In Seth Godin’s book “What to do when it’s your turn (and it’s always your turn)” he has a section titled “The Secret of Teaching (and the secret of learning) where he makes a useful point:
“I’ve taught all my life. And I’ve discovered that there’s only one thing that separates successful students from unsuccessful ones.
The good ones show up and say, “teach me.”
They look at failure and confusion as temporary conditions and say, “that didn’t work, show me another way.”
They are thirsty.
The other students have their arms crossed. They want to know if it’s on the test. They are restless. They need to be sold before they can be taught.
And that’s most of what happens in organized education. If you can’t sell it, people don’t learn it. When frustration (the twin sister of learning) shows up, most people stop trying.
Not thirsty enough."
Students need to hear messages like this from time to time. I know it sounds harsh but the days are long gone when just showing up to school and work led to success. That's not enough. Learning is an activity and it needs this thirst to drive it. I'm often amazed by how my students allow me to confuse them without stopping me. Of course, I don't mean to confuse them but it's clear they are confused. And, they aren't thirsty enough to say "that didn't work, show me another way."
What will happen when they graduate from school and are put in situations where they are confused about what to do? Will they remain just as silent and passive?
I think that often students look around and don't see any other students thirsty enough to learn and so conclude that they are just fine doing nothing. But, someone, somewhere is thirsty and acting on that. Someone somewhere is doing what I call thinking like a philosopher: asking more questions, demanding better answers, learning more than they think they need to know.
In other words, they are thirsty enough. Are you?
When I was in college I asked the same questions most of my students are asking: What does this have to do with me? Relevance is a tricky thing since it often doesn't become apparent until after the fact. You can't always know what's relevant until you've learned about it and used it.
I majored in telecommunications. This was before the internet, the cell phone, the laptop, the iPad. You get the idea. I was interested in doing audio and video production. On the side, I took irrelevant courses like everyone else: history, philosophy, science.
Now, I teach philosophy. Online. So, how irrelevant was my college experience? Not irrelevant at all. Very relevant now, if not quite as obvious then.
Virtually every course I took in college has been useful in some way for me.
Audio production: I record my music using computer recording software. But, the principles of editing and mixing were learned in that course.
Video production: I make videos and post them to YouTube. Different technology, same principles.
Philosophy courses: At the time, irrelevant electives taken because I enjoyed them. Today, it's what I do.
History courses: Philosophy is the history of ideas. Everything has a history and understanding that allows us to understand much of what will happen in the future. Took a while to learn that lesson but the foundation laid in college was important.
Science courses: Philosophy and science continue to converge, each informing the other. No understanding of how the world works and how to think about it is possible without an understanding of scientific principles.
So, what are you taking now that is irrelevant? Are you sure about that? Will it be irrelevant in 20 years? 40? 60? Are you still sure?
The essence of creative thinking, or as Michael Michalko calls it "Creative Thinkering, is to make connections between things that seem unconnected. It takes practice and a willingness to step outside of your arena of expertise and learn things that seem irrelevant.
That's one of the benefits of required courses in subjects other than the one you're majoring in. When you are sitting in one of these classes wondering "What does this have to do with me?" or "How is this relevant to my major?" don't stop there. Take those questions seriously. Then make one small change and act.
The small change. Start with this statement: This subject does have something to do with me. This subject is relevant.
The action: Find out how.
Don't wait for someone to show you how things are connected. Make connections. You'll be flexing your creative thinking muscle and coming up with new ideas. You never know what that might lead to.
As an educator, I try hard every semester to learn my students' names. But, I'm not perfect and at the end of every semester I end up with a few students whose names I have never learned. I used to feel guilty about this. I don't anymore. Here's why.
I've been thinking lately about the main reason why I fail to learn some students' names and I think the students themselves bear some, if not all, of the responsibility.
I came to this insight in part by reading Scott Ginsberg's book Make a Name For Yourself. In the book, he offers useful advice for becoming more approachable and memorable. These skills are important in the world of social media as well as social networking.
