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Teaching Philosophy to Freshmen:
Some Personal Reflections

Manuel P. Arriaga

Philosophy Department
California State University, San Marcos


As a junior philosophy teacher at California State University, San Marcos, I have always considered my philosophy teaching at the forefront of the university’s effort to develop students into well-rounded men and women. This task entails freeing the students from the narrow concerns of specialized schooling and the slavish pursuit of a livelihood, thereby enabling them to cultivate culture, the arts, and moral and spiritual values, all of which make life meaningful.

However, it is not enough that appropriate curricular structures are in place in a university. They must be complemented by teachers who, within themselves, have harmonized the diverse elements that go to make up a whole person. That is, teachers should be well-rounded persons, and present themselves as exemplars of a liberal, integral education. To model the broad-mindedness that is the hallmark of this objective, my teaching aims to impart a wide range of educational values. On the most fundamental level, I make a constant effort to live the tension of doing well what I do best in my limited area of competence, while cultivating an active appreciation for and interest in what lies beyond my narrow purview.

My relationships with students reflect a holistic approach to teaching philosophy, involving, as it does, a steady endeavor to connect the philosophic issues under discussion to my students’ life experiences and concrete concerns. For this purpose, I always find it helpful to supplement structured classroom instruction with more informal interaction outside class, as well as to make myself available to serve as a faculty advisor for student clubs and organizations. I supplement all these efforts by trying to correlate what students learn from philosophy with what they learn from their other courses, thereby helping them to integrate diverse and sometimes conflicting curricular and extra-curricular data into a coherent vision. In order to be effective in this regard, I have found it necessary to cultivate an attitude of openness to other disciplines.

Additionally, I have come to understand that it is not so much a particular set of ideas or information that I hope my students are going to retain from my courses, but an attitude or habit of mind which we can call “philosophical.” This attitude, exemplified pre-eminently by Socrates, is characterized as “learned ignorance.” As Socrates explains, wisdom does not really involve one’s possession of a particular kind of knowledge which others may or may not have, but rather only the knowledge that one does not know, or knows little. Such a non-knowing, which is aware of itself as non-knowing, expresses itself in a restless, questioning mind, a mind that refuses to take things for granted and is in a constant state of wonder at things ordinarily regarded as obvious.

What is therefore distinctive of this questioning stance is its reflective nature, its readiness to question not only other people’s views but also—and most especially—one’s own views and beliefs. This readiness can only make one humble and modest, and protect one from dogmatism or fanaticism resulting from a necessarily limited point of view on reality and the ease of demonizing others’ points of view. Hence the philosophical attitude predisposes one into thinking that, no matter how seemingly valid one’s own stance is, it will always be a finite “take” on things. In fact, one is predisposed to think that, no matter how wrong the other person is, there will always be a grain of truth to extract from another’s error. The self-questioning at the heart of the philosophical attitude does not save one from the necessity to decide and act, but rather ensures that commitments are always critically taken.

In the context of my philosophy teaching here at CSUSM, the pursuit of these educational objectives has involved certain specific challenges. First, my interaction with the majority of the students I meet is extremely abbreviated, since Critical Thinking is the only philosophy course these students will probably take in college, or in their entire lives, for that matter.

Second, given that these students are mostly freshmen still making a difficult psychological and intellectual transition to the demands of college life, I have found that I must draw on all my creative resources. I tap into my personal reserves of patience, perseverance and a genuine concern for them as persons put under my charge, to guide the minds of these students gently, gradually and yet firmly towards a more rigorous mode of thinking. This task, to think with self-reflection and self-criticism, may be more than they have ever tried and are comfortable doing at this stage in their lives.

A third major challenge is the cultural gap to be bridged between an Asian like me and my mostly Western or Westernized students. I taught philosophy for more than ten years in the Philippines, and as multicultural as I prided myself in being, I had to undergo a difficult process of adjusting my teaching style to American students, who are, among other things, less submissive than my typical students in the Philippines. This process involved my taking multiculturalism to a deeper level. I needed to make a thoroughgoing transition from intellectual or cognitive multiculturalism to psychological multiculturalism. While I have indeed adjusted, I have personally made peace with the fact that I will never attain the kind of sure touch which spontaneously comes to an American teacher in dealings with students, nor the natural communicative fluency of a native speaker of American English.

Happily, I came to realize that this liability can be turned into a pedagogical advantage. The sense of otherness that arises from such a lack of perfect identification with a different culture, if affirmed and hopefully even celebrated (and not reacted to in a negative, dismissive way), can enrich both me and my students. In short, the unique educational contribution that I can make in the multicultural setting of my classes at CSU is to provide the kind of classroom atmosphere which exposes students to an otherness that does not obstruct personal and intellectual learning but rather enhances growth. To ensure this latter positive outcome, the educational task is to successfully challenge the students to move not only beyond their present intellectual and personal skills and values, but also beyond the narrow perspectives of their ethnic backgrounds as well as necessarily limited cultural horizons.

There does not seem to be a better way of accomplishing this task than for a teacher to consistently model before students the overcoming of this challenge.

Posted February 10, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2006 by Manuel P. Arriaga.

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