TEACHING PHILOSOPHY

About half a century ago, one of my philosophy professors launched himself into a riff about how the life of a philosopher was irrelevant to the quality of his thought. Logical consistency, he said, was the ultimate criterion of philosophical worth. Even at the time, my young mind sensed that this could not be true. Over the years I have become even more convinced that if philosophical study does not result in a wiser, more loving and pleasant life, then it is a complete waste of time. I would sometimes joke with my students that I could not possibly give them an honest grade until they had lived for 50 years. Then I would need an email telling me how their lives had turned out. At that point, of course, they could grade themselves. It is immensely gratifying for me to see so many of my former students on this blog and on Facebook who are living creative, fulfilling and loving lives. The only small credit I can take is having had the privilege of introducing them to some wonderful friends, from Plato to Pirsig. The rest has been up to them.

It seemed to me that reading these inspiring thinkers made teaching a breeze; a joyful breeze, but a breeze nonetheless. Imagine working with the ideas of a thinker like Plato whose writings have lasted for over 2000 years. His thoughts easily inspired compelling words, but it seemed to me that those words would have been empty truisms unless they somehow had impacted my life. This is one reason I loved flying airplanes and playing music: all the fine talk came to an end when you lifted off a runway or played the first chord of a song. But how does one demonstrate philosophical sensitivity? Surely I couldn’t have my students follow me around all day. Nor did I have the courage to show them my lesser angels.

teacher 1983

It gradually dawned on me, however, that my attitudes and values showed up every day in the classroom. Did I listen carefully, and with respect? Did I value honesty over looking good? Did I have sincere love for the process of learning and for the unfolding souls of my students? Was I able to use my human frailty as a model for self-reflection and growth? I came to believe that these values were the essence of teaching, and that the spoken words were simply excuses that allowed us to come together in a field at once sacred and loving. I would begin every semester with this quote from Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.“

Aristotle once observed that the poet and the philosopher were alike in that they both began in wonder. It seems to me that true poetry and true philosophy do not talk about the world. Rather, much like the Aboriginal Dreamtime, a teacher and her students together sing the world into being. I do not mean an objective world, nor even a right world, but the very best world they can co-create on any given day. It is a world that springs from wonder and sincerity and playful intelligence. It is a verbal portrait which, when freshly and beautifully rendered, has the power to transform a life. And that, it seems to me, is never a waste of time.

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