The most important takeaway is that if you're not approachable and memorable you might be negatively affecting your chances for success both personally and professionally. So, what can students do to make a name for themselves and help their professors (and others) remember their names? Here are a few tips:
1. Smile more. Everyone likes to see someone who is smiling. Even non-smilers like people who smile! Smiling can show engagement, understanding, curiosity, All good traits for students to manifest. And, you'll go a long way towards being more memorable.
2. Ask more questions. This is good advice for students anyway. It's one of the best ways to ensure you are learning and it helps you to clarify your ideas. But, it is one of the least used tools in the average student's arsenal. Perhaps it's ignored because it will lead to being more memorable. No one wants to be remembered for asking a stupid question. But, aside from the fact that no question is stupid if it can further your learning, the benefit of being remembered remains whether or not you think the question you are asking is stupid.
3. Make comments when they are solicited. One of my favorite questions to ask in class is "What do you think?" One of the things I am looking for is some evidence that there is thinking going on! Being able to formulate your thoughts on a topic and articulate them is a very useful life skill. It also needs to be practiced. So, take the opportunity when offered to develop this skill.
4. Make small talk. One of the often-overlooked aspects of networking is small talk. But, such inconsequential chit-chat can serve a useful purpose by establishing common interests, developing rapport, and opening the door to unexpected networking opportunities.
Every semester I am usually asked once or twice to write a letter of recommendation for a student. Sometimes I turn these down simply because I cannot in good conscience write a letter that would really benefit the student. The reason I can't write the letter is mainly that the student was not memorable. How many other opportunities are such non-memorable students missing out on every day? There's no way of knowing but I suspect they are missing out on a few. I can be sure they're missing out on some important learning experiences.
You can’t read every book. You can’t retain everything you read. Given these facts what counts as being well-read? It’s an interesting question to consider in a world where more and more books are being published every year thus making the goal of keeping up with knowledge nearly impossible. Even if you choose to specialize in one discipline, being well-read in that discipline is extremely difficult. But, is there a way to attain a level of general knowledge that is both achievable and useful? And, what are the benefits of such knowledge?
In an effort to plan a homeschooling curriculum for my daughter I have been thinking quite a lot about such questions. While I have a lot of sympathy for the unschooling movement and interest-led learning I also think it is important to gain a broad exposure to many different subjects and have at least a passing familiarity with the broad concepts in basic academic subjects.
One of the chief benefits of such broad exposure is the ability to make connections between subjects you do have an interest in and subjects you find less interesting. As T.S. Elliot once said “No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest. For it is part of education to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.”
In my curriculum I have organized the various academic subjects into the following categories:
Foundations: Education, Mathematics, Critical Thinking, Language, Life Skills
Moral Philosophy: Economics, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Religion
Natural Philosophy: Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, Geology, Physics
History: American History, World History, Ancient History, Greece and Rome, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, Women in History, English History
Humanities: Art, Literature, Music, Plays, Poetry
One of my initial goals for this curriculum was to create a resource list including important books for each subject. To “complete” a course of study a student would need to read a certain minimum number of books in that subject. But, this leads us back to the original question: What does it mean to be well-read in a certain subject area? Can this be reduced to a specific number of books?
I think you need to begin any course of study with the stipulation that learning everything about that subject might be a worthy aspiration but it is not a realistic goal. One also has to remember that learning about a subject involves more than simply reading a set of books on that subject. So, you have to have time for things other than reading.
Let’s pick as an arbitrary number five books per subject. That comes to 150 books for the set of academic subjects I listed above. At the modest reading rate of 25 books per year that means becoming “well-read” in all of the subjects listed above would take 6 years.
I think you could make an argument that a student who went through such a curriculum could not only pass any exam given for any of these subjects at a high school (and possibly college) level but would also be vastly better educated than the average (or even above average) high school graduate.
A student who went through this curriculum would not know everything there is to know about each of these subjects but would know enough to see how they were connected and would know enough to be able to learn more about any given subject if they so desired. In other words, they would have a solid educational foundation.
This is a nearly impossible question to answer in advance. Many will argue that anything irrelevant to you is not worth learning. But, how can you know what is or will be relevant to you without first learning about it?
Of course, you can’t learn everything there is to know but it is also not a good idea to rule out learning anything without first investigating it. You never know what might be useful and if you’re interested in improving your creativity and critical thinking skills, the more you learn, the more you will improve these skills. Let’s consider, as an example of learning, creativity.
