Sunday, March 24, 2019

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The Horses of Instruction: Teaching at Capilano College

Coming from a classroom on the south, or lower side of the Capilano College campus, where I’ve just taught an 8:30 morning class, I’m heading up the hill toward the northside Fir Building. I have a cubbyhole office there on the fourth floor. On my way, I pass the music rooms at the base of the building. Pouring out of the practice cubicles, whose windows are partially open on this Indian summer September morning, is an astonishing cacophany of sound—rippling piano scales, horn blurts, the tooting of woodwinds, and human voices running through arpeggios. I’m half-distractedly thinking about whatever happened in the classroom a few minutes ago, when I’m suddenly startled by the overlapping melodies wafting out of the bunker-like building, as if I’d never heard them before. Transfixed for an instant by the pleasure of hearing the wave of sounds, it’s as if I am listening to a local version of the “music of the spheres.”

My relation to Capilano College, over the more than twenty years that I’ve taught there—first politics, then philosophy—has a lot of the quality I experience when hearing that music. I find the sounds and the musicians reassuring: as they earnestly toot and ripple and warble, I feel reasonably certain that they’re not planning to punch anyone in the nose—which is my line-drawn-in-the-pine-needles definition of civility. The music students wander around campus, moving up and down the alpine hill like humpbacked pack animals, with guitar bags and tuba cases slung on their backs, along with the other rucksack-carrying students, giving the whole place a bucolic air. (Sudden memory of singing “The Happy Wanderer” hiking song, as a child in elementary school music class: “I love to go a-wandering / Along the mountain track / And as I go, I love to sing / My knapsack on my back // Val-deri, Val-dera…”)

The geography of the college also contributes to that pacific sense. Capilano is located on the first ridge of hills on the north shore of Burrard Inlet across from the city of Vancouver, just beyond North Vancouver’s industrial foreshore, where piles of sulphur are heaped on the docks. The college, which you arrive at by a canyon road that runs up to the top of a hill, is set within a stand of mostly evergreen forest. Beyond the college are more ridges and canyons, and further to the north, range after range of mountains. A hundred and fifty kilometres north of Capilano, once you’re past the mill-town at Squamish and the ski-resort at Whistler, it’s pretty much pure wilderness.

Apart from my somewhat sentimental idea of the charm of the place—which, admittedly, is just plain gloomy during the rainy season, when the whole institution huddles miserably under a steady, chill drizzle for weeks on end—what I’m interested in is the main activity of the college, namely, teaching. From most of the public and media discussion of education, you’d never imagine that teaching is what Capilano and similar schools are all about, or that the teaching is aimed at developing the sort of person who can assume a place as a citizen in a democracy. Even we teachers occasionally forget that. Instead, there’s an enormous preoccupation with whether students are being properly trained for various jobs, and such other diversions as whether or not the college is suitably “on-line.” The latter refers to a concern about the use of technology in teaching, a subject I crankily regard as a euphemism for replacing teaching. But as one of my favourite newspaper columnists (John Doyle, the TV writer for the Toronto Globe and Mail) says when he recognizes he’s just about to launch a rant, Don’t get me started.

My friend Ryan Knighton and I once collaborated on a mock-book called Teaching Is Easy. Ryan is a colleague at Capilano College, a writer who teaches in the English department. He’s 30-something, one of the new generation of instructors, with a shaved-head, a gym-fit body, and a white cane to get around because he’s blind. We drive to work together in the mornings, since we both teach morning classes. My one-liner is, We’re a car-pool, but I don’t let him drive very much. We’re both pretty good at irony, the alternative to which, I point out, is suicide. I also have a one-liner about teaching, which I contributed to our mock-book: Teaching is easy because anything you say in class these days is “news” to the students. We both agree that the hardest part of teaching is leaving the coffee kiosk on the way to a rainy morning class because you need three hands to carry the book bag, the cup of coffee, and the umbrella. Four hands, if you’re also tapping around with a white cane, Ryan adds. After that, as we say, it’s all downhill.

