Thinking Critically

As a trained philosopher I have always thought critical thinking essential to any well thought-out educational system. It’s what I pursued in all of my classes when I taught so many years ago. Unfortunately, the term has been used and misused so often of late that it seems to be empty of meaning. Early in these blogs I sought to clarify the term somewhat and I repost that piece here. With an election coming up this post seems particularly timely. This post has been somewhat updated.

According to Arthur Koestler, who should know, there exists in the Grand Scheme of Things a hierarchy of truths. At the top there is mathematics and theoretical physics whose claims are easily corroborated and verified by mathematicians and physicists around the world, regardless of race, creed, or color. At the bottom (and here I interpolate) there are the headlines of the latest National Enquirer that scream at us from the checkout lanes of our local grocery store: “Hillary is a racist, bigot, and criminal!” And then there are, of course, the innumerable false claims of our sitting president. We need to know how to differentiate among the types of claims — for they are all claims, some of them well-founded and others outrageous.

The sciences range downwards from physics to the biological sciences, geology, anthropology, the social sciences that rely on probability theory and therefore pass themselves off as exact sciences, to philosophy, history, and the like. Again, we need to know where we are on the hierarchy because each of these disciplines requires a different approach and different types of corroboration. History, for example, relies on first-hand testimony, written documents and independent corroboration from different sources, all regarded as reliable. The key is “corroboration.” The sciences and social sciences, even philosophy, require independent corroboration by others in the field to check on the accuracy of the claims being made. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Who says? What evidence is there to corroborate this claim? Thus the historian proceeds to provide us with an accurate picture of what has occurred in the past. The expert seeks to show that the claim is false. If it cannot be shown to be false after thorough study, we can accept it as true. Then he asks his fellow experts to duplicate his efforts and test the claim for himself or herself.

When the National Enquirer makes its outrageous claims we should (but seldom do) ask the same sorts of question: how can those claims be corroborated? Who makes the claims? Are those sources reliable? Can they even be tested? If so, how? These are the types of questions the lawyer asks in a trial when a person is facing possible felony charges and perhaps time in prison. We should all be so circumspect, equally suspicious and demanding of the truth and not satisfied with what are merely empty claims or false  accusations.

This is the job of critical thinking and it should be taught in all our schools and certainly in all our colleges and universities. We all tend to accept as true those claims that fit in nicely with our closely held beliefs, our”belief-set” as I call it. But the critical thinker will allow the possibility that a claim that does not fit in nicely with his belief-set might still be true. Those who lack critical thinking skills (whose numbers grow daily from the look of things) will believe whatever they are told on Fox News or read in the Enquirer. The problem is that those who believe whatever they hear or read without subjecting those claims to the tests of corroboration and verification are most likely to be lead astray by someone who, say, might want to steal their vote in an upcoming election, or sell them farmland in the Everglades. They fail to realize that something is not true simply because they want it to be true (it fits in nicely with their belief-set) or because the guy up there with the funny hair and the small hands says it is true. The fact that he said the opposite yesterday is lost on these people because they lack the critical filters that would weed out the falsehoods and lies and recognize the inconsistencies.

Critical thinking teaches us to have a healthy skepticism. Not that we will doubt all claims, but that we will suspect that those that seem outrageous might well be so. We will accept as true only those clams that can be corroborated and verified, like the scientist. We will also recognize among those claims that are scientific but outside our small field of knowledge that claims made by experts in the field, say scientists who have studied such things as climate change or the evolution of species over the millennia, are making claims that we ought to accept as true until or unless they are later shown to be false. We ought not to simply reject those claims because they don’t fit into our belief-set or because they make us feel uncomfortable.

In the long run, it pays to be critical and suspect that many, if not all, claims that are designed to sell us something (or someone) are probably not true, or at least that they demand further investigation and thought. Does the speaker or writer have a hidden agenda? They should not be accepted simply because we read them in our favorite newspaper or heard them on the News. That skepticism is healthy and it is what critical thinking is all about: making sure that we will not be mislead into accepting as true what is blatantly false — or electing a fool, once again, as our president.

