This reflection was written in response to a paper by Ladelle McWhorter, which she presented at Penn State last week for a conference that honored the work of Charles Scott.
Reflecting on Charles Scott’s role as one of her most influential teachers, Ladelle McWhorter focused her paper, “Whatever is Hardest,” on the ethical question of teaching. Looking back on her own experiences in Scott’s classes, McWhorter described Scott’s practice of philosophy as one that enacts an experience and creates a philosophical event. It is a practice that opens up possibilities for seeing, feeling, and thinking. While describing her experiences of sitting through his lectures, McWhorter reflected that “something philosophical had happened to me.” This, she explains, is because Scott’s practice of philosophy is a kind of undertaking that requires a willingness to turn toward that which we do not know and what we fear that we will never understand. It is a willingness to turn toward and stand with the excess, with whatever is hardest.
Teaching undergraduate students is hard. It may even be one of the hardest things to do because, as McWhorter noted, one of the central goals of teaching is to make students aware of their intellectual and ethical freedom, that is, to make thinking in general and thinking on particular questions possible again. Nearly any teacher can attest to just how challenging it can be to get students thinking, and thinking freely. To make things even harder still, McWhorter discussed her recent experiences of teaching environmental ethics to her students. The difficulty of this task does not stem from the controversy of intrinsic value or anthropocentrism, but rather from the fact that if one pays attention to the consequences of human production and consumption and the state of our planet’s water, ground, and atmosphere, one has to face the gravity of our environmental crisis. The thousands of poisonous toxins in our ecosystems and bodies, the increase in cancer rates, sea-level rise, thawing permafrost, gigatons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, and the utter necessity of petroleum to power anything and everything in our current lifestyles, all of this leads to what was frequently referred to as “impending catastrophes of epic proportions.” Acknowledging these statistics and likelihoods while taking on the responsibility to teach young minds and answer their questions of “What do we do?” in the face of Armageddon, doomsday, the end of life as we know it—this is hard, perhaps one of the hardest things to do.
Before I continue on with the rest of McWhorter’s paper, it is worth noting what was coming up for me as I listened. While sitting through her descriptions of the very sad and scary state of affairs in which we live, it was hard not to feel at least a little bit overwhelmed, if not completely panicked. Thanks to her diligent research, McWhorter was able to paint a detailed picture with facts and numbers (often too large in size and effect to really comprehend) that illustrated the interrelated risks which threaten our lives and the planet. It must have been about forty-five minutes of relentless evidence explaining how we are hopelessly doomed because even if we deal with poison in the water, we still have to worry about rising temperatures, and so on… The magnitude of our problems, the level of crisis facing our planet, is so large and so great that describing these “impending catastrophes of epic proportions” as “the end of the world” would be no exaggeration. I can imagine how the sheer act of sitting through her paper could easily have been enough to put some people over the edge.
But as I started to shift around in my seat and feel my palms sweat, exchanging nervous glances with those next to me, I couldn’t help but notice that it was really hard to sit through McWhorter’s paper. It was hard because her descriptions put us face to face with the most difficult realities, the most terrifying statistics, and the most uncertain of futures. Much like her descriptions of Scott’s lectures, McWhorter’s paper gave me the distinct sense that “something philosophical” was happening to us. And as if this one-hour paper paralleled the experiences of her class on environmental ethics, I found myself echoing her students and wanting to ask, “What do we do? What can we do? What should we do?” When McWhorter described her answers to her students, it seemed that now they were also appropriately directed to us, those in the audience who evidenced a willingness to turn toward these difficult realities and a future full of frightful uncertainties. She said, “I don’t know.”
It was at this point when McWhorter returned to the ethical question of teaching. When the future of the world is not going to be the same for her students as it was for previous generations, different even from their parents’ and professors’ generations, what might teaching be at this juncture? McWhorter even wonders if it is wrong to lead her students in the environmental ethics class to the end of this road, where they stand together and look out onto a future without being able to see how it looks, perhaps if it is even there.
These questions are interesting for me because as McWhorter described a type of “border” relationship that separates her from her undergraduate students—they belong to the future in a different way than she does—I immediately recognized myself as living on the border. I am part of this generation that is growing up in the face of what is yet to come, but I also have my own students to whom I feel responsible to equip for the future. With the double weight of student and teacher on my shoulders, I listened closely to what McWhorter said next.
McWhorter offered her students (and me, and perhaps even my students through me) this much: You will have to live and face the unimaginable. We can’t prepare you for the challenges and problems that you will have to meet and try to overcome. Don’t let your parents and your teachers dictate your choices. In short, you’re free.
With a moment to let the words sink in, I felt something. Better? Not really. But I did feel something. Something philosophical? There was a moment, I guess, and in that moment I had the increased sense that teaching at the turn of the 21st century is an especially unique task. But there was something more. I know that I am not only teaching, but I am also a student. I am also learning. And the freedom involved in teaching and learning in this moment is a freedom of release, of openness, of possibility. It’s not just a freedom to vote or a power to choose to live green, but a different kind of freedom, grounded in contingency, and with that, not-knowing.
I can’t help but agree that one of the most important goals of teaching is to make students aware of their intellectual and ethical freedom, to make thinking possible again. This was one of the most significant reminders that I gained from listening to McWhorter’s paper, in part because it reminded me that my own thinking is also free. But I can’t forget that the paper was written and presented to honor the work of her own teacher, Charles Scott, especially in celebration of his practice of philosophy, a practice that pursues whatever is hardest. So maybe, after all of this, I actually was feeling a bit better. I was feeling better because for that hour I was put back in a place of acknowledging that I am also a part of a “lineage” of sorts of people who seek to embrace how studying and teaching philosophy as a transformative practice can open up new ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling. Approached in this way, philosophy is already an ethical undertaking. And there is something important contained within that attitude and approach. Part of me was relieved to know that I am shaped by and following in the footsteps of others, that despite the hugeness of it all, there is a way to move in the world. So, in addition to freedom and a bit of philosophical company, one might also find there a small sense of hope.