Jokes aside, the first issue is the conditions of teaching. Again, this is seldom publicly discussed, but there’s a major difference between teaching in a university and teaching in a college, the two parts of the Canadian post-secondary educational system. Typically, in North American universities these days, introductory classes (in biology, psychology, physics and other disciplines) are conducted in amphitheatres that can hold up to 800 students. From some vantage points, the professor in the pit doing the lecturing appears to be about the size of an insect, so, often a large screen behind him is provided on which a magnified TV image is projected. A good deal of the lecture occurs in half-darkness because the professor is using an “overhead projector” to provide notes on the screen for the students to copy down. The professor will have teaching assistants to deal with the students. The teaching assistants are senior graduate students and they mark the student papers and exams, and, at what are considered “good schools,” they may conduct seminars with smaller groups of students. The professors have little contact with the introductory students beyond answering a handful of questions at the lectures.

The students in these huge introductory classes are fiscal cannon-fodder to pay for the university’s often excellent graduate schools. At best, then, you get great lecturing. And while great lecturing is nothing to sniff at, it’s also a very small part of teaching. At worst (and worst may be the norm), what you get is the equivalent of those country schools in benighted countries where students spend the day performing en masse rote recitations of religious texts. I regard most of what goes on in undergraduate education of this sort as a scandal, something just short of criminal activity, but the habit is so entrenched, it’s seldom even remarked upon. Inevitably, sooner or later, some educational mad scientist appears on stage and proposes that there’s no need for the mass lectures, that the whole performance can be digitally repackaged, and the students can stay at home and watch it on their TVs or computers (this would also save institutional janitorial costs). Worse, such dotty proposals become rational in the light of actual teaching conditions. Most of the current talk about the use of computers in teaching (or replacing teaching) is an outgrowth of this situation.

At Capilano College, I teach classes with about 35 students. The numbers creep up a little when there’s a budget squeeze on and the administration pleads with us to take in two or three extra students per course. Unlike the hermetic amphitheatres of the university, I teach in rooms, not necessarily great rooms for teaching, but often good enough that they have windows, and I can point outside to our little glade of woods and intone sentences like, “So, we all agree that the trees out there are real, right?” (It’s a sentence that occurs in introductory metaphysics courses more often than one might expect.) In short, I’m able to engage in something that resembles conversations with the students. I know their names, I read their work, I mark their papers, I talk to them in my office or on the phone or by e-mail. After a few weeks, I know them well enough that I’m able to shape the lessons toward who they are and what they can understand, rather than what, as a professor, I understand. By the end of the term, I have a pretty good idea of the minds, personalities, and stories of the people I teach. I don’t want to make any exaggerated claims about results, but I think these conditions of teaching produce slightly better “outcomes,” as they say in the education business, than the alternatives.

Compared to the universities, the colleges, according to the unspoken wisdom that governs the matter, are second-rate schools for second-rate students who can’t get into university or who can’t afford to pay the more expensive tuition fees of the university. In reality, the colleges are about the only place in undergraduate education where teaching is still permitted. But I gloomily view the colleges, as I do spotted owls, as an endangered species.

I’m a pluralist on the question of how to teach. I take the position that there are lots of good ways to teach well. For example, John Dixon and I teach in what’s known as the “Socratic style.” Dixon is my best and oldest friend at Cap College, a colleague of mine in the philosophy department. He’s a tall, white-haired, bearded, outdoorsy type. In former years, when we were both more mobile, we were a familiar sight on campus, walking around together like classic peripatetic philosophers, the statuesque Dixon and his pudgy bald companion, a real Mutt and Jeff team. The only thing missing was the togas.

Dixon and I were both students in Bob Rowan’s political philosophy classes at the University of British Columbia in the 1960s, and we both learned to teach from Rowan in the Socratic manner (although the term perhaps flatters us). I was notorious for having burst into Rowan’s class one day when we were reading Plato’s Republic and announcing, “Plato is wrong, Thrasymachus was right!”, praising the world’s first renowned pragmatist, who had argued that might is right, there are no eternal verities, against Socrates’ wily defense of the moral life. Well, that was then. The Socratic method was reinforced for Dixon and me when we both studied briefly with the magisterial Joseph Tussman at the University of California in Berkeley. Tussman was Rowan’s teacher, and Tussman’s teacher was a philosopher named Alexander Meiklejohn, so there’s a continuous line of transmission of both mode and thought (though, again, this probably flatters the feeble heirs).

What the Socratic manner amounts to is that the fulcrum of the class rests not on the lecture but on the conversation in which we engage the students. Sometimes I “lecture” for a while, if I have something particular I want to say, although the lecturing has more the character of performing an improvised operatic aria than the “power-point presentation” taught in business schools. There are also texts that provide the foundation for the conversation, but in our reading of the books, I’m not trying to “get through” the text with a view to having “covered the material” in preparation for the final exam. The texts are usually not “textbooks,” but real books by real writers, and I use them as entrances into the world and into the minds of their authors.

