Sometimes education is
a process of unlearning,
disrupting a foundation
and rebuilding anew
book by book.
Today’s class discussion, as scheduled on the syllabus, was shelved. We talked about the election results. A friend of mine said (somewhat incredulously) “You talk politics?”
“Yes,” I answered.
Allow me to explain. I do not lecture my particular view points, rather I offer a space for the students to voice their concerns. In all sincerity my heart broke a little for the students who felt as though a vote for Trump was a vote against their very existence. And, my students who favored Trump did not want to be thought of as hateful. They, on the other hand, cast their vote in the spirit of wanting economic change, something they believe will be better for the country as a whole.
I let the students know that my participation in the conversation was as a fellow citizen and not as their professor. I wanted my students to feel safe to dialogue and learn about each others’ views without risk or fear.
The problem we have, I believe, with considering discourse about politics as “rude” means we only chat about it with people who share our views. This makes any other understanding terribly distant and foreign. It is the exact opposite of how a democracy that prides itself on freedom and information ought to function. Unfortunately, throughout the campaign we saw offensive and hateful rhetoric which ultimately diminished opportunity for authentic discourse. No one wants to exchange ideas in such a climate.
For my students who are minorities and expressed a deep sense of fear and pain I offered them the following: choose to believe in the basic goodness of people. For my students who supported Trump I said: work to make this a successful and inclusive presidential term.
The essence of philosophy hinges on examining arguments and this cannot be done without exploring premises, the strong and the weak. So, yes, I shelved our lecture on Descartes to give the students a free space to voice their thoughts about political issues/arguments. But, most importantly I hope, I wanted to the students to also have a free space to listen.
Honestly, I want nothing more than for my students to be engaged and feel at peace with being part of the democratic process. Can this happen in a classroom? Is it right to do this? For anyone worried that I imposed a liberal agenda on my students, please do not fret. I treated this time as an invitation to talk, not as a soap box moment for myself. Besides, shouldn’t education be, in part, learning to formulate our thoughts? That’s more fun than power point, yes?
The ridiculousness of the last few months with respect to the venom spouted by the Right, generally directed to anyone who is not a white male, has been nothing short of maddening. From the claim that people coming to this country are rapists, thieves, and likely terrorists to the mindless belittling via name calling, I’ve tried to disengage and wait for it to blow over.
BUT, at this moment I’m officially fed up, pissed, disgusted, and unable to ignore the claim made by Fox’s darling buffoon, Bill O’Reilly that slaves were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.” (This was in response to Michelle Obama’s speech when she said she lives in the White House, a place built by slaves.)
Why is my blood boiling? Perhaps it’s because the HUMAN BEINGS who were reduced to their physical selves and subjected to a brutal existence for the sake of others’ welfare are no longer with us. They cannot stand up and shout back at O’Reilly. Instead, people today must speak up in their place and remind those who wish to make ahistorical claims insulting the trauma endured by thousands, that their efforts to dismiss the sweat and blood drawn out in a dehumanizing fashion will not replace the truth.
From a logic standpoint I’m also peeved. The inherent nature of slavery is wrong. Families no more. Children abused. Rape. Beatings. Denied space to think, love, flourish. A life bought and used by an other. Humiliation constantly on the horizon. There cannot be too much or too little of slavery because at its core it is wrong.
There is no scale.
To reduce a HUMAN BEING to the status of object and property, robbing that HUMAN BEING of choice to exist as they desire embodies the essence of evil. Therefore, one cannot possibly treat a slave “well” because to classify a person as a slave in the first place negates the meaning of said “treatment.”
To put another way: there cannot be such a thing as a “good Nazi” because the definition of being a Nazi precludes any possibility of being “good.” Or, there cannot be such a thing as a “gentle rape” since the very definition of rape bears the idea of violence.
Likewise there is no such thing as a well treated slave!
There are records, there are stories, there are tales passed down through generations. I refuse to stay silent and pretend those voices do not matter. That their lives didn’t matter.
Observe in what an original world we are living: how many men can you find in Europe who have never killed; or whom somebody does not wish to kill?
But still we continue to long for a world in which there is love between men, peace, and serene deliverance from our baser instincts. This, I suppose, is the nature of youth.
P.S. And yet, first of all, I should like to slaughter one or two men, just to throw off the concentration camp mentality, the effects of continual subservience, the effects of helplessly watching others being beaten and murdered, the effects of all this horror. I suspect, though, that I will be marked for life. I do not know whether we shall survive, but I like to think that one day we shall have the courage to tell the world the whole truth and call it by its proper name.
