Benjamin H. Levi ’83

Interview by Christian Feuerstein ’94

Benjamin LeviThe Center for the Protection of Children at Penn State University was launched in 2011 under tragic circumstances—the indictment (and later conviction) of retired assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, for child sexual abuse. Antioch alumnus Dr. Benjamin H. Levi ’83, a highly published expert in the area of mandated reporting of suspected child abuse, recently was named director of the Center. Dr. Levi talks to us about his current work, his experience as an Antiochian, and the common threads that connect them.

You were a philosophy major, correct? How did you hear of Antioch College?
I found out about Antioch from my mom [Frances Degen Horowitz ’54]. Like her, I was a philosophy major, and like her, I studied with George Geiger. George was a great teacher . . . and a bit of a curmudgeon. (Laughs) If you said to him, “Have a nice day, George,” he’d typically reply, “Thanks, I have other plans.”

It was George who told me that to graduate as a philosophy major, I’d have to go somewhere outside Antioch to take additional classes. He suggested that, rather than just go to consortium schools, I spend a year abroad in St. Andrews, where I wound up taking several years’ worth of philosophy courses over three trimesters.

Antioch to St. Andrews sounds like quite a departure.
Well, yes and no. I had never encountered haggis before. But the Scots have a strong tradition of being adventurous, determined, and yet still pretty easygoing.

What were your favorite co-ops?
I can’t say that one was my favorite. But my first co-op was particularly eye opening. I was down in Mississippi, in a very small rural community called Freedom Village. My responsibilities ranged from fieldwork, to writing a grant, to helping build a store—in addition to just learning about life in the (Mississippi) Delta. I met some really dedicated and fascinating people there, one of whom was in a bad relationship that ended in her being shot by her husband one Sunday morning. [Myself] and a woman I worked with ran to the house as first responders, and then travelled to the hospital where she died a few hours later. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget.

I also worked in a research lab in Portland, Oregon, doing surgery on sheep to study fetal breathing and its relation to sudden infant death syndrome. For six months, I was in San Francisco, working as a play therapist on a pediatric ward. Then, when I was in Scotland, because I used to cook professionally, I was able to finagle a job as a pastry chef and have that count. And for my final co-op I worked at the Antioch School teaching science while I wrote my philosophy senior thesis on the relationship between human flourishing and “luxury.”

What lasting effects does your Antioch education have on you?
I would say that my Antioch experience informs most all the work that I do, which easily fits the moniker of “translational research.” The fact is that an Antioch education epitomizes the Dewey’s conception of praxis, where the academic enterprise and real world experience are in constant flux of reciprocal feedback. It’s a paradigm that not only fuels imagination; it’s a model for “translational education” that frames how I look at the world.

Talk about your work at the Center.
The tragedy at Penn State opened many people’s eyes to a problem that exists throughout society; and as importantly, it has empowered many people to begin talking openly about child abuse. We’ve also seen a major mobilization of resources to address this issue.

At the Center for the Protection of Children, this includes expanding our clinical team to evaluate and treat children who have been abused; recruiting new faculty and staff to develop multi-disciplinary research initiatives; and also collaborating with others in the field to create meaningful and effective educational and outreach programs. My own emphasis is to help promote responses to child abuse that are reflective rather than reactive, and that result in responsible, effective action.

Any advice for the current students at Antioch?
My experience is that Antioch typically attracts students who think broadly and unconventionally. What the Antioch experience did for me was to help me better see and explore connections between things that on paper look disparate—be it knowledge, events, or personal experiences. Over the years, I’ve really come to appreciate that by integrating traditional learning with lived experience, a more meaningful storyline emerges. The richness of this integration is something that I draw on every day in the work I do as an academic physician trying to develop better responses to real-world problems such as child abuse.