One of the features of Socratic-style teaching is that you don’t know in advance precisely what’s going to happen in the classroom or where the conversation is going to go. That doesn’t mean it’s loosy-goosy, adlibbing, stand-up philosophy, but it does require a certain degree of “adamant confidence,” as Dixon calls it, that you can provide a measure of disciplined guidance to the conversational journey. (Our detractors occasionally describe our confidence as “arrogance.”) Once we’re all settled into the room and the students are nibbling on their morning muffins, I may kick it off by saying, “On the way into school this morning, I was thinking about something we said last time about whether it’s possible to really be a solipsist about reality. Now, my idea is…” And after I’ve rattled on for a bit, somebody in class asks a question, makes an observation, is provoked to challenge something outrageous I’ve said, and we’re off. Sometimes, I’ll say, “Well, you’ve read chapter two of Nagel’s What Does It All Mean?, right? What is it about?” At other times, I’ll just ask, “Where did we leave off last time?”, and then, liked stoned people trying to remember what they were talking about five minutes previously, we’ll fumble around a bit until we find the thread back into the labyrinth. Sometimes, when the class has coalesced into a group (about a third of the way into the semester), and things are going really well, I walk into the room and only have to say, “Well…?”, and we’re on the way.

It is not the only way to teach, as I’ve said, and it’s more exhausting or nerve-wracking than coming in with a well-planned, neatly-packaged talk, complete with “overhead transparencies” on which the main points of the lecture can be projected onto the screen. To make matters a bit more challenging, at the start of each teaching season, I try to forget everything I think about teaching, and start all over again. I tend to think of my method as “non-algorithmic” teaching. That is, it’s designed to be difficult for a computer to simulate (since I’m paranoid about teaching machines replacing teachers). Gradually, over the years, I’ve abandoned most of the technology used in teaching. I don’t show movies or television documentaries, though the room is equipped with an overhead TV. I don’t give final exams (the students write essays), and therefore I don’t need to provide transparencies for overhead projection and note-taking. Lately, I’ve stopped writing in chalk on the blackboard, except once or twice a year (at the beginning to write my name, and in the middle to draw a “Venn diagram,” if I’m talking about logic). Chalk, I’ve decided, is the final barrier between us and the abyss; I prefer the abyss. I don’t even wander around the room. Instead, I just sit there, at a table, and we talk.

Jean Clifford, a colleague in the English department who has an office a couple doors down the corridor from mine, teaches in a style she describes as rather different from how I teach (but she enthusiastically approves of my successes in engaging students, as do I about her successes). Despite our differences, one thing we agree on is how to deal with students who miss classes and then turn up later to ask what happened. On her door, she’s taped up a poem by Tom Wayman (from his book, Selected Poems 1973-1993, Harbour, 1993) to which she refers students who have just asked,

Did I Miss Anything?

                                                 Question frequently asked by                                                  students after missing class

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

     Everything. I gave an exam worth
     40 per cent of the grade for this term
     and assigned some reading due today
     on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
     worth 50 per cent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

     Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
     a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
     or other heavenly being appeared
     and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
     to attain divine wisdom in this life and
     the hereafter
     This is the last time the class will meet
     before we disperse to bring the good news to all people on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

     Everything. Contained in this classroom
     is a microcosm of human experience
     assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
     This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered

     but it was one place

     And you weren’t here

                                                                               –Tom Wayman

The one thing today’s students are pretty good at has to do with psychological astuteness, which probably comes from having watched lots of psychological talk-show television, like the Oprah Winfrey program. So, they can tell the difference between friendly fooling around and faculty hostility. I do a lot of fooling around, and I wouldn’t want it mistaken for hostility. Most of the students are able to tell that I like them. When I say that teaching is easy because anything we say is news to the students, I’m simply referring to the fact that the students are inevitably ignorant (but not stupid). On the whole, it’s not their fault. Most of their education, up to age eighteen, was conducted in competition with television and video games. TV and the games won.

