Teaching Philosophy

I’ve been spending a ton of time organizing curriculum and a semester-long schedule for a high school (senior-level) philosophy course that I am teaching this fall. It starts in two weeks, and I’m pretty excited to get a crack at teaching in a subject I find both meaningful and necessary.

In the first section of the course, assuming all goes to plan, we’ll be discussing what philosophy is, why it’s important, and how to determine whether we are thinking critically or not. I’ll be using several different resources and articles to make the point, but one of the main things I hope to use is Alan Jacobs’s How to Think — especially “The Thinking Person’s Checklist,” which he placed at the end of his book, but which summarizes his thoughts throughout the book nicely. Here are a few of my favorites on the list:

2. Value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory.’

6. Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuie cmmunity and can handle disagreement with equanimity.

7. Seek out the best and fairest minded people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.

11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.

12. Be brave.

Those last two, in particular are extremely important. One of the values I hope to instill over the course of the beginning section of the course is having no fear when engaging in thought and conversation about a topic that might otherwise make us anxious, afraid, or angry. Not only do those emotional responses hamper good quality discourse, they prevent us from stepping away from ourselves and our biases and incapable of even remotely rational thought. The truth (whatever it might be) ought to make us excited, not scared. And an opinion that is contrary to ours (even if the conclusion fundamentally affects the way we currently view the world) is worth engaging with — otherwise, we are not honestly interested in the truth at all.

We haven’t touched necessarily on what philosophy is (my usual number one question when thinking about a subject), but we are a little closer, by following the rules above, to answering the question, “What is philosophy for?”

Charitable Thinking, Charitable Living

One of my favorite reads this year has been Alan Jacobs‘s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Jacobs’s purpose in this (short) book is simple: the reintroduction of the reader to rational, intentional thinking in our present age, which is often marked by irrationality, and the unwillingness to engage in civil, thoughtful debate and conversation with those on the other side of the aisle — whatever aisle that might be. I don’t even need to present an argument about why this book is important — we all have a sense that something is seriously wrong in current political, religious, and cultural discourse.

This book has proved significant for me, both in the ways I have attempted to re-order my thought life and in how I understand my relationships with others. His best (and perhaps even overarching) point of the entire book, is that good thinking requires charity. That’s not a word he uses, but it shows in how he encourages his readers to interact and dialogue with others. In a passage where he quotes Kierkegaard (my boy!), Jacobs says:

In his book Works of Love, Kierkegaard sardonically comments, ‘Neighbor is what philosophers would call the other.’ And it is perhaps significant that Kierkegaard, who spent his whole life engaged in the political and social conflicts of what was then a small town, Copenhagen, can see the the degeneration involved in the shift from ‘neighbor’ to ‘other.’ He is calling us back from disinhibition, and accompanying lack of charity, generated by a set of technologies that allow us to converse and debate with people who are not, in the historical sense of the term, our neighbors. (82)

What is Jacobs saying (that Kierkegaard is saying) here? Philosophizing — and even more than that, engagement with others — requires that we not automatically ascribe negative intention or stupidity to the persons with whom we are conversing. If we want the potential for a better society, one in which good quality thinking is a virtue, we have to be charitable about the intentions and logic of the people with whom we disagree. Of course, this entails risk, right? It means that we are admitting that the person we think is wrong may actually have valid reasons for thinking the way she does. Further, it means that we must accept that our reasons may be fundamentally flawed or illogical, and our posture must therefore be open to a changed perspective.

I’ve also been thinking about this in relation, not to thinking, but in relating to others. What does a healthy marriage look like, for instance, if openness and charitable thinking are virtuous characteristics? It means that when my wife and I reach a fundamental disagreement about something, I need to step back for a moment and open myself up to the possibility that her reasons are possibly better than my own. It means that, when her feelings are hurt by my actions, even if I know my intentions were not to be hurtful, that her understanding of my actions as hurtful is still valid (and, perhaps, her understanding of my actions is a better interpretation of my actions than my own). That can be difficult, because it requires me to suspend my limited rationality and admit that I ought to shift my perspective and change my future behavior.

Either way, charity, in both thought and relationship, requires risk.