What We Learned This Year

2019 Class speaker Tom Martin reflects on a year of Humanity in Perspective

Tom Martin speaks at the 2019 Humanity in Perspective commencement. Photo by Kim Oanh Nguyen

Humanity in Perspective (HIP) graduate Tom Martin was chosen by his classmates as the class speaker for the 2019 HIP graduation commencement this May. In the following edited excerpt, Tom talks about the relationships to people and learning that the class cultivated throughout the year.

On a single day in September of 2018, I heard about, applied for, and attended my first Humanity in Perspective class. I had several years of medical challenges. I had not attended a college-level course in fifteen years, but with six free credits from one of the historically great colleges in America a four-minute bus ride away, I could not not do it. I had said many times to my wife how much I would love to go back to college, but the only way I could do it was if it was free. 

To me, the program was marked for its generosity. Everything was provided. Everything was of the highest quality. Everything was delivered with care, mindfulness, and love. This is my brief personal interpretation of what we learned this year:

Our first class was with Caitlin Dwyer Young. Our readings for her class gave us two great learning skills: (1) reading fearlessly, and (2) writing fearlessly.We learned that a text should be attacked, questioned, marked, highlighted and commented upon. When we wrote, we needed to get our ideas out of our heads and onto paper. We needed to turn our thoughts into something concrete. At a certain stage in the process, there were no wrong answers. Errors could be dispensed later. Unformed ideas could be worked on in multiple amorphous drafts after discussions and arguments with teachers, fellow students, and tutors. 

The final product was an essay. Caitlin deconstructed the writing of an essay: Essays are written with words. Words were turned into sentences. The foundation of a sentence was nouns and verbs. Sentences were used to build paragraphs. One sentence would present an idea. A few more sentences would support the idea of the first sentence. Another sentence at the end of the paragraph would summarize or conclude the idea presented in the first sentence. An essay was a group of paragraphs following the same pattern: present an idea, provide support for the idea and draw a conclusion about the idea. I guess a book is a collection of essays following this same pattern. I believe I can write a book! 

Caitlin, Thank you for teaching us this with such elegance, care, and kindness. 

Monica Mueller taught us that philosophy was not a small specialized academic subject. It is an ongoing asking of the big questions—things everyone should be asking themselves in their everyday life. What is true? What is real? What is beauty? What is right, moral, or good?  Monica at times taught with such breathless enthusiasm I thought her feet actually left the ground. Her passion was inspiring. 

An old idea, which I had heard many times, but never really thought about, became a revelation to me: Descartes brief statement, “I think, therefore I am.”From empiricism to faith in the divine revelation of one’s chosen sacred text, the only thing we really know is that we are here, behind these windows, thinking our thoughts. We study, examine, discuss, and proceed through this magnificent world doing the best we can. I also realized the great value of the difficult discussion. Progress in science, ethics, or governance of any kind never occurs without some difficult discussions. Our discussions of justice and how we treat one another will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

Thank you, Monica.

Though I have been to the Portland Art Museum hundreds of times over the last ten years, John Urang taught me how to see it as I had never seen it before. Our two weekend trips to the Museum were—I really cannot think of another way to say it— holy experiences. It felt set aside, elevated, and sacred. It was the best of what art can be. We experienced art as a group. I cherish a picture of our group in front of a very large Frank Stella painting. 

Claude Monet, Banksy, Jackson Pollock, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Andy Warhol, Shahzia Sikander, Kara Walker, Barbara Kruger, Kehinde Wiley. I’m just listing names, but each name evokes infinite possibilities. John didn’t say “this is good” or “this is bad.” He gave us tools for helping us to decide for ourselves. 

Thank you, John. Also, thank you for letting me hijack the museum tour to show everyone my friends: the two ancient mysterious wooden attendants/shamans, one with their palms facing up, the other with their arms folded neatly in front of them.

Next came the greatest history course I have ever taken. Carolina Gómez-Montoya’s class was a case study in active learning. The entire class left for a break after our first hour with her as if we had just completed a mile run. Original texts, poetry, free timed writing sessions, guided timed writing sessions, innovative open class readings—it was exhilarating, challenging, and mind-expanding. This class, too, contained difficult, life-changing conversations. 

Thank you, Carolina. You have forever changed learning for me. 

To come full circle, one of the great artifacts of this class is Blake Hausmen’s personal copy of There There by Tommy Orange. It is written in, pages are folded, there are many bookmarks. There There was a beautiful book. It was moving, wise, celebratory, and ultimately heartbreaking. Its agile mix of voice and perspective was challenging and thoughtful. The nonfiction passages anchored the novel in real history. 

Thank you, Blake, for your enthusiasm for literature and your thoughtful comments on our writing. 

Thank you to everyone who took this class. Everyone was so kind, supportive, and smart. I learned something from everyone. Remember, I have a guest pass to the museum and anyone should contact me if they want to go to for free. Lifetime guarantee. God bless everyone.

Tuesday of this last week marked a special date for me. Six years ago, I received a heart transplant. I was not a great candidate for transplant. It was taking too long to find a match, and they almost gave up on me. On April 30, 2013, at 11:30 p.m. as I watched Letterman, I could hear a helicopter landing on the roof of the hospital. My doctor came into my hospital room at OHSU and told me they had found me a heart. 

This fall, I’m enrolled as a junior at Portland State University through their Finish For Free program. It has been a long journey.

I have with me the name placard I made on my first night of class. It’s a fairly clear demonstration of my visual impairment, one of my many physical impairments. I’ve had a stroke and lost about 55% of my field of vision. I started out fine, but I couldn’t see the border so I had to crowd the last letter in at the end. I should have made a new name card. I didn’t. Comedian Steven Wright had a joke where he referred to himself as a “peripheral visionary.” He could see the future, but it was way off to one side. For some reason, I am going to end with that.


2 comments have been posted.

Tom, Sounds like an amazing course. Your essay about your experience is inspirational. I look forward to your book!!!

Cate Garcia | June 2019 |

Tom was the perfect person to do this! His heartfelt comments, honesty, truthful and kind words made this talk. Heartwarming! He did a great job recognizing his teachers, their passion for teaching and his colleagues! Also, his own story of survival! This brought tears to my eyes! Amazing! This was so well performed! Thank you Tom Martin!

Lori Martin | June 2019 |

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