This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.
Learning in a Classroom
Rick Garlikov

The following is advice about learning in a classroom.  The particular student in this case is a college student in a  philosophy course, but this situation is faced daily by high school students as well, and by students in almost any subject area.  This student found me on the Internet while seeking help with philosophy.  Based on the evidence of the reading list, the assignments, comments from the teacher about her assignments, and her class notes, her course seems to me not to be very well taught.  The problem she faces is hardly peculiar to this course or even to this subject.  Many high school and college teachers in many subjects do not make things as clear to students as they ought to be able to. Many students face the predicament this student does, though usually to a somewhat less extent. 

Students, however, often give up too soon on such teachers and do not then do the kinds of things that might actually get the teacher to teach better.  In some cases a vicious spiral sets in whereby students become disenchanted in a course taught by a poor teacher and then do not work as hard because they feel there is no point or that the course is boring or "ridiculous" or that it is so far beyond them that there is nothing they can do to learn it; this lack of student effort then is perceived by the teacher who decides there is no reason to try to teach any better because the students are apathetic, so the teacher teaches even worse, etc.  In some cases the downward spiral may start from the other direction: a teacher may start out with energy and a determination to make the course interesting, but lose that energy and determination in the face of seemingly apathetic students.  The students may not have been apathetic but may not have known to be more responsive.  However, once the teacher gives up on them, they will become apathetic if they were not already.  This web page is posted to address one element of student classroom behavior in order to try to prevent or break that cycle or to minimize its destructiveness.

I have included below particular explanations of some philosophical issues, even though most readers of this page will not be particularly interested in philosophy, because my contention is that there are approaches that should make any subject matter clear and interesting to students.  I am trying to illustrate the process.  If you are not interested in philosophy, and yet find what is said here interesting and clear, then that helps confirm my contention.

My principle point below is that note-taking, particularly passive note-taking, is one of the prime culprits of lack of learning and lack of good teaching, so this is about how to teach and interact in courses in a different way from simply giving and taking notes.  When I teach, I do not even allow my students to take notes because if there is something I want them to have in notes, I make it available to them in printed form (or on the Internet).  I want my students to be paying attention in class and to make sense out of what is going on.  When students take notes, they write down things which make no sense to them in the hopes they can make sense of it later.  They almost never can make sense of it later.  The trick is to make sense out of presented material, or make the teacher make sense out of it, during his lecture or class.  Then it will be memorable and meaningful, and may require just a notation or two in your notebook, not extensive note-taking.  If you are busy writing down everything the teacher says, it is my contention that you are not likely to be making sense of it.  And it is making sense of it that is most important for learning, and for enjoying what you are studying.

The history of this student in this particular course is typical.  When she first contacted me she had a paper due that required analysis of some of the reading assignments.  She could not understand those readings, and the classroom lectures were of no help in making them any clearer.  She worked very hard to understand the reading and the lectures, but was not getting anywhere, and she felt there was just something wrong with her -- that she was stupid in some way or that philosophy must be a subject she could not be good at.  She did not ask questions in class because she did not want to take class time away from other students, whom she figured all understood the material.  She did not want the students or the teacher to have to waste time with her in class just because she was stupid.  In reality, however, the readings were inappropriately far too advanced for the level of the course, and there is every indication the teacher is just not very good at explaining things in class.  Understanding the readings required background information far beyond what any introductory student would have; and the teacher seems not to have provided in class the background information that might possibly have made the readings even begin to be accessible.  No other students asked questions either, all figuring they were the only ones not "getting it" and not wanting to waste other students' time.  In reality, they would all have benefitted from the questions any of them might have raised and pursued.

Even in a course where reading assignments are at an appropriate level, and even in a course where the teacher is typically pretty good at explaining things, there will be things that a student will not understand.  The student should ask.  And the student should keep asking until the answer makes sense.  Other students should "second" or support the question if they do not understand the concept or principle involved too, so that the first student does not feel alone and wasting time, and so that the teacher can see this is a general problem, not just a problem for the first student.  If it is just a problem for the first student, and the teacher's explanations are not helping, other students should try to help out, or the teacher should offer to help the first student outside of class, and the student should pursue that avenue.  But the intial question should always be raised in class.