Revisiting Duty

I was brought to philosophy by means of Immanuel Kant’s ethical philosophy which I first encountered as an undergraduate many years ago.  I was drawn to Kant’s ethical position, I think, because he saw clearly that the heart and soul of ethics is the struggle between duty and desire, the obligations we have to ourself and others as opposed to the pleasure that we naturally prefer. I have had this struggle myself many times over the years.

Later on I found myself drawn to the novels of George Eliot and the reason, I think, is because she, too, saw the importance to human life of the struggle between the urge to find pleasure and the duties we all have as human beings. Kant was convinced that this duty stems from the fact that we are all persons and as such are “ends in ourselves” and never a “means to an  end.” That is, we ought to recognize the obligations we have to ourselves and others as persons and not use others for our own purposes. This thought is the basis for any meaningful discussion of human rights — another area of keen interest for Kant and also for George Eliot.

But in all of Eliot’s major novels we find the central characters wrestling between the sense of duty and the powerful urges of pleasure that motivate us so much of the time — some would say always, that even when we do what we ought to do (that is, do our duty) we do so because it gives us pleasure. I respectfully disagree.

Be that as it may, Kant and Eliot both saw the struggle between duty and pleasure as the major battle that determines what sort of person we are to become and what sort of life we will lead. Both thinkers come down in the end on the side of duty. Nowhere is this more evident than in Eliot’s seldom read but brilliant historical novel Romola — set in fifteenth century Florence and involving many of the major players we connect with that city at that time in Western history. It is a time following immediately upon the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the struggle within the city to maintain the stability he had brought to a volatile city at the height of the Renaissance.

In any event, the novel centers around the lives of Romola, a beautiful young woman, and Tito Melelma, a chancer (as the Brits would say) who wins her heart only to break it in the end. Tito, you see, is a man who discovers gradually that his only motivation is pleasure. Initially he struggles with his conscience that demands that he use the jewels his adopted father has given him in trust in order to ransom him from captivity at the hands of the Turks. But in the end he realizes that he doesn’t really want to give up the jewels and the respect and favor they have brought him in Florence; he engages in the most remarkable rationalization I have ever encountered  in order to persuade himself that he really has no duty whatsoever to his adopted father — who saved him from poverty and despair and carefully raised and nurtured him into a scholarly and disarming young man whose brilliance and charming smile easily won over those around him. And this included Romola, as it happens.

Eliot spends en entire chapter describing the remarkable process of rationalization during which Tito persuades himself that he has no duty whatever to his father. In the process he persuades himself that the jewels his father has entrusted to him are really his and there is no reason whatever to think that he must give them up in order to save the life of an elderly man who is nearing the end of his life while Tito its just beginning his own. Indeed, Tito reasons, his father may not even be alive. Why spend the best years of his young in what may well be a pointless endeavor?

In the process of rationalization — during which he (like the rest of us) persuades himself of the strength of reasons that support his desires rather than those reasons that might lead him to do his duty in opposition to those desires — Tito’s conscience dies and he becomes desensitized to the pain and suffering of others while immersed in the river of pleasure he is convinced gives his life meaning.

“. . .but could any philosophy prove to him that he was bound to care for another’s suffering more than for his own?”

A novel such as this will not appeal to many of us today because so few of us would see any reason not to side with Tito who fears only those things that might rob him of pleasure. Can we even begin to understand why there might be a struggle going on within his soul? We tend to think little about the duties we all have to ourselves and to others out of a preoccupation with the here and now and the satisfaction of those desires that tend to motivate us most strongly while the nagging voice of conscience is silenced in the process.

I speak in generalities, of course. And there are those who prove the rule, exceptional people who would side with Kant and with Eliot in insisting that we are persons with obligations that define us. But we might do well to ask ourselves how many of us would agree with Tito that “the end of life is to extract the utmost sum of pleasure”? I do wonder.


The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once told us that the way to begin any philosophical discussion is to first “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle.” I gather what he meant is that we must begin discussions with definitions to make sure we know what we are talking about. If we debate, for example, who is the greatest athlete to ever perform on the public stage we must  start with some sort of stipulation as to just what “greatness” means. Otherwise we are much like the fly in the milk bottle: we beat our heads against an unforgiving surface.

