Dear Student…

The way formal education works is that students are introduced to hopefully new ideas and points of view with the aim of expanding your current repertoire. Whether you like and agree with those ideas and points of view is entirely your business.

Most professors just lecture, I think. My classes are designed to center around class discussion as much as possible, and more than most. You have your classmates with whom to express your point of view and areas of agreement and disagreement. There is no need for a professor and a student to agree.

The way you have written in your assignments suggests that you think it very important that I stop thinking whatever it is that I am thinking and that I start thinking whatever it is that you are thinking, and that is very important for me to realize just how wrong I am.

These articles were not written with you specifically in mind. I could not possibly know what your personal opinions might be, so it seems very odd that you seem to be taking them as some kind of personal attack on your strongly held beliefs. And what a lot of strongly held beliefs you seem to have even on topics you are only just being introduced to.

I am not attacking your strongly held beliefs because I do not know what your strongly held beliefs are. Everyone is reading the same thing. The readings are not directed at you personally. Thus, it is not possible for me to enter into competition with you. But, it is possible for you to assume a rivalrous and antagonistic attitude to me, since you have the benefit of knowing what I think.

The fact that you do not agree with many of the things in the reading is just great. Unless one is dealing only with bland “information,” the only way to learn is to change your mind. If you only read things that you agree with, then you have not learnt anything and it would all be very boring.

There is no need for you to try to convince me personally how very wrong I am. The only person who reads these assignments is me. What do you care what I think? It might be more helpful if you attempt to persuade your classmates. How can I be “dismissive of other people’s ideas” when I do not know them? Providing three hours a week to hear other people’s ideas is presumably more than most professors.

The assignments are there for me to assess how well you have understood what you have read. I do not ask you for your opinion, partly because then you could just write your opinion without having to read anything, particularly on the topic of ethics. If you just launch into a critique of what you have read, I can’t tell, except indirectly, what you have actually understood and what you have not. I also don’t ask for opinions on assignments because sometimes students don’t have opinions. I can’t require someone to have an opinion.

The assignments are also there to give us something to discuss in class. How about we do that?


Richard Cocks

15 thoughts on “Dear Student…

  1. “The way formal education works is that students are introduced to hopefully NEW ideas…”

    That’s what’s wrong with it. Its all about taking a dump on old ideas. No Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, or Epictetus allowed. You must learn Kant, Sartre, Hume (I had to joogle “philosopher who was against miracles” to find his name becauae I execrated it enough to forget it), and other assorted modern retards…by today probably Sam Harris, lol!

    • Hi, dave cynicus:

      I hope you understand that from an editor and contributor at the Orthosphere, “new” ideas just means “new” to students. I joke sometimes that I am waiting for the day that the fact that Wednesday comes after Tuesday will qualify.

      But, as to the rest of modern education (almost an oxymoron) what you describe is unfortunately all too typical.

    • Hume’s chapter Of Miracles, in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding Section 10 is, of course, a tour de force of sophistry. Nevertheless, I tend to share Miss Anscombe’s opinion of Hume:

      The features of Hume’s philosophy which I have mentioned, like many other features of it, would incline me to think that Hume was a mere – brilliant – sophist; and his procedures are certainly sophistical. But I am forced, not to reverse, but to add to, this judgment by a peculiarity of Hume’s philosophizing: namely that although he reaches his conclusions – with which he is in love – by sophistical methods, his considerations constantly open up very deep and important problems. It is often the case that in the act of exhibiting the sophistry one finds oneself noticing matters which deserve a lot of exploring: the obvious stands in need of investigations as a result of the points that Hume pretends to have made. In this, he is unlike, say, Butler. It was already well known that conscience could dictate vile actions; for Butler to have written disregarding this does not open up any new topics for us. But with Hume it is otherwise: hence he is a very profound and great philosopher, in spite of his sophistry. (Modern Moral Philosophy (1958)

      If Wittgenstein is right and “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” then engaging with Hume is a particularly fruitful task.

      • I can’t bring myself to study Hume. I wouldn’t be surprised to find things of worth there. The way he was taught to me was horrible and unappealing. Plus, two people I really can’t stand were “Humeans.” And by ‘can’t stand,’ I mean as people and particularly as philosophers.

        I guess it’s my funeral.

      • Miss Anscombe was my tutor and often selected arguments of Hume’s for analysis.

        For example, when Hume maintains we cannot conclude from is to ought, she raised the problem of the argument from is to owes, (e.g. You owe me £x for goods sold and delivered) which is by no means so straightforward as it appears. She treats it in Modern Moral Philosophy, along with the transition from is to needs; from the characteristics of an organism to the environment that it needs to flourish, for example, noting that this will not have the slightest influence on one’s actions, unless one wants it to flourish (another topic of Hume’s)

  2. Well, one man’s open inquiry and free discussion, is a strong and independent young woman’s hostile learning environment. I hope you have a backup plan for when they fire you.
    You cannot remain both honest and academically employed in the free and democratic Western world nowadays.

    • Yes. I am permanently in danger of being fired. I have had a couple of close calls recently. As an adjunct, all they have to do is not assign me any classes.

  3. I was blasted by students some years back because I assigned an essay by the Christian philosopher Robert George. Of all the essays I assigned, that was the only one students denounced as bare-faced proselyting. These were graduate students, so their minds were especially prejudiced and corrupted, but many undergraduates also mistake pearl-clutching for critique.

