Professors’ considerable power carries with it responsibilities

By on April 25, 2006

By Jason Schwalm

         “Know thyself” is advice we hear often. Western philosophy is replete with exhortations to master your external surroundings and internal make-up through careful, rational deliberation. Aristotle differentiated between human life and animal life, and saw as one of the distinguishing characteristics our capacity for language, and subsequently, for reason. It is incumbent upon us to use this capability, the early masters would say – “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and all that.

Two thousand years later we operate within a tradition of inquiry that privileges logic and, when possible, empirical evidence. As any reading of Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy” will tell you, this is not an easy standard to meet. How can I ever know that I am not being fooled by the superficial adornments of the world? And what happens when the subject of inquiry is the self? What proof do I have then?

These questions and others like them plague many an undergraduate philosophy student. Like Zeno’s paradoxes or the koans used in Zen practice, it is quite possible that many of them were designed specifically to be unanswerable.

This puts students in a tough spot. The age of 18 is a particularly vulnerable time, and one at which most are ill-equipped to address an existential or moral crisis. Challenging young thinkers is certainly a good thing, as is forcing people to account for their blindly touted belief systems. Using an interlocutor’s own words to undermine the very sentiment that these words once supported is the master stroke of Socratic dialogue. But there is more to philosophy than critique – at its most ambitious the discipline might even aid a student in creating a world view.

Of course, no one could reasonably expect an introductory course in philosophy to build a new model of the world for students in three months. However, it seems an exceptionally cruel trick to rob young people of their value systems in the name of challenging presuppositions, and offer nothing to take its place. As such, most philosophy professors (former young people themselves) are not unaware of the awesome power they wield, and take diligent care to ensure that classroom discussions are civil and constructive.

However, it is when this style of revealing disputation is used less responsibly that problems arise. What of the history professors whose pastimes include demonstrating ways in which the Bible is not a literal, historical document? Of course, while this is likely true, there is a notable failure to mention that the Bible can still offer wise moral instruction and personal guidance to young people in need of counsel. That such professors seem to derive a certain pedantic glee from watching their students squirm makes the impulse appear all the more insidious.

Is disabusing a person of a false notion so important that it is worth leaving him or her morally adrift? Who knows. The coming-of-age experience inevitably involves moments of confusion and self-doubt, and college contributes to that in exciting and terrifying ways, but challenging a person’s faith should never be done with joy or self-satisfaction. Surely such a professor would have a different attitude toward influencing students’ beliefs if he or she were then obligated to field some pupil’s teary, 3 a.m. phone call asking whether life has a purpose if there is no God.

Educators occupy a trusted position in our society and they would be well suited to remember the emotionally precarious space that so many students inhabit. Sure, your uncle might have taught you how to swim by throwing you in the lake, but he also had the decency to dive in after you if you started to sink.

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