This reasoning allows us to solve the age-old question of whether the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it makes a sound. That depends on what we mean but “sound.” If we mean vibrations in the air, simply, then surely it makes a sound. If we mean vibrations heard by at least one person then, obviously, it made no sound.

But I have always found that making distinctions is also extremely helpful in showing the fly the way out of the milk bottle. For example is the distinction between WANT and NEED. I have made mention of this in previous posts and it remains a focal point in my thinking about so may complex issues — as in the case of what students need as opposed to what they want.

Take, for example, the current discussion over whether or not collegians should or should not play football this Fall. This is what is known as a “hot” topic and everyone and his dog has an opinion.

In a recent informal poll on a sports show I learned that nearly twice as many people say”yes” to the question as say “no.” The vast majority want to play or to watch football this Fall. Additionally, a football player at Ohio State has initiated a petition among football players nationwide and has nearly a quarter of a million “yes” votes that show clearly that a great many football players in this country want to play football this Fall. Even the President of the United States, who cannot keep his fingers still, has plunged in and insists that it would be a “tragedy” if the game were not played this Fall.

Seriously? A tragedy. Let’s define our terms! I jest, of course, but the word does seem a bit overworked, to say the least. If the absence of football this Fall is a tragedy then what do we call the death of a grandmother whose young son brings back the Covid-19 virus after football practice, infects her, and she dies? Surely there are tragedies and there are simply unfortunate or even sad circumstances: things we don’t like.

For a great many Americans what they like or want amounts to what they need (in their minds). As a people we are not very good at denying  ourselves what we want. Calling those things “needs” makes us feel better about our choices, I suppose. The petitions and the polls show us clearly that many people want to play (or watch) football. But do the polls and the petitions show us anything about what the people need as far as football is concerned? Surely not.

It might be argued that a great many people genuinely need to play or watch football for their own psychical well-being — as a release of pent-up frustration, perhaps. But it is a game, after all, and the one thing we know for certain is that given the circumstances these days, it is a game that courts danger: it is risky, at the very least. We know nothing about the long-term consequences of infection from this virus. There are indications that there might be as many as one hundred possible side-effects, some of them very serious. And the wise choice in this case is to err on the side of caution. In general that might serve as a viable general rule, one would think.

But in the end, we do not really need football. We (or many of us) want it. And that is something entirely different.


More Critical Thinking

My elder son recently sent me a U-tube segment in which George Carlin rants for a minute or three about the stupidity of the American people who, as he would have it, allow the very wealthy and powerful to lead them about by their noses. As long as we are diverted and entertained we will allow those in positions of power to do whatever they want to do. He puts it down to our lack of critical thinking on our part. It is very funny. And it is spot on.

In a more serious vein Hannah Arendt said many years ago the same thing about the Nazis. She insisted that if the Germans had been more critical they never would have allowed Hitler to take power and eventually destroy their country — murdering millions of people along the way. She would have us all be more, not less, “judgmental.” Imagine that!

When I taught philosophy in a public undergraduate university I knew that I would never have many majors who would go on to graduate school and eventually become professors of philosophy themselves. There were a few who did so and they have done me proud. But there would be hundreds of students who were taking my courses simply to full a requirement or as an elective to see what all the fuss was about (!). In any event, I made the major quite small in order to encourage more students to sign up and also to allow them to get philosophy as a second major along with, say, sociology. Or biology.

My goal in teaching my courses was to teach critical thinking. In a word. I used the material not in order to drum a few assorted and esoteric facts about the history of philosophy into their heads, but in order to try to get them to think about the issues that have always perplexed and confused mankind (if I can use that word any more). I wanted, above all else, to have my students — most of whom would take only one or two philosophy classes in their four years — to think about things they never thought about before. I also wanted them to think about the things carefully and critically — not just sit around and bullshit.

Robert Hutchins once warned against “thugs who teach you what to think and not how to think.” I never wanted to be a thug!