    Most of my classes are lectures, but I’ve recently converted two classes to a “flipped” format in which class time is devoted to discussion. It’s so far been painful since few of my students have opinions, and none are able to take a position for the sake of argument.

    • I have many pro-Christian readings that mostly are accepted by the students, but every now and then I get someone who says something like, “I can’t take this class if you are going to mention God.” In one case, I pointed out that the existence or not of God was part of the official college course description not up to me at all.

      With the flipped format, I assign two readings that students must answer detailed questions about, so they HAVE to have done the reading, and so, in principle, we have something to talk about. I start with small group discussions. They are usually willing to talk to each other and there is minimal intimidation factor. I do try to have a backup lecture if the discussion is particularly dismal.

  4. This argument is all well and good but for a few inconvenient but critical points.

    1) The goal of education is not to introduce students to new ideas. It is to introduce students to TRUE ideas; if any introduction to false ideas is to be done, then it must be for the purpose of the student coming to understand the flaws in the idea or argument. Either of that idea particularly or for the more advanced or capable student all ideas or arguments in general. With that being said…

    2) The selection of what ideas are to be covered must conform to some type of value-judgement, even if that judgement is merely “historical importance”. Attention is the most limited resource; one of the jobs of the teacher is to sift useful from useless* information. And, further…

    3) Nearly all teachers will “put their thumb on the scales” – whether it be via information presented, prompts/questions, grading, or some other activity. It’s probably best NOT to argue that Shakespeare is actually the author of Shakespeare’s plays with the English professor who has written books on why Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford. It’s probably best not to argue that some particular philosophy is true to a philosophy professor who has told the class that a priori reasoning has absolutely no connection with a posteriori reasoning and we’re just here to build castles in the clouds. It’s probably best not to argue that the Reconstruction was objectively both more important and worse than the Great Depression in US History from 1865-Today with the teacher who spent a month and a half on the hobo culture of the Depression, zero days on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and three days on World War 2. And this is not even counting teachers who will say something like, “I want you to write an essay on the historical authorship of the Gospels. I will fail you if you attempt to write the Traditional position rather than one based on the two-document, four-document, or Q hypothesis.”

    Yes, these really happened (to me, if you couldn’t tell). Yes, I carry a grudge.

    *no information is truly useless but most information is useless for any given particular purpose.

    • The phrase “new ideas” seems to be quite misleading. As I say in the other comment, “new” to the student is all that is meant. Just yesterday in class I was saying that the best way to be original when it comes to saying something about the human condition is to be flagrantly wrong. I don’t want to be original in philosophy. I want to be right!

      My taste and sensibility inevitably make their way into what I teach. Thomas F. Bertonneau and I both had crazy mentor/teachers who were severely flawed human beings, even charlatans of sorts, but the literature, philosophy and classical music they loved they had a knack of getting you to love it too. They modeled cherishing, loving, pursuing high art. We both found them most rewarding. It is my ambition to be such a crazy teacher. I can’t promise that everything I teach is true, but hopefully it is worth pondering.

      I too had a graduate school professor who wanted us to be write something original, but if we deviated in any way from his ideas, this was unacceptable.

      I am biased (For instance, I prefer Plato to Aristotle, Dostoevsky to Tolstoy) and I don’t hide this. I just keep repeating in just about every class that this, and preferences like this, are my personal take and no student is expected to agree with any of it. I no longer agree with some of my former arguments and I plan not to agree with some of my current views in the future. Therefore, it would be bizarre if a student happened to agree with whatever is my current view on every topic.

      • “I prefer Plato to Aristotle, Dostoevsky to Tolstoy”

        I am intrigued by the way, not only individuals, but whole generations and periods vary in their tastes.

        How is it, I wonder that everyone in the Middle Ages seems to have admired Ovid more than Horace and thought Boethius the equal of Plato.

        There was a time, not that long ago, when Hardy was preferred to Housman.

      • Yes, that is interesting. I regard some of my own preferences as mere limitations. I found Ovid’s Metamorphosis so depressing and horrible that I stopped reading after a while. One long list of punishments for hubristic transgressions. I love Boethius and have taught The Consolation of Philosophy many times, but I would not regard him as remotely in the same league as Plato. Thomas Hardy’s reliance on coincidence I found repellent, but that was a reaction from when I was a teen.

        The Victorian reading of Don Quixote as an admirable fellow was ridiculous and contradicted Cervantes’ intention. They even interpreted a French medieval poem as being completely serious, though the protagonists in the poem went to war with each other using, among other things, cabbages to throw at each other and kitchen implements to whack each other with.

  5. The selection of what ideas are to be covered must conform to some type of value-judgement, even if that judgement is merely “historical importance”.

    Porson once remarked that it was the burning of the Alexandrian library that made classical scholarship possible. Now, it is quite possible to read the whole of Greek and Latin literature in 3 or 4 years. Thus, when I was at university the curriculum for Honour Mods was simply “Greek and Latin literature (excluding the Jurists and the Fathers).”

    One of the advantages of a classical education is that there is no “Canon.”

    • Very interesting. I read, and tried to memorize the plots to, all the Greek tragedies – a task that would have been made much harder if they were all extant.


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