Teaching Philosophy, Honestly

As best I can recall, Wittgensten wrote a short letter to Norman Malcolm when Malcolm earned his Ph. D.  It went something like this:

Congratulations to your PhD.  And now may you cheat neither yourself nor your students.  Because, unless I am very much mistaken, that is what will be expected of you.

There may have been a bit more.  My memory fails me.  But just this touches the problem.  How can you teach without cheating yourself or your students?  Exasperated a little by my students, I wrote to them today and said:

You have to decide:  do you want an education–a real education, or do you just want a diploma?  And if you just want a diploma, go and get it in someone else’s class, please:  I don’t care a whit about your diploma.  But I do care about your education.

The problem here is a kind of knot.  Our students all too often want us to cheat them, or are willing to let us; and we all too often want them to want us to cheat them, or are willing to let them want us to cheat them, or be willing to let us cheat them.  And so it goes.

7 responses

  1. to be fair to your students they probably don’t have any way to, and or experiences that would lead them to, really not just understand the choice you are offering but see it as containing two live options. A “real” education is likely something not just foreign to them but actually goes against their ingrained socialization/habituation as students and even if they were willing to take a leap of faith with you (a relative stranger) , and perhaps taking a stance against previous teachers and parents, they would have to have some capacity for a willing suspension of disbelief and a tolerance, if not a taste, for the anxiety of not-knowing, and this kind of maturity/tolerance is a rare strain even among much older folks.

  2. dmf, Many students don’t understand the choice, some do but only (as it were) through a glass darkly…

    I reckon a real education is something that goes against the grain for us all. That’s one reason why I believe we faculty are at least as much to blame as the students: really to educate our students would involve really educating ourselves, and that goes against the grain. Acknowledging our own ignorance is costly for us all, but I am Socratic enough to think that doing so is the only ingress to a real education. (In fact, that acknowledgment surely costs we faculty more than students, professionally invested as we are in our role as knowers.)

    Anyway, I certainly agree with what you say in conclusion.

    • to be clear, I hope, I’m with you on the value of working through, even against, our preconceptions/predispositions, but I’m not convinced that the set-up of modern classrooms/schools is of a kind that would allow for such relationships to develop. The sort of work I take you to be prescribing is counter-cultural and would take some serious reconfiguration of the kinds of communities/commitments that we teach and learn in, something more akin perhaps to a lay monasticism or at least a design studio or even a play rehearsal.

      • I agree, although you can work around the edges, finding ways to reconfigure the social space of the modern school to increase the chances that such relationships can develop. We’ve had reasonable success with that here in the AU department, where I believe a considerable number of majors actually do come to recognize and to get a real education. But it takes a lot of up-stream swimming to do it, that’s for sure.

  3. Very good, Kelly (to include your comment to your students). That said, may I add that in another lifetime (and in some sort of parallel universe or scifi fantasy) a paragraph or chapter giving the Marxist perspective will be required in every publication. Adorno had a line about the mind molding itself to suit its marketability, and I assume that this is what you are up against. (And one might say that your students know better than you what they are going to have to do to survive in the “real world”, which is not to say that surviving in the real world is all that it’s cracked up to be.) I suppose the compromise position here (or would this be “bourgeois reformism” would be to ask if “we” (teachers in a broad sense) can offer a vision in which one may enjoy both the comforts of middle-class life (1950s version, not 2010s work all the time version) AND have one’s mind and soul engaged in some deeper or higher way? I take this to be what LBJ (or his speechwriter) was trumpeting in the Great Society Speech. And I also wonder if this ideal life doesn’t involve something like a tenure-track teaching job, in which case, . . . Enough! Best, Wm.

  4. Sometimes, it might be useful to think of students as gods: immovable objects. Teaching then becomes a kind of praying, or an act of love.

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