An Examined Life: In Memory of Dr. Joel Olson

“For the unexamined life is not worth living for men.”
– Socrates

During the first week of his classes, Dr. Joel Olson would hand out a pink sheet of paper outlining his theory of education. “Education is uncomfortable,” he said. “It makes you think about new things, challenges old beliefs, forces you to reevaluate the world, and makes you do work you wouldn’t ordinarily do. But remember, there is a payoff. You are learning how to think, read, write, and speak critically… You are on your way to leading the examined life.”

Joel was one of those rare educators who actually got his students to think critically and get excited about political theory. In the tradition of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Nietzsche, and Du Bois, Joel challenged everything I thought I knew about the world. He made me dizzy — and that dizziness was the birth of wisdom.

“We live in an age of information, but not one of ideas. We need to learn to think big.”
– Dr. Joel Olson

For those of us who knew him, Joel was much more than a professor. He was a friend and a mentor. He was a radical, eloquent, vegetarian punk rocker with illegible handwriting and a fire in his eyes who took his students out for a beer after the final. He was passionate about teaching; equipping us to think our way out of times of crisis. He was also passionate about changing the world through his activism. Joel was an enemy of the status quo. He vocally opposed SB1070 and criticized racial inequality and questioned authority. He sought out truth and justice with ferocity.

“The formulation of a question is its solution.”
– Karl Marx

I never had the chance to tell him what an inspiration he was to me; that will haunt me for years to come. I was perfectly happy in the cave, but he dragged me into the light and showed me that there was more to education than memorization and regurgitation. With Joel, politics was daring and deliberation; a quest for enlightenment; a struggle to achieve the good life for all of humanity.

Now, I don’t know why people die young. I don’t know why husbands and fathers are snatched away from their families without warning. I don’t know why great minds are taken from us when we need them most. But I do know that Joel did not leave us empty handed. He left us with the tools to remake the world.

I’m more determined than ever to take up the fight. Because of Joel, we are no longer ignorant. We can think for ourselves and see the things that need to be fixed. Most importantly, we can ask the hard questions.

“Does it make every one — unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?”
He paused and smiled.
“I am afraid it does,” he said.
“And, John, are you glad you studied?”
“Yes,” came the answer, slowly but positively.
She watched the flickering lights upon the sea, and said thoughtfully, “I wish I was unhappy,—and—and,” putting both arms about his neck, “I think I am, a little, John.”
– W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Words cannot do justice to the man, but this is the only tribute I know how to give, the only way I know how to give it. I didn’t know him as well as I would have liked, but I do know this: Joel Olson was a great man and it was my great honor to know him and learn from him. He was a visionary thinker, a mentor, an educator, a political animal, a truth seeker, a defender of the oppressed, a shaper of minds and one of the few people I have ever known who truly lived an examined life.

We’ll miss you, Joel.

— 30 —

Joel Olson was an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University, where he specialized in political theory, racial politics, social movements and extremism. He was a well-known figure in the anti-racist and pro-immigrant movements in Arizona and was the author of The Abolition of White Democracy.

Update: You can learn more about how you can help the Olson-Creed Family by visiting the Remembering Joel Olson Facebook page.

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