Sunday, January 11, 2009

Spring Semester Starts, Several Students Still Shockingly Stupid

The first week of the spring semester is over and done. I must say, I'm in very good spirits (aside from a minor cold I'm battling—mostly an annoyingly scratchy throat). I expected this semester to be an overwhelming one. I'm taking two required courses that are supposed to be extremely demanding (one called “Modern Logic I,” which is largely a philosophy of mathematics class, and the other being a “core course” on metaphysics and epistemology). I'm also taking a class on libertarian (not in the political sense) theories of free will and TA-ing for an intro to philosophy class, the latter of which involves leading two discussion groups per week. Fortunately, though it may be premature to say so, I am feeling quite hopeful about managing these responsibilities. Having gotten my first peek at them, I'm not sure they'll prove any more grueling than I am used to dealing with, and that's a great relief. If I stay on top of things, I am hopeful this semester will not be anything beyond exhausting, which is something I've grown accustomed to.

One reason I'm feeling a bit more optimistic is because of the weekly discussion groups I am leading. They are going to be more laid back than I had expected. That is, I don't think I'll have to be spending exorbitant amounts of time preparing for them. I wasn't sure that would be the case, so this is great news. However, I had the first of these discussion groups just a couple of days ago, and I was a bit disheartened at the students' ability (or inability rather) to differentiate between fact and opinion. I asked the class what they thought philosophy was, since I think most people do not know as well as they think they might. People tend to think philosophy is all about opinion and subjectivity. They think it's completely independent of objective truth. Many times I've had people tell me they don't like philosophy because they want to deal with “facts.” This is obnoxious to me, because I think what they really mean is that they want things to be super straightforward – they don't want to think about what the facts are, they just want to have the facts told to them. Philosophy is as much a search for objective fact as is science. In fact, philosophy is very often not as sloppy in its conclusions as is science.

But I digress. The point is, I had several students in my discussion groups tell me that philosophy is more about opinion than about facts. That they are misguided in this way is not the worst part. What is bothersome to me is that when I push them on what the difference between fact, opinion, and belief is, they don't seem to give a very good answer. I worry that they have been raised in a society that is so politically correct and tolerant that they honestly don't know the difference between fact and opinion. God's existence, some of them want to say, is an opinion. To clarify, whether or not God exists is an opinion, according to many of these students. One student said something along these lines: “I believe in God, so for me, it's a fact that God exists. But I wouldn't say that's the case for everyone. I know there are people out there who don't believe in God, so for them, it's an opinion.” Huh?!?!? That's not how it works, folks. I proposed the following thought experiment to the class: say we stumbled upon a sealed box that we could not open. Say some of us believed there was a certain object in the box, and others of us did not. I then asked the students if there would be a fact of the matter regarding whether or not that object is actually in the box. There was not much consensus in the classroom about that. Yikes.

So that's the beginning to my semester. The bottom line is that I'm hopeful. And happy. Talk to you again soon.


  1. Yes.

    I also think that this dependency upon opinion allows this whole "everyone is brilliant, we all get As" philosophy of parenting.

    "Your TA doesn't think you know the difference among fact, opinion and belief? Well, that's just his opinion? You're doing a good enough job"


    You'll get through to them.

  2. At least no one said the old, "Opinions are like ...., everyone has one and they all stink"....
    On another note, your question intrigues me, and perhaps sometime we should sit down and see if I know the difference.

  3. At the risk of sounding like one of your students, I enjoyed reading this post because it makes me feel smart. haha.Something to think about that's a bit intelligent and, I think we've discussed before, I've had similar conversations with people about math. I think it's funny that people can be so opinionated with their elementary experience and junior high definitions. I shouldn't judge I guess. One thing I definitely learned getting my degree was how much I still don't know!

  4. well, you can certainly run circles around me.....but I can see your frunstration with students. You have come a LONG way.