Category Archives: Education

Advice on Taking a Philosophy Class

I’d like to share an anecdote from a previous philosophy class I taught many years ago. I also thought it might serve as advice for students who are taking their first class. Specifically, advice about what not to ask!

The class was introduction to philosophy and the book we used covered: the existence of god; the problem of evil; death and immortality; personal identity; mind-body problem, free will; knowledge; objectivity of ethics; why should we be moral; and the meaning of life. Now our memories are notoriously bad, so I can’t be sure of the details, but this is a reasonable reconstruction of what happened. There was one student who greeted each new chapter with a certain kind of question. Here’s a sampling:

“I just read the chapters about god and evil, and the book suggested that the arguments for god’s existence aren’t good and that evil counts against the existence of god. But we all know god exists, so what’s the point of those chapters?”

“I just read the chapter about death, and the book suggested that we may not be immortal. But we all know we are immortal, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about mind/body, and the book suggested that we are entirely physical. But we all know that we have souls, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about personal identity, and the book suggested that this idea is problematic. But we all know that identity is real, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about free will, and the book suggested that there are problems with this idea. But we all know free will exists, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about knowledge, and the book suggested that we may not know what knowledge is. But I know what I know, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about ethics, and the book suggested that ethics might be subjective. But we all know that ethics is objective, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about the meaning of life, and the book says this is a tough question. But the meaning of life is to love god, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

Now these weren’t the exact questions, but they capture the spirit of them. I won’t say much except that this person wasn’t philosophical, but he was arrogant. He pretended to know what the more educated are unsure of. I hope he’s not in politics.

Education & The Election

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 13, 2016.)

There is plenty of analysis on why Trump narrowly won the crucial states that gave him an electoral college victory—Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan—even though Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes.  But what was particularly striking was how, even if we control for race and income, educational levels best predict how people voted in the election. Of course this was expected, but I was shocked by how much a difference education made in terms of voter preference.

Nate Silver provides the overwhelming statistical evidence for the effect of education in “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote For Trump.” In 48 of the 50 most educated counties in the country—almost all of which lean Democratic—Clinton did better than Obama did in 2012. And this holds true even in those educated counties than lean Republican. But in 47 of the 50 least educated counties in the country—almost all of which lean Republican— Clinton did worse than Obama had done in 2012. And this held true even in those less educated counties than lean Democratic.

Now you might think that income levels rather than education was more important. In reply Silver notes:

How do we know that education levels drove changes in support — as opposed to income levels, for example? It’s tricky because there’s a fairly strong correlation between income and education. Nonetheless, with the whole country to pick from, we can find some places where education levels are high but incomes are average or below average. If education is the key driver of changes in the electorate, we’d expect Clinton to hold steady or gain in these counties. If income matters more, we might see her numbers decline.

And what did Silver find? In high-education, medium-income white counties Clinton did better than Obama, while high-income, medium-educated white counties Clinton did worse than Obama. In addition, highly educated majority-minority counties shifted toward Clinton, while medium-educated majority-minority counties shifted toward Trump. Thus Silver concludes:

In short, it appears as though educational levels are the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016. You can come to that conclusion with a relatively simple analysis, like the one I’ve conducted above, or by using fancier methods. In a regression analysis at the county level, for instance, lower-income counties were no more likely to shift to Trump once you control for education levels. And although there’s more work to be done, these conclusions also appear to hold if you examine the data at a more granular level, like by precinct or among individual voters in panel surveys.

This conclusion was confirmed and expanded on by exit polls as described in Harry Enten’s piece, “Even Among The Wealthy, Education Predicts Trump Support.”  Exit polls of white voters show clearly that every bit of education means less support for Trump as can be seen here:

High school or less 27% 69% +42
Some college or associate degree 29 65 +36
College graduate 40 54 +14
Postgraduate study 54 41 -13
Trump did much worse among white voters with more education



<$30,000 +32 +2 -30
$30,000-$49,999 +38 -6 -44
$50,000-$99,999 +49 +9 -40
$100,000-$199,999 +34 +10 -24
$200,000-$249,999 -1
≥$250,000 -2
Education, not income, was the main driver of vote choice

(Because of a small sample size, there is no breakdown of the vote among non-college graduates earning $200,000 or greater. Based on the other crosstabs, it can be estimated that Trump won this group by about 40 percentage points.)


The conclusion here is straightforward. The more educated you are, even controlling for income and other factors, the more likely you were to vote for Clinton, and the less educated you were the more likely you were to vote for Trump.

Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College

I was recently reminded of David Foster Wallace‘s (1962 – 2008) well-known commencement speech: “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.” Below is a summary and commentary on the speech. Some of its main themes are: solipsism, loneliness, the monotony of life, the nature of real education, and the importance of sympathy and conscious awareness.

(At the bottom of this page is an audio of the entire speech.)

