In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero famously says, “Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens and set her in our cities, bring her into our homes, and compel her to ask questions about life and morality and the nature of good and evil.” At a community college, my students—aspiring plumbers and harried moms among them—helped me to rediscover that Socratic mission of grounding philosophy in the serious questions of ordinary people—that is, extraordinary people, like you and me.
I never fully understood Kant until a student of mine, a mother who had to authorize a risky surgery for her son that led to his death, asked me in tears if Kant was right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth. I never fully understood Stoicism until a student of mine who’d been sexually abused as a child explained to me how she’d deduced the same principles as Epictetus to transcend her suffering and find happiness. John Locke always seemed a little boring to me until a Sudanese refugee asked me tremblingly if we could study his arguments for religious freedom.
Don’t get me wrong. Teaching at a community college isn’t always—or even often—a beautiful Socratic dialogue with engaged interlocutors…. Stanley Cavell once called philosophy “education for grown-ups.” Having taught a mix of college-age kids and “nontraditional” students, I often think that college is wasted on the young. But I’ve learned not to underestimate anyone.
That is Scott Samuelson, associate professor of philosophy at Kirkwood Community College, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (may be behind a paywall — let me know if link fails), writing about teaching philosophy at a community college, sharing what he has learned from students, and asking about the wisdom of teaching philosophy “as if we were preparing students for academic jobs.”
Comments welcome, especially from other philosophers working at community colleges.
(art: detail of Calculator by Kevin Twomey)