What is creativity? Can it be learned? How do creative people think? These are some of the questions that Jonah Lehrer looks at in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. One insight I think is particularly important and provides a useful argument for the importance of learning as much as you can even if it seems irrelevant to your area of study or your current job. Creativity requires the mixing of ideas and to do this, you need to be exposed to many different ideas from many different areas of knowledge.
There are countless examples of this process that could illustrate the point. One of the most famous is the example of Steve Jobs being inspired by a course in calligraphy he took. This led to the development of the many different fonts in one of the first Apple computers. In his book The Mind and the Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz writes about using the insights of Austrian economics combined with Buddhism to help develop a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder. In neither case would that knowledge seem to have been worth knowing. Not until an application presented itself. But, that application would not have presented itself if these subjects weren’t first learned. This is what Louis Pasteur meant when he said that “chance favors the prepared mind.”
In Lehrer’s book, he describes a similar process of combining ideas. Dan Wieden, co-founder of the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy came up with the “Just Do It” Nike slogan by thinking about a murderer named Gary Gilmore whose last words at his execution in 1977 were “Let’s do it.” He was originally prompted to think about Gilmore due to a discussion with one of his colleagues who happened to mention the writer Norman Mailer. As Wieden puts it “we were talking about Mailer, and I knew that he had written a book about Gary Gilmore. And that was it. That’s where the slogan came from. Just a little sentence from someone else. That’s all it takes.”
The point is that’s all it takes if you have a sufficiently large store of ideas from which to draw and make connections. Where do these ideas come from? Well, one of the best ways to assemble this storehouse is to read widely, learn about different subjects, have a well-rounded general knowledge of the world, and remain curious. All of these are elements of a good education and are too often missing in what passes for education these days in most primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools.
Much of education these days seems to be very focused on relevance. We are told that students want to learn what is relevant to them and will respond best when given relevant information. As educators, we are told that this is the reason why students do not read many books, certainly not the classics. They just aren’t relevant.
But, what is the a priori relevance of calligraphy to developing a computer? What is the a priori relevance of Austrian economics to treatment for OCD? And, what is the a priori relevance of the murderer Gary Gilmore to coming up with an advertising slogan?
Judged by our current standard none of these are relevant and would not merit knowing about. So, the question becomes: How much creativity are we depriving students of (and they are depriving themselves) by only focusing on the relevant? In a world where there is a premium on creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving don’t we need to be teaching more irrelevant information than ever before?
So, don’t rule out anything as “not worth learning” until you’ve learned a little about it. And, even then you won’t be dismissing it as “not worth learning” but simply as not worth learning more about at this time. Who knows when that might change?
Here are some philosophically inspired resolutions for you to adopt in the new year:
1. Become a sage. Chuang Tzu once said, "The sage looks at the inevitable and decides that it is not inevitable. The common man looks at what is not inevitable and decides that it is inevitable." Recognize that what appears to be inevitable is not and take one step to become a sage.
2. Improve the quality of your thoughts. Marcus Aurelius recognized that "The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts." So, resolve to take this step towards becoming happier in your life.
3. Find time to sit still. Blaise Pascal once said, "Most of the evils of life arise from man's being unable to sit still in a room." Take some time to be still, meditate, or just relax with no distractions. It's good for the soul.
4. Take some risks. Paul Tillich once said, "He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being." Don't be a failure, try something new!
5. Examine your beliefs. David Hume pointed out that "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." Take some time to examine your beliefs and the evidence for them.
6. Spend some time with good friends. Epicurus recognized that "Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends." Re-connect with friends.
7. Be mindful. The poet Tagore observed, "The greed for fruit misses the flower." Remember to stop and smell the flowers on your journey.
8. Be satisfied with what you have. Epicurus once remarked that "Nothing satisfies a man who is not satisfied with a little." Focus on and appreciate what you have.
9. Identify your purpose. As Nietzsche once said "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost anyhow." be sure you are clear about the meaning and purpose of your life and strive to live accordingly.