Early on I wrote an ethics book in which I combined the rudiments of ethics with some of the elements of critical thinking — such things as informal fallacies, for example. Throughout the book I asked the question “why?” I wanted those reading the book to revert to their childhood when all was wonderful and their curiosity was unlimited. I suggested a number of theories as I went along and then asked the reader what he or she thought. “What do you think?” I wanted them to realize that what they read is not the TRUTH, but words on a page which they should subject to their critical thinking skills. I wanted them to develop their own thoughts about ethics while at the same time coming to the realization that ethics is not all about opinions, but it is about principles and suggestions as to how we can better make sense of complex moral issues. In the end we cannot do the right thing if we lack compassion, but ethics can help us become clearer about which path to choose.

In a word, I had two goals. I wanted the readers to have a new respect for orderly and systematic thinking about complex ethical issues while, at the same time, they began to develop critical thinking skills that they would take with them to other disciplines within and without the university. I wanted to help them begin to take possession of their own minds and not be puppets of others, like those Carlin mentions, who would take their minds prisoner and lead them by the nose.

Did I succeed? I do sometimes wonder, though I do know there are a scattered number of success stories (including one of the best students I ever taught who regularly makes comments on this blog). To a retired teacher this is what it is all about. But for those who took my classes — and who read the book (which did very well in the market place, by the way, and is still selling copies) — I wanted them to learn and grow.

But, in the end, Carlin is right because what I was doing was so terribly small and the ignorance that surrounds us is so terribly large. I do know, however, that it all begins with the question WHY?” We all need to ask it more than we do. And we need to embrace those thoughts that might be uncomfortable but which stand up to sustained, critical thought.

Have We Lost Something?

I repost here a piece I wrote a couple of years ago and which strikes me as even more relevant today.  It is a theme I pursued at some length in my book The Inversion of Consciousness from Dante to Derrida and it remains one of my main interests today.

In his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Balzac’s classic Père Goriot, Peter Connor asks the provoking question:

“Is Balzac the artist who has recorded for our modern era the death of soul? The death of all belief in something greater, grander than the individual?”

The question is rhetorical and Balzac makes it quite clear what he means to say in his many novels and stories that comprise the Human Comedy which he wrote in the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century. In his novel The Country Doctor, for example, he has this remarkable passage:

“With the monarchy we lost honor, with the religion of our fathers, Christian virtue, with our sterile governments, patriotism. These principles only exist partially instead of animating the masses. . . . Now, shoring up society, we have no other support than egoism. Woe betide the country thus constituted. Instead of believers, we have interest.”

“Interest” here, of course, refers not only to the money made from money, but self-interest — or, better yet, short-term self-interest which has become all the rage not only in France, but also in this country where the business model provides a template for all human endeavors, including health care and education. Profits now and screw tomorrow…. and the planet.

But, ignoring for the moment the reference to the restoration of the monarchy in France after Napoleon (and the oblique reference to the “reign of terror” in which clerics were one of the favorite targets of the Jacobites), let us focus instead on the loss of virtue. The “death of God,” as Nietzsche would have it. And recall that Karl Gustav Jung echoes Balzac’s plaintive cry when he wrote a set of essays in the 1930s and collected them in a book titled Modern Man in Search of Soul. All of these men, and others like them, have noted that the modern era (and especially the post-modern era I would add) have displaced soul with stuff. We live in a disenchanted age. It is an age of scientism and capitalism, the one ignoring intuition and insisting that the scientific method is the only way to the Truth; the other giving birth to a crass materialism that places emphasis on things over the ineffable. We have ignored Hamlet’s observation:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant natural philosophy, or science.  Indeed, ours is a “commodified culture” as Robert Heilbronner would have it, an era in which the new car or the flat-screen TV are much more important to most of us than virtue, or the development of what used to be called “character.” And we have the audacity to think that there are no problems our scientists, mostly technicians these days, cannot solve.

