Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why I teach philosophy

Why do I teach? Why do I teach philosophy? I can imagine a hundred worthwhile answers to this question. Teaching offers the opportunity to communicate great ideas to a new generation; teaching in the humanities contributes to the mission of a true university; it helps students to hone their critical thinking skills, hopefully to become better citizens and more self-reflective human beings.

For me, however, the first question isn’t “Why do I teach?” but, “Why philosophy?” Not, that is, “Why did I make philosophy my profession?” or even “Why do I teach philosophy and not something else?” but rather “Where does teaching have its place in my own philosophically driven life?” This is my question because while philosophy is my profession—and a fabulous one at that—it’s no “day job.” I don’t go to class “thinking philosophically,” then head home to think in some other way. No. Philosophy’s a way of life, and there’s no conveying its content in a classroom without exemplifying its value as a way of life—not, at least, for me.

Moreover, I want to persuade my students not only that philosophy is such a way, but that it offers an excellent life. That anyone should call this manipulation or indoctrination is absurd; I can only be persuasive to those whose critical thinking skills equip them to understand the arguments that make philosophy so valuable.

For me, the question must be posed this way because, as peculiar as it may sound, I teach for largely the same reasons I am home to a motley selection of rescue animals, am a committed vegetarian, a long distance runner, a feminist, an environmentalist, and most important of all—a writer. I teach philosophy, in other words, because I really believe its questions are the stuff of the most significant decisions any of us ever make. Questions like “Whom ought I to love?” “What ought I to consume/use?” “What activities contribute to the good life? “What ought I to try to communicate?” are all questions that each of us confronts eventually.

What philosophy offers is a cornucopia of possible responses—but more than this, it offers an example of thousands of year’s worth of people who gave over their lives to struggle with them. It can show us that, no matter how sophisticated we think we are, no matter how shrewd or savvy, questions about why there’s something rather than nothing—and why we’re among the somethings—matter.

Such questions, moreover, are not merely the stuff of our moral quandaries; they inform the content of our creative praxis as well. Fall of 2008, for example, I’ll be teaching both Contemporary Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy and Aesthetic Experience—and I’ll go out of my way to talk my most interested students into taking both courses. Why? Because questions about the nature of consciousness bear on questions about how certain kinds of experience are possible. Taking both courses will enrich my students experience in a fashion that’s not just about the content, not just about my expertise, and not even just about their academic erudition. It will make them think about the connections among our fields, our ideas, our anxieties. Of what must a creature be able to be conscious in order for experience to be aesthetic? What does it mean to say this? Are there creatures other than human beings capable of aesthetic experience?

Perhaps such questions don’t seem to have anything of the “radical” about them. But they do. In fact, they lead right to some of the assumptions we hold precious—even inviolable. Does aesthetic experience require a soul? Is that why it’s unavailable to nonhuman animals? Is it unavailable? What in human experience counts as having aesthetically appreciable qualities? Can violence? Pornography? We’ll read the likes of Plato, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer right along with contemporary theorists—including feminist critics of classic conceptions of rationality, and theater pieces like The Vagina Monologues.

Bravely journeying where an argument leads—and being able to take folks with you—is, methinks, part of the job description of a good teacher. This is not merely a matter of exercising command over one’s subject matter. No doubt, command’s important, but if I cannot exemplify for my students why I care so much about philosophy, why on earth should I expect them to? As an undergraduate at University of Colorado, I had the immense fortune of having a professor who made ideas simply live in his classroom. He thought on his feet; he said things with which I agreed—and lots of things with which I didn’t. He was loud. He was animated. He trashed a tradition I have come to appreciate. But what he didn’t do, didn’t think he was doing, and would have been mortally offended if anyone had suggested it to him, was indoctrinate me. I came away thinking, and I’ve been grateful to him ever since.

This is the sort of teacher I want to be.

I want to ignite my students imaginations, get them to consider possibilities they may never have considered before, and make them think long and hard about what they take for granted. I want them to see that there’s absolutely nothing worth believing if it cannot hold up under scrutiny, the demand for evidence, and an investigation of its logical coherence. Some call this “no sacred cows” approach “the corruption of youth.” Fine. Philosophy’s no comfy reiteration of what our parents taught us. Others call it “liberal.” Of course it is. “Liberal”: Unafraid to consider ideas that are unfamiliar, and willing to consider the possibility that traditions do not justify themselves merely on the backs of their duration.

Some might even call such an approach “leftist,” you know the “boogy-word.” Also fine by me. I know why folks like David Horowitz and his army of anti-academics fire off this word: to shut thinking down. Why do I teach? Because the value of truth is not found in the smug security of those who think they have it, but in the ongoing inquiry into why our lives are improved by the search.

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