But now they’re not watching much television anymore. Oh, a few of them are, and I can refer to their experiences to make a point in class. The programs change every couple of years. For a while it was 90210, a sex-and-soap opera for post-adolescents, then there was X-Files, a pernicious program encouraging belief in paranormal phenomena and conspiracy plots, then came Touched by an Angel, a soppy religious show that arrived at about the same time as a horrible hit song called, “What If God Was One of Us?” Now there’s “reality TV,” a combination of game show and softcore pornography. This is the junk that shaped their minds. But now that they’re in college, TV viewing time is down; they’re too busy with part-time jobs, parents, interpersonal relations and, if we’re lucky, us.

Some teachers don’t like the students’ ignorance, and resent having to do “remedial work.” I don’t. If I mention Samuel Beckett’s name (I may be trying to say something about existential absurdity in the metaphysics class), and I notice that they don’t recognize the reference, I’m perfectly happy to stop and enthusiastically explain who Samuel Beckett is and why he’s so great. I remember we’re being paid lots of money, have great working conditions, good pensions, etc., so why should I resent dispelling ignorance? It’s useful work.

The students, for all their ignorance, have passed through lots of filters to get here, and tend to be friendly, well-behaved, and perfectly amenable to teaching. They’re the 20 per cent cream of the crop of their age aggregate. I regard them as the right people in the right place at the right time. Admittedly, I’m preternaturally cheerful when I’m at school and with the students. Sometimes, according to my colleagues, spookily cheerful. I’ll eventually have to figure out why.

A few years ago, the faculty discovered the problem of “disruptive students,” and several meetings and committees were devoted to figuring out what to do about it. I occasionally run into students who are nuts or inexplicably hostile, but I seldom locate any disruptive ones. Sometimes, there are students chattering away in some corner of the class, distracting me from whatever I’m going on about, and I’ve apparently invented various clever techniques to deal with them. Mostly, the techniques have to do with cajoling them out of their own distractions. If I read someone’s moving lips, asking someone else, What time is it?, because they’re thinking about their day instead of metaphysics, I’ll jump in and announce, “It’s nine-thirty, about a half-hour left.” Or, if it’s more elaborate gossip, I’ll ask, “Pardon? Did you want to say something?” I have physically big ears, and am very sensitive to sound, so I tend to hear a lot of the whispers and murmurs, which pop up on my bat-like echolocation radar system, thus making intervention fairly easy and automatic. When they arrive at class with their headphones on, listening to digital music, I always ask them what they’re pumping into their heads, because I’m culturally interested.

Sometimes, there’s a student who wants to answer every question. I deal with that through my only groundrule about public talking: you have to raise your hand to talk, and I keep a speaker’s list in my head, and if I see a hand for the first time that day, even if there are other hands up belonging to people who have already spoken, I move the first-time hand up to the top of the list to maximize the number of students who get to speak. The students seem satisfied with the justice of the procedure. When things are going well, they don’t even have to raise their hands, I can read who wants to speak just from their eyes and eyebrows. On the whole, I’m inclined, if anything, to encourage disruption. I worry more about the “glazed-donut” problem, students who politely sit there for weeks on end and give no indication of what’s happening for them.

For me, the main thing that goes on at school is what happens after we teachers close the door behind us and begin the class. I have, on the whole, shied away from the internal politics of academia, which is often a source of agony that permeates academic life. As a result, I tend to see my colleagues more favourably and charitably than some others do. Though I don’t want to administer, or sit on committees, and I find the meetings a chore, I admire those who are good at administration, and I’m happy to raise my hand whenever a vote is taken to support them and give them “release sections” (time off from teaching). I wander along the corridor and stop at faculty offices to chat with colleagues, who come in a diverse assortment of temperaments and states of mind, and end up at my pal Dixon’s cubbyhole, where he’s usually boiling a kettle of lunchtime water to make a bowl of instant noodle soup. There are about 50 or so teachers about whom I have a fair idea of what’s on their minds. When I run through their names in my mind—Reid Gilbert, Yolande Westwell-Roper, Mark Battersby, Wayne Henry, Dan Munteanu, Pierre Coupey, Bob Sherrin, Bill Shermbrucker—I have a rich album of images, personalities, and ideas they’re interested in. But I’ll save the encomiums for the retirement parties. The heart of the school is inside the classroom.

I only lecture twice a year, on the first day, the introduction to the course, and the last day, the Goodbye Class. Since very little has been written about actual classroom teaching (aside from the professional literature on the subject, which tends to be technique-and-technology driven), I’ll say a couple of things. I have an unwritten imaginary book about teaching called The Horses of Instruction (from William Blake’s “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”), but this is not the place for it.