The student also has a responsibility for pursuing the explanation, either outside of class, or if necessary, with another teacher who may be able to explain it better than his/her teacher.  It is also usually helpful if the student can explain, as in a letter or e-mail to the teacher, what it is specifically that does not make sense, and, if possible, why it does not make sense or why it seems to be inconsistent with other things or why it seems wrong somehow.  This is difficult for most students to do because often they do not know where to begin saying what is wrong, but if the student can do it, it helps a reasonably decent teacher know where to begin, or focus, his/her explanation.

In some cases a student will actually disagree with a teacher about some material, often for very good reasons, but will mistakenly think that s/he must not be right and so must be misunderstanding the material.  The student should state the objections in class.  A good teacher will welcome that and turn it into a great "teaching moment" because the student's objection will have set the stage for a reply that means something to everyone.

Unfortunately the problem of the student who contacted me is compounded by the fact that the readings, and the subject matter of her course, are quite specialized and narrow, not the sort of fare that might be of interest or use to introductory students even if they could understand it.  From the biographical academic information displayed on the web site of this college's philosophy department, this teacher seems to be teaching, in an intro level course, the specialty in which he is doing research for his own writing.  My contention is that in many cases, this practice is immoral. It is immoral when the material is too difficult and too narrow for an introductory, low level, or intermediate level course. It allows a teacher to claim to be teaching, when in fact all s/he is doing is working on his/her own research and presenting aspects of that to a class that cannot possibly understand or appreciate it.  It saves the teacher essentially from having to prepare separate materials for teaching class and for doing research for publication. While it is not a particularly common practice, it does occur too often, and I believe it should not be permitted at all unless the area of research would actually be of interest, value, and intelligibility to students.

I am assuming the point of teaching is just that --teaching students what you think they should know, in a way that they learn it--  not weeding them out by failing them or making them drop the course in fear; not showing how much more educated or knowledgeable about a topic you are than they; and not just presenting material whether they can comprehend, assimilate, and absorb it or not.  There is no trick in being able to teach in a way such that few or none can learn.  That ought not to be the goal.

Below is one of my responses to this student.  Her comments are in bold in blue; my comments are in the plain black font.  I have used a pseudonym, Mr. Johnson, instead of her teacher's real name.  I have put in square brackets, [ ], comments to you the reader to help clarify this exchange.

  Tonight in class Mr. Johnson was late  and I talked to a few people in my class. I believe that everyone had a hard time on this paper.

Of course.  I know you (mistakenly) believe, no matter what I have said, that there is something wrong with you that you cannot understand this material, but it is not you; this material is totally inappropriate for an intro class because it takes tons more background than can likely be given, even by a good teacher.

  Tonight in class we went over Chapter 14 in our book, Jonathan Harrison " A Defense On Empiricism."

Is this a paper collected in a book of papers?  Or did Harrison write the whole book, and this is just a chapter.  I am not familiar with Jonathan Harrison, but that won't matter because I am going to teach you how to read and analyze this stuff [in subsequent e-mail], and I am going to teach you about empiricism, etc.

  I have a few questions for you, then I will look over it more and if it is ok send you more questions.

Of course it is ok.

  I have been doing so much homework today, I am going crazy.  :)

Going? ;-)

   In this chapter it spoke about Quine, Kant and Kripke. Mr. Johnson had told us that Harrison was crazy and if we use him on our next paper we would be arguing with him. He told us that Harrison defends empiricism and even though Quine also agrees with it Harrison disagrees with Quine.

Quine disagrees with empiricism, or at least he disagreed that it was the only way to understand the world.  So I think that you or Johnson have something wrong in this statement.  But I will help you sort it out.  "Crazy" is not a useful critique or analysis of a philosophical work, so we will have to get way past that, and see what, if anything is specifically wrong with it.

I need you to read two of my online essays.  The first is crucial for you to know:
It is about how to reason and what it means to reason.  There are only two ways an argument can go wrong (besides being circular, which is not important for now): either one or more of its premises must be false, or it must be invalid (which means that the premises are in some way irrelevant to the conclusion even though they may seem relevant, and so even if the premises are true, they do not support -- give evidence for -- the conclusion).  In analyzing any essay or paper, the first question is what is the author's argument, spelled out as well as you can spell it out, and then the second question is whether the premises are true and lead to the conclusion or whether there is something wrong with them.  If they are true and if they logically lead to the conclusion, then the conclusion must be true.

