March 1, 2023
"Never hit someone over the head with a hot iron. Wait until it cools so you don't burn them."
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I've often wondered what it would be like teaching philosophy today, something I did a number of years ago back when I still had a beard (the beard not required but it seemed to meet certain expectations of my students). Two philosophy courses were required where I taught so the audience was always captive and certainly not always willing.
I would begin the course by telling students that we were going to be getting into some "big" issues and big questions, but I would also mention that we would be breaking those big notions down into thoughts and ideas that might become quite personal: things that they would be able to discuss but that might make them feel a bit edgy.
"Philosophers often raise questions about God," I might say, "but we might talk about your God and why you believe, or don't believe, in such an entity."
"Some of you have views on abortion and the definition of a human life," I might say. "We'll be talking about that."
And so on: the meaning of life, euthanasia, happiness, morality, ethics, racism, art, politics, feminism, free will.
Finally, I would tell them that a big part of what we'd be doing was to delve deeply into their discomfort zone, to examine things they've never examined, to question things they've been taught, been spoon-fed, had pounded into their heads by friends, family, preachers, teachers, books, movies, or the kook next door they'd grown up with. I would even smile and tell them the course would make them very uncomfortable because we were going to take apart some of their sacred cows and it wouldn't always be clear what we might replace them with. It was necessary, however, in order to get them to think, to have beliefs and thoughts and opinions of their own and something inside of their heads beyond the unthought half-truths of others.
That was all pretty standard stuff back then, but I can't imagine my much younger colleagues of today feeling much of anything other than turmoil.
On the right you have someone like Florida's DeSantis telling them you can't teach about race, you can't teach about gender and sexuality, let alone question the nature of (a Christian) God, and that tenure is abominable and needs to be done away with. I can only imagine what would happen to a professor urging students to question their Christian beliefs – not because they are wrong, but that they simply need to be questioned. The whole liberating notion of a liberal education seems to be something that those on the right find ghastly.
On the left, the so-called "woke" cadre (and, no, I'm not sure what that means, either), we encounter the notion that certain ideas can make students feel uncomfortable, that they can trigger certain emotions and cause hurt feelings. A discussion of death and dying (standard philosophical stuff), for example, is not justifiable when there might be students who've experienced the loss of someone close. It's hurtful. The nature of happiness (I bring in Aristotle here) is non-viable subject-matter in a room full of students who are anything but that. We need to talk about racism and the concepts of discrimination and caste-ing and both the good and bad ways in which we differentiate ourselves from each other, but that might suggest to students in a nasty way that things like justice and fairness and equality can be fluid notions.
The first time I ran into the notion of "triggering" as a bad thing I was somewhat shocked, since, as you can tell from the above, that was a large part of what I thought my job truly was. And it worked. There was discussion; there were arguments; there were emotions, victory, and defeat, with all of it – this was my job – done in a context of respect and understanding (mostly).
I don't know how many times a student would come up to me (often long after the course was over), and tell me how I had turned them from a babbling fool of adolescent nonsense into a thinking, rational being. Of course I knew I hadn't been that successful, but I knew that at the very least they had a good sense of where they had been and the direction they needed to continue to follow.
I think what bothers me the most is that, when this kind of freewheeling, back-and-forth is somehow found to be intolerable in the highest levels of education, we can hardly expect anything different out here in the "real" world. Instead of wielding the finely-honed tools of reason and argumentation to work our way through issues, we have only ridicule and name-calling and character assassination.
We're better than this, but we're a little lost right now.
G.K. Wuori ©2023
Photoillustration by the author