On Dec. 14, 2013, Duke University lost one of the greatest, most inspirational teachers it has ever known. After a four-year struggle with colon cancer, Benjamin F. Ward passed away at the young age of 65.
Many of us knew and loved Ben—a professor and dean who insisted that we not call him “Professor” or “Dean”—during our years at Duke. To this day, I remember vividly our weekly conversations—many lasted into the evening—to discuss my senior thesis. I served with Ben on a presidential task force that made many recommendations to the University administration, including one, of which Ben deservedly took great pride, that all first-year students be relocated to East Campus. I once accompanied Ben to Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, S.C., where Ben regaled hundreds of participants of the time he performed with the great composer Rostropovich. Most importantly, I remember countless conversations with Ben and his tremendous capacity for empathy. To young Duke students coming of age, Ben often provided a source of support that could not have come from anywhere else.
After I graduated from Duke in 1995, Ben continued to offer his wise and helpful advice, which deeply influenced my decision to pursue law and, later, the teaching of law. If not for Ben’s sage input, my professional and academic career would likely have turned out quite differently. Ben taught me many things, but what I remember most from my time with him was how he approached life. Ben wanted all of us to inhabit a world in which each of us would be the master of his own destiny. Ben exhorted us to buck convention and to make our own decisions based on intellects and instincts that were truly ours—and ours alone.
Ben taught me how to teach, and he taught me—he taught all of us—how to live a life worth living. In the class he devoted to existentialism and the teachings of Sartre, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Heidegger, Ben’s paramount interest wasn’t that we understand a particular philosophical tradition but, rather, that we seriously attempt to understand our lives and our respective relationships to the world. Ben addressed his inquiries to our habits of mind, instilling the importance of transcending the common routines and well-worn tracks many of us were following.
How did Ben teach us these things? One answer, perhaps, is found in Plato’s description of the teacher in the Theaetetus. There, Plato writes that, as students, we are pregnant with knowledge and that the teacher is a midwife who delivers that knowledge out of us. I think this image helps us understand Ben, for he lived and embodied this role every day. Ben taught us that the answers to life’s hardest questions were already inside us. In this way, Ben was the most benevolent guide and teacher one could ask for.
To those full of anxiety about the future, we learned through our dialogue with Ben that we could little foresee what our respective paths would be. But this was good news—not bad—because Ben illuminated the possibility of innumerable paths and, in the process, helped us discover who we might become.
Ben knew and admitted that this exploration—this search to live a true and genuine life—required heavy intellectual lifting and moral inquiry. No sentimentalist, Ben also told us that engaging in this inquiry was a luxury. As students, we had a privileged opportunity to inform ourselves about our world, engage it and find people who inspired us. But, ultimately, we would have to become our own sources of inspiration—so that we, in turn, could inspire others. This was a luxury, but—at the risk of reading too much into Ben’s teaching—it was also a responsibility. In the words of Sartre, we were “condemned to be free.” We were, in the end, “nothing other than [our] own project[s],” and we existed only to the extent that we performed those projects.
Ben imparted all of this without moral judgment or criticism of anyone’s choices. He shared his knowledge easily, without condescension, with encouragement, with authority, with gentleness and with wisdom.
Ben was also deeply private, in some respects unknown and unknowable—but he also made himself public, and what was manifest in all his dealings was his enormous generosity of spirit—not in an amorphous, general way, but tied to those things he cherished, valued and committed his life to: philosophy, music, aesthetics, sport, his commitment to engaging students in a lifelong love of learning and fostering the development not of a singular vision of what life should be, but rather helping launch young people to discover the life they could make that was theirs alone.
I have spent a good deal of time thinking about Ben since his recent death—what he stood for, what he meant to me and how much he shaped my experience as an undergraduate at Duke in the 1990s. While I mourn deeply the loss of this tremendous man, I feel comforted by my memories of him—many still so very vivid—and the strong belief that he would want me to do nothing more than pass on his teachings to my own students, to my friends and to loved ones.
Joseph Landau, Trinity ’95, is an associate professor of law at Fordham Law School in New York City. He was a biweekly columnist for The Chronicle during his senior year at Duke.