Now it is sometimes real difficult to tell what the argument is (as in Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism") [which was a class assignment] because the writer may not write clearly or because the article (such as Quine's) refers to previous arguments or information not mentioned in the article itself.  And it is sometimes difficult to tell whether premises are all true or not or whether they actually lead logically to a conclusion or not.  But that is essentially all that counts.  So we are going to figure out what Harrison's argument is, and then we are going to evaluate it.

The second essay I want you to read is about writing college papers.  It is at

And just so you do not think that good writing needs to be dull and lifeless, also read the essay at

  (He told us that but he did not really explain a lot so can you please explain why?)

Not until you have read the Harrison paper and told me what you think he says, as explained in the above two essays of mine..

  I am just going down my notes and as I took them. I wrote questions I had for you on the side during class. Is that ok?

Of course.

  Back to the notes... Johnson then said that if Jonathan Harrison had wrote this chapter for one of our papers he would have given him an "A" because he gave good reasoning for his thinking even if it was dumb. He then said if he had written it for any other class other than an intro class it would not deserve a good grade.

"Dumb" is also not an appropriate criticism.  We will need to see specifically what is wrong with Harrison's argument, if anything.  It is possible for reasoning to be good based on evidence that is available, but later, or more complete, evidence may show a problem the author could not have known about.  I do not know whether this is what Johnson means or not. It may be he thinks some of the premises are false and that intro students would not be expected to know that, but that students with more courses under their belt should know that.  Or he may mean that the reasoning appears to be valid (logically relevant to the conclusion) but is irrelevant in a way so sophisticated or complex that only a higher level student would be likely to know.

  Johnson then went on to talk about Kant. He said that Kant believed that there are synthetic a priori statements. Then he gave the example if you bolt the legs of a chair to the floor the legs of the chair still belong to the chair and the floor is not made part of the chair.

If I remember correctly, the deal on this sort of thing is that there are two pairs of categories: analytic-synthetic on the one hand, and on the other hand a priori - a posteriori.  If I remember correctly, analytic statements are ones that are true by definition (such as "no bachelors are ever married"); synthetic statements are true for some reason other than definition (such as "I went to the store today" or "The Dow dropped 235 points yesterday.").  A priori knowledge is knowledge we can have that does not depend on (empirical) experience (such as "In a plane, any angle inscribed in a semi-circle will be a right angle" which is based on pure deductions from obvious geometric premises); and a posteriori knowledge is knowledge that requires experience (such as "Eggs dropped out of three story windows onto a lawn, generally will NOT break." -- which actually is true as long as the eggs land in the grass and don't hit a bare spot or concrete or some such.  Try it, you'll see.  I have stood on the ground, and also on a second floor apartment balcony, and thrown eggs as high in the air as I could, and had them come down in the grass without breaking.)

It apparently was a raging question about the time of Kant whether there could be a priori knowledge which did not depend on definitions -- whether there could be knowledge which was a priori (known only by reason, not by observation or experience) and which was not dependent on definitions.  This has seemed to me to be one of the less interesting, more artificial, sorts of questions in philosophy, though there are specific cases that it may apply to in some roundabout way which are very interesting (such as what physics is really about or why some math applies to the world but some math doesn't), but I won't go into those here.

The example of the chair/floor thing, does not strike me as a helpful example, so it is perfectly acceptable to ask Johnson to explain how it is both synthetic and also a priori.  Plus, I suspect it is Johnson' example, not Kant's.  So ask him to explain what makes it synthetic and what makes it a priori, since he says it is both.  It seems to me to be analytic (thus not synthetic) in that "floor" means the flat thing at the bottom of the room, and "chair means" the legs and seat of something you can sit on that has a back.  So the chair would not be part of the floor by definition even when it is bolted, and thus it would be an analytic truth that the chair is not part of the floor ever.  Nor would the bolts be part of either the chair or the floor.  Ask Johnson whether wax applied to the floor is part of the floor or not after it is applied, and whether his answer is analytic or synthetic or not.  Same with gum that has been on the floor so long and stepped on so many times that it is flat and almost impossible to remove; is it part of the floor?  And is his answer analytic or synthetic, a priori or a posteriori?  I have no idea about these things and don't really care, but since he cares, he ought to have some sort of answer that he can defend.

