Tag Archives: Socrates

What I Have Learned From My Students This Semester

I have often said that the mark of a good class is one in which I learn as much as the students do. At the end of the semester, it is a good time to think back over the many unexpected truths I have learned from my students this semester. Since my colleagues and I frequently compare notes on this topic, I have also included in the selection below various items that I learned second-hand from students not in my classes through their professors. Truth is truth, after all—it doesn’t matter where it comes from. In no particular order, here is a sampling.

Some people are important enough to have followers before they are born. Students have told me for years that ancient persons from Socrates to Julius Caesar, literary characters from Achilles to Clytemnestra (“Clytemnestra did not behave as a good Christian wife should”), Francisand figures from the Hebrew Scriptures from Moses to David managed to be Christians before the birth of Christ, so that’s old hat. But in my latest batch of papers I learned that “Francis believed in living in poverty and taking a lifestyle that the Franciscans before him lived.” I wonder what the Franciscans who lived before Francis called themselves. Proto-Franciscans? Pre-Franciscans? Followers of a Crazy Guy Who Hasn’t Been Born Yet? Really Poor People?

Going to war against oneself is never a good idea: From a student paper submitted to a colleague: Roncevaux pass“[The Battle of Roncevaux Pass] occurred when the Franks intervened in a Muslim conflict between Charles the Great and the great army of Charlemagne,” further explaining that “There is a lot of hate between Charlemagne and King Charles…” Going to war against oneself complicates a number of things. For instance, how are Roland, the hero of this battle at the center of The Song of Roland, and Ganelon, his jealous father-in-law and traitor, supposed to know which side to fight on? Neither? Both? Everyone’s going to need therapy afterwards.

People whose names start with the same letter invariably have similar thoughts: DanteIn response to a question about the differences in world views between Dante and Montaigne, a student wrote that Descartes“Dante was extremely passionate that knowledge has to be 100% certain. And if there is knowledge that is certain it has to have no doubts that it could be corrupt.” I’m going to research this new-found information that Descartes was apparently plagiarizing the work of a fellow D-name who lived several hundred years earlier.

Martin Luther needed to be clearer about what he really meant: serpentFrom one of a colleague’s student papers: “Luther does not say precisely whether or not good works would help one achieve the goal of eternal life, but he does appreciate them.” Then the following from Luther’s “On Christian Liberty,” cited in one of my student papers: “The Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful serpent of all, and subject to everyone.” There obviously is another research project in finding the heretofore hidden influences of Luther’s Christian serpent on Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

Why use just a few words when a whole bunch of them will suffice? Assigned papers are an opportunity for students to flex their word-using muscles in print. Often a student who has never once opened her mouth in seminar will make sure that her quota of allowed words unused in seminar makes it into a paper. For instance, why write that

Works of literature often focus on the customs of people living in the author’s culture,

when you could write instead that

Throughout history, scholars have been displaying the impacts society has on people’s lives through various forms of expression. Of some of the more famous styles, writings and literature from oral teachings along with reflections on certain times provides future generations with important first-hand accounts of how lifestyles and culture influenced the people.

And why describe Dante’s organization of Hell in this manner:

Dante’s descriptions of the punishments in Hell, as well as the individuals one finds there, tell us much about the attitudes of his time.

when the following description will suffice?

During Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell, the descriptions as well as reasons for placement of particular individuals speaks through society’s influence, deeming Dante’s opinion in accordance with many of his time. Without Dante’s harsh portrayal of specific individuals, the backlash on society would be unknown.

You can only commit suicide once: When a student missed a seminar on Dante’s Inferno in the middle of the semester due to illness, I assigned her a makeup 1000-1200 word reflection on Canto 13Canto XIII, in which one finds the suicides—the “violent against themselves.” The seminar discussion focused on this section of Dante’s poem was fascinating, with my largely Catholic students flip-flopping back and forth between the position that they know they are supposed to hold as good Catholics—no suicide is ever justified—and a more nuanced judgment that permits consideration of individual circumstances.

