Jan 072014

Recently, I ran across this list of 25 Manners Every Kid Should Know By Age 9. It’s not a great list in many ways, but some of the proposed rules are fine. Kids should learn to make polite requests, including saying “please” and “thank-you.” Obviously, that’s part of being a decent adult too.

However, I have a strong aversion to the rules designed just for kids, such as #3:

Do not interrupt grown-ups who are speaking with each other unless there is an emergency. They will notice you and respond when they are finished talking.

Really? Adults interrupt each other all the time. Can’t kids be taught those mores — or how to do that politely? Surely, this rule seems to imply that any conversation among adults, no matter how trivial, is more important than any concern of the child, except life-and-death. That’s not good!

Also, #6:

The world is not interested in what you dislike. Keep negative opinions to yourself, or between you and your friends, and out of earshot of adults.

Dislikes are important! Knowing what you dislike is part of knowing what you like. A kid who can introspect and explain his dislikes is going to be better equipped to pursue his values, both as a kid and as an adult. He will be able to assert himself, including against bullies and exploiters. Yes, dislikes can be expressed in rude or otherwise inappropriate ways. However, merely expressing dislikes is far from rude in and of itself. That’s why adults express dislikes routinely. (Alas, part of the problem here is that parents often don’t take the likes and dislikes of their children seriously.)

Oh, and #13:

Never use foul language in front of adults. Grown-ups already know all those words, and they find them boring and unpleasant.

To that, I will only say: Speak for yourself, jerkwad!

Obviously, I’m not opposed to all rules designed for kids. Kids aren’t just small adults, so any rules should consider their ignorance, lack of self-control, clumsiness, weakness, and other relevant facts. So definitely don’t let the two-year-old run around the house with the kitchen knives.

However, when teaching social graces, kids need practice at polite methods of accomplishing their aims. Simply demanding that kids never interrupt, keep silent about what they dislike, and never curse doesn’t do that. Such bans leave kids without guidance and without practice — and likely with some resentment of their parents for being hypocritical and oppressive. Parents, you can do better than that!

Nov 062012

I received the following fabulous story about teaching Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem in China from Dr. Robert Garmong in November 2009. I meant to blog it at the time, but I forgot about it until I interviewed him in September on Teaching in China. As I often say, better late than never!

Tonight was my first night teaching Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem in China.

Last spring, I made the decision to petition The Ayn Rand Institute for support via their free books program. At considerable expense to the Institute, they shipped me several hundred copies of Anthem, free for my students. I think they were as excited as I was to introduce Ayn Rand’s ideas to China in a systematic way for the very first time. I handed the books out three weeks ago in my graduate-level course on American Literature.

It’s a slightly risky move, teaching any work by Ayn Rand here in China. China is still a country with censorship — for example, the Ayn Rand Institute’s website is blocked by the government. Professors have been expelled from the country for teaching ideas critical of the government, and what could be more critical of the government than a radical assault on collectivism?

On the other hand, I’ve been told that all ideas, per se, are more or less tolerated here: censorship is directed mainly at direct criticism of the Party, especially with regard to tender issues in the provinces. Those professors who have gotten in trouble, I’m told, were using the classroom for open advocacy, and/or were very unpopular jerk-professors of the sort we’ve all experienced once or twice.

The edge of uncertainty about Anthem was heightened slightly last week, when some students told me they had read the book, with a little shock in their voices. One asked what the real message was, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was reading individualism in a Chinese government-university classroom. “It is too radical,” whispered another.

Last week, the students watched “Freedom Writers,” a good movie in the “great teacher shapes up hopeless misfit students” genre. The students loved the film, and I used it to set up Anthem by emphasizing the theme of individualism versus racism. I talked at some length about the “melting pot” idea, and how that is only possible if individuals are judged as individuals, not as members of their racial or other collectives.

Then, tonight, I introduced our discussion of Anthem by asking for initial gut-reactions. That’s often a very useful barometer of students’ context and understanding of a text. If they respond to a trivial or superficial element (“I don’t like red hair, so The Fountainhead is no good”), I know they’re going to need a lot of remedial concept-formation. If they respond to the right things, but with ill-formed judgment (“Locke’s argument for individual rights condones immoral selfishness”), I know they are going to need help expanding their philosophical context in order to understand the possibility of arguments for the other side.

Teaching Anthem in China, I got a little of both. When I asked for initial reactions, one brusque-faced student dressed in black faux leather jumped in immediately with: “I do not like this book, because Ayn Rand is Russian.” I expected some sort of anti-Russian nationalism to follow (and there is strong anti-Russian sentiment here), but instead he followed up: “She chose to move to America, so she betrayed her country. Why she must betray her country?” Um… “Her country?” Why must IT betray HER?!

While I was attempting to process this, like a 1970′s calculator trying to plumb pi to too many digits, his woman-friend jumped in with a wickedly calculated “I-gotcha” look on her face. “This book is wrong. Socialism does not mean what she says. She presents collectivism nai-ga-tively, yet she calls her fur-losofee Objectivism, as if it is objective. It is not right. It is too radical.”

