Professor Cox

As I related in “Legendary Days: Adventures In San Diego”, the great transformation in my life occurred when I was a freshman at UC – San Diego and discovered Ayn Rand. Reading Rand’s masterpiece Atlas Shrugged shook me out of my “dogmatic slumber”, converting me from an apathetic, washed up ex-athelete without direction into an intellectual with a burning desire to know everything. It lit a fire in my belly that has never died and completely revolutionized my life. That’s why it was so great to drive down La Jolla Village Drive on Thursday for the first time since I graduated in 2000. It rekindled many fond memories of the transformation that started at UC – San Diego.

After reading Atlas, I used to spend hours in the library at Revelle reading books that came from Rand. First, I read everything she wrote. Then I read everything her protege Nathaniel Branden wrote. Next I read authors she recommended like the economists Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt and Friedrich von Hayek.

One of the books she recommended was The God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson. One day I picked it off the shelf and started to read the introduction by Professor Stephen Cox. I was shocked when it listed him as a Literature Professor right here at UC San Diego. “Could he still be here?” I wondered. Sure enough, when I looked him up on the internet, he was.

When I researched him, I found out that he was director of The Humanities Program at Revelle college which introduced students to the great works of Western Civilization in a 5-course sequence. However, it was only open to Revelle students, for whom it was required. I was a Muir student and therefore ineligible. I emailed Professor Cox, introducing myself and asking if I might take his Humanites 5: 1848 To the Present that Spring of 1999. He invited me to his office hours and agreed.

I’ll never forget Professor Cox or his course. When I first met Professor Cox 25 years ago, he sported a buzz cut, black rimmed glasses, jeans, a button down shirt with a white t-shirt underneath and a pair of Converse sneakers. He could have been one of the undergrads besides for his gray hair. He was 51 years old at the time. That uniform never varied in the time that I knew him at UCSD.

In the course we read Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, Camus’s The Plague, Orwell’s Animal Farm, parts of Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom, among others. Great books, the kind which every young person should be exposed to. Most importantly, Professor Cox taught like those books mattered. He was a great scholar who genuinely believed in the power of ideas.

Once, when I’d written a paper on Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and been given a “B” by my teaching assistant, I took it to Professor Cox who read it in my presence, crossed out the “B” and wrote “A” and told me that he’d be grading my work from now on. I’d found a mentor, someone who took me under his wing and talked to me about the ideas that mattered to me as a young man.

After graduating in 2000, I next saw Professor Cox again at an Objectivist Conference – the name Ayn Rand chose for her philosophy – at UCLA in July 2002. He wrote a letter of recommendation for me for Philosophy graduate school when I appied in the Spring of 2003. But I lost touch with him after that.

After a great day Thursday, I was trying to figure out what to do on Friday when I thought of Professor Cox. I emailed him at 12:03am and went to bed, thinking he would be asleep and I wouldn’t hear from him until morning. A few hours later I saw that he’d replied at 12:12am. I replied at 2:06am and he replied back again at 3:17am saying 11:30am worked for him for lunch. I confirmed at 3:39am. I guess I’m not the only one that suffers from insomnia!

I was waiting in the outside seating area at CAVA in La Jolla at 11:30am when I saw Professor Cox walking up to the restaurant. He looked the same as he did when I last saw him 22 years ago: buzz cut, black rimmed glasses, jeans, button down shirt and sneakers – though the Converses have been replaced by a more upscale brand. I jumped up to greet him, reminding him that it was 25 years ago that I first took his Humanities 5 course. For the next 80 minutes, Professor Cox and I caught up and and discussed ideas old and new. We hadn’t missed a beat, only now I’m a 47 year old man not a 22 year old college student.

I told him the story of my learning about Ayn Rand from an article in a muscle magazine by bodybuilder Mike Mentzer, a bodybuilder who claimed to have founded his training philosophy of low volume, high intensity lifting to failure on her epistemology. Years later, when my friends dragged me into a local Book Star near UCSD, I saw Atlas on the shelf and bought it on a whim. I thought she was a man and that her name was pronounced “Ann”.

It sat on my shelf for months forgotten and unopened until a bad marijuana trip made me think I was going to die. For whatever reason, I picked Atlas off the shelf the next morning and started to read it. My life has never been the same since. That was April 1996. It’s crazy to think how one chance encounter can change the entire course of your life.

Professor Cox was the first true intellectual I formed a relationship with and he made a lasting impression on me. It’s so important for a young person to have an older one take him under his wing, encourage him and point him to resources he is not aware of that can further his education. For me, Professor Cox was that guy.

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