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Marco Benassi

MARCO BENASSI

I was born in the south side of Chicago, my parents are Italian immigrants, and I have an older brother and sister. I grew up in Addison, Illinois, which is west of the city, and I now live in Wheaton, Illinois, with my wife, Alice and my three sons who are all in their 20’s. I teach at the college of Du page community college, I have a background in speech, journalism and film. And, I teach speech, film studies classes, where I take students all around the world, we just got back from Hawaii with a group of students, working on communication, camping on the beaches, kayaking, inter-cultural classes, Africa, Cuba, China, Italy. Big believer in experiential education and I’ve been teaching for 30 years at the college of Du page. I have a dog named Betty, she’s going to be 12.

The name of this project is the Everyday Philosopher, what comes to mind when you hear that name? what does philosophy means for you?

I think philosophy for me is who you really are at your core. It’s how you view life, how you view other people. I think it has a lot to do with taking responsibility for who you are and how you approach life, and how you affect other people and also how you affect yourself, in terms of your ability to be focused, purposeful and intentional in your life. I think it really helps to be able to think why you do things, why your relationships are the way they are, why you were successful and why you struggled in certain areas of your life. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m as intentional about my philosophy, or if I could look back and sort-of figure out what my philosophy was. But I do feel that the more conscious we are of understanding how we want to be, what relationships we want to have, what kind of impact we want to create in our life, and how we want to feel inside in terms of our own happiness, stability, joy… the more it helps to know what is my philosophy.

What is your philosophy at this point in time?

I think at my core my philosophy is to be creative, to help others, to be loved, to matter. I think it’s important for me to matter. I think it’s very challenging. I guess I’m at a transitional moment right now, so letting go of certain things like teaching, takes a huge part of why or how I matter.

What do you mean ‘to matter’?

Matter is an interesting word, stuff is matter, wood is matter, flesh is matter. It’s just about purpose, having a purpose.

I tend to do pretty well in my life with structure, and I think that’s why teaching has been really effective for me, because I have beginnings, middles and ends. And creatively I used to do more in terms of writing plays, and movies and things when I was younger, and those things were less structured. In recent years it’s been harder to work on just being, if I don’t have a specific purpose, and that’s something I have to work on. But, I think mattering is important to me, I really feel like I need to make a difference and I feel I do make a difference, but it’s a challenge to be alone, not to be engaged in a particular project, to be alone by myself without a specific purpose, without a specific goal. I’m very goal oriented. So I work on that, I try to meditate, I try to do yoga, I’m trying to be more comfortable with not having to be doing all the time just being able to exist. But that’s a challenge. I like the focus, if I don’t have the purposeful focus, I seek distractions to take me away from just being present.

Would you define yourself as an educator?

I’m a facilitator, I try to create an interaction of which I’m a participant. And I try to pull as much value, philosophy and input from those that I’m teaching, as I share myself. I don’t think I’m a typical educator, but I’m an educator.

In what sense you’re not a typical educator?

My textbook is the environment, it’s the Earth, in my field, in my studies or classes. It’s the bridges we cross to talk about transitions in life, it’s the mountains we climb to talk about goals, it’s the rivers we cross to talk about obstacles. I try to use the Earth and I try to use the experience of my students as the textbook. I don’t use textbooks in my class, it’s really more about taking each individual’s life and incorporating that into the subject matter. And in communications I can do that because it’s about interpersonal one-on-one communications, it’s about working as a group, or a team or a family. It’s about having to present something, give a speech, or using technology or thinking inside your own head, and students have all the information and all the experience they need by the time they walk into my classroom to provide the context for the concepts we discuss. Because I’m more experiential, because I rely more on that individual student, or the group of students’ own lives as the text book. I think that’s unique, I don’t think I’m the only one who does it, but I think it’s different from a lot of educators. And you know I haven’t figured it out too, because these are very difficult life lessons. Every time you meet a new person it starts over, it’s not like learning a new language or a new mathematical calculation... It changes dramatically, based on the person, based on life, based on who you are and what your experiences are currently, how you’re feeling, all these things…

What are 1-2 principles that you try to instill or you can see as threads In your work as an educator?

I think the key thread is for everybody to take responsibility. I think taking responsibility gives you a huge opportunity to grow and to have positive impact on your life. It’s hard for a lot of us to look at our lives and feel we are the key reason we are where we are at. And I believe there are people who are very helpful in our lives. We can be on a treadmill moving forward when we start, or backwards and be around abusive people. But ultimately, I don’t believe anybody has more impact on our life and happiness than we do. Taking responsibility for who you are, for your decisions, for your struggles and your achievements is really important for students. I try to instill that. I try to at least get to a point where they just naturally take responsibility. I ask at the end, how many of you think they could have done better in class if we start it over, and a lot of hands go up, and we talk about that. They’re taking responsibility right there, they are not posturing in my office begging for a grade. I think taking responsibility is a real powerful one, and this doesn’t mean there aren’t real outside factors that make things difficult in life. Challenges, struggles, people. But being able to fully say that regardless of all those things, I am the person that really gets to direct this movie about my life. I can make it a comedy, a tragedy, a drama, an adventure, giving ourselves more power over our own lives, that we don’t go through life as a victim. At the end of my classes, I always discuss how everything I said in my class might be wrong. It’s my perspective, what you choose to take from this class is up to you. I’m just one person who had this opportunity to share this experience with you, to share some of my thoughts and ideas, and facilitating others in doing so.