In her makeup assignment, my student opened her reflection with noting that as

An extremely controversial topic, suicide has been a self-inflicting action from the beginning of time.

followed shortly after by the observation that

Suicide is an avoidable form of death.

As one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook when I put these two gems up for display on my wall, “Holy tautology, Batman!” Other friends and colleagues said that this immediately reminded them of the “Suicide is Painless” theme song from “M.A.S.H.”: “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please . . .”

But others saw something I did not immediately recognize—possible profundity. “That’s deep,” a colleague from the chemistry department commented; new philosopher“The first comment strikes me as a particularly profound metaphysical point about the (a)temporal status of analytic truths,” a former philosophy major now in graduate school contributed. Then this from a Facebook acquaintance that I have never met in person, but with whom I share the privilege of having earned a Bachelor’s degree in the Great Books program at St. John’s College:

I think the second [student comment] is, indeed, quite discussable. Is death ever avoidable? Is suicide not now recognized as a possible outcome of untreated depression? Can a severely depressed person always be expected to take the steps required for his or her own treatment?

Is suicide always an avoidable form of death, in other words? From the mind of a stressed and possibly confused freshman emerges an apparent “Well, duh!” sort of statement that, as it turns out, might have surprising depth and complexity. I feel an essay coming on!

From my colleague Robin

From my colleague Robin


images[3]I got into a bad habit a few years ago that I thought I had broken. Over the past several years I have had a dozen or so letters to the editor published by our local city newspaper, usually in response to someone else’s letter to the editor that annoyed the hell out of me. I read the paper on-line, and soon discovered that it is possible to comment on any letter or article immediately, with postings collecting underneath the letter on the screen. Such discussions often go in directions vastly different from what the original letter suggests. The philosopher and teacher in me wants to jump into such discussions, especially when they involve important issues that mean a lot to me. With the recent addition of Facebook-logo-ICON-02[1]Facebook into my life, lately I’ve been finding it hard to resist the temptation.

What happens, though, is not a discussion. The battle lines get drawn instantly on every possible issue between conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious, all protected by the anonymity of a screen name. So “X” calls the writer of the letter under consideration a “bleeding heart” because she is calling for additional funding to be allocated for environmental issues, “Y” calls “X” a “typical Republican moron” because all he/she cares about is his bank account, “X” responds that “Y” must be a Head_up_ass_liberal_zoom3-300x287[1]“liberal with his head up his ass” because global warming is only a theory, several other posters get involved within five minutes, and we’re off the races.

At this point I should either click on the sports section or turn the computer off. Instead, I take at least 30 seconds to craft the “post to end all posts” on this topic, in response to which all other contributors to the discussion will, after a moment of respectful e-silence, fall over each other in their gratitude for having been shown the light. What happens instead is that “X” and “Y” (as well as many others) turn on me for all sorts of unexpected reasons. I must be more of a liberal with his head up his ass than “Y” is (“X”), my ideas will never work because I sound like an Ivory_Tower[1]“ivory tower pointy headed intellectual” (“Y”). Or even worse, sometimes the discussion goes on as if my post had never occurred. It’s bad enough to be e-trashed on a discussion forum; it’s far worse to be e-ignored. So now I really should turn the computer off, read something, write something, take a walk, talk to a human being—anything but continue participating. But of course I have to respond (if I’ve been misunderstood and insulted) or post even more eloquently and pointedly (if I’ve been ignored). And throughout the morning I find myself frequently returning to the website to see who has posted, what they’ve said, and spending more time contributing to a discussion that never was a discussion in the first place. It’s like driving by a bad accident on the highway—I have to look.

