We all have good days and bad days in the classroom. Every once in a while, though, something magical happens in the classroom that reminds you of why all this (philosophy, the examined life, etc.) is so worthwhile. Every once in a while, if you work hard enough, there is that "lost" student who suddenly becomes "found", blossoming into a young philosopher. Or there is that particularly thoughtful and unexpected insight a student has in class -- the one where you think to yourself, "Where did that come from?" (see e.g. the insight one of my female students had about Socrates which I related in my comment on 4/18 2:25pm here). Then there are those days where your class just has a wonderful, thoughtful, insightful discussion. These "magical" days are usually few and far between -- not every day can be magical (good will have to do on many days!) -- but they are certainly memorable, and can make one feel "it's all worth it" (being an educator, that is).
I had one of these experiences today, and thought I might share it, as it happened more or less by accident, and as a result of me doing something I don't normally do: namely, show videos in class. Aside from issues in applied ethics (the ethical treatment of animals, abortion, gay rights, etc.) -- where I think it can be important to hook up in-class discussion with moral experience (which I think videos can help with), I don't like to show videos too much in class. In many (most?) cases, I feel like it just wastes time that could be better spent actively engaging with students. Today, however, we were covering the issue of patriotism in my undergraduate seminar on justice -- specifically, Alasdair MacIntyre's paper, "Is Patriotism a Virtue?" It's a wonderfully provocative paper -- but I expected my students would be very skeptical of the idea that patriotism is a virtue (as indeed they were!). So, I decided to show them two videos:
- Jimmy Carter's 1979 "malaise"/"crisis of confidence" speech
- Ronald Reagan's 1989 "city on a hill"/farewell address
Although I didn't show the entirety of both speeches, I showed really significant portions of them -- and it was really magical watching both of them. When I looked out at my students, I saw that they were utterly captivated. Here, I realized, were two important (and relatively recent). moments in history that my students had basically no knowledge of. Here there was Carter, almost 35 years ago, in a quivering voice, trying to connect with the American people, raising just about all of the concerns we are publicly debating today (dependence on foreign energy, recession, jobs, government overreach, government corruption, fat cats on Wall Street). And I heard at least a few students say something like, "Right on. He's so right." Then there was Reagan, 10 years later, speaking in soaring terms about how it was American patriotism -- belief in American exceptionalism -- that rescued us from Carter's malaise.
My students were stunned. It was clear to me that many of them were deeply uncertain -- that they wanted to side with Carter (they thought he was speaking the truth about problems with America), and yet they found Reagan's rousing rhetoric for patriotism moving. What better, I thought, for philosophical discussion? And so it was. I have rarely seen students that animated, struggling with MacIntyre's argument in a way I don't think they would have if we hadn't watched the speeches. I won't let on where we ended up in our discussion: that's not the point. The point is: suddenly moral and political philosophy, to them (or so it appeared to me), wasn't just abstract arguments on a page. It was trying to figure what in the world we should be doing in our lives, and in politics. It's not the first time I think they've seen that -- we've had some great conversations about justice, fairness, oppression, etc., and their effects on real human beings this semester. But somehow, embedding this topic in specific moments in history -- moments that most of them clearly had little contact with -- seemed to make it (the philosophy) so much more real, vital, and relevant to them. "I need to find a way to distill that", I thought to myself, "and make that happen more often." I have no idea if I'll be able to, but I will try! ;)
Anyway, I just thought I would share the experience! Hope you all have a wonderful end to the semester... :)