Teaching Philosophically

Few of the courses I teach, whether in a college or church setting, are officially called “philosophy.” Having a philosophical temperament, however, and finding value in a philosophical approach to learning, I find it difficult to avoid a common approach to all my teaching.

A first step in my teaching is to produce ignorance. I take ignorance to be a good thing. The production of ignorance has two components. The first is having light shined on my lack of knowledge. The second is increasing the size of my world so the realm of my ignorance becomes larger.

A second step is to inculcate the right attitude toward ignorance. Sometimes when I discover the immensity of my ignorance I quail in despair. There’s so much to learn, so much to understand, and my mental capacities are so feeble: why even try? My goal, with myself and others, is to come to terms with my ignorance. I come to peace with my ignorance not so I can wallow in it, but so that it can become an engine of learning.

A third step is to get students to think slowly. Some people may have the mistaken impression that philosophers are people who think more quickly than others. I have found the truth to be the exact opposite. Rather than jumping to conclusions or assuming that what ordinary people take to be obvious really is obvious, the philosopher says, “Wait just a minute. Let’s look at this more closely.”

Thinking slowly is hard to do. We want to come to settled conclusions, to mental resting places.  A restless mind sometimes keeps us awake at night or distracts us from urgent tasks at hand. The slow thinker takes his ignorance as real, not just a pose to appear Socratic. I really don’t know, I really don’t understand. But I want to.

That’s the final step. I know this is controversial. Some philosopher-types think the best approach is to always and only question, always and only doubt. Never come to conclusions. I’m on the other side: I think conclusions are perfectly fine. Slow, careful thinking will often – though not always – lead to conclusions. These conclusions need not be taken as set in stone for all eternity, impervious to revision. But they can be settled on and taken as secure points of reference for expansion into new areas of exploration. One way I put it sometimes, is that while the quest for absolute certainty is misguided, the quest for “certain enough to proceed” is a good idea.

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