Why am I doing this? I’d like to believe that my participation in such “discussions” is a well-intentioned but misplaced instance of my teaching vocation in action. All teachers want to facilitate the opening of closed minds, the establishment of the life-long process of learning. Now I know that the participants in these “discussions” are not my students, but I have in the back of my mind the glimmer of hope that if a person is interested enough to participate, that person might also be interested in learning something, in broadening horizons, in realizing that even the most obvious “no brainer” sort of “truth” might be wrong. Vera-Brittain-002[1]And I’m accustomed to encountering resistance from my experiences in the classroom. As Vera Brittain writes, “most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.”dav_soc[1] I fully realize that defensiveness is a natural reaction to having one’s most treasured assumptions challenged, so I expect resistance. Learning and opening up hurts—that’s why they killed Socrates, right? Richard Rorty says it nicely: “The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making theRorty11[1] things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete, and powerless.” So I try not to do that. But I’ve never been so frustrated in my life, to the point that a couple of weeks ago in the middle of a typically rigid and inflexible discussion I posted “If there’s any one who regularly posts here who has ever, even once, changed their opinion on an important issue because of something someone posted here, please post and let me know!” And no one ever did.

But guess what? If anyone else had posted that challenge, I would not have answered it either. Because I’ve never learned anything new or changed my mind about anything from participating. Well I guess I’ve learned one thing—I’m just as rigid, inflexible, and intolerant as everyone else who participates. I can account for that partially because of the format; dueling sound bites and bumper sticker slogans, wrapped in anonymity, seldom lead to anything but arguing and e-yelling. But there’s more to it. When I step from behind my self-righteous “facilitator of lifetime learning” teacher screen, I’m just another worried, insecure human being who is scared to death that he might not have all the answers. That’s who is typing the contributions to these forums on my computer, not someone who has “seen the light” and wants to help others see it too. As I accuse others of being unable to listenhc[1], to think, to deliberate, to imagine that they might be wrong, I realize that there’s no place inside of me where I even for a moment suspect that I might be able to learn something from an extreme pro-lifer, from a hard core conservative Republican, from a person whose religious beliefs include the Earth being created 6000 years ago, from someone who is convinced that global warming is a hoaxEVOLUTION[1] and natural selection is “just a theory,” or from someone who thinks that the solution to gun violence is more guns and who believes that the bombings in Boston last week would not have happened if those watching the race had been packing firearms. Who died and made me God, so sure that the value of another’s opinion is directly proportional to how closely it matches up to mine?

So it would be best for me to stay away from such forums—they don’t offer many opportunities for growth. But the first word in the monastic rule has come to mean a great deal to me is “Listen.”  Perhaps a good post-Lenten exercise for me would be to spend forty days reading the comments on letters to the editor carefully and never saying anything. Just e-listen. I don’t think I can do it.


Getting Stoned

In preparation for studying portions of the New Testament with Freshman students later in the semester, I’ve been reviewing the book of Acts. This reminded me of a brief conversation I had with a Benedictine monk a couple of years ago. “Happy Stoning Day!” Brother John said as he greeted me after noon prayer. December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen, officially designated as the first Christian martyr. Brother John, a guitar-picking, out-of-the-box product of the sixties, is not your typical Benedictine. “I’ve always wanted to play Dylan’s ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned’ at mass on St. Stephen’s Day.” My kind of monk—irreverence is my favorite virtue.

Stephen has always been a problem for me. Although Acts has been one of my favorite books of the Bible since childhood, with its exciting stories of early Christians acting just like imperfect and flawed human beings, regularly bailed out of tough circumstances by the Holy Spirit, I got uncomfortable when Stephen came up in church or Sunday School. Stephen died for Jesus, just like some missionaries in South America that we were always hearing about. “Would you die for Jesus, just like Stephen did?” the pastor or teacher would ask, to which I (internally) would definitively answer “Hell No!” Dying for Jesus ranked right up there with becoming a missionary to deepest, darkest Africa as things I definitely did NOT intend to do with my life. If being a good Christian meant being willing to die for Jesus, I thought, then maybe I should check out what they do at the Catholic church on the other, spiritually mysterious side of town.