  He then proceeded with Kant, saying that the world gives us sense impressions, we have to sort things out. Without the concept of things we would have no experience. Then he said he knows this because he looks at experience. (Who, Kant or Harrison. This is when I think he began to talk about both of them and then I got confused. He will go back and forth when he lectures and it really gets confusing.)

When he does that, you MUST ask (and it is perfectly legitimate to ask) WHO he is referring to.  I would just yell out the question, not stop class by raising my hand, "Dr. Johnson, are you referring to Kant or Harrison when you say that?" or just "Kant or Harrison?"

But there is a bigger question that should be asked.  Just "looking at experience" is not a reason for believing that we cannot know anything without concepts.  Plus, it seems false. Toddlers and dogs know all kinds of things without "concepts" -- at least without verbal concepts, which is what I presume a concept has to be, doesn't it?  My dog knows I will give her two dog treats when I let her out every morning.  She looks for two and stops looking after the second one. She sits and waits for me to throw them out to her. So how can that statement possibly be true that we can't know anything without concepts?  Ask him this IN class, where other kids can hear the question.  If he won't answer it in class so that you understand it, ask him again at the end of class or in his office.  Don't let him be evasive.  Make him give you an answer that makes sense to you and that you think is true.

  Johnson then said that Kant believes in causes. Then we spoke about Hume for a minute. Hume said that there were no causes because they have to have experience. We can only figure things out by reflecting on our experience.

Ok, this is sort of a hard thing, but let me give it a shot here: 
We don't ever really see causes as such, though we think we do.  What we see is that certain things seem to occur whenever certain other things occur, and so we deduce or are led to believe that the first thing "caused" the second and is somehow intrinsically related to it, even though we do not see that relationship.  With modern video games it is easier to explain what Hume was able to see without such games being available to him.

Suppose we watch one pool ball hit another.  The second one then moves, and we believe that it moves BECAUSE the first one hit it.  Well, if we are watching a video game where one object hits another and the other one moves, it is not the first object's motion that moves the second object.  There is in fact no actual object or motion of either.  What there is is a series of different images on the screen that look like one thing is moving into another.  But it is actually the software program and the hardware of the computer that is producing the apparent motion of each object.  Yet we deduce or "see" the same thing when we look at the computer as we do when we look at the pool balls.  The appearance is the same.  So if you think about it, we don't actually see one pool ball CAUSE the other to move; we only see it apparently roll into it and we see the other one then move, and we DEDUCE that the first one caused the second to move.  It is not an observation, but an observation coupled with a deduction. But we don't notice the deduction. 

I used something like this one time to play a big practical joke on a roommate.  I left evidence around the apartment that a third roommate had him locked out of his own bedroom, when in fact the third roommate was not even home.  But I made it look like the third roommate was home and was with his girlfriend.  I then got rid of some of the evidence in the pitch dark, and told the first roommate he could wake up now and go to his room because the two others must have left.  He even believed he must have fallen asleep on the couch without realizing it, because that was the only way to explain how they could have got from the bedroom to the door without his seeing and hearing them. We make deductions all the time without realizing it.  Hume pointed out that the concept of "cause" is such a deduction based on the constant conjunction of certain before and after experiences.  Pretty clever.  Remember, it does not mean things don't cause other things.  It just means we don't see or experience the causative power or whatever we might want to call it; we only see the before/after and then deduce that something happened so that the first thing made the second thing in some way.  But causation as such is a deduced idea, not an empirical idea -- not something we can see directly.

  Ok then he said if we question whether or not there is cause, then there can be no experience.

As in my above example; we do not experience or directly perceive "causes" or causation as such.

  Johnson then said that someone(I do not know who) spoke about the world outside our minds. I know we were talking about Harrison and Kant. I did not understand though. I think that Harrison talks about an experience is in the head and Kant is cause gives us an experience. Am I right or am I just letting myself get really confused?

