The semester is over, and the juncos have returned to my back yard. One thing I have trouble assessing after teaching my class is whether the students have made any inroads into learning the difference between a fact and an opinion, and argument and a disagreement, an interpretation and an analysis. But a response can be any of these things.

Recently I have been entertained by Rebecca Solnit’s responses (as opinion). She’s made a bit of an earnest-minded internet buzz with her brief essay concerning Esquire magazine’s “80 Books All Men Should Read.” [As an aside, I really enjoyed her early book Wanderlust: A History of Walking.] Her opinion piece on Lithub is smart and funny, and she irked many readers; yet I do not see how anyone can argue with her final paragraph:

…that list would have you learn about women from James M. Cain and Philip Roth, who just aren’t the experts you should go to, not when the great oeuvres of Doris Lessing and Louise Erdrich and Elena Ferrante exist. I look over at my hero shelf and see Philip Levine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Shunryu Suzuki, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Subcomandante Marcos, Eduardo Galeano, Li Young Lee, Gary Snyder, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez. These books are, if they are instructions at all, instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender.

Roth, Caine, Miller– “just aren’t the experts you should go to” if you want to understand half the human species; I love that tongue in cheek understatement. I also love her list of “heroes,” although it doesn’t hurt that she names among them many of my own heroes. She says she reads and re-reads work that she has opinions about–and admits her opinions may not align with the generally-accepted opinions. Which is fine, since she reminds us, quoting Arthur Danto, art can be dangerous, risky, uncomfortable, as long as it means something.

She does raise the point that “[y]ou read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.” In this way, she reminds us that readers are people who may have perspectives that vary from one another, particularly as to the social, psychological, or artistic merit of a piece of literature. Lolita, for example. That’s one book she mentions that evoked considerable response from Lithub commenters.

Rebecca Solnit’s response to her detractors–or “volunteer instructors,” as she calls them at one point–and her willingness to walk around the Himalayas with a medical team (recounted in a recent New Yorker piece) count as reasons her work has moved to the top of my to-read pile of books. I think I will start with Men Explain Things to Me and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.



Synthesis & cigarettes

My students are too young to remember a time when smoking was permitted in public places. They’ve never seen cigarette ads in magazines. While a few of them do smoke, all of them are well aware that smoking can be dangerous. Most 18-year-olds seldom even see people smoking in movies; few celebrities flaunt a cigarette in their promotional shots anymore.

And none of them are aware of the history of anti-smoking campaigns: the legal wrangling, lawsuits, longitudinal studies, public service announcements, warnings, shaming, second-hand smoke claims, discrimination against smokers, tobacco industry lobbies, or the length of time it took to convince the general public that there were genuine risks involved in the addicting and heretofore glamorous habit. Yul Brenner died of cancer in 1985, long before my students were born, so his posthumous anti-smoking public service announcement–which was big news at the time–is not even a blip on their radars. They never saw the famous “Johnny Smoke” cartoon (which terrified me as a child) featuring the frightening and authoritative voice of James Earl Jones.

Why should they know–or care–about the combined efforts of state governments (cigarette taxation), non-profits (The American Lung Association and others), medical researchers, and health advocates…and why should the fact that this process took decades matter to them? Well, maybe they could learn something from this kind of history.

Like the actions of Civil Rights protesters, who employed social advocacy for the stated purpose of changing the expectations and behaviors of citizens, “awareness campaigns” such as those created to reduce smoking offer important lessons about how long it takes to influence large communities and which methods are most likely to be successful. Cass Sunstein notes that most legislation officially becomes the law of the land after the majority of citizens are already practicing the behavior, having individually and privately decided that, say, refraining from cigarette smoking is “common sense.”

An instructor at the college where I work recently assigned his students a synthesis paper in which they were to analyze and consider a JAMA Mozaffarian, Hemenway & Ludwig article–about using public health campaign strategies in an attempt to reduce firearms deaths in the US–along with another source (or two) and then derive, from their expert sources, an approach of their own that might be a step toward decreasing the number of gun-related deaths. His students are freshmen: he did not ask them to anticipate constitutional stumbling-blocks, censorship issues, or other complexities that would–naturally–arise. He did not tell them to propose gun control at all (and only some of them did); he wanted to see what they would come up with and whether they could infer, from the JAMA article, that there are methods other than federal legislation through which social changes can be implemented.

It is a valuable assignment because his students have trouble understanding it. They show up at meetings with me and the peer tutors in writing and they complain and question and wrestle with what the professor wants. What he wants is simple: he wants them to think. He won’t judge their ideas as right or wrong as long as they show that they understand the texts and can think about the complexities.

johnny smoke

Johnny Smoke

Here’s what I love about his assignment: students have to infer, reflect, analyze and synthesize, in the process of which it dawns on many of them that there are no easy answers; the issues are not black-&-white but depend upon perspective and social attitudes–not merely upon individual moral values, parental decrees, or civil laws. In other words: there are many other people in the world. Think about what you, the student and citizen-of-the-globe, can say to those people, respectfully, with some facts that you can convey.

It can be more than an argument. It can be a conversation, from which all of us learn more than a confirmation of our own correctness.


Youthful narcissism

“It’s not all about you.”

zits004(Many thanks to those geniuses of the adolescent mind, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, creators of Zits.)


…Or is it? Psychologists, neurologists, and even philosophers seem to agree that human beings need to develop through the stage of self-centeredness in order to attain a mature sense of self-in-the-world. We do not recognize the world at large without finding a way to validate or maintain the self or consciousness that we are given.

