Tuning the Student Mind

Book Club,  Identity

Trusting Your Own Voice

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson


Years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a philosophy class.  While my tenure as a philosophy professor only ran one semester, to date, the class remains amongst my favorite teaching memories.  I had taken a few philosophy courses during a short stint as a graduate student in political science.  The truth is my knowledge base was admittedly shy of expert.  I spent the summer reading a big, fat introduction to philosophy book, digging out old class notes and outlining my lectures.  Nervous to face my audience, I fervently hoped I could talk long enough to limit time for discussion or questions.

Week after long week, I white knuckled it downtown to teach that class. I would stand at a wooden lectern and read note cards with quotes from various scholars. My students were patient with me. Regardless of the friendly class atmosphere, my words often fell flat. While we earnestly strived together, we were often blinded by our mutual intimidation of the headiness of the course subject.

One evening toward the end of a long September, I found myself sharing a story about growing up in the neighborhood ghost house.  My students were captivated by my story.  They immediately began to ask questions and share their own experiences with ghosts and spirits.  We got far off the topic of philosophy and into all sorts of esoteric mysteries that night.  The conversation also served to crack the nut on the illusive subject of philosophy too.

By acknowledging that many of us shared a nagging suspicion that there may be more going on in the world than what we can see, touch, feel or hear easily, we opened our minds to the exploration of ‘things’ that we had trouble understanding in rational terms.  These ‘things’ included ideas that felt foreign and/or confusing to us at first glance.  This funny accidental, off the mark conversation became the impetus for a new curiosity about the subject at hand.  Philosophy became something we could ponder and discuss together as a class.  We let go of our need to figure it all out and accepted moved full steam ahead into some pretty dense material. Class time suddenly transformed into a mutually enjoyed journey of discovery.

All these years later one of my most cherished possessions’ is a little book my students made for me.  The inscription reads: “The philosophy course of fall 2005 presents’ reflections from art students inspired by Molly.  With her enthusiasm to make us better people, artists and philosophers.  Our intention is to inspire the exploration of thought.”  In the illustrated book students offered reflections in their own words on such diverse subjects as mind and matter, man’s place in the universe, the soul and immortality, what is good and what is evil, the nature of God and fate vs. free will.

One of the sweetest aspects of the books is the inclusions of my own words.  By offering quotes from me to me, my students validated my own knowing.  My words revealed insights, which if offered by a more famous name, may have inspired deep contemplation.  The irony was not lost on me.   Ultimately, one does not become a philosopher by simply repeating by rote the words of other philosophers.  It is when we hear in our own voice in connectedness with other voices that we begin to trust in our knowing.