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“Why I teach”

Robert Simon, the Marjorie and Robert W. McEwen Professor of Philosophy, presented a speech titled “Why I teach,” at the bicentennial assembly.

The topic on which I was asked to speak is “Why I teach,” certainly an appropriate one in light of the centrality of teaching throughout Hamilton’s history. However, as every student of philosophy knows or at least should know, before trying to answer a question or address a topic one first needs ask whether the right issue is being posed. The question of why one teaches seems to ask for the personal reaction of the subject, which well might be quite idiosyncratic. For example, suppose I replied, “I teach because playing golf all the time is too frustrating.”

So I propose we change the question to something like, “Why is teaching at a college like Hamilton important” or alternately, ”What important values does teaching at Hamilton promote?”  Just as the word ”team” famously has no “I” in it, this rephrasing of the question shifts focus from the individual psychology of the participant to the core value of the activity. In addressing this revised topic, I hope to show that the role our excellent Hamilton students play in the enterprise is crucial.

The question I have posed, “What important values does teaching at Hamilton promote?”  is very broad and a number of very plausible answers might immediately come to mind. For example, a teacher may spark a student’s interest in a subject that lasts a lifetime and contributes to personal growth and enjoyment. Skills learned in class may contribute to a productive and useful career. An inspiring teacher or coach may set a floundering student on a productive path that lasts a lifetime.

Such responses often apply, are rewarding for teacher and student alike, and the values promoted are indeed among the most important ones a Hamilton education can promote. Let’s call such values as personal growth, development of skills, and love of a discipline, personal values.

But once again, I would like to sharpen the question so as to highlight another contribution that while perhaps not as frequently recognized is just as important. That is, I want to shift from benefit to the person, from personal values, to what I will call public values, although of course the line between the two kinds of benefits is far from sharp and they often overlap.

One account of the public benefits of teaching was first presented to me as a first year graduate student. The author of an article on teaching philosophy started off his paper with the claim that “The job of the philosophy professor is to save children from their parents.” I remember thinking at the time that the sentiment expressed was inspiring and right on the mark but began to have doubts when my first child was born. By the time he was ready to matriculate at Hamilton, I was convinced it was totally mistaken.

So let’s look for a better account. Consider the state of today’s political discourse. Many of us are appalled by the partisanship, lack of civility, and above all by the lack of reasoned argument in much of what passes for political discussion in our society. I submit that one of the most important of the values teaching at Hamilton promotes is developing the skills that enable participants to engage in reasoned dialogue in the sciences, arts, and humanities, and thereby promoting the development of citizens able to engage in critical assessment in the social and political realm as well.

In golf—a subject I apparently cannot avoid for more than a few minutes—one cannot justifiably claim to be an excellent player unless one at least sometimes competes successfully against other worthy opponents.

The same is true in the world of ideas. Arguably, the worth of an idea is demonstrated by its ability to survive worthy criticism in reasoned discourse. As John Stuart Mill famously argued in On Liberty, the very condition that justifies our adherence to a claim, principle, or ideal is its ability to survive the critical scrutiny of others.

Of course, I am skipping over or ignoring some difficult issues. What does it mean to “survive” criticism? How long must a claim survive to warrant our assent? How do we know a claim that has survived criticism so far will continue to do so? Must discourse degenerate from a mutual quest for truth to the attempt to score quick but shallow points against opponents? When does discourse over a controversial issue ever end? Oscar Wilde reportedly once said that “The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings?”  Whether he was right or not, discourse might be much worse, becoming interminable.

However, a generally pragmatic approach to discourse does not require certainty in its conclusions, only the ability to distinguish the more from the less reasonable, which I think we do possess.

Let me also make clear that by critical scrutiny, inquiry, and discourse, I mean much more than formal debate.  The ability to recognize, appreciate, promote, and assess standards of excellence in a variety of areas, including performance also should be included. Important as well is developing the capacity to appreciate the contribution of reasonable critics of our own perspective, even if we reject their conclusions, just as we should the achievements of opponents on the field of play. The development of these critical virtues is fostered, I would maintain, especially in the classroom but also often and importantly outside of class; for example, in artistic performances, concerts, plays, late night discussions with friends, and on the field of athletic competition as well.

Thus, the role of the partner or facilitator in critical discourse then is crucial. Often, those with whom we disagree, by challenging our ideas, can be those from whom we learn from most. One of the pleasures of teaching at Hamilton is that the fine students in our classes, along with faculty colleagues, can and do fill this role, in my case in virtually every class I teach, often in memorable ways.

For example, during my first few years at Hamilton, I was writing an article, the theme of which was similar to this very talk, on critical discourse as a foundation of our basic rights. My colleague, Russell Blackwood, objected that my theory was biased in favor of the rhetorical and logical skills taught to law students and philosophy majors, and thus favored an articulate and trained elite over everyone else. My theory, at least according to Professor Blackwood, was elitist and undemocratic.

In an attempt to save my theory from the charge, I tried to broaden the notion of discourse so that many means of communication ranging from the arts to non-verbal gestures all could be contributions to discourse and inquiry. I then presented the revised paper to my seminar. In his reply, one student, not surprisingly now a judge, riposted that “Simon’s conception of discussion is now so broad that a dog committing a gross anti-social act on his living room rug would be counted as making a philosophical contribution to debate.”

On yet another occasion, I presented to a seminar a paper I was writing on whether colleges can and should be politically neutral. Fourteen of the fifteen students disagreed with the draft and presented a number of acute criticisms. This led to significant revision of my work.  I do have to say, however, that the fifteenth student—my lone ally in the class-- had been accepted to Yale Law School so I considered the student reaction to the paper to be a wash.

All this suggests a point frequently made by the philosopher, John Dewey, that critical inquiry is a social process carried on through dialogue. A society’s ability to learn from its errors, correct its mistakes, and advance in a variety of areas depends heavily on the quality of the reasoned dialogue in which its citizens engage. Last spring, our commencement speaker, former vice president Al Gore as well as our Baccalaureate speaker, John Sexton the President of NYU, each expressed deep concern about the quality of reasoned discourse and hence critical inquiry in our society.

Liberal arts colleges like Hamilton are national and global resources as well as means to personal fulfillment for ourselves and our students precisely because they maintain and enhance the quality of critical dialogue and set standards to which we can hold ourselves and others. In this social sense, Hamilton trains us all for responsible citizenship in a community of reasoners, able to appreciate and intelligently evaluate work in a broad variety of areas, which we place under the umbrella term of the liberal arts.

We rightly talk of the values of personal fulfillment and development of skills useful in the workplace that liberal arts education promotes. Indeed, probably each teacher in this room is motivated by a particular individual combination of reasons and desires.  The important personal values promoted by an education in the liberal arts matter deeply to all of us.  But the public value of teaching -- the fact that at their best, faculty in the liberal arts help create a community of informed citizens who can think critically about public issues—may be the most important reason for valuing the work which I am privileged to do.

* Presented at the Hamilton Bicentennial Convocation, September 24, 2011

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