Inside the room, after I write my name, telephone number, and name and number of the course on the blackboard (which is actually green), and sit down behind my table, I ask, “Is there anybody here who hasn’t taken a philosophy course?” I know perfectly well that almost nobody has taken a philosophy course, but when most of their hands shoot up, I affect slight surprise, and say, “Oh?! Well, then I better say a few things about philosophy, and then something about how this course fits into philosophy, and then what this course is specifically about.” The theme of my sermon is that philosophy is the most important subject we teach at Cap College. I say, “Well, the first thing to say about philosophy is that it’s the most important subject we teach at Cap College.” I allow a micro-pause for them to get the joke about my possible self-interest in this assertion, and once I’ve heard the chuckle, I add, “I actually mean it.” I quickly amend that, pointing out that there are a lot of other great things taught at school, and give some examples, but nonetheless insist that philosophy seems to me the most important subject. I have two arguments for that.

The first is that philosophy is the only subject taught at school which is primarily devoted to discussing the questions that human beings have historically come to regard as the deepest, most central, and important: questions about how to live our lives, what the universe is all about, gods, selves, and all the rest. There’s an internal debate in philosophy about whether these questions are intrinsic, eternal, or natural to our condition as human beings, or whether they’re an historic artifact. I tend to think the latter, but for my purposes here an agnostic view is sufficient. It doesn’t matter whether the questions really exist independently of us or whether we make them up. They’re the questions that people have come to care about and philosophy is the only place in school completely devoted to them.

My second argument is that philosophy is very old, and I tell them all about my teacher, Socrates, although I quickly concede that arguments from authority and age are not as strong as arguments from good reasons. Even though I supply some dates and contrast Socrates to Jesus—pointing out in passing that it’s easier to understand Socrates than Jesus, i.e., he sounds more like us, and that we have better historical evidence for Socrates’ existence than Jesus’—some of them are probably left with the impression that I know Socrates personally and talk to him pretty regularly on a cellphone. All of this occasions some self-told jokes about my advanced age. The point is simply to establish the tone and the pace of the class, to indicate that we’re not merely pushing Sisyphus’ stone up the hill, that we’re looking for a state of mind in which it’s possible to think. The semi-serious point about Socratic longevity is that most of the other disciplines taught at Cap College and elsewhere are in some way spin-offs from philosophy, and fairly recent spin-offs at that (I note that “recent” in philosophy is a word that can mean “within the last four-five hundred years”). And that’s about it.

The rest of the talk is practical stuff. I use the practical stuff (answers to questions like, “How long should the essays be?”, “How many references do you want, and in what style?”, etc.) to do a lot of “positioning,” as I call it. Positioning has to do with how you want the students to think about the material, the teacher, the whole project. Most of it is jokey. I’m letting them know that I’m really available to be “the teacher,” if that’s what they’re looking for. So, I repeat my phone number several times, as if they should memorize it in case of emergencies, assure them they can phone at any time, nothing is too trivial or too large, and provide examples. The examples range from, “You want to know whether to write on one side or both sides of the paper?”, and then I recite the phone number, to “You’re driving along the Upper Narrows Highway at 3 a.m. in your Porsche, and the nice policeman stops you, tells you to open the trunk of the vehicle, and discovers the funny white powder. You don’t want to discuss this with the folks just yet.” Chuckles. Then I recite the phone number, as the punchline. Laughter. “I’m very good on giving advice about your legal rights, available attorneys, and bail procedures.” Point taken.

If there’s time the first day, I may “do” some philosophy, as Dixon and I have learned to call it, as a sample of what’s going to go on for the rest of the semester. It can be as straightforward as asking, “What do we mean when we say that these chairs and tables, or those trees outside the window there, exist?” (That’s when the classroom window comes in handy.) “What makes us so sure?” Or it can be that I’ll point to some guy who was listening to (fill in the current fashionable blank, some rap or hiphop group) when he came into the room, and ask him, “What is it that leads to your listening to X rather than Mahler’s ‘Fourth Symphony’?”, which then leads to, What do you mean by “I like it”?, which then leads to a discussion of the differences between “art” and “entertainment,” which then leads to, How do we become the persons who have acquired the tastes we have?, etc. In short, let the conversations begin.

