Liberty High Teacher Sustains the Art of Thought

In a fast-fix world, a philosophy educator and environmentalist takes the long view

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

David Butler stands at the front of a second-floor Liberty High classroom in running shoes, track pants and a black T-shirt. The walls are littered with multicolored maps and posters of famous men, including Sitting Bull and Albert Einstein. He’s holding open an austere book to the first chapter, titled, “What do you mean, ‘Philosophy’?”

“True or false,” Butler says. “Philosophy is something you do.” A couple of mumbles issue from the 30-odd sophomores, juniors and seniors facing him. Most peer into the heavy tomes on their desks for an answer. “True. It’s a do-it-yourself enterprise. You live it, you breathe it, it becomes you.”

Philosophy does, indeed, become Butler. As Southern Nevada’s only high school teacher of the subject, he bears the ember of a dying—and, some would argue, precious—art: self-reflection, minus the idle navel-gazing engendered by Facebook. What better vessel to pass on the flame than a gruff, good-humored jock?

Butler lives his philosophy on the move. Besides teaching philosophy and U.S. history, he coaches Liberty’s boys and girls track-and-field teams (“Our men are back-to-back regional champs; third in state last year”) and advises its environmental-awareness club. He is also a teaching consultant for the National Geographic-sponsored Geographic Alliance of Nevada.

The environmental-awareness club advocates for recycling and takes part in community events such as National Trails Day, which takes place this year on June 7. Last year, the club received an official commendation from the City of Henderson for “green efforts, recycling, student leadership and promoting the agenda of sustainability.”

Butler added the commendation to a growing mountain of accolades, most of them having to do with his eco-mentoring and teaching. In October, he was recognized as one of a few dozen local teachers who had made a positive difference in UNLV freshmen’s lives. A former student nominated Butler for the award. “My students have made me a better person along the way,” he says. “Education is not a one-way street.”

Nor was it a direct route for Butler, the son of a showgirl who danced at the Thunderbird and Dunes hotels and a trombonist who played with Tommy Dorsey. After graduating from Basic High School in 1988, he headed to Rockhurst College in Kansas City with the intention of going to law school.

Instead, 10 years and several jobs—including captaining recreational boats in St. Thomas and the Jersey Shore—later, he wound up back in his hometown, at UNLV, working on a master’s degree in education and waiting tables at Landry’s Seafood House. The time to roam had brought clarity, and Butler was on the path that would ultimately bring him to Liberty.

Butler’s experience out in the world translates to the classroom, where he is in command and at ease, moving seamlessly from a CNN news video on anti-homosexuality laws in Russia to a discussion of the Bill of Rights. He keeps students’ interest, controlling the conversation with a light grip. Kids argue with each other across the room, but they’re on topic.

“No one can take that away from you boys and girls,” he says, underlining a point at the end of the chapter by slamming the book closed. “They can take away your freedom, but they can’t take away your personal philosophy.”

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