One method of defining who that self is, what selfhood entails, is through dissent. The two-year-old who shouts “No!” establishes the foundation for the later process of expressing selfhood through making oneself distinct from others–sometimes through disagreement. As I guide my latest freshman class through the understanding of argument as reasoned discourse in an academic environment, one of my purposes is to encourage them to feel free to disagree as long as they can support their reasons for doing so. To accomplish that task, sometimes they have to learn how to “step back” from themselves a bit (see my last post).


Yeats: “We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”


I am aware that most of my students’ dissenting opinions will occur outside of the academic environment, i.e., in “real life.” Real life could benefit from a little more reasoned discussion and fewer overheated, intuition-based gut reactions and ad hoc attacks. Often what people (and students) need is what we desperately try to avoid: difficulties, complexities, challenges. Okay, I’m whistling into the wind…still, I’ve written about the topic briefly here.


…and maybe the narcissistic 18-year-olds who come to college subconsciously thinking “it’s all about me” are actually reasonable human beings whose developing conscious awareness of self is ready, (almost), to feel the push-back of the world against the whining ego and recognize that respect and understanding require wide perspectives and differing methods of operating in the world. Maybe they are ready to move beyond mere opinion and into the realm of thinking about thinking, analysis, generosity, compassion…and facts, if we can discern what’s factual.

Maybe they are ready to begin the quarrel with themselves.




Dissent, controversy, & opinion

It may be obvious that, in this blog, the writer tends to shy away from highly controversial contemporary issues–with the possible exception of my occasional strong views on education–even though philosophical and critical arguments are part of my job and integral to my life interests. One possible explanation is that I am, as Charles Schultz memorably popularized, “wishy-washy.” (This strip is from 1952, © Charles Schultz):


And a little destructive criticism from 1959….


Indeed, my students sometimes get annoyed with me because I do not take sides during class discussions of controversial topics. “Don’t you have an opinion?” they ask.

Why, yes, I do. It is not my job to share my opinions with students, however, as much as it is my job to make them think more than once about their own opinions. It is also my job to help them navigate the complexities of critical thought, weighing “both sides” (and pointing out that many controversies have many more than two sides), and learning that perspective can deepen understanding and sometimes even alter opinions. This approach is far from wishy-washy; it is courageous. It can be risky to analyze rationales and points of view that differ from your own, and risk takes courage.


A good book that explores the courage it takes to analyze and, often, to dissent from the normative view is Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent. Sunstein argues that truly free societies need to permit dissenters room for expression and criticism; he provides evidence that without dissent, societies fail to thrive through change. Because growth is a change process, societies that resist change too rigidly fall apart.

This year, my class and I will be exploring Sunstein’s text in an effort to recognize the kind of thinking and evidence needed before one writes an essay. I hope they apply these ideas in their freshman Philosophy course.

I hope they apply these ideas in my course, for starters…


Argument has a negative connotation in American English, so many critics substitute the word discourse. I have no problem with such a substitution: the term discourse seems to connote politeness and respect, behaviors necessary for useful dissent and analysis of alternative perspectives. The philosophical argument, whether taking place in philosophy class, conference hall, or koan, operates most productively and insightfully when predicated upon mutual respect for differences.

Dissent as discourse may not be the most natural behavior for human beings, but it is something we can demonstrate and coach in the university classroom.

With any luck, both students and teachers may be able to apply the techniques to other areas of our lives. Along that vein, here’s an easy-to-interpret Buddhist explanation from New Lotus on how to approach argument in the Buddhist way.





Enter the philosophy paper…

My “day job” at a small university is part administrative, part teaching, part assessment, and largely tutoring in writing. The last of these requires a peculiar balancing act, because my directive says I must not tutor discipline content; I have to tutor students toward “clear expression” while staying within the areas of grammar, spelling, vocabulary use, assignment interpretation, thesis writing, paper structure, and documentation. As a job description, that all sounds quite clearly delineated and objective enough, but writing well cannot happen when the writer fails to understand content material. Enter the Philosophy paper.

In any discipline, it’s difficult to separate tutoring “clear expression” in terms of grammar and vocabulary without also tutoring content. With philosophy that process is especially challenging, because to a large extent, philosophical understanding (content) relies on grammar (rhetoric). A student can contradict himself simply by neglecting to type the word “not” in a sentence, rendering his attempt at argument void. Or a student may announce she will use one approach to prove her claim and then prove the claim, quite adequately, with a different (and opposite!) approach.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here:

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here:

Cases like these cause me to ponder. How can I coach the writer without offering a content-based answer? Philosophy itself supplies the method: inquiry.

“So, you say here that because Locke believed in Natural Law, he would not apply Natural Law in the case of the social contract. Can you explain that statement? Because it seems as though you are contradicting yourself, unless you accidentally added the word ‘not’ or unless you have more to say after this sentence…maybe, why he would not do so?”

“Here, you do a pretty good job explaining why beauty is in the eye of the beholder, although you need to pay more attention to your use of the comma. But back at your claim in paragraph one, you say you will prove beauty is transcendent–and your definition of transcendent doesn’t work with your argument in paragraph three…do you mean beauty is not transcendent? Did you forget a word, or are you missing a paragraph of explanation?”

When the science students or economics students bring papers to me, it is, I admit, much easier for me to stick to grammar and mechanics. The same sorts of logical structure or argument issues crop up, however. Sometimes, I feel as though I am right on the borderline, and sometimes I think I’ve teetered a bit too far into content tutorial–especially when the students are writing about history, philosophy, literature, or philosophy. Yet would any philosopher disagree that you cannot completely disentangle grammar logic from any other kind of logic? They stem from the same root.