After the apocalypse

Returning to the philosophy class that I had canceled, I wasn't sure who or what I would find.

Published October 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

For the benefit of the uninitiated, I teach five classes, two each in
introduction to philosophy and humanities respectively and one in world religion and
spirituality. Community college teaching is extremely demanding, with
roughly the same course load as high school and somewhat the same academic
expectations as the university: the best and worst of both worlds. Besides,
anyone can get in, so classes contain the full range of human ability and
motivation, with any given class potentially containing a budding Sartre, a
future farmer and a bum well on the road to ruin. My troubled
philosophy class is just one of five, the others all bumping along in well-modulated regularity. But as
anyone who has ever taught knows, we devote enormous energy to the malignancies
and hope that everything else doesn't collapse.

I walked to my afternoon philosophy class in a mood that alternated between
the fear of a soldier on the Bataan Death March and the
insouciance of a lifeguard at Venice Beach. Anything could
happen. They all could have dropped the class in irritation at my
apocalyptic gesture
that ended the class the previous week; they could be
waiting in tense expectation of what the madman would do next; or, perhaps
even worse than either of those alternatives, they could be slouching in
postures of boredom and decadence, waiting for another irrelevance to
intrude on their more pressing agendas.

Most of them were there, including the young fundamentalist Karl, surprisingly, and the cynic Roberta, the two most unlikely returnees, after they had clashed over their differing Christian worldviews. I smiled my usual greeting at Bart, the handsome, gray-haired Christian, shook Leslie's and Tina's hands, and tapped
Neil lightly on the back before pulling the text and a sheaf of papers out
of my backpack. They quieted down more quickly than before, like the
audience in the courtroom of a noteworthy judge. But also like a courtroom,
the atmosphere was slightly uncomfortable, as if nobody would have been
there had somebody not done something wrong. Even Karl wasn't slouching today,
looking like he was afraid I might pull a gun.

There was a time in my career when I had little interaction with
students. I simply pontificated, passing down the received wisdom of the ages. The history of philosophy is full of this -- men laying down some line of analysis and then
departing, never waiting to hear the reaction. Socrates was actually quite
unusual in his insistence on dialogue. Traditionally, students passively read
all the stuff and then regurgitated it to their professors on tests, what radical pedagogist Paolo
Freire calls the "banking" system of education, teachers making "deposits" and then
"withdrawing" the information.

I remember that kind of education well. My philosophy professors dutifully
plowed through the canon in old wooden classrooms while we
sat in tight rows and copied it all down. The smell of the aging desks is
still in my memory. Sure, I learned a lot of information. A stack of notebooks two feet high in the barn attests to the number of "banking" transactions. I had a very positive
balance; nobody becomes a teacher without one.

But the notion that any of this stuff related to my life or that I could construct a philosophy from this legacy escaped me for years. The old men who droned on, either standing like
beacons of absolute truth from the lectern or lying dead on the pages of my
books, offered me little help because I didn't really know how to use them. They all seemed to be parading a slender knowledge and calling it wisdom.

I taught that way myself for the first few years, sending students on their
way with little piles of received insight. The dead were passing their
death on to the next generation. After I got sick of it, I gradually developed other methods and turned the whole business on its head. The interaction between professor and students became
the raison d'être and the course content merely a vehicle to facilitate it. Like so many other college professors in the early '70s, I went too far in that direction. We all ended up feeling good about ourselves, but my students banked little factual knowledge. The last few years of my career have been marked by various attempts to achieve balance, with varying degrees of success.

Now I want my students to participate actively in a dialogue that generates self-scrutiny in the best
sense of the word. I'm not convinced that I know how to do that anymore,
which is part of the reason why I am quitting. But I know I can never go back to acting the part of the grand elder who expects the
young to sit at my feet while I intone eternal verities. Far better, I think, to admit them into my own process of thinking so that they can see ideas in living form: embodied, evolving, edged
in ambiguity. Then if they work on their own thinking, their convictions can grow out of their doubts. What better way to pay homage to Socrates,
Descartes, Hume, Nietzsche and the rest of the gang? The old authoritarian
voice in me is almost mute, unless it confronts a particularly egregious
procedural violation.

When I blew the whistle on them a week ago, I didn't know exactly what I was doing. They could have walked out or sat mute, for all I knew. It might have been even better if somebody had grabbed my
whistle and said, "Listen, asshole, what gives you the right to end this
class? Now, where were we, discussing Galileo? Why do
you think the church was so threatened by this guy?" Nobody did, of course.
The room to maneuver within the confines of institutions is always greater
than most people know.

Today I gave them a set of alternatives, including continuing as before,
continuing in a slightly modified fashion and "radical surgery," which
meant substituting a formal class with independent study and small learning groups. None of them showed up with a proposal, so we voted on mine. They voted to continue in a
slightly modified fashion, with a bit more guidance from me in interpreting
the reading, but with student moderators and student questions on the reading as the basis for dialogue.

I was mildly disappointed that they didn't opt to careen into the
dark, but it felt good that people were re-committed to the class. At least we were alive. Our struggle, though attenuated by their culturally induced passivity, took us to another level of reality, one in
which issues of freedom, authority, justice, truth and questioning itself
had real consequences and weren't just atavistic exercises in futility.

At least I hope that's what happened.

Cindra came by my office the next day. She said, "You set the whole thing
up, didn't you, deliberately to get us to confront the issues of freedom and
determinism. How many of them do you think got it?" She was pleased with
herself and with me.

I smiled as knowingly as I could.

By David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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