I bucked my philosophy classes at Seattle University.
I had other classes that I wanted to take, so I made an appointment with some poor soul in Administration whose job it was to map my course through the university and informed them that I had my philosophy and didn’t need anyone telling me what to believe. Furthermore, I had been on a two-year mission for the Mormon Church, so I wouldn’t be needing those religion classes, either. But thank you. Really.
One of the casualties of middle age is that one simply can’t remember all the fine particulars of so many interactions. It has nothing to do with the deterioration of the mind; it’s just that the subject matter, “My Life”, gets to be a more like an epoch than a short story. But I’m certain that, if I could remember a few more details about this one, it would have included the rolling of eyes.
One thing I do remember is that I was given the option to take my religion classes one-on-one with a priest so we could, in fact, explore spirituality from a deeper perspective vis a vis my experience. Seattle University, being a Jesuit institution, is known for the pursuit of understanding. I’m grateful to this day for their flexibility in this regard because my classes with that instructor were informative and rewarding.
However, there was no quarter granted regarding philosophy. I would take them, all four required classes, because, “What’s your major? Business? We need more ethical businessmen.” Truer words were never spoken.
I remember well my first real interaction with my first philosophy professor, the day my education began. It was early in my first class. This man, Ken Stikkers, had had the gall to spend a portion of the class time criticizing the United States (we were on the brink of the first Iraq war, which now seems a very, very long time ago in terms of time passed and innocence lost.)
He criticized the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth for their/our addiction to oil and for pursuing it at any cost. I’d not even considered that Saddam Hussein’s saber-rattling and noncompliance with the US’ demands were anything other than defiance and that this was a cruel dictator needed to be put down. I was “all in” with the narrative fed to me by CNN. How had this left-winger the gall to stand up in the front of the class and “talk bad” about the United States? Love it or leave it was my motto.
I stayed after class to tell him as much.
Again, it’s amazing what you remember. It was a beautiful, early autumn day. He was just coming out of the building after that class and I approached him with a complaint about his stance on the United States.
“I love the United States,” I said. “I don’t like to hear people saying bad things about this country. I think it’s the greatest country on earth.”
His response surprised me.
“I love this country, too,” he said. “That’s why I said that I did.”
He explained to me that the practice of critical thinking required that we distance our beliefs from the emotion that surrounds them. Critical thinking requires that we look at the facts of any matter, aside from what we want to be true. He explained to me that, yes, there were different opinions than his among critical thinkers about the United States foreign policy, but that “the US is the best country in the world” is not a legitimate argument.
I’m glossing over a portion of our discussion where he adeptly asked me questions about my opinions and quickly led me to factual dead-ends, supported only by my emotional ideas. But you get the gist. In the end, in very short order, as a matter of fact, philosophy was my favorite class. What could be more honorable than the search for truth? Hadn’t I spent two years as a missionary telling people to do just that? Wasn’t God essentially made of truth? One of the LDS Apostles speeches that I had memorized verbatim said, “Truth, diamond truth, truth unmixed with error, truth alone leads to salvation.”
Well, let the hunt begin, I thought. Or continue, in my case.
I aced that class and three other philosophy classes. I had a gut feeling that I should change my major but allowed myself to be talked out of it by this same professor for essentially the same reason the administrator had given me. Had I this experience today, I would have followed my instinct regardless of advice. I trust it now, implicitly. However, I was not as versed, or wise. I was still new to life, as well as to thinking.
“We need businessmen who are philosophers, too,” he told me on another beautiful day (like the incident I related above, I remember exactly where we were when we had that conversation). And that was that.
I relate this story, not to give any particular credence to my own life or process, but to illustrate something that I think is sorely missing from the national narrative – not only about the United States but about many, if not most, of the things we do. And that is that critical thinking, and actions based upon our conclusions appear to be conspicuously absent from our habitual modes of day-to-day life.
We appear—and I include myself in this observation – to walk more by habit than thought. We made certain decisions when we were younger and continue to live by them. In the end, we will defend them to the death. Some may be worthy of this level of commitment. Others would be a casualty of wisdom, were we to give them the chance to be observed without emotion or the force of habit. But the implication might be that we have been wrong “all this time”, and what would that say about our lives? No, best not ask that question. Here are some facts that support my point of view. In the corner of those who consider themselves patriotic (in a traditional sense,) my experience says that that’s when Fox News gets turned on. The dopamine hit of “thank God I’m right and here’s why it’s so” is just too appealing to pass up.
But what would happen if, the next time our sacred beliefs were challenged, we listened to the observations of the other? If we suspended the emotions that arose and considered the arguments this other person presented? What if we resolved, in a place deeper than emotion, to always do our best to follow truth no matter where it took us, no matter how deep – or scary – the rabbit hole? Would this not lead to more meaningful and honest dialogue?
I believe it would.
And, as it is with an individual in his attempt to grow into personhood (because the ability to critically analyze our own paths is one of the things that sets the human apart from other animals,) so it is with this truly amazing nation. The ability to analyze the “why’s” behind our beliefs is critical. Only, the dialogue is not only internal and it doesn’t involve only our own complex beliefs, but those of every citizen willing to engage in honest conversation.
In the end, we are a young nation and we have our philosophy. Moreover, it’s no small feat to change our course or the underlying stories that we have come to love and that we defend. However, these may have run their respective courses. Maybe instead of defending them, it’s time to force ourselves into classes we don’t want to take in order to do the hard work of growing up into the country we were meant to be.
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