Q&A with David Koyzis, Professor, Hamilton, Ontario

I teach young people about politics. "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1).

February 15 th 2008

Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.

Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?

DK: Well, my daughter turned nine late last year, so I actually have some experience talking with her about what I do. In fact, she sat in on my American politics class two years ago, and she came away knowing about federalism, the Congress, and so forth. Of course she's grown up with what I do, and her knowledge of this has increased with the passage of time. However, if I had to tell one of her friends about this, I would simply say that I teach young people between around 18 and 23 years of age. If she asked for more, I would say that I teach about politics and mention the name of the Prime Minister and perhaps Parliament, in the hope that these might be familiar to her.

Comment: What first drew you to this work?

DK: I grew up in a family that was both politically- and intellectually-minded. We were surrounded by thousands of books in our home, and reading was strongly encouraged by my parents. As a child I developed a variety of interests, but I gravitated towards the arts, especially drawing, painting and music. For a long time I aspired to become an architect, but I also had proclivities for astronomy, writing, musical composition, history and philosophy. As an adolescent I realized I would have to narrow my focus at some point, so when I began university, I entered as a music major. This was in 1973, during the height of the Watergate scandal, the developments of which I followed avidly through the print and electronic media. The following summer President Nixon resigned office, and only days later my relatives became refugees after the Turkish military forcibly divided the island of Cyprus. In my studies I had professors who stimulated in me an interest in issues of war and peace, justice and injustice. All of these pushed me over the edge, and I declared a major in political science with minors in history and economics.

During my first trip to Europe at age 20, I discovered a vocation to teach, which came as something of a surprise to me, though in retrospect it shouldn't have. After that it was a matter of continuing my education, which I pursued at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and the University of Notre Dame. I started teaching at Redeemer University College in 1987 and I've been there ever since.

Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?

DK: I was in my second year at Redeemer, sitting at the lunch table with some of my students. A young lady next to me repeated to me something I had said in class as if it were gospel truth written in the heavens. I was startled at this, suddenly aware of the impact I was having on them. That night I had difficulty sleeping, with the words of the apostle James running through my head: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (3:1). What was initially a cause of fright has developed into a profound sense of the fearful responsibility of someone charged with shaping and caring for the hearts and minds of young people.

Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?

DK: I can't say that I've ever had anyone give me the best advice, but over the years I've had good advice come from various quarters. Three sources are perhaps worth mentioning. First, at around age 20 a friend and fellow university student opened my eyes to the writings of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and the whole neocalvinist school of thought. This is what eventually sent me to the Institute for Christian Studies and ultimately to teach at Redeemer. Second, one of my undergraduate professors, Dr. William C. Johnson, recommended that I apply to Notre Dame, a Catholic institution that he thought would be receptive to my interests in normative political theory. He was right and it turned out to be a good fit. Finally, I met Dr. Justin Cooper at a meeting of the American Political Science Association in 1986, and he invited me to apply for the political science position at Redeemer, which he himself was vacating to become academic vice president. I had known him from my years in Toronto in the late 1970s. I am thankful to God for such good advice at critical stages in my life's journey.

Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?

DK: I'm going to interpret this to ask who has influenced my work. I count three persons as mentors in some fashion. I have known Jim Skillen of the Center for Public Justice for three decades, having attended the first Association for Public Justice conference at Dordt College in 1977. Jim is gifted with a fine intellect and an ability to communicate complex ideas in a way that is broadly accessible. His book, The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square (Zondervan, 1990), was something of an inspiration for what I would eventually do in my own Political Visions and Illusions.

My second mentor has been Bob Goudzwaard, retired professor of economics and social philosophy at the Free University of Amsterdam and a former member of the Dutch parliament. As an undergraduate I read his book, A Christian Political Option, and then moved to his other writings, including, most importantly, Idols of Our Time, whose thesis connecting ideology with idolatry provided the central argument of my own book.

Finally, I count my good friend Al Wolters as a mentor as well. Him too I have known for nearly thirty years, first as a professor at the Institute for Christian Studies and later as a colleague at Redeemer. From Al I learned not only the virtue of clear thinking—something developed over many years of lengthy conversations over cups of hot tea—but also the widespread influence of gnosticism in its various forms. Gnosticism locates evil, not in our rebellion against God, but in a structural component of his good creation.

Other people have influenced me in perhaps smaller ways, and from them too I have taken inspiration.

Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?

DK: I can't really answer this apart from the larger personal context in which my work takes place. Since my youth I have observed daily morning and evening prayer, trying to read through the Psalms on a regular basis, and making my way through scripture as prescribed in the Daily Office Lectionary. As a family we, of course, pray at meals and we read through the Bible together in the evening before our daughter goes to bed. Prayer frames the day. Here I have been inspired by the example of the monasteries praying through the Liturgy of the Hours.

In between these times my day is structured by my teaching schedule and the other responsibilities I have as a full-time faculty member and department chair. I try to get physical exercise at least every other day. Rituals? I can't think of any per se, except to be sure to make time for conversation with colleagues at intervals throughout the day. I've come to see collegiality as extremely important to the humanizing of one's work and workplace.

Comment: What are your favorite tools?

DK: Well, I suppose I could play the luddite and tell you the blackboard and chalk in the classroom. But it would be difficult to surpass the tremendous capacities of the personal computer and the various types of software that have enhanced the teaching and learning process, as well as research and writing. To be sure, these are no substitute for good paedagogy and careful research, but they certainly make things possible that would not have been only a few years ago.

Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.

DK: Definitely the writing of my Political Visions and Illusions. This was from start to finish a labour of love that grew out of my teaching. I love being able to offer this to my students and to see what it sparks in their imaginations.

Comment: How do you plan your work?

DK: First the teaching. When I first began preparing lectures, I wrote everything out that I planned to say and went through my text methodically in front of the class. I still have these notes and refer to them occasionally, but now I update them in my head and what comes out in the classroom is much more spontaneous and less programmatic than it used to be.

Now writing. Before starting a project I sketch out at least a basic plan of action, having in mind the number of chapters and what I will argue in each. My current project, a book on authority, began life as a quite detailed plan running on for nearly thirty pages. I am now working to flesh these out into the book itself.

Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?

DK: This is something I have had to rethink over the past couple of years, because I don't believe I've always struck the proper balance. I find it easy to confess with my lips that a balance of labour, leisure and liturgy add up to a life of obedient service to God and our fellow human beings. Yet it is not nearly so easy to live this out. I am now deliberately clearing space in my life for leisure activities, and this necessitates my leaving my work aside for a time. I've not always been good at this, so it has—somewhat ironically—taken some "work" on my part to pull myself away from my work. Perhaps by God's grace I will one day reach a better balance, but I doubt that I will ever be able to come up with an obvious and readily transmissible recipe for this.

Topics: Education

David T. Koyzis is a Fellow in Politics at the St. George's Centre for Biblical and Public Theology and taught politics for thirty years at Redeemer University College. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (also translated into Portuguese) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, with his wife and daughter.