Most of the rest of the days are devoted to doing philosophy. I spend a considerable amount of class time in metaphysics debunking unlikely beliefs—everything from astrology to Zoroastrianism—and presenting arguments for what constitutes good reasons for believing in something. When students start talking about weird kinds of “energy” that they believe in, I get Mike Freeman or Stan Greenspoon from the physics department to come in for expert advice, even though the idea of reality in physics these days is stranger than any cultish beliefs in aliens, astral travel, or near- and after-death experiences. If the students are bawky about fossils, radio-carbon dating, and our relationship to other hominids, a teacher in the biology department, Paul McDonald, is usually kind enough to come in and explain the fine points of evolution.

I’m a moderate on epistemology. I certainly don’t think we absolutely know what the world is like from a god’s eye view, independent of our consciousness and use of language, and I equally don’t think that whatever you believe is “what’s real for you,” or that all beliefs are equally well-held. I’m what might be called a “local realist”: within the realm of tables, chairs, trees outside the window, and other local phenomena, what we know is good enough, and it doesn’t matter whether it is absolute or ultimately relative. The knowledge of science may not be absolute either, but I’ve no big objection to privileging it insofar as it “works.” Knowledge about politics, ethics, and human relationships is shaky, and it’s only possible to have better or worse arguments rather than knowledge. Claims to paranormal knowledge—from god(s) to God—ought to be resisted, unless the person making the claim can provide a good reason to believe. Various knowledges and various false beliefs make a practical difference to how we live our lives. People who think God wants them to blow up buildings, other people, and themselves ought to be discouraged. Insofar as there is a politics of metaphysics, mine is fairly middle-of-the-road. The direction we’re moving in is: if it’s possibly the case that there are no gods to provide purposes for our lives, and if the accounts of evolution and physics are reasonably true, and if there’s no good reason to believe in afterlives, then what are the possible meanings (and selves) that we can construct for ourselves, both individually and as a society, to make our lives worthwhile?

In recent years, I notice, I’ve been making use of local geographic metaphors. I find myself arguing that, “up here, on the hill”—since the college is on a hill—life is different from and, I imply, better than “down there, at the bottom of the hill.” Down at the bottom of the hill is a big parking lot attached to something called The Real Canadian Superstore, and I portray the parking lot as a kind of hellish purgatory, where people aimlessly push their basket-carts, or read no more than the statistics in the sports pages of the tabloids, or eat burgers in their overly-large vehicles, and various other awful things happen. Whereas, up here, we read terrific books, talk about important stuff, meet interesting people, get ready for great jobs, and what’s more, the murder rate is lower up here on the hill than down in the lot at the bottom of the hill. A lot of other arguments flow from that, about language, the making of the self, and society, but I needn’t rehearse them here. If someone notices that I’m being “elitist,” I permit myself a rare political remark. I concede that the students are indeed an elite, representing only about 20 per cent of their age aggregate, and that being a democrat myself, I wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t, not yet. I also note that their being an elite who will get better jobs, exercise more power, and have more leisure time than the people at the bottom of the hill, is probably not a matter of intelligence, but does imply responsibility. (I then have a riff on the difference between ignorance and stupidity, but we can skip that.) I conclude, a little sadly, Well, if there is going to be an elite, I’d prefer that it be an informed rather than an ignorant elite.

There’s another point to my “life up on the hill” metaphor that I usually don’t talk about, but I notice it. It’s that I really do believe all the stuff I say about life on the hill. Both the activity and the manner of interaction on the hill seems a model of human civilization. As Dr. Pangloss keeps insisting to Candide in Voltaire’s Candide, life up on the hill is the best of all possible worlds… at least of the worlds that are possible right now. Then it occurs to me, as I wander around Cap College, listening to the music of the spheres, teaching, drinking my coffee and holding my umbrella and bookbag—and this is what accounts for my preternatural cheerfulness when I’m at school—I’ve come to regard life here (and at similar institutions, not all of them schools) as utopia, as the actual nearest approximation to utopia we’ll experience in our lives.

I also give a talk at the Goodbye Class, in which I try to figure out what’s happened in the course of the semester just concluding. It’s not a very strenuous pitch, though sometimes I get worked up. Mainly, though, I’m just underscoring that goodbyes matter and that parting really is a sweet sorrow. By then, if things have gone well, the class has become a group, and the barbarians who arrived at the gates at the beginning of the semester have now become civilized. If things have gone really well, the shaft of light in Tom Wayman’s poem doesn’t “suddenly descend” from the heavens, but arises from the room and reveals, not a divinity, but what each man or woman among us must do.

That only happens when things are going really, really well.

Berlin, November 12, 2004

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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