I love reading the final papers in my Intro to Philosophy course. For the final paper, I ask the students to reflect on the semester and tell me what it has meant for them. They are graded on the degree to which the demonstrate breadth of understanding (of the course material) and the depth of their own reflection on that material. Integration and synthesis with other courses and their own lives is the goal.
I should say from the start that I feel genuinely honored to read them. Students are unbelievably frank in their papers, often baring their souls and their own struggles for meaning and identity in quite profound and moving ways.
Of course, much of what I read in these papers is pretty predictable. Most didn’t know what to expect from the class, and if they had expectations they got something different. A lot of students talk about being confused and frustrated by the course, about not being quite sure what they should believe. Others leave the course saying they feel even more convicted about whatever beliefs they held prior to the course (I have both atheists and theists express both sentiments). Many found what they had already decided to find, some found something different, some are left not so sure about the task of looking at all. Most did not change their beliefs, but many spoke of having a different relationship to their beliefs. Many talked of being sheltered and were thankful that they got exposed to other ways of thinking about themselves and the world.
There are some very dramatic moments (“This course has completely changed my life and I definitely can’t say that about the other classes that I have taken”) along with plenty of mundane grinding through the material hoping to demonstrate breadth of coverage. I am pleased to report that almost every paper I read (130 of them) included the word humility somewhere and almost all of the students say they are clearer and more rigorous thinkers for having taken the course.
Many students spoke of being warned by their parents and family of the dangers of studying philosophy. The worry is always the same: that studying philosophy will destroy your faith. That so many students have had this experience makes me realize that it sometimes takes an act of real courage, however small, to take a philosophy class. Sure, for most it is just a depth humanities class and perhaps they find themselves in this one because it happened to fit in their schedule. I’m not naive; the reasons for taking the course are usually not high-minded and grand. But sometimes, sometimes, the reasons are noble and brave.
I thought I would cut out a few selections from some papers and comment on a few of them. Here are some of my favorites from this term (selections from students are in italics).
“Patience is one of the main things Philosophers need, because deep thinking and developing theories and arguments take patience. That is one of the main reasons why I don’t really enjoy Philosophy is because it takes so much patience to understand. What Philosophers do is basically question every idea, and everything. It’s exhausting and scary to think so deeply about all those things. And most the time you are never going to get a straight answer to these questions, so it’s very frustrating. Although this class has given me a lot of respect for Philosophers, it has made me realize I could never be one. I don’t have the patience, or yearning to learn every detail about why things are the way they are. I would rather just not question things and accept them for how they are.”
I love the brutal honesty of this passage. And I should say that I do not find this passage at all depressing or discouraging. She is right, philosophy is probably not for everyone. She has learned a little something about the course content, has peered through a crack in the door to see a bit of a much larger world, but has decided not to walk through. I am quite fine with that, really. She is right that the philosophical life is, in a way, scary and exhausting. Maybe not everyone can thrive asking the deep questions. She still leaves the course, in my view, enriched. She is aware that there is a deeper conversation to be had and she is, happily, not suspicious of that deeper conversation (in fact, in her paper she talked about how impressed she was by the great thinkers we read). She has accurately apprehended one of the virtues necessary for the intellectual life (patience), but has chosen not to participate in it further. I can imagine many worse outcomes than that.
Just so I don’t get accused here of being too selectively positive: while most students, thankfully, thought the course was rewarding and well worth their time, there were a few who did not share such happy reflections. Compare the gracious flirtation but ultimate rejection of philosophy above with this one:
“With all due respect, I’m sure you’re a great professor with a wonderful brain full of tons of field advancing knowledge on the subject of philosophy. With that being said, I found your class to be a total and utter bore; I only attended the first month or so of class before resigning to delve into the material on my own time in my own way. Here is where I ran into another problem; the material also bored me to no recognizable end. It is while trying to read the material that I realized philosophy is not an area of academic interest that I would ever consider pursuing any further than this introductory course. It is my opinion that while these great minds were great no doubt, at the end of the day, they were still only minds with measly opinions.”
Well then. I guess you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Happily, most students enjoyed the class enough to think that taking some more philosophy courses would be worthwhile and fun if their schedules allow. A few other quick excerpts:
“Words cannot describe how long that [Aquinas] took me to understand.”
One student described a breakthrough moment at the end of the term: “Finally I had done it. I read something and instead of thinking ‘oh, that makes sense, I can see where he’s coming from,’ I questioned it. I was able to identify ideas and beliefs that I did not agree with and even more importantly than that I was able to find some reasonable arguments for why I did not agree.” A number of students expressed a sentiment like this one, “So my lesson was in fact twofold: one should try to avoid accepting at face value any idea or so-called evidence that supports one’s preconceived notions, yet at the same time one need not feel forced to abandon these ideas or evidences the moment a counterargument is found.”
My favorite papers are those where the students are clearly working themselves out. Here is an example: “My problem is fear. Fear of the unknown. […] Most of the time I feel like I am just living my same comfortable life waiting for something to happen. I always feel as though I am just along for the ride and life going to throw at me whatever it wants. It is often hard to look past what is happening in the present and it is easy to get wrapped up in “life” and thinking our lot is hard. When really what we presently is just a mere illusion. I have learned from this class that it is up to me to make of my life and destiny what I want. I need to turn my whole self around to learn.”
On a lighter note, it is always funny to read what students thought philosophy and philosophers would be like. Some expressed this sort of a sentiment: “It never crossed my mind that we would be learning and discussion subjects that would be pertaining to human life.” What a miserable job philosophy has done “marketing itself”, if these sorts of opinions have currency?! And I particularly liked this view of philosophers, “I expected a professor who had bed-head every day, a shirt only half tucked in, someone who was kind of erratic.”
I know this was a rather long post, but I like reflecting on these papers. It is easy to fall into the habit of selling our students short, but I am always so encouraged by these reflection papers.