the first truly mind-blowing thing he ever read, he cites The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a 1975 science fiction series with a radical premise: That every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard is correct. In some ways, the book, with its wild notion that the only limits we have are the ones we impose on ourselves, would dictate the rest of his career.
“I’m an open-minded skeptic,” Fox says. “I’m not a big believer in belief.”
It all goes back to the arrogance of ignorance Fox so disdains. “There’s a plague of stupidity,” he laments. “Nobody is thinking for themselves anymore. Everything has become too easy.”
In defiance, he and his students turn to texts like the Daodejing, forcing them to wrestle with seemingly contradictory concepts:
A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way.
A name that can be named is not a constant name.
The absence of designation initiates the world as a whole;
The presence of designation engenders the ten thousand things.
“These texts are so obscure, they force students to think for themselves,” Fox says. “To think philosophically is to make arguments. The best questions are the ones that lead to more questions, not the ones with answers.”
The Dao of Alan Fox
Fox grew up “conventionally religious” in the suburbs of South Jersey, but it could be said that his religion really began with his father, an engineer who “never just answered my question. He always made me figure it out for myself.”
It’s a strategy the younger Fox has employed since arriving at UD in 1990. Over the past three decades, he has earned two Excellence in Teaching Awards from the University, been named Delaware Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation, and received countless other honors and accolades. Former admissions director Louis Hirsh often referred to him as “one of the best recruiting tools” for the Honors Program, which Fox briefly directed, and retired political science professor James Magee still marvels at his colleague’s reputation.
A multiple recipient of the University’s Excellence in Teaching and Advising Awards himself, Magee recalls the day he ran into a student from his American government course, who hadn’t been attending class. When Magee asked the student if everything was alright, the young man simply shrugged and said, “Yeah, I just get your slides online. But have you heard of Alan Fox? You should really sit in on one of his classes.”
Magee could only laugh. “Alan is a teacher you don’t forget,” he says. “Students leave his course saying, ‘He challenged me. He made me feel like I had something to contribute. He opened my mind.’ I suppose that’s because he believes everyone has a mind, some sharper than others.”
Getting students to use theirs is the very essence of Fox’s religion, which he defines as a “sense of connection to something deeper and greater than the self.”
The ability to reason, to think, to ask, seek, question, observe; to approach the greatest complexities of life with curiosity, humility and an open mind—those are the qualities Fox hopes to instill.
“My job is to show students sides they haven’t seen before,” he says. “I’m here to drag them kicking and screaming to the light.”