“How does your ego handle the fact that some people really don’t give a shit about your lifetime academic pursuit?”
When I was an M.A. student in philosophy at King’s College London in ’90, some undergraduate students complained to me in confidence that if their philosophy professors discovered that they weren’t interested in becoming professional philosophers—these students were in fact interested only in obtaining a B.A., in whatever discipline—then they would be promptly failed. Hailing from the U.S., I was a bit shocked, where many students go to college simply to get a bachelor’s, and American professors generally don’t fail them for this reason. One explanation is straightforward: the percentage of British students who attend college is much lower than in the U.S., and was even more so in 1990. So those who go to college are expected to take it very seriously. Another explanation is that if an American professor did such a thing, she or he would be fired. At any rate, the result is that I, as a professor in the U.S., get many students who are really not interested in my chosen discipline. Moreover, I can’t just fail the apathetic ones.
Some students just don’t “give a shit” at all. When I encounter such a student, I typically react in one of three very different ways:
a) with sadness,
b) with indifference, or
c) with frustration.
Which reaction I have depends largely on why the student doesn’t give a shit.
(Selling “Philosophy” on the Shopping Network!)
Let’s address reaction (a) first: sadness. Philosophy, at least initially, makes many students uncomfortable, especially students who have never questioned, or were not allowed to question, authority figures, such as parents and elders, about reality, religion, ethics, free will, and the like. At St. Anselm College, a Catholic college in New England where I taught for three years, I asked several classes about whether their parents or elders allowed them to question them on such matters. Very few students said yes. I believe that in one particular class only one student said yes, and to this day I remember his full name. (For what it’s worth, he’s now a Catholic priest.) The response at St. Anselm College was particularly extreme, but on my understanding of and my experience in American education, generally students are molded to question their teachers as little as possible, to listen and take good notes instead of engaging with teachers and peers, and of course to do well on standardized tests. Very little philosophy is offered, and very little philosophizing goes on, before college. One college roommate I had thought Plato was still alive. American education, by and large, is a system of inculcation rather than a pathway to satisfy a student’s curiosity and interests. As a result, American students have little understanding of what philosophers do. So the fact that almost all students at St. Anselm were raised Catholic is at best a partial explanation of the response I received. At any rate, it’s difficult to begin to philosophize if you’ve never experienced it, much less done it. And, because such students don’t have a clue about philosophy, it’s often the case that they also don’t give a shit about my discipline.
In cases where a student has no clue about what I do, my reaction is usually one of sadness. For this cluelessness means that the student has lived 17 years of their life with no real exposure to philosophy, all the while going to school. Education is mandatory in “The States”; if someone aged 5-17 is not going to a public or a private school, he or she had better be homeschooled. By the time they reach college, students are exposed to mathematics, literature, history, politics, religion, geography, biology, physics, chemistry, sociology, theater, art, and music. Given our obsession with earthquakes in California, students here also learn about geology. But for the most part students have never heard of René Descartes. Descartes is a national hero in France; all children know of him. Who in the U.S. knows of our own philosophers, such as William James or Willard Van Orman Quine? For the purposes of clarification, I am not insisting that philosophy be compulsory. Rather, I am lamenting the fact that while so many other subjects are required, why isn’t philosophy included on that list? (In fact, I am one of those wacky educational reformists who thinks that no subject should be compulsory, even philosophy, but that’s a topic for a future post.)
Let’s now look at (b): indifference. As a student, isn’t it great to have a teacher who is passionate about her or his chosen discipline? I’m passionate about mine. But it is a different matter entirely when a teacher desires every student in her or his class to share in this passion. “Isn’t math the greatest?!” Perhaps it is, but math isn’t for everyone. Nor is philosophy. One’s lifetime pursuit is not for everyone, nor should it be. To put this point another way, there’s some truth to Plato’s “noble lie” or “magnificent myth” of the metals.
