Thursday, June 01, 2006

Philosophy 101

Some folks may remember that I had intended to use my summer months to write a book about Aristotle's philosophy of biology. Then I bought my trumpet, and to help pay for it I signed up to teach the first session of the summer quarter.

I will be teaching Philosophy 101, that old stand-by that is designed to introduce students to the "fundamentals of philosophy." This might seem like a no-brainer: how hard could it be for a seasoned veteran to lead 20 or 30 neophytes through the most elementary aspects of philosophy for five weeks? In some respects it will be fairly easy--I will probably know the answers to at least a few of the questions they will ask me. But in many respects it is not all that easy to teach an introductory level philosophy class. The reason is not far to seek: few students these days learn the skills they need for such a class while in high school, and by the time they get to college they are not offered many chances to learn those skills.

Believe it or not, I'm talking about the skills of reading and writing--critically. Many folks can read and write, but very few college students can do it critically, that is, with the active use of critical intellect in assessing what they've read--assessing it for validity, soundness, and importance.

So one must be very wary. You can't assume that folks understand how to critique an argument for soundness, and it can be very difficult to teach them how to do it while trying to introduce them to the "fundamentals of philosophy" at the same time. One reason for this is the fact that logical analysis is really one of the tools of doing philosophy, and you can't always teach someone how to use a tool by just handing it to them and having them try it out for themselves. That might work for, say, a screwdriver, or possibly a car; but you wouldn't put someone who had never flown in his life into the pilot seat of a fighter jet and tell him to go and shoot down those enemy fighters attacking the White House.

Similarly, you can't just hand a student a philosophical text--or even a non-philosophical one--and encourage him to "go ahead, read it and analyze it for soundness, and tell me whether the argument's any good or not." For many students who are just starting out, "a good argument" is nothing other than "an argument that has a conclusion that I can readily agree with."

So my strategy is to take a different approach entirely. Instead of handing a student "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" or some other suitably watered-down masterpiece of analytic philosophy and have them "read" it and "discuss" it in class, I give them a text that shows them philosophy taking place "live". I give them a dialogue of Plato.

In particular, I will be giving them Plato's Gorgias this summer. I won't expect them to understand all of it, by any means, but I will be reading it along with them and explaining it to them along the way. It will be more like the screwdriver or the car than the fighter jet, because when you teach someone to drive a car you do put them in the driver seat but you start off in a parking lot or some other suitably obstacle-free zone. My students will be in the driver seat--they will be responsible for reading the text and making some sort of sense of it as they go along--but I will be there with my PowerPoints to keep them from driving off the road in terms of figuring out what the arguments are really about and why they are going the way they're going. With any luck, they will learn not only the fundamentals of philosophy, but the fundamentals of critical reading and thinking.

It doesn't always work, of course. I taught an introduction to ethics during the winter quarter, and at the end of the term I found a student evaluation that complained about the course, saying that "the course is supposed to be an introduction to ethics, but all we ever talked about was morality!" I suppose it's my own fault when a student says something like that--I'm the one who's supposed to be teaching them the meaning of the words, after all, but you'd think that some things would be a little more obvious than that.

I'll try to do better this summer.


Tom said...

I give them a dialogue of Plato.

Awesome. And what editor wouldn't at least read the pitch for a book called Reading Gorgias in Athens?

Danny Garland Jr. said...

What kind of trumpet did you get? I have a Con 60B. I confess though, I haven't played it very much recently. I've been too busy reading!

Scott Carson said...

I got a Blessing ML-1. The company bills it as a professional grade trumpet for a student grade price, but I don't know of many professionals who play one (though the great Clifford Brown apparently played a Blessing of some kind). So far I have no complaints about it--it's a lot better than the student model I used to have, which was literally falling apart!

Danny Garland Jr. said...

Ha! Yes, the student models aren't all that great. The smart thing is to get a professional one, but a beginners mouthpiece.