Really confused, but it is not you letting it happen.  This is difficult stuff for people to see unless it is explained well, and apparently Johnson does not explain it well.  So I cannot tell from what you just wrote what he even said.  The problem involved though is the problem of telling whether what we experience in our minds is somehow outside of our minds or not.  E.g., what is the difference between a dream and reality, if they both look and feel the same?  Sure reality is somehow more consistent and causal relationships seem to hold that don't necessarily hold in dreams, but is that any reason to believe that what we call reality IS outside of our minds.  One of the original tv Star Treks, and one of the best Star Treks ever is on a video you can rent, titled "The Menagerie".  In it a civilization has a machine that can make illusions be so real and so consistent, etc. that the question you are left with is "For all intents and purposes is that world of illusion not actually real?"  It is such a well-done episode that it gets the point across that what we call reality may only be some sort of thing inside our minds.  Anyway, this is a big philosophical question for those of us who find it bothersome and who some days wonder whether we are somehow making up all this stuff as some really complex, elaborate, consistent kind of dream.

I am not sure how that will relate to Kant or Harrison, but that is part of the issue of inside versus outside minds.  Another part is something like the question of what "color" is -- whether color is in (or on) objects, or whether color is what our brains or minds (those are different things -- brains are physical objects; the mind is a construct that we think we feel as the place where our images, sounds, thoughts, etc. appear) see because of the motion of atoms, etc. in an object that produce the appearance of color in our minds.

  That was all he said about Kant. Then he began to talk about Quine. He only went over them for about five or ten minutes. Johnson said that Quine believed  analytic statements depend on observing words meanings. Harrison said that Quine can cut out observation.

You are just going to have to read Harrison and tell me what he says.  The above is too abbreviated for me to make ANY sense out of.  It has been said that "a lecture is an hour in which information passes from the notes of a teacher to the notes of a student without going through the minds of either."  That has to stop.  A lecture should make sense and should be more than reading notes to people who copy them down.  It ought to involve making sense of material to the people present.  Students have to let a teacher know when the material does not make sense to them, and they have to hold the teacher responsible for making sense out of it.  Some teachers cannot explain stuff even if they really try, but some teachers don't even try.  Students have to make them try.  Many teachers are happy to try if they feel students really are paying attention and thinking, and not just mindlessly taking notes they don't care about.  Silly as it sounds, you sometimes have to show your teachers you want to learn and that you want them to teach better.

  That was all. Then we went to Kripke. He spoke about things in the world being one meter long. I really have no idea what he was talking about.

Find out.  Then let me know.

  I could not even figure it out enough to take notes. He didn't speak about it long enough. This was
  our shortest class and this is the most notes I have ever gotten. I am sorry if what I have written makes no sense to you.

Well, it would make sense to me if it first made sense to you, which it would probably do if Johnson explained things in a way that made sense to anyone.  What you have to learn to do is to have the guts to force him to make sense in class.  You are paying a lot of money to learn from him, and you have every right to make sure you do.  It is not like you are retarded or lazy and not trying.  It is that he is not helping intro students understand difficult (because strange-sounding) concepts.  The concepts are not really that difficult when explained correctly, but we are so used to the ways we think about the world, that anything which questions that is hard to fathom.  If we told my roommate the next day that the third roommate and his girlfriend were NOT in the apartment that night, he would not believe it, and he would not understand what we were saying. "Of course they were there, I heard them; they had me locked out of my bedroom; they left cracker crumbs and wine on the coffee table like they always do; their coats were on the chair in the living room...."  What he heard was the radio playing soft music in the bedroom with the door locked; all the other stuff he did see because I had set it out as evidence.  But it was not evidence of their having been in the apartment and gone into the bedroom; it was only apparent evidence made to look like that.  And since I could not find any wine to leave traces of in their glasses, I had used a little grape jelly dissolved in a few drops of water. 

