Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Socrates, Know-it-alls, and Underachievers

A colleague of mine told me roughly the following yesterday:
When I taught at [large private research university] I spent a lot of time convincing the students that they weren't as smart as they thought they were. Here, I spend a lot of time convincing them that they're smarter than they think they are. And I'd rather do the latter.
I've never taught anywhere where the sense of entitlement was overly high, but I certainly do find the students at EKU different. Perhaps some of it is, as suggested above, a kind of lack of self-confidence. There are lots of reasons for that: growing up surrounded by poverty (10 of the 20 poorest counties in the US are in EKU's service region) and in many cases (so I'm told) without much strong family support for going off to college. A lot of first generation college students, so often a lot of uncertainty about what exactly is going on. (And the amount of drama in my student's lives, again compared to other places I've been--real drama, not dorm room drama--speaks to much of this.)

This made me wonder whether I should be starting my Beginning Philosophy courses with Socrates (and soon after Descartes), where one of the messages is that we don't know much of anything . In a way, students who lack confidence in their own intelligence don't need to be told (or reminded of) that. They don't need modesty or humility, but a boost of confidence, a bit of pride. (This is a point well-made in connection with minorities by Michael Eric Dyson at a Chautauqua Lecture he gave at EKU this year on what Black Pride is about.)

But on another level, Socrates is still the best place to start, because even if he knows little or nothing, at least he knows it. And maybe those students who need a confidence boost, who are smart and capable, but surrounded by a culture not particularly friendly to intellectual inquiry (I've been told stories of pastors coming to biology classes to find out whether the children are being indoctrinated)...well, maybe Socrates is the kind of hero they could use. But I think for a lot of them, they need more than Socrates, too, but a positive sense of direction. Philosophy, I think, is probably less good at this (and better at ruling things out), but more on that another time.

(Apologies for being so cliché in my romantic views of Socrates...but hey, if it works, it works.)

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