Then a grinning guy in the back row, wearing a military-green wool coat, jumped in. “Our China requires collectivism for its moral survival. We cannot have individualism.” (Corrupting the Morals of China, by the way, is a crime that carries the death penalty, so Grinning-Guy had thereby issued what amounts to an oblique and distant death threat. Not that it would likely be carried out, but still… everyone knows it’s there as the ultimate punishment. That has a funny way of shutting people down.)

I was attempting not to literally reel. The plurality of non-aligned students were avoiding my eyes, as Chinese students will do. I looked to my support group, the three or four students in the class who clearly and profoundly love me, my class, and all things American. They smiled exaggerated, disarmed smiles of attempted support, but they were obviously folding up inside. I was on my own.

A woman in the front-right raised her hand to say: “My Marxism professor in undergraduate university told us that all Western thinks is metaphysical. Westerner wants to find the one, and maybe it’s a little radical, but makes sense logical. China understand that there is other side, maybe not just one side. Maybe this book like that.” It’s possible was trying to throw me a lifeline, saying “this book isn’t evil, it’s just too extreme.” Not much of a lifeline, I have to say.

I asked the students how they had responded to the writing style. One support-group woman finally jumped in to say, with a bold smile but a timid voice, that she’d found the book exciting. “I thought the Equality character was changing much through the story, so I could not stop reading to find out how he would think and change each time.” I explained the concept of a “page-turner,” which seemed to return some portion of the class to learning mode.

It was time for a ten-minute break, and damned if I wasn’t ready for that break!

After break, I decided to launch into a substantive lecture on individualism versus collectivism. I hit the issue as straight-on philosophy, not trying too hard to tie my entire discussion to Anthem. I drew examples from the movie they’d watched, I laid out a grid of premises, such as “collectivism: Individual has no value. Individualism: happiness is the purpose of life.” Collectivism: The good is service to society. Individualism: The good is to promote your own well-being. I talked about how collectivism implies the metaphysical premise that the individual is nothing, and society is everything.

This time, I thought the students really understood and were enthralled. They hopped with examples and questions. The same students who had earlier disparaged individualism, now leapt to its defense.

Chinese students are fun.

Robert Garmong’s blog — professor-in-dalian — has more fabulous stories from his life as a professor and now husband in China. If you missed my fabulous interview with him, you can stream or download it here:

Aristotle on the Mean

 Posted by on 28 October 2009 at 3:00 pm  Aristotle, Funny, Teaching
Oct 282009

One of my past-fellow philosophy graduate students at Boulder recent reported on the following response to a quiz question:

Question: “Illustrate the Doctrine of the Mean using the virtue of courage.”

Response: “Too little courage makes you cowardly. Too much courage makes you an asshole.”


Course Evaluations

 Posted by on 4 August 2009 at 6:01 pm  Teaching
Aug 042009

As I’m organizing my workspace this afternoon, I found my teaching evaluations from last semester. I decided to look through the written comments before filing them away, as I’d not yet done that. The comments were a mostly-positive mixture. I’m surprised that they were so positive, given that I felt like I seriously shortchanged my students last semester. I just couldn’t afford to spend much time on my teaching due to the dissertation. It was the right decision, but I didn’t like it.

Here’s the kicker, though: one student just wrote “not too bad on the eyes.” Seriously! I’m super-amused — and, I might as well admit, a tad flattered. Let’s hope he learned something while gazing at me.

God Save Me

 Posted by on 18 February 2008 at 7:22 pm  Teaching
Feb 182008

Holy fuck. I just read the following sentence in a student paper, supposedly on the argument from design: “‘Contact’ is my mom’s favorite movie.” The whole paper was like that: pointless, irrelevant, and rambling personal narrative.

I’m going to go bang my head against the wall for a while now…

Teaching Egoism Versus Altruism

 Posted by on 3 January 2008 at 7:47 am  Ethics, Teaching
Jan 032008

When I taught the issue of egoism versus altruism in my Introduction to Philosophy class last semester, I wasn’t happy with my ability to explain why the choice is either-or. I’m able to effectively explain the evils of a fully altruistic life, in part thanks to Susan Wolf’s article on “Moral Saints.” (She draws different conclusions in that article than I do, but it works quite well for my purposes.) However, the next natural position for my students to adopt is that some mixture of egoism and altruism is the right answer: sometimes we should think of ourselves first and sometimes we should think of others first.

Obviously, that view is partially motivated by the false assumption that egoism demands callous indifference to others. However, it’s also due to a much deeper problem, namely the fact that the students don’t understand the fundamental opposition of egoism to altruism. They fail to appreciate that because they don’t think of their own lives in terms of any fundamental principles or ultimate values. They don’t think that a life needs to be so integrated.

So, dear readers, do have any suggestions on how I might show that egoism and altruism cannot be coherently mixed? How can I make reasonably clear that to attempt to sometimes adopt one policy and sometimes adopt the other cannot be done on any rational, principled basis, but would have to be a mere emotional decision?

Of course, my students won’t be obliged to agree with me. They’re welcome to defend any views they please in class and in their papers, so long as those views are supported by plausible arguments. However, I’d like to offer them compelling grounds on which to question a view that seems so natural to them.

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