Dustin Crummett | Sunday, March 3, 2013
Socrates was killed on charges of corrupting the youth. Some philosophers are still viewed as dangerous – Peter Singer sometimes receives death threats – but nowadays they are more likely to be thought irrelevant. This is the judgment Christopher Damian passes in his recent column “Our introduction to ‘philosophy'” (Feb. 26).
His friends, he tells us, tend to wind up frustrated after their professors ask them “pointless questions” about how we can know seemingly obvious truths. I, for one, found these questions fascinating as an undergraduate, but of course people have different tastes. Even if we don’t find them intrinsically interesting, questions like these illuminate fundamental epistemological issues that bear on all fields of philosophy – including fields that Mr. Damian seems to regard more fondly, such as ethics and philosophy of religion (the fields I happen to work in.) I understand that the prima facie abstruse nature of questions like these might be frustrating, but philosophy is a rigorous academic discipline like any other and no class promises all and only thrills.
Introductory philosophy classes are intended to help acquaint students with a rich intellectual tradition, to help them reason critically and evaluate arguments and to encourage them to reexamine fundamental assumptions they may have previously taken for granted. Mr. Damian, as far as I can tell, would prefer that introduction to philosophy courses function more like souped-up Catechism classes. I would regard this as a great loss; we already have Catechism classes in the form of Catechism classes. To this end he suggests Notre Dame “has a grave responsibility to ensure that [graduate students who teach] embody and promote its unique mission.” He explicitly refuses to elaborate. As many graduate students make a living through such teaching, perhaps I can be forgiven for wanting details. Should I be fired for being an Episcopalian, or will only my non-religious colleagues be banned? How will orthodoxy be enforced? By making us sign a statement of faith? Submitting our syllabi to Father Jenkins? Whatever it takes, I guess, to keep us from corrupting the youth.
Well. Maybe things haven’t changed so much after all.