Philosophy is weird.
Allow me to clarify. When I say that, I’m not referring to the broad topic of philosophy as a whole. I’m referring specifically to the college course of that name, Philosophy.
…Also, the broad topic of philosophy as a whole is weird but, well, that’s a whole other issue that I don’t have time to get into right now.
It’s been about ten years since I graduated. And since that time, I’ve discovered an odd little quirk about college. I can remember a number of things that were said word for word but almost none of what I was taught during class.
I realize that probably comes as a bit of a shock to anyone still attending college. After all, your ability to pass or fail hinges almost entirely on whether or not you retain all that information. Based on bad dreams alone, it seems to be the number one fear of any college student come exam day.
Well, that and the “not wearing any clothes” thing.
I also expect it’s considerably less of a shock to anyone who’s been a college graduate for more than fifteen minutes. As any Psychology major will tell you (if you ask before they graduate and prove my point), memory strength is based heavily on access. Things you thought of only once or twice are bound to be lost forever. Things you think of again and again tend to stick in your mind forever – whether you want them there or not.
There are only two things I remember with any real clarity from my college courses. The first was the theory of how the first peoples migrated to the Americas – largely by virtue of hearing it several thousand times during my Anthropology coursework. There’s a bit of grim irony there, mostly because it’s since been proven almost entirely wrong by dozens of peer-reviewed studies.
As to that, I assure you, it will come up at some point during the story. For now, though, I want to focus on the second thing I remember clearly. That being things said by my professors that were so bizarre, confusing or shocking (and in at least one case, borderline racist) that it permanently burned the quote into my brain.
In this case, “You can use philosophy to prove pretty much anything.”
Taken at face value, this isn’t unusual. In fact, it hints one of the more interesting axioms of philosophy. There are so many different viewpoints and schools of thought that you can make a fairly convincing argument for almost anything. And if the teacher hadn’t said this in the middle of discussing how exams were graded, that’s exactly what I’d have assumed he was implying.
But he wasn’t.
“I mean, it’s all essays. No multiple choice or anything,” he added. “If you say anything that you can back up with any philosopher, I’ll give you credit. Hell, if you say something that sounds philosophically convincing, who am I to argue?”
His point was even more valid, considering that, through some administrative fluke, he was teaching the class without even having a Master’s Degree, but I’ll assume that wasn’t what he meant.
The class made sounds of confusion and disbelief until a brave soul raised their hand to ask a question. “So…anything we say that sounds right…is right?” the student asked.
“Pretty much,” the teacher said.
If the rest of the class was anything like me, their next thought was likely why we should even bother coming to lecture at all if that was the case. And apparently at least one other student was, because they asked, “Then…why come to lecture at all?”
“Well, I’ll be teaching you the specific areas of philosophy that will let you answer the exam questions best. You can use the ideas of other philosophers, but you may as well show up, since I’ll pretty much be giving you the answers,” the not-quite-professor explained.
The students didn’t seem convinced. Grumbling continued. “Couldn’t we just copy notes from someone who does show up?”
“You could,” the teacher admitted slowly. He quickly added, “Though, to be fair, ten percent of your final grade is based on attendance, so you should show up.”
Still a bit confused, someone asked for an example.
The teacher considered before brightening when he thought of one. “Okay. So let’s say there’s a question about whether or not it’s morally okay to steal bread for your family. I’ll be teaching you what Kant and Mill think of that question, so you can give either answer. Or, you could just use nihilism to say that everything is meaningless. So in the end, any codified system of how we ought to behave is irrelevant. Understand?”
A number of heads bobbed up and down. Then, another student raised a hand. “That seems like an easy answer to anything. Can we just say nihilism means all your exam questions are meaningless?”
“No,” the teacher said, starting to sweat a little. “No using nihilism on exams.”
“Because you wouldn’t learn anything. It’d be meaningless for you to even be taking the course at all,” he said, exasperated.
“Isn’t that the point of nihilism?”
The teacher grudgingly conceded the point. “Yes. But it’s not the point of formalized education. If you don’t learn anything then I’m doing a bad job.”
A chorus of other questions erupted from the class.
“Are you going to argue this hard against our exam answers?”
“Isn’t closing loopholes just squashing critical thinking?”
“So…only easy answers are wrong?”
“I zoned out. Is this going to be on the midterm?”
“How is it that you’re teaching this class when you don’t even have a degree again?”
The teacher cut off all discussion by rapping a book against his desk. “Okay. Just…don’t worry about it, okay? Just listen to lectures and you’ll do fine.” He shot me a dirty look then, because I was the one who asked the last question. “And don’t worry about my degree. It’s just…held up. I’ll have it soon.”
To his credit, things made a lot more sense when we reached the midterm exam. His questions were incredibly random, one of them arguing whether or not animals might be held to human standards of morality, or where the fault fell if they were trained by a human who needed them to steal for him and they committed other crimes. In short, I highly doubt he used the example questions from the teacher’s manual.
I still can’t remember anything I learned in that class. I barely remember which side Mill or Kant took in the debate on morality. But I’ll give that teacher credit. I won’t soon forget being asked whether or not it was immoral for a monkey to stab another monkey and steal his food.
Though, I really wish I’d remembered his name, because I’m actually really curious as to whether or not he ever got that degree.