You know how much I used to like Plato. Today I realized he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labour. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads, we who pulled the oars in the galleys and dragged wooden ploughs, while they wrote dialogues and dramas, rationalized their intrigues by appeals in the name of the Fatherland, made wars over boundaries and democracies. We were filthy and died real deaths. They were ‘aesthetic’ and carried on subtle debates.
There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice in silence, nor moral virtue that condones it.
Two of my classes this term focus on the dynamics between technology and culture: Science, Technology, and Society and Ethical Considerations in Technology. The other day I spotted an opinion piece in the student paper discussing the dating app Tinder (Click here to read it). Now, the usual academic set up of the courses involves discussing case studies such as The Challenger Disaster, the New Orleans Levee failure, and Genetic Engineering. In light of the interesting shift in our behavior regarding phone usage, and specifically the piece from the student paper, I decided to shelve the topic on the syllabus for a moment and ask students what they thought of the influx of dating apps.
My intention was to simply spend a brief time on this, but it unraveled into a spirited class discussion lasting for nearly an hour. Everyone had something to say!
I asked students what the advantages are to using an app for dating and put the list on the board. It looked something like this:
Unlike reviewing case studies where students learn the information pertinent to the cases, memorize them, and then crank it back out on an exam, this discussion ignited their interest because they are smack in the middle of a cultural shift regarding personal interaction brought about by the fancy-gadget-does-everything-phone.
We then began to pick apart the list on the board. How much time is actually saved if one is on the phone for hours swiping away at photos of potential dates? Wouldn’t there be a similar amount of time spent on going out and being social in person?
For numbers 2-4 and 6 we talked about the very human element of being vulnerable in both friendships and relationships. Removing, or attempting to remove, that from the equation could rob one of an opportunity for growth. Stumbling, putting your foot in your mouth, blushing, awkwardness, and responding in real time with a facial expression are all elements of being human. Is efficiency meant to be applied in this realm? Would you ever want to date a person who had never experienced rejection or a heart break? Isn’t that what makes us humble, caring, and sensitive?
The ego boost is another intriguing aspect. In the normal course of a week, how many compliments does one receive? Without doubt, it feels nice to be on the receiving end of kind words. What the app has done (along with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) is create a potential for a deluge of “likes” within a brief time frame. No longer will a compliment from someone once a week suffice. It’s now needed within seconds of posting something and the desire to check has turned into something of an addiction.
With number 7, we discussed how the idea of “many fish in the sea” has radically changed to an infinite amount of fish in the ocean. Hmm…how has the idea that there could always be someone else impacted commitment? (Vanity Fair published an article on this over the summer much to the dismay of Tinder. Click here for the article.)
The conversation morphed into a more general dialogue about being on the phone. It’s a security blanket. One never needs to feel alone because one can always get online to see what people are up to. It is a companion.
In the spirit of bringing this dialogue into the subject of philosophy and specifically The Apology where Socrates gives his famous defense, I asked the students what Socrates would think of our addiction to the phone. Are we similar to Athens?
Socrates argued the soul inherently held more value than the body and other material goods. (If you do not subscribe to the idea of a soul then swap it out with the concept of character.) How, then, does one care for the soul? By asking questions, seeking knowledge, and developing virtues such as Justice, Courage, and Creativity to name a few. For Socrates, spending time on the soul through intellectual and moral pursuits allowed for the good life: “For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul. Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.”
Are we subverting excellence by tending to the phone? Are happiness spikes from internet activity an excess? Are we losing sight of what it means to develop our souls/character by diverting too much attention to the impersonal “likes” of others? Are deep conversations eclipsed by quick messages or updates?
I don’t mean to sound as though I’m anti-technology. (I’m a fan of indoor plumbing, modern dentistry, my kindle, and travel by air.) Nor do I mean to negate the door that has been opened with respect to information sharing. This reflection concerns the apparent restructuring of the building blocks of relationships. To be clear, I did not treat this classroom time as a dispenser of wisdom and instruction but as a person also swept up by the phone. And, not totally dissimilar to my students, I’m frustrated by how the phone gradually altered from a device of convenience to one tethering me to its intrusions. I have three email accounts, this blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, an author account, a log for my Crossfit WODS, LinkedIn, a step counter, a calculator, a GPS…the list goes on! In order to take time out to read and write I disconnect the internet from my computer and I put my phone in airplane mode to force myself to focus.
At the end of class I offered the students this challenge (and please feel free to do this and share your experience in the comments): go out for a meal alone and without your phone. What is it like? How does it feel? Does the prospect of it cause anxiety?
Reading Suggestions on this topic: