Manifest Humility

This week’s guest writer is Andrea Kenkmann, editor of Teaching Philosophy (2009)

There was a time when I thought of philosophy as some kind of arrival for myself. It was a space where one was still allowed to ask those big questions ‘What is a good life?’ or ‘What does it mean to be?‘  Whereas previously people often gave me funny looks when I started to ask questions about our underlying assumptions, the philosophers took them seriously. With colleagues and students, but also with friends one could have passionate discussions about questions that mattered to me; there was a shared sense that what we were talking about was important.  However difficult it was to read philosophers like Heidegger and Levinas, I always felt their ideas related to my own life, and shaped my thoughts and actions.

I think students notice that passion and that personal investment in the questions one asks; it makes them listen (although I might be misguided in my belief here) and think about the questions for themselves. I love teaching philosophy or sociology or really anything I care about, because I see it as an opportunity to learn from the discussions with students. Some of my fondest memories from my own time as a student are my Old English seminars where the old professor who had an international reputation for excellence came into the seminar room with such humility and the clear expectation that he wanted to learn from us. Funnily enough, I always thought we, the students, rose to the occasion with some brilliant ideas.

Yet whenever I venture into academia I see a big business that stifles all passion. The passion to think and ask questions suddenly needs to be translated into publishable manuscripts, churned out at regular intervals, and with high impact please. Ideas need to lead to funding proposals and the syllabus needs to be covered, never mind whether I’m passionate about Brentano.  And of course you need to think full-time, no time to dip my toes into the sea, watch clouds drift by, write children’s stories or play some Stravinsky.

The risk in such an environment is that research seminars, or, indeed, any seminars become merely meaningless intellectual exercises, rather than passionate debates connected to something that matters. Students can tell the difference. So maybe the question that those full-time professional philosophers running around in the academic treadmill need to ask themselves, is whether they are still passionate about those questions raised in their debates. If yes, then show and tell.


3 thoughts on “Manifest Humility

  1. Here are some thoughts I had while discussing professional education with doctors and lawyers on Papa Westray:

    Can we teach virtue without presuming preposterous authority? In what is our authority rooted, that it may not be preposterous? The obvious answer is knowledge and skill, but we’ve been saying [in the convivium] that education can’t be about those alone, it has to include ethics, wisdom, etc.. Therein lies the trap: must we be (visibly? testably?) good and wise in order to conduct such education? Maybe we ought not shrink from answering ‘yes’ (after all, we argued that you have to be ethically sound to be a doctor or lawyer; having come that far, it’s no big stretch to say the same of educators). But it’s an uncomfortable one for me. I like to give a deflationary story about why students should listen to my lectures and accept the grades I hand out.

    There may also be some resonances about openness and mystery. I have a feeling that some think that the majesty of the law requires the legal equivalent of smells and bells. They may be right (remember our discussion of rituals, which quickly surveyed rituals in various contexts that are not obviously marked as religious). Similarly, reading Bourdieu, it may be that effective doctoring requires some awe on the part of the laity. One would like to cheer for the Enlightenment–sunlight is the best disinfectant, etc.. But they also say you shouldn’t let sunlight in on magic. So how do you train doctors to be sufficiently awe-inspiring to carry out their function, without encouraging them to be arrogant?


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