10. Be a prepared observer. Louis Pasteur once remarked that "chance favors the prepared observer. Be ready to take advantage of new opportunities that arise this year.
This year I achieved two important milestones for myself. The first involves my reading hobby. I have been keeping track of the books I read each year since high school and have been tracking these digitally for many years now on Goodreads.
In September of 2010 I finished my 1,000th book. This year I completed my 2,000th!
My second milestone involves my music. I released my first album titled Waiting for the Slipstream in 1997. This year marks the 25th anniversary of that release. As a tribute I released a "best of" album titled Twenty Five.
So, it's been a good year. Here's to a great 2023 with more books read and more music to be released!
This problem has probably been around ever since people began thinking of ethics but David Hume formulated it in concrete terms in the 18th century. Basically the problem is that you cannot deduce from a set of facts what ought to be. For example, murders occur in this country. That's a fact. But, can we deduce from that fact that murders ought to occur? No. What's especially troubling is that we also cannot deduce that murders ought not to occur. That's the problem.
To illustrate consider this case. You are a student in a writing course and have an assignment to write a 10 page paper. You know the following facts: the professor has a strong policy against plagiarism and being caught with a plagiarized paper means automatic failure of the course, studies show that at least 75% of students claim to cheat in one form or another during their college career, papers are easily available for purchase online that fit your assigned topic, you have a friend who has told you that you can use his paper from last semester.
So, you have a decision to make! You can either decide what must be done and provide a good justification for this decision or ask for more facts first. But, you can only appeal to the facts to make your decision. Looked at in this narrow fashion it seems that the is-ought problem is intractable and that we cannot make any moral judgments.
But, there is a way out. If you stop and think about it, there must be since we make moral judgments all of the time. While some of these are flawed, many are good judgments. How could this be if we cannot make inferences based on facts alone?
The solution involves recognizing that there are moral facts. Are there moral facts? David Hume denied that there were and this denial has carried forward very well and is still a pervasive attitude not only among philosophers but the public at large. After all, there don't seem to be elements to morality that clearly stand out as the facts which tell us that something is right or wrong.
According to James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, the mistake comes from thinking that there are only two possibilities regarding moral facts. Either they are like the facts of science or any other empirical study or there are no moral facts. But, this ignores an important third alternative. There are moral facts and these are facts of reason. The moral judgments we make are backed up by facts of reason which means that I can provide good, objective grounds for saying that a certain moral judgment is true and a certain other moral judgment is false. In other words, we can derive an ought from an is as long as we include in our facts some moral facts.
One of the reasons we think that this cannot be done is because we look at the most difficult cases, like abortion, find them difficult and from this conclude that proving anything in ethics is impossible. This is the wrong approach. To illustrate let's consider some simpler examples considered by Rachels in The Elements of Moral Philosophy:
“A student says that a test given by a teacher was unfair. This is clearly a moral judgment— fairness is a basic moral value. Can this judgment be proved? The student might point out that the test covered in detail matters that were quite trivial, while ignoring matters the teacher had stressed as important. The test also included questions about some 9 matters that were not covered in either the readings or the class discussions. Moreover, the test was so long that not even the best students could complete it in the time allowed (and it was to be graded on the assumption that it should be completed).
Suppose all this is true. And further suppose that the teacher, when asked to explain, has no defense to offer. In fact, the teacher, who is rather inexperienced, seems muddled about the whole thing and doesn’t seem to have had any very clear idea of what he was doing. Now, hasn’t the student proved the test was unfair? What more in the way of proof could we want?”
Of course you might be saying that this wouldn't convince the teacher. But, there is a distinction between proving an opinion to be correct and persuading someone. The two are different and the fact that someone is not persuaded doesn't mean you haven't proven your case. What we need is a way to evaluate, objectively, whether the evidence we're putting forward is good, relevant, evidence. Certainly in the case cited, the evidence does prove the case. I mean, what else would you have the student do to prove their case?!
We can also illustrate the point with other cases:
“Jones is a bad man. Jones is a habitual liar; he manipulates people; he cheats when he thinks he can get away with it; he is cruel to other people; and so on.
“Dr. Smith is irresponsible. He bases his diagnoses on superficial considerations; he drinks before performing delicate surgery; he refuses to listen to other doctors’ advice; and so on.