Little did I know then that Catholics have been making martyrdom into a cottage industry for centuries. Although I’m much more aware of it now, since I’ve been married to a recovering Catholic and have taught in Catholic institutions of higher education for the past two decades, my few remaining Protestant sensibilities are still occasionally jangled by the Catholic fixation on martyrs. Just a few years ago I burst out laughing when I stumbled across a very peculiar piece of artwork while looking around a little church in Boston’s North End. Peculiar in the sense that it was a statue of a demure young woman holding a plate with two eyeballs on it. “Oh yeah, that’s Saint Lucy,” Jeanne said in the same tone of voice with which  she might have gestured in my direction and said “Oh yeah, that’s my husband” to an inquiring stranger. Saint Lucy is either the patron saint of opticians or disgusting hors d’oeuvres, I suppose.

Philosophy has only one martyr—Socrates, the godfather of Western philosophy. And there is at least one very interesting parallel between Socrates and Stephen. They both clearly were looking to die. Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 is so inflammatory that he’s got the crowd “gnashing their teeth” by the time he’s done. For some reason, the audience did not take kindly to being called “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears” or “the betrayers and murderers” of God.

Similarly, Socrates’ defense against trumped-up but serious charges in Plato’s Apology is anything but apologetic. Now he didn’t have to die. His Athenian accusers were not interested in killing him—they just wanted him to go away and stop annoying everyone. And had he played the game by the accepted rules, that’s what would have happened. Instead, he is so obnoxious and unwilling to compromise his principles that he is found guilty by a 281 to 220 vote—the Athenians liked big juries. During the subsequent sentencing portion of the trial, the unrepentant Socrates is so offensive that more jurors vote for the death penalty than voted “guilty” in the first place. A few weeks later he drinks a hemlock cocktail and dies, exhibiting the same calm and composure in the face of death as Stephen four and a half centuries later.

I love teaching philosophy and at least claim to believe, just as the godfather did, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But I’m just about certain that I would no more die for philosophy than I would have died for Jesus as a kid. My model in such things is Aristotle. About fifty years after Socrates drank the hemlock, Aristotle found himself in political trouble eerily similar to the problems that had brought Socrates to trial. Aristotle’s response was to hike up his toga and haul ass out of Athens, reportedly saying that he did not want to give the Athenians the opportunity to sin against philosophy twice. He went on to write his greatest books, was hired as Alexander the Great’s personal tutor, and no one holds it against him that he left town. I’m with Aristotle—life strikes me as an attractive alternative to death.

What things are worth dying for? I asked one of my classes that question a few years ago, and their response was both revealing and disturbing. Or their lack of response, rather—they couldn’t come up with anything. Family, friends, country, beliefs of any sort—none of my students was willing to say that she or he would be willing to die for any of these. That class, perhaps more than any other I’ve ever been in, changed me. It wasn’t that they weren’t sure which things were worth dying for—I’ve obviously struggled with that one too. It’s that the very idea of loving or believing in something so much that one would stake one’s life on it was foreign to them.

When relating this story to some friends a few days after my encounter with Brother John, one of them (a lifelong activist in various causes) reminded me of something that Dr. King said: “If you don’t have something to die for, you don’t have anything to live for” (or something like that). My students’ apathetic response to my question gave me a clear direction in my teaching that has been a focus ever since. Although over the years I’ve not embraced many of the candidates offered to me as being worth dying for, it’s always been clear to me that something is—perhaps the whole point of both the intellectual and spiritual quest is to find out what that “something” is. Part of my teaching vocation has become convincing my students to commit to something, to believe in something, to stake their lives, at least figuratively, on the possibility of something’s being true. Learning and growth depend on it. William James once challenged a bunch of college students to “believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Sometimes commitment comes before content.

I don’t think that “everybody must get stoned”—fortunately my reality doesn’t demand a “life or death” choice of me. But I do believe that something else Socrates said while sitting in prison waiting for his execution is true—there is a difference between living and living well. The difference, I think, has more to do with seeking than finding.