But he only deduced they were there.  Yet he deduced it so "hard" and it was so obvious a deduction, that he believes with all his heart they were there.  Anything that says they were not there just totally is incomprehensible to him, unless we were to explain to him exactly how we did it.  Then he would see.  But to just say "They were never there." not only seems FALSE to him, it is impossible for him even to understand. Philosophical explanations are exactly the same; if I just give you just some  conclusion that seems obviously false, or if I give you just a few bits of the argument but do not spell it out very much, it will make no sense, but if I can paint a picture of the problem for you with all the evidence that I have of the problem, you will easily see the problem too.  The art of teaching intro philosophy (or any course with unfamiliar concepts) is painting all the right pictures, and helping kids through the steps of seeing how the problems and the proposed solutions make sense, and then helping them determine whether the proposed solutions hold up under scrutiny, and if not, why not, and if so, why.  Johnson doesn't do any of that for you guys.  And the readings he has chosen for sure do not do that.  That is why this is so bad, and why it is so hard for you and for your classmates.

  I really try so   hard to understand. I do not have his class again for two weeks. For over SPRING BREAK :) he assigned the readings: 1. Hillary Putman,  Meaning and Reference       2. Gilbert Ryle, Exorcizing Descartes's  "Ghost in the Machine"  3. John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Programs  [The Chinese Room]. These reading seem to be a little easier.

Hillary Putman may be difficult; I'll have to see whether I have a copy; if not you will have to help me know what he says.  The one essay I remember of his was not easy to understand.  Ryle writes very clearly, but his claim is so strange-sounding that it is really difficult to comprehend (like the roommate thing above).  I can help you with that.  Ryle contends that we don't have minds, that there is no such thing as the mind.  That ought to pique your curiosity.

One day when I was teaching while in grad school, I was having trouble getting words to come out; I would be talking and not be able to think of the word I wanted.  Felt like I was senile or something.  So I kind of paused and smiled and said, "I guess this shows minds and bodies really are separate, because I certainly didn't bring my mind with me today."  And the prettiest girl (who was also the smartest kid in the class) yelled out from the back, "You call THAT a body?" Cracked me up, but all the other students tried to crawl under their desks.  Anyway, you are apparently about to cover some aspects about the possible or apparent relationship between minds and bodies.  Neat stuff when it is explained right; just hard to comprehend at first.  I thought Ryle was an idiot when I first read him; but he isn't; it is cool stuff.  I'll be able to help you through it, but for the rest of your life you will be going around wondering whether you have a mind or not, and if so, how it can possibly work to make your body do things, and how the physical world can possibly make your mind have ideas and feelings, etc.  Really all weird when you try to think about it.

I don't know whether I have the Searle article somewhere or not, but it should likely be okay to read and tell me about.

  The four I have told you about and the next two readings he assigns will be my choices for the  next paper. Last time we only had three to choose from so maybe this will be easier.

Yeah, I think so.

  Usually in class he will hint the two he wants us to use in our paper.

Can't go by that, though.  Don't worry about it. [Doing good work should not be about reading the mind of the teacher, but, in a course that does not involve writing fiction, it should be about clearly and logically presenting what you think is important.]

  I hope I have made sense to you tonight.  It is late and my spell check doesn't work on this e-mail. I guess I  just need these philosophers beliefs to be further explained to me than what is done in class.

Sure, but you also need to learn how to make him explain more in class too.  The work shouldn't have to be all yours and mine.  After all he is getting paid to do this, so he ought to do it right...

  I did talk to people though after class tonight and their notes looked like mine. I know now that others are struggling just as much as I am.

Of course!

[I sent a copy of this to her mother, who has also been involved with trying to help her daughter, and her mother wrote back the following:]
  I can't say that I  know that there is a reason for all of this type of thinking, or how some of these guys ever gained notoriety because of it. Who cares if the legs of the table are part of the table or part of the floor?

People who want to eat off a table and not off the floor....

Seriously, some of philosophy is only interesting to a small group of curious people. Even I am not interested in all of philosophy.  But analytic and logical thinking is useful in any and every profession, and for human growth and development, so the "tools" of philosophy, or the liberal arts in general, are very important to know, except that those who do not have them do not miss what they don't even know they are missing.  Ignorant people are often most ignorant of their own ignorance.  But almost every endeavor in life can benefit from thinking about it clearly and perhaps a bit curiously, even things, such as sports, which are not done primarily consciously or cerebrally (sp?, word?).  Strategy can go a long way to enhance or partially substitute for talent in sports.  Much of science, particularly physics, began as philosophy; Newton was a professor, I think, of "natural philosophy" or what we might call philosophy of the natural (i.e., physical) world.

