We need to teach everyday philosophy
Allow young minds to practice philosophical approaches to ordinary problems rather than force-feeding abstract ideas.
In America we think of philosophy as something foreign, like Mexicans and Moslems, to be barred at the border. It should come as no surprise that our best known contribution to the field is the work of Henry James on pragmatism. Philosophy doesn’t make things, people don’t pay for it and no one who studies it finds employment other than teaching philosophy (which leads us to a loop, like Ouroboros eating his tail.)
Americans live by, although few know it, Emerson’s maxim: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Don’t bother me with what I said yesterday, and certainly don’t waste our time with facts. This was on Twitter, damn it.
Americans live by Emerson’s maxim: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
In part, I suspect, this antipathy stems from the horrible way in which we teach philosophy. I was fortunate to take my first philosophy class from a professor who might well have been a stand-up comic. He conveyed to me, as few attempt, the wealth of humor in Hume. But even he was constrained by tradition: Plato delivered unto us the forms, Aristotle thousands of pages on eveything else. This is materialism, and these are the bullet points…This is solipsism.
This mind-numbing litanyy is delivered with little variation to young minds driven by a single imperative. Get laid. They believe the perfect form can be answered online in three clicks. (Also acceptable? The neon beer bottle at their favorite bar.)
American students believe the perfect form can be answered online in three clicks.
The only professor who asked us to apply philsophy to everyday problems was Jesuit. Which meant the only problems we tackled involved ethics. We never discussed the role of phenomenology in workplace politics or the art of deconstructing an office memo. Or, more important to me, the sexual politics of “just being friends.”
Here is where we fail students. We never explain how to apply the principles of dialectic and deconstruction to dating dynamics (a useful learning exercise):
- How do we determine what a woman means by “let’s be friends?”
- What conditions would determine the boundaries of friendship?
- Should we take her at her word, or recognize that all communication is coded?
- How can we ethically engage this woman as a friend when we remain motivated by sexual desire?
- Is our continued association truly friendship or subterfuge?
Or when discussing how men engage romantically and sexually with women:
- What are the ethical consequences of lying to a woman to sleep with her?
- Is it truly pragmatic to promise to call—postponing the inevtable discussion in which you admit you only wanted to get into her pants which will occur after she texts you three times an hour—or would it not be better—both ethically and to avoid prolonged agony on her part—to say: “I doubt you’ll hear from me again. Ever.”?(?)
Once we raise these questions and begin to work out solutions, then we can ask how the existential principle of authenticity might apply, to what extent could we say dating dynamics reflect the behavior of language games, or even whether or not our desire is for this specific person (as opposed to this person representing to us an idealized form)?
These types of exercises would be difficult to conduct in American classrooms, where discussions of sex are discouraged even more than discussions aboout evolution. But I use them merely as examples. Students face other problems that we could subject to philosophical discourse.
- Under what circumstances should you correct the teacher in class when you know the information presented is wrong?
- Should we devote more time to extracurricular activity or the rote learning exercises required for a class?
- How seriously should we apply ourselves to classes which seem to have no relevance to the future we imagine?
- Should we follow a school policy which we know to be unjust?
I envision this model as the twentieth century version of the Socratic forum. Socrates did not teach his students by saying, “Parmenides was a student of a priori thinking and founded the Eliatic School which stood in stark opposition to empiricists such as Heraclitus.” Even Socrates’ students would have been texting their friends for updates on the games had he done so. Socrates posed problems to students and guided them through their responses.
The primary obstacle to teaching philosophy as Socrates or Plato might have taught it, however, is schools. Students who respond to an order from their PE coaches will quickly discover thinking philosophically leads to running laps. Parents won’t appreciate the ability of their children to deconstruct their sophistry. Schools have a vested interest in student complacency.
America has a vested interest in complacency. That’s why our commercials don’t encourage free inquiry. Commercials remind us to stop thinking and buy more shit.
If you were to explain to an American that conservative thought originated from a philosophical position you will meet a blank stare. Conservatism, many assure me, originated with Jesus who was God almighty and not, by any stretch of the imagination, a philosopher. (That or a statement such as, “conservatives are morons.” “Bombastic morons” if the speaker reads.)
An elegant and insightful remark even the most strident philosopher should recall when preparing to write yet another paper defending one paragraph of his prose, which overlooks the harsh reality that inconsistency is not a goal we should strive to achieve.
Come to think of it, it was an ethics class, so that may have had something to do with his focus. Even so, however, we never discussed how to transfer the broad strokes of philosophical reflection to the problems we face daily.
I know there should be a question mark in this sentence, but there’s too much detritus floating past in my head for me to latch onto the entry: “ending a sentence that ends with a declarative statement in quotations when the sentence is intended as a question.” Nor can I imagine how to Google it.[4a]
But it does raise another question to which we might apply philosophic methods: “How do we ethically and philosophically decide when to follow the accepted rules of grammar and when they do require too much effort to decipher?”
[4a]Which brings us back to Blease’s original question: What are the educational limits of philsophy and what are the limits of Google?
Of course, in the schools I attended, asking this question would not have been perceived by teachers and administration as philosophical inquiry but as heresy, subversion and insubordination.