One Advantage to Teaching Philosophy

One advantage—one distinct advantage—of teaching philosophy in the United States is that American students, by and large, don’t know philosophy from a hole in the ground. Or perhaps a cave. Teaching philosophy to freshmen is like trying to unchain the prisoners in Plato’s famous allegory; they’ve no idea what’s in store for them.

Now, you might reply, understandably enough, “Wait a short minute, Bobro, is it not much preferable to have students who already have some acquaintance with the subject matter? Imagine teaching mathematics to freshmen who don’t know long division or simple algebra. Moreover, why in the world would you as a philosopher want your students to be in a position analogous to Plato’s prisoners?! Recall that these prisoners resisted mightily to enlightenment.” Undoubtedly, there’s some wisdom behind this reply, though teaching math to students from scratch can surely be exhilarating. Recall Socrates’ conversation about geometry with the boy in Plato’s Meno. However, the advantage to which I refer is a unique one.

I cannot think of another subject taught in American colleges where most students enter class knowing nothing—or what practically amounts to nothing—about that subject on the first day of class. Math, biology, history, physics, art, sociology, English… name it, students know something about it. Or at least they think they know something about it; students in philosophy don’t even think they know what philosophy is. While the former subjects are either explicitly taught in K-12 schools or are used implicitly in the curriculum, philosophy is rarely taught in K-12 education in the United States. Philosophical thinking is also rarely exemplified. Take, for example, Euclidean geometry. Geometry is taught in middle and high schools, but are Euclid’s assumptions as found in his famous definitions and axioms discussed and critiqued? He defines a line as “breadthless length.” (Say that 10 times.) What does this mean? What is a line, really? A really existing thing or a purely theoretical construct? Have you ever encountered an exactly straight line? If not, then the sum of the interior angles of any triangles you’ve encountered has never actually been 180 degrees. Have you ever encountered a line? For if it’s truly breadthless, you couldn’t actually see it. Now, these are in fact philosophical questions that middle and high schoolers can certainly understand and even enjoy exploring. However, such inquiry is generally absent from American schools. (I daresay that if such questions were asked, more students would enjoy mathematics. But that’s for a subsequent post.)

In France, where Descartes is a cultural hero, all Lycée students read the Meditations, or so I’ve been told. In Germany, all students in Gymnasia read Kant. In England, I’ve seen philosophers go at it on primetime talk shows. Even though I’ve seen the Australian philosopher Peter Singer on The Colbert Report, and, many years ago, the long dead Irish Bishop and philosopher George Berkeley mentioned briefly on ABC’s daytime soap opera General Hospital, in the U.S., philosophers are far less visible in popular culture as they are, for instance, in European countries.

However, this one distinct advantage of teaching philosophy in the U.S. comes with a distinct drawback. Since so many students have no clue about philosophy until they take that first college course, that first teacher can have a disproportionate effect of that student’s relationship to philosophy. If the teacher is dogmatic, wishy-washy, overbearing, inattentive, boring, dispassionate, this can seriously turn a student off of philosophy, sometimes permanently. I’ve met several people who hate philosophy; typically, the explanation is that they have taken one class in philosophy and their teacher was horrible.

Let me issue a caveat. Technically, so far, my analysis is broadly accurate; pragmatically, my analysis is off-base. For even though pre-college American students are not exposed to philosophy proper, I believe that most of them have probably philosophized at some point. As children, many have asked and attempted to answer the deepest questions about any number of topics:

By not telling the truth, I just got what I so badly wanted. So what exactly is wrong with lying? Is it always wrong?

Where is great-grandma?! What is death?

When are we going to arrive? Does time actually slow down?

I think that there are a number of reasons why children stop philosophizing. First and probably foremost, there is parent, teacher, and even peer pressure to quit asking and attempting to answer the tough—annoyingly tough—”why” questions, rudimentary as such inquiry may have been. Such pressure is largely institutionalized. We are told from a very young age to listen to our elders, not to question them, except in an acceptable, namely superficial, fashion. A second reason, as I see it, is the early use of grades, often as early as first grade. Children, as a result, learn to play it safe and not take chances with challenging their teacher, lest they are downgraded and ranked lower than other students. A competitive, evaluated environment is antithetical to open and free inquiry. My best college students often went to schools that didn’t use grades, such as some charter and private schools, were homeschooled, or in some cases even unschooled.

So why is teaching neophytes an advantage? The newness of doing philosophy captivates students so much. Students get to do things they have never really been allowed to do before in a generally safe and accepting environment. They are allowed to question authority, whatever form it comes in, be it parent, family, tradition, culture, religion, or government. Indeed, they are able to question anything they want, including philosophy itself! Philosophy is the only discipline that allows practitioners to question their own practice; or to put it another way, philosophy potentially carries the seeds of its own destruction. This can get a bit out of hand, as you can well imagine, so sometimes I redirect the direction of the class. But the point is that students feel free to do so, and this is a wonderful feeling for them, and for the teacher. At least for this teacher.