Balzac’s many novels and stories — more than 90 of them — comprise “a documentary of the cramped modern soul, a soul shown to be cynical, pitiless, insensible, gluttonous, scheming, and, perhaps, above all, indifferent,” as Conner would have it. In his classic  Père Goriot, which many think is the cornerstone of Balzac’s Human Comedy, he describes in exacting detail the residents of a boarding house where the novel takes place:

“There was not a soul in the house who took any trouble to investigate the various chronicles of misfortunes, real or imaginary, related to the rest. Each regarded the others with indifference, tempered by suspicion; it was a natural result of their relative positions. Practical assistance not one of them could give, this they all knew, and they had long since exhausted their stock of condolences over previous discussions of their grievances. . . . There was not one of them but would have passed a blind man begging in the street, not one that felt moved to pity by a tale of misfortune.”

That was France in the nineteenth century. And it was written by a novelist who, we all know, makes things up. Surely this is not the real world, not the world of these United States in the year of our Lord 2018? And yet with the exception of the remarkable people Jill Dennison tells us about weekly in her blog, most of us seem to fit the pattern of the lodgers Balzac is describing in his novel, sad to say. We do seem to be indifferent to others, preoccupied with our very own selves, turned in on ourselves, perhaps posting a selfie on social media in hopes of getting yet another “like.” We glorify our indifference to others by calling it “tolerance,” and delude ourselves into thinking we are better than we are.

It is certainly the case that many Christians have given a bad name to Christianity. We can see with our mind’s eye those who drive each Sunday in their gas-guzzling SUV to a mega-church where they sit in comfortable chairs, sipping an espresso coffee and watching the frantic preacher on a television set near the book store where his latest book is on sale, along with other memorabilia, including, no doubt, tee shirts. Such people abound who go by the name “Christian” while all the time indulging themselves, festering hate in their hearts, supporting a president who is the embodiment of hate, fear, and unbridled greed.

As Balzac notes, and this is not just a novelist speaking, we have lost religion, “Christian virtue.” And this includes not only so many of those who pretend to be Christians, but many of those who have rejected religion altogether, all religions. Along with “more things in heaven and earth” we have indeed lost our souls.  If we have any doubts we need only reflect on how so many of us celebrate Christmas these days.

O.K. Bouwsma

It’s time for an anecdote to help us forget serious business (and the coronavirus) for a few minutes! This one is about a well-known American philosopher. And with a name like that you know he must have been unusual.

I didn’t know him personally, but he was a godfather to the daughter of my first chairman at the University of Rhode Island. They had met and become close friends while both are teaching at Calvin College. My chairman used to tell me stories about O.K. Bouwsma that I thought were delightful. Apparently he was quite the character — brilliant but very funny as well.

Bouwsma was an acknowledged expert on the thought of René Descartes. He didn’t write much, but what he wrote was after months and months of deep thought and careful study. His books were mainly collections of his excellent essays — many of them on Descartes. Very tight and always insightful.

He was asked to deliver a paper at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association (now THERE’S a dry meeting if ever there was one!). He delivered his paper and, as was usual, listened carefully to the rejoinder read by a brash, young man who had a very high opinion of himself. After his critique Bouwsma asked the young man where he found the evidence for one of the major points and he responded: “In the Third Meditation” — (of six Meditations). Bouwsma smiled and nodded and then said: “Oh, I see. I haven’t gotten that far.” Needless to say  the young man was silenced!

The only time I ever had anything like genuine contact with the man was when we were searching for a new person to add to our philosophy department at the university where I was teaching at the time. We poured through applications for the position — and there were a great many as young folks coming out of graduate school were desperate to find work. In fact we eventually decided upon a man who was working at a men’s clothing store in Philadelphia! A man with a PhD from a major university who turned out to be an excellent teacher and a good friend. And there he was measuring men’s inseams.

In any event, we had to read more letters of recommendation than you can imagine when I came across a letter supporting a candidate from The University of Texas at Austin — a very good school with a strong philosophy department. As it happened, O.K. Bouwsma was teaching there and he wrote the young man a letter supporting his candidacy. It consisted of three brief paragraphs, tight and not overly wordy. It was a strong recommendation as it happened and it finished with a brief statement: “What else can I say? He also has very nice hair.” I thought it wonderful, but we passed on that candidate for other reasons.

