On Being Idiots
This is the final week of the first six week summer session course I teach. Taught online, the course is Humanistic Traditions II. It looks at human history through the lens of the arts, religion, philosophy and various social sciences. The question I pose as the organizing theme of these classes is simply “What does it mean to be human? And how do we know?”
I begin the course with an assignment that asks students to become conscious of their hermeneutical lenses: What difference has your upbringing made in the way you see human existence and human nature? How do the ascriptive factors of your life – sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, ability level, age – impact the way you see the world? My theory is that if students can at least become conscious of these various aspects of understanding they bring to the process of learning, they can begin to account for them in their understandings.
I also have the students post their reflections in a discussion folder and encourage students to read and respond to each other’s posts. I find this tends to help students recognize that there are other ways of seeing things and that those who differ from them are not simply being difficult but perhaps are coming from very different places in arriving at those understandings.
At the end of the course, I have students reflect back over the entire course. They are required to choose three topics from each of the sections of the text that grabbed them in some manner – elated them, angered them, threw them off balance, provided the “Aha!” moment. They then talk about what each of these topics tells us about being human. Finally, they are required to reflect on what they now know about being human they did not know prior to the class and what they’ve learned about themselves in the process.
Inevitably, I have students who tell me they haven’t learned anything new about either of those subjects. In some cases, it’s a matter of simply blowing off the assignment. In other cases, it’s a bit of smug arrogance that reflects a largely closed mind more than anything else. While I tend to be more empathetic to the slacker than the pursed lipped purist, in either case, it suggests the wasting of a perfectly good opportunity to learn. And, sadly, in some cases, that’s an accurate reflection of reality.
In an effort to provoke a bit more thoughtfulness, I wrote a post and placed it in the class announcements. I doubt it will prevent the lame, generalized statements that many students offer in response to deep questions today more often than not. It probably also won’t deter the folks whose failure to even read the announcement is consistent with a lackluster performance overall in the course. They may well not have much to offer on what they’ve actually learned here. But, on the outside chance it might provoke a little more thoughtfulness than I might otherwise get from them, I posted the following:
As we approach the end of this last week, here are some things to consider:
Please take this assignment seriously. It is the final of your four Gordon Rule Paper (GRP) assignments and it is worth 20 points. You only have to write an original post this time, no responses required, though you are welcome to respond as you see fit.
Here’s a thought about those final questions. You are being asked to consider what you know now about being human that you did not know previously. This could be simply a new insight about something you knew previously. It could be an awareness that your own insights about a given subject were limited and that there is more than one way to understand this material. I learn new insights from my students in every class I teach every semester.
Moreover there is not a single semester that goes by that I do not learn something new about this material. Consider the disciplines covered in this course: Art, Architecture, Music, Literature, Theatre, Dance, Film, Religion, Philosophy, History not to mention the aspects of Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology and the sciences generally that inform this material. There’s no small amount of arrogance in suggesting one knew everything they needed to know coming into a course, whether as instructor or student. No one is an expert in all those subjects. And thus, for those of us who teach this course and for those who come to this course with an intention to actually learn, there are plenty of opportunities to grow and develop in one’s understandings of what it means to be human.
Clearly it is tempting to blow off this assignment. It comes at the end of the term and all of us are tired. It requires us to think critically, to reflect over a semester’s worth of work. For some of us, we assume it will be easier to simply say “I really didn’t learn anything new about being human or about myself.”
But is that honest? If it is, it unwittingly admits two possible failures. First, it not only says you punted on this assignment, it really suggests you punted on the course itself. But consider the implications of such a move. It says you’ve ultimately wasted the time of your instructor, your classmates and yourself. It also says you’ve wasted the money you and/or your parents invested in this class and the other 51% of the cost of producing this class born by state taxpayers. I’m not sure that’s something I’d want to admit.
But secondly, and perhaps more serious, if this decision is consonant with a general approach to life, it suggests a failure to develop the skills to live meaningful lives. The result is often a rather superficial, narcissistic life. A life with meaning requires reflection, the ability to be critical about your own thought, an ability to bring your own life experience to bear but not be so bound by it that you cannot benefit from the experience and wisdom of others. It does not require forgetting about your own life and those of your immediate significant others. It simply means recognizing that the concerns of those lives do not exhaust the concerns a fully human being considers.
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s also not really worth talking about even as we fill the airwaves – and often the lanes of our highways to the detriment of others - with the trivialities of meaningless lives.
On Idiocy and Instant Gratification
The human being who avoids reflection, who fails to develop the skills to think critically and creatively about their own lives and the world we live in, often tends to be focused on the immediacies of their own lives to the exclusion of all else. In ancient Greek society, such persons were known as idiotes, from which comes our modern word idiot.
I have linked a provocative article from Walter Parker, a professor of education and political science at the University of Washington which poses a pointed question to all of us: Will you be an idiot?
I also recently came across a blog entry I found amazing in its lack of critical insight. In it the blogger argues that the Gen Y Millenials somehow “need” instant gratification. Of course, instant gratification is the staple of consumer advertising: “Obey your thirst! Just do it! Have it your way! Talk all the time! Never stop playing!” In Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stage analysis of moral reasoning, this is stage two reasoning, the reasoning of the small child: What’s in it for me? I want it and I want it now!
This is also the stage that Sigmund Freud observed that children learn to control their id, their self-focused instant gratification impulse, with the super ego, the morals and manners of the society in which one is raised which place restraints on the pursuit of the id. For Freud, id-driven people acted like…well, idiots. So, is it true that an entire generation of human beings is being taught to actually avoid maturing into adulthood with its prerequisite of the ability to delay gratification and consider the needs of others?
I’ve created a Discussion category for these articles if you are inclined to discuss them. Bear in mind the rules for any kind of intellectually honest discussion. Speak for your own perspective, not for revealed truth of any kind. Offer reasons and reasoned arguments for you understandings, presuming you wish others to take them seriously. And, finally, listen to what others are saying. Remember what the Greeks are saying to us here: Only idiots presume that they have all the answers, that the concerns of their own immediate lives are all that count, and that they have no need to interact with others in the public square.
I look forward to your Summary Reflection Paper posts and your discussion posts on idiocy and instant gratification.
We’ll see if I get any bites on the discussion.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++