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How Teachers can Swing in the Classroom

Douglas Groothuis By

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Philosophy is rooted in a far longer line of tradition, reaching back to the Greek Presocratics and to the Wisdom literature of the Bible (such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). As such, it demands of its disciples a lifetime "in the woodshed" where they aspire to master its arguments, its historical development, and its applications to all manner of life. The exemplary professor of philosophy (or of any other discipline) immerses himself in that history and finds inspiration from its virtuosi. When one studies what the best philosophical minds have thought about the perennial philosophical themes of the good, the true, and the beautiful, these philosophers become living and talkative residents in the soul. These ideas and arguments are, thus, not static pieces of information. These cats just keep blowing! Teaching classic ideas year after year is never boring if one engages them as philosophical "standards," to use the jazz idiom for the received repertoire that jazzmen must master. These are treasures to which one repeatedly returns afresh. A philosophy professor who knows and savors the tradition can become a philosophical virus, infecting students with a like passion. Just as in a spirited jazz performance, each musician finds inspiration from the others, the classroom may become the stage for an intellectually sparkling and surprising dialogue.

Although I have taught Kant's epistemology for many years, I must return to the woodshed every time I teach it in order to reacquaint myself with this demanding work and to envision novel ways in which to make it clear to students encountering these jaw-dropping ideas for the first time. I also attempt to expose Kant's philosophical clams (a jazz term for musical missteps), such as his rejection of the ontological argument. Time in this woodshed often yields surprises. Just as a jazz musician may deepen his playing unexpectedly after years of performing—as John Coltrane dramatically did from around 1962 to 1965—a philosopher may return to a classic argument and discover something entirely new. After being skeptical of the ontological argument for God's existence for many years, about a decade ago I came under its metaphysical spell—and while teaching introduction to philosophy, no less. I now enthusiastically present the various versions of the argument to my sometimes bewildered students, who are assigned a chapter I wrote on the topic.

The Will to Create

Second, jazz is, at its best, highly creative in composition and in performance. Although jazz virtuosi are steeped in tradition, they must find their own voice in order to perpetuate that tradition in new forms—that is, to refract jazz through the prisms of their own unique personalities. Finding that voice requires moving from imitation to creation. Basic techniques must become second nature—the fingering of a saxophone, the strokes on the drums, embouchure for reeds and brass—but the artistic voice moves beyond technique and imitation. Jazz musicians must invent their own chops—a term invented by Louis Armstrong that refers to the musician's distinctive performing abilities. Drummer Art Blakey mastered a chop so distinctive it became eponymous. According to the Impulse Records web page, "Blakey developed a press roll so exquisitely forceful and so unmistakably his that drum manuals give it a formal name, "the Blakey Press Roll." And few, if any, can match it.

Philosophy professors likewise need creativity rooted in studious routines if they are going to stimulate their students to pursue the truth through reason over a lifetime. Just as jazz musicians need to learn their scales in order to use them as building blocks for their own style, so philosophers and their students require a common vocabulary with which to speak. This tradition is not a museum to visit, but rather a deep well from which to draw ideas for the ongoing dialectic. This kind of interactive discourse is the analogue to the call-and-response element of jazz. By engaging this tradition actively, both professor and students begin to find their intellectual voices. As in jazz, some philosophical chops become so distinctive they become eponymous, such as "Plato's Cave," "Frankfurt counter-examples" or "Pascal's wager" or Searle's "Chinese room." Neither I nor my students may ever have philosophical chops named after us; nonetheless, a serious engagement in philosophy immerses on in this stream of ideas.

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