In any event, Bouwsma is one of those characters who flits into and out of our lives — in reality or in our imagination. And I enjoy thinking about him from time to time. I hope you enjoyed this brief retreat from reality as well.


As an old fart I spend a good deal of time reflecting on fond moments of the past– and the many regrets I have for not having done more or better than I did. But as a college professor I taught in a college and a couple of universities for 41 years and I am lucky to have had some very fine moments. I want to share a couple of them with my readers because I am at present doing whatever I can to keep my mind off you-know-what and you-know-who.

My first job right out of Northwestern University was at the University of Rhode Island where I taught for two years. My advisor at Northwestern had helped me get the job because in those days mentors sought to find good jobs for their students as it reflected well on them. I made less money teaching as an Instructor for nine months than I did during the remaining three months as a tennis pro at a private club outside of Chicago! More to the point, as a member of a 7 man department (there were no women in those days) I was being forced into a niche that made me feel cramped. So when I saw a chance to take a position in a new small college in Iowa where I could spread my wings, begin a new program and, more importantly, teach the Great Books I had fallen in love with in college, I grabbed it. It also paid well enough that I was able to quit the job as a tennis pro and teach the Summer term instead, which I did with delight. Tennis has always been one of my great loves, but teaching philosophy and what they called “The Humanities” was what I was cut out for.

After a couple of years it was apparent that the small college was not going to survive so I took a job at a brand new state college in Marshall, Minnesota. I was able to establish a philosophy department and lead a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” where, I thought, I could continue to teach the great Books. Not so. The dean thought the books too sophisticated for the Freshmen at that college (not true) and he insisted that the reading list be watered down. I was in no position to do much more than complain. But I started an Honors Program for the brighter students and found my refuge there teaching (wait for it) the Great Books. We had a required Senior Seminar that focused on those books and I was able to have my students read some of them in my Humanities courses and in my course on Philosophy In Literature as well. I had some terrific students. Some of them have remained life-long friends. But what about those moments I mentioned?

In one of the Senior Seminars I came in a bit late and found the students already discussing the day’s reading! In another case I was able to ask a few questions and then simply make an occasional remark as the discussion was lively and involved all or most of the students. Those were some of the best classes I ever taught, and they were always the classes I most looked forward to teaching. I said little and the students really got into it. That’s the way they learn best! My role: provoke thought and guide discussion.

But I complained one day in class that the new college had very few traditions. At Northwestern we applauded the professor at the end of the term and even at the private school where I taught before going to Northwestern the boys led a cheer for the “master” at the end of the term. At this new college on the Prairie students simply left the class after it was over and that was it. The following day in class the entire class showed up dressed to the nines (one student even borrowing a suit for the purpose) with champaign and glasses in hand! I was struck dumb! We drank the champaign and had a good laugh and I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. (It bears mentioning that two of the instigators of that event were campus leaders in an effort to cut down the growing use of liquor on campus!)

One of the greatest moments came after my retirement when one of my former students, who is now a close personal friend and also teaches at the university, convinced the university to name the honors lounge at the university after me. The event was largely ignored by the university community, but the generosity and consideration of that former student is unsurpassed in my experience. How does one say “thanks”?

One last item: I was asked to coach the fledgling women’s tennis team when a new Conference was formed a few years after my arrival. And, given my love of the game I threw myself into it heart and soul. I did that for nearly fifteen years, along with chairing a department, teaching a full load of classes, and writing book reviews, articles, and a few books of my own. Even though the busy schedule took we away from my family — which is at the top of the list of those regrets I mentioned above — I loved it and still have a great many fond memories of the remarkable students and athletes who came to that small college on the Great Plains to play tennis and get a good education.  It is fun to hear from them from time to time and see what remarkable people they have turned out to be.




Learning To Learn

When I professed philosophy — back in the Dark Ages — my goal was always to help my students think for themselves. The greatest compliment I ever received came after I retired and I read a review of one of my books on Amazon after a former student bought my book because he had taken several of my classes and always wondered what my views were on key issues. I never gave it away in class, he said. It was my hope that this would happen, that my students would not know exactly where I stood so they could find their own footing. After all, if they knew where I stood that might simply pretend to stand there as well in order to get a good grade! Heaven forbid!