There are so many different cultures, there’s so many different factors that affect communication, but I realize that I come from this American perspective, I grew up in an immigrant family, Chicago, a white male, all of those things have conditioned me to come to these decisions. I just make students take responsibility for themselves. It’s not about me giving them anything, it’s about them being aware of who they are, and how they want to intentionally move through life. If I can do that than I feel I’ve been successful.

The idea that I might be wrong is very antithetical to what’s going on in our society right now, because everybody’s on television, these talking heads telling us they’re right and this person’s wrong, right and wrong, it makes good conflict, and good television, but to my opinion it’s not accurate in terms of the way life really is.

It makes good television with the polar opposites, and instead of trying to understand the other better, reaching out, we play to the base of both sides, and that’s fundamentalism, it results in war and conflict because that’s the only way to resolve it through hostile words or actions. In my classes I really try to build what the other side thinks. So there’s a young woman who gave a pro-life speech, and there are really pro-choice people, and for these pro-choice people to have a healthy discussion about it, that’s a really difficult issue. And for a pro-life person to hear a pro-choice person give a speech, it’s a real challenge for a woman to make that choice. I’m trying to build understanding, trying to create a crack through our conditioning, through our bubble. Creating more openness.

People are terrified of college teachers. They think we’re all liberals. I’ve been teaching for 30 years in the college of Du Page so I’ve heard all the different sides, so I can understand the conservative argument, I can understand the idea that handing people money is not the best thing to do, the whole welfare state, I understand that, but I also understand the idea that we need to recognize the injustices within our system that prevent certain people from being able to rise up and to have their share of the American dream. After taking responsibility I would say we shouldn’t tell people “don’t be racist, don’t be antisemitic, don’t be anti-muslim, or ageist, or homophobic, but we have to create an environment where enough people can share honestly so they are able to recognize that on their own. I don’t go to class and like “it’s horrible to be this or that”, I don’t deny that it’s bad to be these things, but I try to create an environment where people can be comfortable, where the gay student can actually be themselves, where people can understand and think “wow, I never had a gay friend before”.

I just had this incredible experience with a group. I heard these speeches, these speakers, they became much more open to those ideas, and that’s terrifying for people who live in a bubble and want to stay in that bubble. I don’t want to send them away, because they are going to meet people who are going to change their minds. But what they don’t realize is that their minds are being changed, they’re being opened to recognize that we’re so much more alike than we’re different . So my philosophy is to care about other people that are different than you, to get out of your bubble, to recognize that you are a part of a really wonderful myriad of different looking people, different sounding people.

What got you out of the bubble?

I got out of the bubble because I was bombarded by diversity. It would be interesting to look at myself back at college and say “was I racist, was I sexist?”. My father came from Italy when he was a teenager. His father came earlier and he met him here. He lived with Italian immigrants, I have a lot of Italian relatives, they were very racist. Watching sports on TV you would hear these racist things. But my father moved here and he and his father were living in a flat in Chicago and a black family was living there as well. And my father instead of being in a segregated community was introduced to African-American culture first hand. And I never heard my father say anything racist, which is strange based on the culture. But then there’s life events, my brother’s gay, very successful, older brother, really helpful. The teacher that changed my life was a speech teacher, he’s gay, still one of my best friends, he’s retired and he and his partner are good friends of my wife and me. And I met my wife, who’s Jewish, so obviously I got into that culture too. So, those things and the bombardment of class after class, year after year, of hearing the stories of different types of people, from different cultures, and just recognizing that we’re much more alike than we’re different. And the idea that I might care more about a person because they’re Jewish rather then Muslim became absurd for me. To me you’re a human being, and my life experience and my work have really opened me up to seeing people as people. I’m very much in favor of women’s rights, it’s absurd to say in favor of women’s rights, it should be an obvious thing. It’s disappointing to me to see the sexism, the racism, the homophobia, the anti-Muslim, the antisemitism that still exists in our society.

Is it because of lack of exposure?

Yes, it’s the lack of exposure on a personal level. President Reagan was a huge gun advocate, and he got shot, and all of a sudden he became very anti-gun, because it affected him personally. For example, take all the school shootings, it’s insane when you look at the statistics, that the US had hundreds of shootings in the last few years and the next five industrial countries have a couple. It’s insane. It’s insane to look at the fact that guns themselves are not part of the problem. But until one of the senators gets shot or their son or daughter gets shot, it won’t matter to them. What will matter to them is the money they get to support the legislation that they back, and so it’s sad and I think personal experience helps. Not always, there are some people who can have a gay person in their family and still stay homophobic. And some families disown people for marrying outside their faith, their religion, their race is more important to them, it still exists.