Wallace begins with a parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Wallace quickly explains that “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Against this story’s backdrop, he argues that the significance of a liberal arts education isn’t so much about learning how to think, but that it provides “the choice of what to think about.”

To explain this idea he considers a theist and an atheist who are both convinced that they know the truth. For Wallace this shows that people construct meaning from the inside by interpreting reality differently. Yet most of us are close-minded, unaware of how imprisoned we are to the ideas and events that continually shape us—to the water all around us. A real education teaches us: “To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”

So a liberal arts education gives us tools to escape from our default settings, from the things we believe to be obvious, but which really aren’t. Education

… means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed …

If you’re truly educated you can “keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” And to show why this is so important Wallace informs the new graduates:

The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

To explain Wallace pictures of an average day in the near future for college graduates:

you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping … So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

This is the life that awaits graduates. It will be their life “day after week after month after year.” But we can choose to be upset about the store or the traffic, or we can reject this natural default setting, which is to be frustrated with all of this. We can then see that all of this isn’t about us;  we can learn to see things differently. Perhaps those in traffic or at the store are as stressed as we are. Perhaps their lives are much worse than ours. It is hard to see the world like this, but we can do it with effort. As Wallace poetically puts it:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Wallace’s point is that “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.  (This is what the Stoics advised too.) This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.” (The existentialists offer similar advice.) Worshipping money, power or physical beauty will not satisfy, for you will never have enough of them. These are the things the world encourages us to worship, what we worship by default. But

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Wallace concludes:

… the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now. I wish you way more than luck.

I thank Wallace for reminding me of so much—that education is about choosing to escape our biological and cultural default settings; that we can only control our own minds, not the external world; and that real education is a lifelong process. I also thank him for reminding me that the meaning of life is found, if anywhere, in ordinary things. Finally, I would like to thank all the friends and teachers who helped provide me with a liberal arts education so long ago. It has not made me rich, but it has helped make me free.

And here is the speech in full.

Note – Our of respect for DFW’s memory, I did not discuss the few sentences in the middle of the speech relating to suicide.

Reflections on a 30 Year College Teaching Career

I vividly remember walking into my first college classroom almost 30 years ago. I was nervous and excited at the same time. Was I the professor or an impostor? What would I say for 50 minutes, 3 times a week, for 16 weeks? Well, I found out I could easily talk that long. It enjoyed having a captive audience forced to as least pretend to listen to me.

For thirty years I tried to combine enthusiasm with command of my subject. I did some lecturing, as it is hard to generate discussion without there being something in a student’s mind, but I didn’t see my students as empty receptacles. Instead I tried to pull from what was already inside them, employing a Socratic method. I didn’t learn from all of my nearly 10,000 students, but I did learn from many of them and that fills me with gratitude.

The most influential advice that informed my teaching came from the Martin Heidegger.

Teaching is even more difficult than learning. We know that; but we rarely think about it. And why is teaching more difficult than learning? Not because the teacher must have a larger store of information, and have it always ready. Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than—learning … The teacher is far ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they—he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by “learning” we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information.  The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn that they—he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. The teacher is far less assured of his ground that those who learn are of theirs. If the relation between the teacher and the taught is genuine, therefore, there is never a place in it for the authority of the know-it-all or the authoritative sway of the official. It is still an exalted matter, then, to become a teacher—which is something else entirely than becoming a famous professor.

Still your students forget you, as one of my first mentors told me long ago. Thus you should focus on your own work; work that expresses or elaborates your being, work that is not alienated labor. So with many thanks to those thousands of students, now is the time to do less teaching and more learning. I so need and want to learn more.

Philosophy & Wonder

I have taught out of several hundred philosophy books in my college teaching career. One textbook, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, had a prelude with a futuristic photo of a spaceship, missile launching, or futuristic house (depending on the edition) along with a few words from the author. It set the tone for the exploration upon which my students and I were about to embark.

Those words were simple, although philosophy is generally a difficult, esoteric pursuit. They were written by a professor who wanted to communicate with his heart, not impress students with his intellect. I think they wonderfully communicated the value of philosophy, especially for the uninitiated. Here is what he wrote:

The following pages may
lead you to wonder.
That’s really what philosophy

To philosophize
is to wonder about life—
about right and wrong,
love and loneliness, war and death.
It is to wonder creatively
about freedom, truth, beauty, time
and a thousand other things.
To philosophize is
to explore life.
It especially means breaking free
to ask questions.
It means resisting
easy answers.
To philosophize
is to seek in oneself
the courage to ask
painful questions.

But if, by chance,
you have already asked
all your questions
and found all the answers—
if you’re sure you know
right from wrong,
and whether God exists,
and what justice means,
and why we mortals fear and hate and pray—
if indeed you have completed your wondering
about freedom and love and loneliness
and those thousand other things,
then the following pages
will waste your time.

Philosophy is for those
who are willing to be disturbed
with a creative disturbance.

Philosophy is for those
who still have the capacity
for wonder.

     Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering