Habib: I have a photo of Machiavelli on my desk

Assistant Professor of Philosophy reveals the roots of his admiration for Plato, Machiavelli, and the philosophic mind.

Habib puts himself into character to articulate the difficult concepts of The Prince for his students. Photo Credit: Alexandra Riewer

By Alexandra Riewer

Dr. Khalil Habib stands before his class in a suit coat, blue Oxford button-down shirt, red tie and pressed khaki slacks. The sun beams through the windows lining a classroom on the second floor of O’Hare Academic Center. The building overlooks a vast, green lawn extending to the historic Newport Cliff Walk and drops down to the clear blue of the Narragansett Bay, and eventually the expansive Atlantic Ocean. He begins by exuberantly asking his students how they are doing and if they are ready to go. “Do you want to do some exercises?!” Habib exclaims. He unfortunately has to cancel class on Monday, and a student in the back of the room jokingly sobs at this heartbreaking news.

A warm day of a New England spring has finally graced the students of Salve Regina University, and one would assume they would rather be lying on the beach than sitting in a desk. But this thought does not seem to faze any of the students of Habib’s Philosophy and Responsibility class on this Wednesday afternoon as he effortlessly holds their attention with Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, a political treatise where pragmatic ends are the purpose to gaining and maintaining power.

Habib has earned the reputation of a difficult professor, but one whose class students will learn the difficult readings of Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Aristotle – just to name a few. One of his trademark teaching styles is his ability to put himself into character of each of the philosophers. Habib gives the illusion that he holds the views of such radical thinkers, but constantly reminds the students that he actually does not. He has difficulty choosing a favorite philosopher, but if he had to, he says he would choose Plato for his irony, comprehensive analysis, and respect for the mind of philosophy.

Habib has been assistant professor of philosophy at Salve Regina University for five years now. His love for philosophy and political science is easily recognized in the classroom as he reads exuberantly from The Prince. Dr. Lois Eveleth, chair of the philosophy chair at Salve Regina, interviewed Habib when he applied for the job. “He oozes enthusiasm for teaching and loves the students,” Eveleth says. “He erupts in the classroom.”

But one may wonder how a professor at make learning philosophy so exciting for students. Habib practices the Socratic Method with his students by asking questions and getting them engaged in the reading instead of just telling them the answers. “I never in my life have felt so passionate about something,” Habib says of teaching. “Once I discovered philosophy, I just loved it. And that’s when I realized if I wanted students to do well I had to get them to enjoy the reading.” He also admits that he was not always the best student, and the only way he would apply himself is if he were engaged. His teaching is derived from experience, he says.

His passion for philosophy is not only evident in his classroom but is also present in his devotion to writing. Over the past academic year, Habib has been working on a book that is currently under review with the University of Kentucky Press titled The History of Cosmopolitanism. With chapters on Plato, Kant, Rousseau, and other thinkers, he hopes his book will be reviewed favorably and published by the end of the summer.

Habib did not know how passionate he would be about philosophy until his sophomore year of college at the University of Maine when he says he took Dr. Michael Palmer’s introduction to political philosophy class. Palmer still remembers his pupil. “Khalil as a student is he pretty much how he is today,” Palmer says. “He is excessively enthusiastic about things. When he stumbled upon political science, he was a changed person.”

Although teaching and philosophy are two of his greatest passions, Habib considers his family his greatest accomplishment. He is currently married, and he and his wife Cressida have two boys, Jordan, 10, and John Owen, 8, and are living in Saunderstown, R.I. His two sons were responsible for his decision to teach at Salve Regina. “I drove down to Newport, we were living in Brookline at the time, with my family and my boys said to me, ‘Dad, you have to work here, it is so beautiful’” Habib says. “I actually told the people in my interview, ‘I have never before driven my family to a job interview and they are right outside. I’d better get this job.’” He and his family immediately fell in love with the campus and he wanted to be a part of it.

He met his wife at a party in New York City back in 1999 where he immediately thought she was the most brilliant woman he had ever met. She also has a diverse background having grown up in the Bahamas, and she loves the works of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. They had only been dating seven or eight months before they decided to get married.

Habib also loves to travel with his family, and they most recently traveled to Turkey and Greece. Aside from traveling, Habib practices martial arts and continues to follow this passion in the morning before coming to teach. He recalls still being able to crawl when his father first introduced him to the art back when he lived in the Middle East. His son Jordan is about to receive his black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu.

Habib’s enthusiasm for philosophy and political science has strong roots in his Middle Eastern background. He was born the second of four children in 1974 in Lattakia, Syria. He and his family moved around many times, living in Lebanon, as well as Bahrain, a small island off the coast of Saudi Arabia. At the age of 9, Habib and his family came to the United States. “It was a dream of the family’s to come to America,” Habib says. “For my mother, America was the peak of it all.”

When they arrived in the States, Habib and his family first lived in Houston, Texas, where his father was a developer. As he recalls, the first thing they wanted to do when they got to America was go to McDonald’s. “We thought ‘This is it. We’ve made it.’ I’ll never forget it,” Habib says. “I got a Happy Meal. And it came with a toy.”

After only one year in Houston, the Habibs moved again to Augusta, Maine, where he attended Cony High School. His favorite subject was English literature with Mr. Hilliard. “I remember distinctly that he taught the way I teach now,” Habib says. “He would open a book, read it, and examine it. I remember it was The Great Gatsby.”

He played soccer and tennis in high school and was also very interested in playing guitar. When asked how his brothers and sisters would describe him, Habib immediately responds as funny and the class clown. He says his first paid job (that he actually enjoyed) was doing comedy skits at the high school, aside from bussing tables at the Middle Eastern Restaurant his family owned in Hallowell, Maine. He couldn’t believe he could get paid to do it. His humor nonetheless continues to carry over into his classroom.

After high school, he attended the University of Maine where he majored in political science. There he played football for half a season his freshman year and made the team trying out as a walk-on. His brother played as well, but was recruited. “My brother was so much bigger and so much more athletic in football,”

Habib says. “So I worked out all summer and just worked my heart out. I said ‘Alright, I’m going to walk on.’ He said I would never make it, and I did.”

Habib’s gumption continued even after he quit the football team when he took Palme

r’s political philosophy course. Habib attributes his love for philosophy to Palmer and the second he met Palmer, he knew he wanted to be a teacher. Had he not taken his course he would have transferred, he says. “When I saw Michael Palmer teaching Plato and Aristotle and connecting it to the world around me,” Habib says. “I thought, ‘Wow. I didn’t know you could do this.’ The best teachers in my life have shown me alternative ways of looking at the world in an engaging way.”

Palmer had known Habib a year when he realized how truly passionate Habib was about political philosophy. At the time, Palmer was at Harvard over a summer when Habib called him up saying he was going to be in Boston. “He asked if I had any spare time, and he actually ended up staying two or three days,” Palmer says. “We stayed up late talking political philosophy and gossiping about political philosophers.” Palmer quotes Socrates: “Gossip is a sign of a philosophic soul.” Most people who are interested in philosophy are interested in the lives of the philosophers as well, he says. This is exactly the case with Habib. “He always wanted to hear stories,” Palmer recalls.

The two philosophy fanatics still remain great friends, and earlier this spring Palmer invited Habib back to University of Maine to give a lecture. Palmer recalls how surprised he was because Habib started to talk about his time back at University of Maine and began by making jokes to calm himself down. “I believe he was having a surreal experience being on the side of the lecturer and seeing me on the side of the audience in the classroom,” Palmer says. Habib was honored to be able to lecture at his Alma mater, and he actually got choked up. “It surprised me,” Palmer says. “He doesn’t come across as the emotional type.”

After graduating from the University of Maine, Habib attended University of Toronto to receive his master’s in political science. While living in New York City for some time thereafter, Habib met another close friend Dr. Mark Kremer through whom he actually met his wife, Cressida. Kremer got a job as a professor at Boston University and Habib decided to follow to get his PhD in philosophy. While finishing his PhD, he also taught classes at BU and Brandeis.

Aside from his love for philosophy, Habib has also done consulting work with his brother in the Middle East. “We’re fluent in the language and we know the area,” Habib says. While in graduate school, they worked with clients to serve as consultants for their business overseas.

His Middle Eastern background also contributed to Salve Regina’s decision to hire him back in 2004, Eveleth says. “His background is very broad and he has a good knowledge of the history of philosophy,” she says. “But especially his background in the Middle East is very important. Anything after 9/11 made our school need to know more about the Middle East. He knows a lot from the philosophical and political point of view.” Not to mention his family’s strong religious background. His sensitivity of religion to one’s life put him in a unique position, especially at a school like Salve Regina, Eveleth says.

Habib plans to stay teaching at Salve Regina for many years to come. He also continues to work on his writing and get students involved in his research. His love for travel will be fulfilled this summer when he takes a group of students from Salve Regina to Oxford for a four week study abroad program. “I love traveling with my students. Do you know anyone who has studied abroad with me,” he asks. Unfortunately, I do not. “I give it my all. I am so passionate about it. I get them out of their rooms, help them see the country and get over their fears.” Habib is also teaching a special topics course in philosophy and literature, and cannot wait, he says. Just give him more brains to mold and fall in love with philosophy just the way he did when he was in college.

2 Comments »

  1. Dr Michael Palmer, PhD said

    Very nice article about your well-earned success, Khalil. Congratulations.

    • Khalil said

      Thank you, Michael. And many thanks for turning me onto the best life a human being could live. See you soon, Khalil

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