[The rest of this I am simply adding here.]
In a way, philosophy is the original (to put this in the vernacular of the current faddish phrase) "thinking outside the box." But it shows that when you think too far outside the box or outside any boxes, that most people will think you are just crazy, or at best impractical.  Plato wrote about "the box" in the Republic, though his analogy or metaphor was a cave instead of a box, a dark cave with only enough light to see mere shadows of truth.  But most people are so used to the shadows and darkness of the cave so that if you are a thinking person who can see the light outside the cave, you cannot usually bring your bright ideas back to the people in the cave because they will be blinded by them.  I would argue that this analogy of the cave not only applies to philosophy, but to any area of life where people go beyond what John Kenneth Galbraith called "conventional wisdom."  But I would also say that teachers have a unique opportunity to bring light back into the cave, an opportunity they do not have outside of schools. 

That is because teachers have an initially captive audience that they ought to be able to lead to the light by taking their students, in many cases, along the same paths of reflection that they themselves pursued.  At the very least, a teacher should be able to state the conventional wisdom and then raise some issue(s) that cause students to see a problem and to be interested in pursuing the answer, or resolving the conflict in their mind.  Once the student sees the problem with the conventional wisdom, and is hooked on trying to solve it, the teacher ought to be able to present material in ways that help the student ultimately see the full light outside the cave.  It is just a matter of giving students the proper experiences or information on which to build and from which to gain a new perspective. But clearly one cannot do that by assigning reading that is too abstract, too abbreviated, too cryptic or obscure, or too obliquely referential to background material that is not available to the student, particularly when the teacher does not point out that the material is abstract, cryptic, abbreviated, obscure, or dependent on other sources for understanding its meaning.  You cannot just give the student the conclusions of years of effort by the best and brightest, and expect the students to be able to assimilate those conclusions any more than you can bring people who have been living in a dark cave immediately to the radiance of a sunny, sandy beach and expect them to be able to see anything.

But instead, too many teachers run too far ahead for their students to keep up or see the path, or they try to expose them to the light before their eyes have adjusted gradually.  Students then get discouraged and will not follow, and though a captive still in some sense because of their grades, they no longer in any attentive sense remain a conscious, captive audience.  Teachers have only a small window of opportunity to begin reaching their students or essentially they will lose them as they would lose anyone who is in the cave and who does not have to listen to them or think about what they are trying to say.

But to bring out the best in many teachers, students have to be aggressive in getting the teacher to be a good guide.  They have to let the teacher know when the path is too obscure, the light too bright, or the destination too unfathomable.  The average teacher is not always the best judge of those things.  It takes courage for a student to ask questions, and even more courage to persist when the teacher's first or second answer is not helpful.  But the student has to persist, if not with that teacher, with another teacher  (or perhaps even another student -- though that is sometimes risky in terms of getting correct information or accurate explanations) who can explain, because the result will often be worthwhile.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.


While I am relying on the student to report, from her notes, what the teacher said in class, and while I understand this may not be an accurate representation of what the teacher actually said, there are still three points to be made:
(1) her notes, and her lack of understanding which they demonstrate, are typical of student notes, particularly in many introductory courses, and even more particularly in those courses where new or unfamiliar conceptual material is introduced to students.  This case is illustrative of a common phenomenon, even if this student is the only one whose notes are so bad in this particular course.  This paper is not meant as a condemnation of a particular teacher or student, but as an illustration of a common problem that teachers and students need to appreciate and try to monitor and remedy in their classrooms.
(2) The introduction of concepts that are unfamiliar to students requires much more groundwork generally than these notes indicate was even attempted.  It is not that she has taken down a lot of information of the sort that would be necessary to make oneself clear to students and that she has made a hash of all of it.  It seems pretty clear that such information was not provided in her lectures at all.
(3) While even a good teacher cannot be held responsible for finding out every misunderstanding any students might have, reasonably decent teachers understand that certain material requires greater care in its presentation to begin with, and it requires making the attempt to monitor students' understanding as one goes along.  Even if there were some reason to believe the teacher does take care in presenting difficult material in a way that it might be understood, he does not seem to be noticing or trying to monitor how his students are hearing it and misunderstanding it, especially if this student is correct that the other students' class notes are like hers.  (Return to text.)