The teaching meme

I’ve been tagged by P.D. with the “Why do you teach and why is academic freedom critical to that effort?” meme; so here goes.

I too am first inclined to the glib response, that I teach because I’m a philosopher, and how the hell else am I going to make a living doing that? But in addition to that, I suppose I can say something less glib.

As central as any motivation to my teaching is the idea of helping and encouraging students to make the turn to being their own (semi) mature and (quasi) rational selves, in charge of what they believe, and not either mere followers of or reactions to the system of beliefs given to them by their parents and culture.

This came up explicitly a couple of years ago: The Dean’s Office at my university runs some summer orientation programs for incoming students and their parents, and one of the functions is a lunch for just the parents (maybe 150-200 of them) and any faculty they can talk into coming. The dean says a few words, there’s lunch, and then some member of the faculty (taken off the list of recent teaching award winners, apparently) gives a light little after-lunch 10-15 minute talk of some kind of general interest. And in this case, that was me.

I’d seen a friend (who’s a terrific teacher) do one of these before, and he’d done a nice and comforting bit on being the parent of a kid looking at colleges himself, and seeing the process from both sides and all that. But that’s not me.

So, I told them what I think is true: That views on politics, religion, ethics, metaphysics, or anything else like that never really become yours until you get to that place where you at least seriously confront the possibility that you’re profoundly wrong in what you think; and that it’s the path you take away from that moment of doubt that makes the view your own, whether that path is back to something like you started from, or totally in the opposite direction. And perhaps my most important job as a teacher of philosophy is to get them to that critical point, and give them a few signs pointing to the various paths back down from there.

So as parents, I was telling them that I took my job to be to make their kids think that everything they’d learned so far — from teachers, parents, whomever — might well be completely wrong, and then give them some guidance on finding their way back from that wilderness — all in the guise of supporting their autonomous flourishing, of course. And so if their jock daughter came home dressed in black saying she was an existentialist, or their nice blue-state son came home listening to Rush, then I was doing my job, because my job was to get them to question the things they thought they knew. If all goes well, they should pretty much think everything that their parents taught them was crap pretty soon. And if they did that, and continue to search and grow in their thinking, eventually they’d come to realize —- like we did — that only about half of it was totally wrong.

The parents seemed range in reaction between getting it and laughing along on the one hand, to getting uncomfortable and laughing nervously on the other. And although I might have misread her, the dean seemed more on the uncomfortable end of this range, since the point of these things is to make parents comfortable, not to tell them the truth. But I think that’s what I did.

So the importance of academic freedom is absurdly obvious: I think it’s my job to expose students to things that confront and contradict some of their most deeply treasured beliefs; without academic freedom, those seem like exactly the things I’m most likely to lose the ability to do.

(A little postscript: As I passed a bit of an age milestone recently, I am more self-conscious about the fact that I’m doing old guy things. One of these is answering requests for my views about something by recounting an anecdote.)

28. January 2008 by Ron
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