A Real Education, by Way of Sleight of Hand
October 27, 2004
By MAREK FUCHS
ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Larry Hass was a young professor at
Muhlenberg College here when he approached the
administration with an idea that he feared would be treated
as a joke. Dr. Hass, who normally teaches the standard
courses in philosophy, wanted to teach magic.
Moreover, he wanted to turn Muhlenberg into a center of
magical study. That meant that, in addition to classes
centered on card tricks, folding roses and stage fog,
magicians would be invited to perform on campus and to
explain their craft. Perhaps other professors from a range
of disciplines would lend a hand in the study of magic.
"I was very, very nervous to bring it up to the deans," Dr.
Hass said. "There was the concept and I was also asking for
resources - about $20,000 - which would not be
insignificant." He added wryly that by the time he got up
the courage to lay out his idea and hold out his hand, he
was, by no coincidence, tenured.
Dr. Hass, who tends to let his glasses fall down his nose
as he speaks, said he was pleasantly surprised (even a
little shocked) that the administration agreed to his
"My first reaction," said Curtis Dretsch, then dean of the
faculty and now a theater professor, "was that this might
be a little unusual in an institution of this kind. But on
a fundamental level, Larry was talking about exploring a
different way of thinking about the things we were already
thinking about. "
Part of Dr. Hass's proposal was that he would use magic as
a lens to look at more traditional subjects - from
philosophy to the psychology of perception to how history
can be told through trends in magic and how audience
attention can be manipulated.
The goal would be to teach tricks but also to trick
students into learning. Deception would become a teaching
The magic program began five years ago with two courses
that Dr. Hass feared would not fill. They did, with three
times as many prospective students as spots. Professor
Dretsch was braced for phone calls from parents asking why
their children were studying levitation and accusing the
college of becoming gimmicky. But no phone calls ever came,
he said, and Dr. Hass's magic program even started to
attract professors from other fields.
"There was hesitancy," said Susan Schwartz, a religion
professor who is one of several faculty members weaving the
study of magic into their courses. She added that teachers
always needed someone to help them look at and teach their
disciplines from fresh perspectives. "I hope I'm considered
a grenade-thrower like Larry," she said. "I teach a course
on the religion of 'Star Trek.' "
On a recent day, Dr. Hass's students arrived early for
class and milled about, discussing the finer points of
three-card monte and sawing a body in half.
The magician Juan Tamariz had spent the better part of the
week giving lectures and shows on campus, and Dr. Hass
spoke to the class about Mr. Tamariz's Mad Hatter stage
persona and how the students might look within themselves
to find their own. The tickets to his events were so hot on
campus, said Scott Rodrigue, a freshman, that those with
extras had dating currency.
"You can get a hot date because of magic here," he said,
shaking his head.
After deconstructing Mr. Tamariz, Dr. Hass made reference
to Houdini's magical escapes as a metaphor for the European
immigrant experience of the 1930's and gave a lesson on
capturing and holding an audience's attention.
"By the way," he advised at one point, "all the rules of
art are made to be broken. You just have to come up with a
really good reason for breaking them."
Dr. Hass, 44, knows that he is probably not training many
future David Copperfields. Though several students had good
potential, he said that if a student came to him seeking
advice about becoming a professional magician, he would
offer words of caution, though he would offer similar
advice to students thinking of going to graduate school to
Kim Swaneveld, a senior theater-philosophy major, has
worked summers as a magician's assistant. She said that
despite her practical experience with magic, Dr. Hass got
her to think about it theoretically and in a wider way.
She has also taken philosophy classes from Dr. Hass, where
she said he was more serious and less animated. Marc Rogol,
a senior theater major, said he was always interested in
magic and was still amazed that he happened upon what he
considers to be a trade school within a small liberal arts
And Kim David, a sophomore, said that her goal by the end
of the semester was to "pull lollipops out of my mouth,
hopefully." She said that her parents were supportive,
adding that because she is a theater major, they are used
to paying good money "for me to be up on a stage."
Dr. Hass said his fascination with magic began in his
mid-30's when he happened upon a television magician while
flipping channels. He called his young son to the
television, assuming that the boy would be amused, if not
enthralled. His son had no interest.
But Dr. Hass, whose philosophical specialty is in
phenomenology, was hopelessly taken. "Magic had always been
quietly pushed into a box marked kids stuff/naÔve," Dr.
Hass said, but in its experiential nature and with its
undercurrent of wonderment, there were direct links-up to a
point-with his own field of study.
"All philosophy begins with wonder," he said, "then you
bring in reason and wonder disappears."
Dr. Hass threw himself into the study of the field, from
theories on misdirection to the basics of pulling a coin
from ears. He read everything he could find and even called
famous magicians to ask them questions.
His wife, Marjorie Hass, formerly a philosophy professor at
the school and now its provost, said with a laugh that she
was not too concerned that her husband, then untenured, was
spending his time on magic, rather than publishing papers.
"It was not a discipline taught in the academy," she said,
but she added that she felt he was onto something in
studying it, especially because there was a strong link
with his focus on phenomenology. And throwing himself
headlong into a subject is her husband's way, she added,
noting that when they met as graduate students, he was
obsessed with pulp magazines of the 1930's and busied
himself contacting retired cartoonists, asking men in their
80's and 90's to come to conferences.
Now, Dr. Hass said with a touch of wonderment, "Magic has
become part of my day job."