The Challenges of Teaching Philosophy

Conducting a philosophy class is an exercise in balancing order and chaos; and inevitably there are times when things slide too far in either direction. When Apollonian order predominates in the classroom, things are organized, orderly and structured. However, if this condition prevails at the expense of Dionysian vitality, things become stale and static. Sacrifice Apollo to Dionysus, on the other hand, and things become disordered, frantic and chaotic. Maintaining the delicate equilibrium between these two forces is, I think, an important part of a philosophy teacher’s job, but it is also something that one can never get perfectly right. There is a constant and ongoing negotiation that must occur throughout the academic semester as an instructor attempts to zero in on that “golden mean” making a class both energizing and orderly in equal parts. At any given moment in time there is room for improvement, but hopefully as the semester comes to an end, a class, on the whole, achieves a state roughly in the middle of these extremes.

I have taught many philosophy classes that have operated on the outer boundaries of this continuum. The chaotic classes were always more memorable than the overly organized classes; no doubt because energy and vitality are always more entertaining than their polar opposites.

There was one class in particular that still stands out in my mind as an example of how quickly the energy and excitement of philosophical discussion can descend into pandemonium. It was a course on the “philosophy of life” that I taught years ago at a college on the east coast. The class was held in an amphitheater that seated around 50 students, all of whom were very involved and interested in the subject matter. The session that is still burned into my memory was a day we were focused on arguments for God’s existence. This is always a touchy subject, and as the class period began, the energy in the classroom was definitely high. This was a day when the students were especially eager to speak out and voice their views. Arguments and counterarguments were hurled back and forth concerning the validity and the soundness of the positions that we had been studying until the entire room fractured into small groups of individuals, arguing among themselves. There were students standing up and waving their arms in the back rows. There were students in the front rows turned around in their seats, passionately debating with those who sat behind them. I stood by the blackboard, virtually ignored as I impotently called for order. The students were so absorbed in their own disputes that they became oblivious to their teacher’s presence. At one point I stopped saying anything and just watched the strange drama in front of me, thinking that this was exactly how you might see a philosophy class depicted in some “B” movie. Everything was passion and argument. Order was lost. Dionysus had won.

A chaotic class session like this one is at least memorable and exciting. Those classes in which the spirit of Apollo prevails, on the other hand, usually become dim memories that take their place among the forgotten routines of the past. These are the class sessions during which I find myself lecturing unchallenged, and the only questions students ask concern how correctly to spell a particular philosopher’s name. In these sessions, I remain the focus of attention, the facts get voiced, the structure of arguments are understood, and the issues are laid out one by one, but no one seems to become very fiery or excited. This sort of class is just another day at school and I’m just another teacher who will be grading just another set of tests.

Of course the best sorts of classes are those in which both structure and passion – Apollo and Dionysus – are present, guiding conversation in exciting, unanticipated and yet structured ways. These are the sessions in which the students and I seem to be truly resonating with one another and cooperatively searching for the Truth. I know that this may sound like an overly romantic and starry-eyed aspiration to some of my teaching colleagues, but there are times when this is truly what happens in a philosophy classroom. We forget about testing and grades; we forget about what is proper and improper to say. Instead, we become so absorbed by the flow of argument and discussion that we are swept along by the topic at hand, excited, eager and curious about where it will all lead without feeling as if it has to lead in any particular direction. These are the times when the distinction between teacher and student collapses and members of the class become fellow philosophical explorers. These are the classes that don’t end on the hour, but continue as groups of us walk across campus still debating, arguing and disagreeing about what life means, whether God exists, and what makes an action moral or immoral. I wish every day could be like this, because this is really what philosophy is supposed to be about: self-regulating conversation unencumbered by authority. It is a good kind of anarchy.

Review of The Path of Philosophy

David W. Drebushenko has reviewed The Path of Philosophy: Truth, Wonder and Distress in the newest issue of Teaching Philosophy (Vol 35, Issue 3, September 2012. pp 308-311). His overall thoughts on the book are, as he states, “quite positive.” He praises the writing, the scope and the extensive glossary at the end of the book. His criticisms mostly focus on the historical perspective that I adopt in this text, as he himself does not organize his own philosophy classes in this same manner.

It is true that many instructors utilize a non-historical, topical perspective when they teach introductory philosophy courses. I have also experimented with such an approach in the past; often with great success. However,what I have found to be the drawback of this approach is that it can leave students with an impression of philosophy as something that takes place in a vacuum, outside of history and as something that is engaged in by thinkers who work in isolation from one another. Placing philosophers and their philosophies in historical context, on the other hand, helps to convey the sense that philosophy is a tradition that involves an ongoing conversation between thinkers from various places and times. The ideas and arguments of philosophers are always informed and influenced by their predecessors, and so I think it quite important for students to be aware of the historical trajectory within which these conversations unfold.

Throughout the many years that I was in school as a philosophy student (eight years, more or less, stretching from my undergraduate through my doctoral education), the history of philosophy was never emphasized. While I feel like I was well educated in particular arguments, ideas, figures, and schools of thinking, this knowledge lacked an historical thread to tie it all together and to give it context. In fact, it was often suggested to me by my instructors and mentors that the “history of philosophy” is not really “philosophy” at all.

While it is true that the discipline of philosophy is not the same as history, I also think understanding history is useful to contextualize the arguments, ideas, movements and themes dealt with by philosophers. I have to confess that after earning my Ph.D., I felt like I had a very limited understanding of the overall scope and character of Western philosophy as a whole. Researching and developing The Path of Philosophy: Truth, Wonder, and Distress has been a personal exercise in correcting what felt like a gap in my own philosophical education, and I hope that students who read this book will benefit from it as well.