“A certain used‐car dealer is unethical. She conceals defects in her cars; she takes advantage of poor people by pressuring them into paying exorbitant prices for cars she knows to be defective; she runs misleading advertisements in any newspaper that will carry them; and so on. “
In each case, we are deriving a moral claim from a set of facts. And, if we cannot derive these moral claims from a set of facts, we simply cannot make moral claims. After all, the facts are all we have!
Another take on this which illustrates that we can provide a way out of the is-ought problem is offered by Sam Harris in his TED talk: Science can answer moral questions
Quora Question: Why should we be moral if there's no judgment after death?
Morality evolved in the first place because of the benefits it conferred on the individuals who acted in accordance with these intuitions and has thrived not only because of the benefits to individuals but to society as a whole.
Most people have the disposition to be social, feel sympathy, and cooperate with others. These dispositions form the basis of morality. Imagine that you either did not have these dispositions or, as your question seems to imply, that you consciously reject them in the absence of a final judgment. Now, think about how your life might go as a result of that.
Or better, try a few simple, harmless experiments and see what happens. These will work very well if you live in an apartment complex or other fairly close community where you know many of the people you interact with on a daily basis.
Try ignoring them when they greet you for a start. Then try refusing to help them when they are obviously in need. Don’t help your neighbor carry in their groceries. Don’t offer assistance to someone who is asking you for help. Things like that.
What do you imagine will be the result of all of this? You may be thinking, nothing since there is no judgment after death. But, what about the judgment you will receive in the here and how? For most people, that will carry quite a bit of weight. And, make no mistake the judgment will be negative. Are you willing to alienate yourself from your neighbors in this way?
And, even if you do the odds are that you won’t feel good about it. This is true because, for most people not only do you have the dispositions to be social, feel sympathy, and cooperate, but you feel good when you do these things. That is another central feature of morality. One which naturally arose and benefits not only you as an individual but the rest of society as well.
Contrary to the belief your question presupposes, the world would be a much worse place if people only behaved morally because they feared a judgment after death. For one thing, people are not very good at projecting their future status and predicting what effects this will have on them. Witness most people’s poor savings habits. They know for certain they will need money when they get older but yet do not save it now to have enough to live on when the time comes that they will need it. And, this is a much more pressing need for most people than what happens after death. After all, we are absolutely certain that we will get old and need money to live on when we cannot work. We can only have strong beliefs about what will happen when we die.
So, the motivator you propose to keep people behaving morally simply doesn’t work. Psychology has shown that time and time again. People rarely alter their behavior now on the basis of consequences that happen in the long away future. That is why morality arose to work the way it does with both immediate and short term benefits.
Finally, on what basis would this judgment occur and what will be viewed as beneficial and what will be viewed as damnable? It is unclear from sacred texts how to answer this. Will it be beneficial to kill infidels? Some say it is a duty to do so and they derive this from a sacred text. You might argue they are wrong but the point is that the text is unclear enough to allow for alternate interpretations. Society could not survive on morality with such unclear rules.
So, there are good and natural reasons for being moral. Dale McGowan put the point nicely in this way: "But when the discussion turned to morality, he [the theist] said something I will never forget. 'We need divine commandments to distinguish between right and wrong,' he said. 'If not for the seventh commandment...' He pointed to his wife in the front row. ' ...there would be nothing keeping me from walking out the door every night and cheating on my wife!'
"His wife, to my shock, nodded in agreement. The room full of evangelical teens nodded, wide-eyed at the thin scriptural thread that keeps us from falling into the abyss.
"I sat dumbfounded. Nothing keeps him from cheating on his wife but the seventh commandment? Really?
"Not love? How about respect? I thought. And the promise you made when you married her? And the fact that doing to her what you wouldn't want done to you is wrong in every moral system on Earth? Or the possibility that you simply find your marriage satisfying and don' t need to fling yourself at your secretary? Are respect and love and integrity and fulfillment really so inadequate that you need to have it specifically prohibited in stone? Of course not. There are good reasons for being and doing good."
For a more extended analysis Sam Harris’ essay is also good: The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator
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