I never saw my chosen field of philosophy as a subject to be taught in and of itself. Not at the undergraduate level anyway. I was never going to have that many majors and there would be hundreds of students passing through my classes who would never even take another philosophy course from or anyone else. But if I could use the subject matter to get them thinking that would be a triumph indeed! That was always my goal –though I dare say my own private thoughts on key subjects must have crept through from time to time! I am an opinionated bastard as you already know if you have been reading my blog.

Another key feature of my goals as a college professor was to hope that after my students left my classes they would continue to learn and grow. In several cases I know about this has in fact happened. College, after all, is not the be-all and end-all of education. Education, properly conceived, takes a lifetime. Students should be taught how to learn. They should be taught how to think, not what to think — as Charles Van Doren wisely said long ago. He also said that we who teach should guard our students from the “thugs” who want only to ensnare their minds and make of them large puppets, mouthing their instructor’s words and adopting their thoughts. I did not want to be thought a thug!

I have said in print that the purpose of education is to put young people in possession of their own minds. This is vitally important, but it is also something that apparently I share with very few of my fellow professors. The stories coming out of the Ivory Tower of late is that faculty are more concerned about indoctrinating than they are about freeing young minds. For growing numbers of them it is vitally important that the current cultural malaise be radically altered, that students be made aware of the ills of Western Civilization, of capitalism, of colonialism, of the rape of our precious earth — all of which they put down to “dead, white European males” who should be set aside and ignored henceforth.

These are all important issues. But if we focus attention on how learning takes place rather than what it is we are teaching we take a step in the right direction, though I would prefer that my students read books that are worth reading. Great books are great teachers.  Whether we agree with them or not, those dead, white European males had important things to say. They should not be read in order to agree with them — after all, they didn’t even agree with one another. They should be read in order to use their thoughts to engender thoughts of our own. Reading what great minds have written down will help students become more aware of the complex issues mentioned above. And it will provide them with the tools they need so work toward solutions of those problems rather than simply getting all worked up about them.

In any event, these things have always seemed important to me and I still think the basic reasoning here is sound. There is a movement afoot in our colleges and universities that has me deeply concerned as many of you are aware. And this is not because there are so many who disagree with me, it is because they are convinced that in this day and age the most important thing is to revolt against the past altogether and adopt new ways of thinking, ways that the professors will lay out for their students — thereby confusing education with indoctrination. Clearly, this is not the right way to go about things. Not if we want them to become thoughtful, engaged citizens of this Republic.

Words and Meanings

While sitting uneasily at the Mad Hatter’s tea-party Alice is engaged in the following exchange with the March Hare and the Hatter:

“. . . why is a raven like a writing desk?”

“I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you can find out the answer to it?” asked the March haste.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice replied hastily; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!'”

“”You might just as well say” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.'”

And so it goes in Wonderland. Poor Alice!

In our world, where we seldom wonder, we occasionally puzzle over the problem whether the tree falling in the forest with no one around can be said to have made a sound. Or, to quote William James, we ask whether in going around a tree with a squirrel on the other side do we go around the squirrel if he remains always on the other side of the tree?

Well, some of us worry about such things. Mostly stuffy philosophers in their closets. These appear to be real problems when, in fact they are somewhat spurious. They are merely verbal problems and they can be solved by simply stipulating what we mean by “sound,” in the first case, and “around” in the second case. To take the second case, we go around the squirrel if by “around” we mean we circumscribe the squirrel; we do not if we mean by “around” that we see all sides, front, and back of the squirrel.  In the first case it is clear that depends on what we mean by “sound.” It all depends on saying what we mean.

If we mean what we say, on the other hand, then we are probably not modern parents who challenge their kids with threats they seldom or never carry out: “Peter, if you don’t stop hitting your little sister you will be sent to your room!” But, as so often happens, Peter keeps hitting his sister and is never sent to his room. Parents so often don’t mean what they say and the kids grow up not knowing where the line is drawn — if, indeed, there IS any line!