In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates says to Glaucon: “All of you in the city are certainly brothers,” we shall say to them in telling the tale [of the metals], “but the god, in fashioning those of you who are competent to rule, mixed gold in at their birth; this is why they are most honored; in auxiliaries, silver; iron in the farmers and bronze in the other craftsmen. So, because you’re all related, although for the most part you’ll produce offspring like yourselves, it sometimes happens that a silver child will be born from a golden parent, a golden child from a silver parent, and similarly all the others from each other. Therefore, the god commands the rulers first and foremost to be of nothing such good guardians and to keep over nothing so careful a watch as the children, seeing which of these metals is mixed in their souls. And, if a child of theirs should be born with an admixture of bronze or iron, by no manner of means are they to take pity on it, but shall assign the proper value to its nature and thrust it out among the craftsmen or the farmers; and, again, if from these men one should naturally grow who has an admixture of gold or silver, they will honor such ones and lead them up, some to the guardian group, others to the auxiliary, believing that there is an oracle that the city will be destroyed when an iron or bronze man is its guardian” (Plato, Republic, 415a-c).
Believing in this myth, Socrates predicts, “would have a good effect, making people more inclined to care for the State and one another.” Plato himself may or may not have taken this “magnificent myth” as truth; nonetheless, the good or harmony of his Republic depends on its citizens engaging in different roles. In other words, the ideal State is a socially stratified one, and most certainly not one where everyone is engaged in philosophy.
So, when a student understands the discipline of philosophy in a basic way, and has perhaps even taken prior classes in philosophy, but finds little that is galvanizing about it or personally useful, I tend to shrug my shoulders and think, “whatever.” In this case, my reaction, or lack thereof, is one of apathy. Again, my lifetime pursuit is not for everyone. I mean, who’s going to work on my car? The only exception is when it’s clear to me that a student has a particular penchant and/or affinity for philosophizing and has not yet recognized it as such. Some students believe mistakenly that philosophy is not their passion.
Finally, let’s consider reaction (c): frustration. Some students don’t give a shit about philosophy because they have been exposed to philosophy, or what they take to be philosophy, and have concluded that philosophy is shitty. There are a number of reasons why students join my class with such a view. Sometimes philosophy is required. For instance, all students at St. Anselm had to take three philosophy classes. At the Univ. of Washington, Practical Reasoning or Logic was required of many students, and the Philosophy Department took on the bulk of those classes. At SBCC, Introduction to Philosophy and Ethics satisfy certain requirements for many majors. Sometimes, albeit rarely, students take a class in order to challenge the professor. This isn’t so much a problem in philosophy, because not many students know about philosophy prior to college. But in some departments, such as Political Science, this is a serious problem. Conservative students will, on occasion, take a course from a known liberal professor in order to challenge her or his political views. Now, students who already think that philosophy is a waste of time, or some such, come in two groups—the quiet and the loud: those who keep their misgivings and cynicism about philosophy to themselves and silently simmer away in class, and those who are outspoken and want the whole class to know that they have problems with the discipline of philosophy. Regarding the former group—the quiet—I just do what I normally do, with the hope that my passion somehow rubs off on them and that my teaching “works its magic.” I know that this is pretty much a pipe-dream, but sometimes it actually works. During the semester or at the end, or even a year later, I’ve had students tell me that I changed their prejudices about philosophy. Regarding the latter group—the loud—well, then me just say that I relish a challenge. So when an outspoken naysayer, a critic of philosophy, takes my class, I admit that I tend to fight back. I will defend my chosen discipline against all comers. One way I do this is by preparing specially for the kinds of criticisms that I know I will receive. I come into class with a “game face,” similar to the kind of approach I took to refereeing soccer matches. I knew that opposing coaches, parents, and sometimes even players would challenge me. I was ready for them. Unbeknownst to them, I would actually look forward to matches. Bring it on.
Ultimately, students don’t give a shit about my “lifetime pursuit” for several different reasons. And depending on the reason, I react differently: sometimes with sadness, other times with indifference, and at others frustration. I do have hope that such students will change their minds, but I have no false hope about this. Some students will not change their minds, and that’s perfectly fine.