The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


Publication note: This profile by Meg Sullivan of philosopher and historian Stephen Toulmin, the Master of North College at the University of Southern California, is quoted in full from the March–April 1997 issue of Humanities, the journal of the (U.S.) National Endowment for the Humanities. Readers should take special note of the involvement Toulmin has as Master in the daily life of North College and his importance as an active advocate for the college and its students before the university administration in matters ranging from academic standards to dilapidated furniture. For additional readings on residential college life please visit the Collegiate Way’s Recommended Reading page.

USC: An On-Campus Glimpse of Stephen Toulmin

In a dining hall on the campus of the University of Southern California, the eminent philosopher Stephen E. Toulmin stands before a group of 125 undergraduates, microphone in hand.

He begins reading through a list of activities that are coming up on campus for the students—and then veers to describing an Australian national park that has been in the news. He has second thoughts.

“I won’t bore you with botany,” he deadpans, drawing out each syllable in a delicious English accent.

While Toulmin is being celebrated this March as the Jefferson Lecturer, the nation’s highest honor in the humanities, for the 550 students of North Residential College he is the guy who lives down the hall. Toulmin is among twelve USC faculty members living in the student community.

At a time when many faculty slip into a well-deserved emeritus, the seventy-four-year-old Toulmin lives at North College as faculty master with his wife and co-master Donna, a lawyer and adjunct lecturer in occupational therapy.

The Toulmins subject themselves to the residential life of blaring stereos, errant fire alarms, and visitors at odd hours. If they mind, they don’t let on, say the students who flock to their apartment for late-night study breaks or join them at the weekly Master’s Dinner.

“They’re always very enthusiastic and want to be involved with us and the residents,” says Rebecca Orozco, a sophomore and resident assistant (RA).

Toulmin wants to offer undergraduates the same sort of experience that he enjoyed in the 1940s at Cambridge. He was a student in those days of the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and lived at King’s College alongside the to-be novelist E.M. Forster of Howards End and A Passage to India.

“Students get only part of their education from formal classwork,” Toulmin says. “The rest comes from the friendships and relationships they form. If they live in a community where they’re in touch with faculty, then their college experience is going to be that much richer.”

The commitment also fits with the interdisciplinary inclinations of the former physicist turned philosopher, who has joint appointments at USC’s Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies and the anthropology department, and who teaches in the schools of religion, international relations, and communications.

“Students who go to class are introduced to a lot of intellectual techniques in one particular discipline or another,” he says. “What they can learn by living in a community is that a lot of these techniques are not self-justifying—and they all have to be related back to the ways in which they affect the qualities of our lives, our personal lives and the lives of our community.”

To stimulate interactions among students of diverse majors and backgrounds, the Toulmins have been inventive. One year they organized a student art contest on the theme of illustrating the principles of a residential college. Another year, it was a contest for student films set in and around campus.

They also have a knack for bringing home interesting visitors.

When Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould paid a visit to campus three years ago, most students could get no nearer than a chair in a 250-seat auditorium. North College residents met him in person at a reception in the residence hall—thanks to Toulmin, who had appeared with Gould and five other “great thinkers” in the 1993 documentary, A Glorious Accident.

The Toulmins also find the time to accompany students to movies on campus and to arrange outings to cultural and entertainment events around town. Some twenty undergraduates who wouldn’t know Wittgenstein from Frankenstein had the opportunity to reciprocate and flaunt their knowledge of baseball at a Dodger’s game. “Here was this well-known professor and we were explaining plays to him,” says David Kwon with a certain satisfaction.

The man once described by the Washington Post as “one of the most formidable generalists among contemporary intellectuals” still maintains exacting standards. Toulmin pushed for upping the required Grade Point Average for the college’s eight RAs, arguing that the move would improve their chances of serving as academic role models. He also championed the hookup of North College to the Internet. It became one of the first two residences on campus to provide all students with access to the Information Highway.

“He is really concerned about academics,” says Byran Breland, North College’s resident director.

He also knows when to cut loose.

At the end of each semester, Toulmin and his wife throw open their tastefully appointed apartment for what they jokingly refer to as a “rescue mission.” During the prime study break of 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., students are invited to recuperate from the stresses of finals week by eating copious amounts of pizza and watching old movies on the couple’s VCR.

“It’s very casual and fun,” Rebecca Orozco comments.

Resident advisers and North staff are admiring of what they see as his adherence to principle.

When fire alarms suddenly started ringing in North College at odd hours, maintenance crews and the alarm company wanted to pin the problem on student pranksters. But Toulmin sided with the RAs, who found evidence to the contrary.

“He was adamant in insisting it wasn’t a student behavioral issue,” recalls Byron Breland.

Toulmin was right. After repeated prodding, the alarm company discovered the real culprit: an electrical malfunction.

On another occasion, after an antisemitic incident Toulmin called a mandatory residence-house forum to discuss “the principles of community living.” Before calling on the students to air their feelings, the English-born philosopher described living in Europe in the 1930s and witnessing “what at the time seemed like insignificant events.”

“A few years later,” he told them, “Six million Jews were dead.”

“Most of the residents of the dorm were like, ‘Why are we here?’” Ed Silva, the assistant resident director, recalls. “But once they heard him speak, you could see heads turn.”

Thomas Gustafson, an associate professor of English and master at Birnkrant Hall, adds: “He has the vast experience and wisdom to command moral leadership.”

The father of four and grandfather of twelve, Toulmin also knows how to inspire action at less lofty levels. After students complained of frayed furniture, worn carpets, and other wear and tear, he helped persuade university officials to tour the residence hall. The residential college is now undergoing a massive renovation that will run through the next year.

Another refurbishing effort was directed at the residents-only meal each Wednesday at North College.

“Most of the time students just eat in the cafeteria, which is an eat-and-run experience,” Toulmin said. “But at least once a week we like to get a fair number of students sitting down and having some kind of conversation with each other.”

At the Toulmins’ urging, the steam tables and styrofoam plates and paper napkins have disappeared, to be replaced with chafing dishes, china, and linen. For the bouquets that dot the dining room’s tables, the couple stock up each Wednesday morning at the Los Angeles flower market.

They have also convinced housing officials to offer fancier food than is routinely available. On a recent evening, students helped themselves to pasta, sauteed vegetables, chicken parmesan, green salad, and an array of pies and cakes.

At the dinners, Toulmin is clearly in his element. On a recent evening, he chatted knowledgeably about the family of a student from India. He gently teased a senior whose hobby is skydiving. And he enthusiastically greeted the dining hall’s head chef—“I’ve been eating institutional food for fifty years, and I don’t know where it’s done better.”

“It’s involved a lot of students who wouldn’t have been active otherwise,” says Ed Silva. And four years after its introduction, the Master’s Dinner is going strong.

Meg Sullivan is a media representative at the University of Southern California.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021