Thus do logical and linguistic puzzles translate into real-life experiences where kids are spoiled and we both eat what we see and see what we eat. Or we seem always to get what we like even if we really don’t want it — and we certainly don’t need it.

But, in the end, as Ludwig Wittgenstein told us long ago, we need to show the fly the way out of the milk bottle: we need to make clear to others what we mean when we use words — words such as “socialism,” “capitalism,” “democracy,” “conservative,” or “liberal.” Otherwise the fly will buzz around in the milk bottle and never get out — and we will debate endlessly about matters that really don’t matter and insist that facts are really fictions and truth is a matter of opinion.


Back in the day when I was assigning readings for my classes the thing I hated most were the dreaded “Cliff’s Notes” that were readily available not only in the college bookstore but in many a box store and even in some of the Mom and Pop stores down the block. They were everywhere and they professed to give the student an encapsulated view of the assigned reading — which many students read instead of the original material assigned. From my perspective, the assigning of original material was central to my purpose. I wanted my students to walk with a great mind for at least a few steps before returning to the hum-drum of text books and parties. I realized they were just a few steps, but the material was chosen in order to give them a sense of what it was like to actually accompany a great mind at least for a bit. So I hated the “Cliff’s Notes.”

Recently a new beast has appeared on the horizon and it is called Open Textbook Library, an on-line aid to students that offers them a free look at great books without asking them to make the effort themselves to ferret out what the author has to say. That in itself is a problem, because it is precisely the ferreting-out that is most likely to start the thinking process and help the student along the way toward intellectual curiosity and enlightenment. Short-cuts always have seemed to me to be the path of least resistance and designed to cater to the lazy students who didn’t want to make the effort.

One of these Open Texts, Plato’s Republic, was recently reviewed on-line and an attempt was made by the reviewer to save the Idiot’s Guide to Plato from infamy. As the reviewer said:

The Intelligent Troglodyte’s Guide to Plato’s Republic takes the reader on an enjoyable tour of this classic work of Ancient Greek philosophy. Although reading Plato’s text can be quite difficult, this Guide is very helpful both in summarizing the important ideas Plato expressed and also in helping a reader to navigate the order in which they are presented and remember the overall narrative arc of the story. This Guide is not intended as a replacement of Plato’s text, nor as a “Cliff’s Notes” summary, nor again as a detailed commentary, but rather as a simple and accessible guide. The reader is advised to first get through sections of Plato’s text and only afterwards attend to the relevant sections of Drabkin’s text, which fills the role of a humble interpreter who turns complex foreign pronouncements into understandable statements.

Now Drabkin is the author of the Guide and he is said to be an expert in classical works such as the Republic. I will not quarrel with that, but the claim that this Guide is not a digital form of “Cliffs Notes” is highly doubtful. I have a number of problems with this endeavor and even with this review. To begin with, Plato’s Republic is one of the most accessible of Plato’s works. It is not a terribly difficult text and rewards energetic reading and the needed attempt to dig into a text and find the jewels of insight that made the work a classic to begin with. It’s one thing to have the student read a translation of the original — which is simply a matter of necessity for most of us. It is quite another to take the students by the hand and lead them to the main ideas and point so they will not have to find them for themselves. This may not be Cliff’s Notes, exactly, but the intent is the same: make things as easy for the student as possible so they will not be turned off by what they regard as a difficult task. Isn’t it just possible that it is precisely the difficulty of the task that is most valuable to the student’s intellectual development? The Greeks used to say “Nothing easy is worthwhile.” These Guides seem to be another attempt to make things easy. We can predict that it will make the endeavor worthless as well.

The problem is that Guides such as these, including Cliff’s Notes, while not designed to replace the original (as the reviewer correctly points out) do precisely that for the majority of those who use them. This strikes me as a form of cheating. Not on the student’s part, because they simply don’t know any better. But on the part of the instructor who is cheating the student by pointing out how he or she can avoid the task that is designed to help the student grow and mature as a reader and a thinker. The easy way is not the best way — though increasingly it appears to be the only way.