So it’s not just exposure?

I think it’s exposure, conditioning from a young age. I would like to think that if my father was racist and homophobic I would have been able to find a path above that, but I don’t know. I’d like to think that some part of my spirit and soul could have transcended that. I was blessed to be in a household that was open or cracked open to the views of others.

You mention soul and spirit, do you have any idea or thoughts about the that?

My wife’s sister Rhonda died suddenly after three weeks, about 6-7 weeks ago, and something was wrong, she had to have surgery, but by the time she had surgery, it was too late. We were there when she died, my wife and I just got in there 5 minutes before, we went into the room, my wife was holding her hand, and her son, and her partner. His family was in from Israel when they found out. Within 3 weeks of normal life, to all of a sudden… and I remember looking at Rhonda in her final breaths, labored breathes, and then she was gone. And I could tell that there was nothing there, that Rhonda was gone. I saw the last breath. Wherever that spirit went, that soul went, I knew it was no longer in that body. And that really changed my whole perspective. I was never really able to see that transformation, but when I saw that last breath happen, and saw her body just still in that particular moment, I knew that was no longer Rhonda, that she was gone. It really was a profound moment for me, to realize, when we’re gone, we’re gone. We’re not in that body anymore. I believe a lot in energy, in spirit, in soulfulness, in what’s inside of us can lift up other people, it can challenge other people, it can trigger other people. We have a lot of power. Being an altar boy and elector, I always found religion fascinating. I feel very culturally Roman Catholic, my parents from Italy, it’s a big part of my life. Whatever it is that we are, I feel that it’s humanist, and I feel it’s inherent in all of us. Whether you’re using whatever philosophy, whatever structured religion, or even atheism to get at it. That same humanist philosophical quality of being creative, affecting others, I think those are all universal qualities within all of us. I don’t know, it’s exciting to find out, it’s a little bit different than terrifying. Watching Rhonda die was very sad, she was very young, and my wife’s best friend and it certainly made me more terrified about losing other people in my life.

It’s the great question and I think it belongs in education.

I think it’s important to focus on something intentional and finding value in what we do, because that’s being able to take my final breaths and know I was able to really understand who I am and what I did, and how I impacted other people, and that I mattered. I don’t mean it in a self-indulgent way, I mean being purposeful and intentional. I think both my wife and I really felt we need to be more prepared. You need to live a life that prepares you for dying, so that dying is not such a terrifying thing but just a natural progression of life.

An advice you would give to a younger person?

One thing that I would tell a college student is to study abroad, to travel, to build adventures into their education. If they’re convinced they’re ready to go to college then to really create as much variety in that experience as possible. Going into a vocation, a pathway, is being pushed a lot, and there’s value in that because we don’t want people to waste time. But I don’t think learning the guitar, or taking a pottery class, or going to China and studying Chinese for a semester is a distraction. It might not help you be the best engineer or plumber in terms of technically understanding what goes into those things, but for me those create that person who has a better scope of the world, who thinks how do we work within the world, how do we fit in, what they can do in their lives to really enrich it, so I would say really find ways to get engaged outside the classroom. If you’re ready to go to college, look outside the classroom for as many interesting opportunities and “texture” your education with other parts of yourself that you would love to do. If you wanted to be a rock star, and you’ve been convinced that you’re going to be an accountant, as you go to become an accountant, take guitar lessons or join the choir, or do something that is outside of that strict pathway to a job. Those other things are going to nurture you, keep you excited and focused to appreciate why you’re taking the practical route, but they’re also going to help you grow in different ways and meet different kinds of people so you don’t get stuck in a bubble, and I think that’s really a key too, to branch out. I’m a big believer in gap years, I have a son who studied in India, my other two sons studied in Italy. Life is not a straight arrow, your education doesn’t have to be a straight arrow, find ways to be engaged and don’t just live for the future.

Enjoy the twists and the turns, but be bold and adventuresome in your approach, and don’t be afraid to do what you want to do and not just what you feel you have to do to help yourself grow.

A book that influenced you?

Illusions by Richard Bach.

We create all these illusions of differences between cultures, between men and women, between straight and gay, of what we truly accomplish and what we think we can accomplish... So many students have a lot of limits on their dreams, and I think it’s important just to bust through that. This book is about that, we’re capable of so much, if we allow ourselves to move forward, and take step by step to that direction.

Each of us have to tell their own story. I think a lot of us have all this muck on us, and that muck is fear and insecurity and conditioning, and as an educator I try to help these students clear that muck away, I’m not giving them anything they don’t have, but just recognize that who they are is who they are at their best, that’s who they really are, like when the fear is gone, when the muck is gone, when they are just talking with somebody they care about and they’re not worried about what that person is thinking or feeling. To remove that illusion of we are not who we want to be, just to realize we have that ability to be who we want to be, if we could just see through the illusions and to shoot for the stars, to be big, to be bold, to be adventuresome and not to settle for something we really don’t want... but we just think that’s all we’re worth. Take the lid of your dreams and be who you want to be.

 
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