Philosophy Teaches Us...
creating a space for public discourse and debate
I wasn’t surprised to learn that a recent MIT study found that Americans are experiencing a rapid decline in happiness.
“Amidst a global pandemic, economic crisis, and social unrest, Americans have experienced a record drop in happiness and life satisfaction.”
It has become more and more difficult to reflect on and discuss the state of our country, our world, our communities, and even our own lives. We have (allowed ourselves to) become increasingly divided. Our divisions have made people unwilling to engage in debate and even openly hostile towards others who think differently.
In the current climate, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have a rational discussion or debate in the public sphere. Attempts to discuss the issues and problems we face quickly devolve into shouting matches. In short, it seems that public discourse has broken down.
Next week, I am returning to the classroom. I teach philosophy and look forward to meeting the students who have enrolled in the courses I’m offering this fall.
Unlike the public sphere, in my classroom I know my students can and will participate in a rational, thoughtful discussion about diverse, often controversial topics. I will push them to think about difficult topics from different perspectives. Each student will have the opportunity to voice their own views, explore the reasons they have for thinking a certain way, and will have the opportunity to hear what their classmates think and why.
I’ve taught philosophy at the college level for over a decade. One of the most important things philosophy teaches us is to ask questions, to explore different views, and to value even the beliefs and perspectives we don’t agree with. Philosophy teaches us how to think critically, how to argue, and it forces us to ask important questions about what matters, about what we value.
Perhaps what I love most about teaching philosophy is the discussions I get to have with my students. My students and I have open, honest discussions about all sorts of important topics, issues, and controversies. Everyone is encouraged to ask questions and to explore the issues from new perspectives. Philosophy teaches us the value of reasonable rational discourse, because through it we learn about others, ourselves, and the world.
Importantly, through the study of philosophy my students also learn that it is okay not to know everything, that we are more open, more intelligent, when we admit that we don’t know everything. Indeed, even Socrates, whom the Oracle at Delphi called the wisest person, famously said, “the only thing I know, is that I know nothing.”
It is upsetting and unfortunate that the kind of open discussion, thoughtful debate, and willingness to question oneself and others that I see in my classroom is increasingly absent in the public sphere. Every semester my students express how much they value the opportunity to participate in our discussions. They value the opportunity to get a deeper understanding of relevant perspectives and the freedom to explore different points of view. They value it precisely because it is something they are often unable to do in their communities or at home.
Americans have become increasingly divided. It seems like every topic, every issue, is now expressed in oppositional terms. This has made it more difficult, perhaps impossible, to have productive, thoughtful discussions about the problems we face. When we view each other as the enemy, when we refuse to listen to the other side, we have failed.
If we want to fix our government, if we want to address the social, economic, environmental, and … problems we face as a country, we will need to work together. We don’t have to accept a continuing decline in happiness and life satisfaction. We don’t have to accept a continuing decline in community.
I am hopeful. In class discussions, my students remind me that people really want to understand one another. They remind me that the more we reach out, the more we try to understand each other, the more we realize that we can disagree, we can hold different views and values and still respect each other and value each other as individuals and as members of the same community.
Next week, I return to the classroom. I am looking forward to exposing a new group of students to the study of philosophy and the important tools and skills they can gain from it. Through my work with my students, I hope that I am able to change the world, if only a little, by making it possible to have a reasonable, rational debate, by giving them a place where they can explore ideas, issues, and perspectives without fear.
Thanks for reading.
Please check out my author page and read my related articles and stories: The Habit of Living; Curiosity, Perplexity, and the Wisdom of Socrates; Living Underground; and Reason, Autonomy, and Kant's Ethics.