In Plato’s Apology, Socrates declares himself “a sort of gadfly” to Athens, constantly stinging it, ‘stirring it to life.’ Among other things, he is concerned with the idea that Athens’ survival depends upon the quality of its citizenry. That quality is determined by each individual’s continual self-examination, that is, reflection on what makes a good life and how to live it. This is no easy task. Just what is the method whereby one examines one’s life, and just how one recognizes what the good is, requires an investment of time and effort that many people find insupportable.
As do the majority of characters in Plato’s dialogues, people today typically greet Socrates’ admonition, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” with genuine agreement but no plan to heed it. ‘Consider,’ one might say, ‘how tough the times are right now. Even when the economy is not in the toilet, people have to work really hard — sometimes two and three jobs — just to make ends meet. How can they be expected to make time for philosophizing? It’s hard. People want to relax.’
This is where the community college philosophy instructor —really, any instructor committed to the idea of the liberal arts tradition — has a role. This individual should be keenly aware of the incredible demands made upon the average citizen. That’s because the community college instructor meets the most diverse student population in the country. Community college students run the gamut from, for example, high schoolers to retirees to folks returning to college after fifteen or twenty years. Community college students come from every walk of religious, social, economic, ethnic, and racial (if there is such a thing) life. Community colleges are open access institutions, and so are in this respect the most egalitarian of public education resources. In short, community colleges could be considered the authentic American melting pot.
In this environment, the community college philosophy instructor is both a servant of the public and the academic discipline known as Philosophy. This philosopher’s salary is paid by city or state taxes, but in order for her to truly fulfill her obligations to her fellow citizens, her loyalty must be foremost to her discipline. If it is not, those obligations will not be met. So, despite the fact that many community college students want nothing to do with philosophy — it doesn’t seem relevant to job training; if anything, it’s just a stupid class that has to be passed in order to get the degree that will get them the job that gets them the paycheck that allows them to pay their bills — the philosophy instructor must act as the Socratic gadfly.
The imperative to incite students to think in new ways about everything — including and especially the beliefs they hold dear — is a matter of public service and a commitment to Philosophy. In my view, there is likely no better venue than the community college for the crucial work of freeing the mind. Such a mind is servant to no one.
The concept of education has for too long been distorted by the view that its purpose is to create “skilled workers” for society. As much has been said on the national political scene about primary, secondary, and higher education. In terms of the last in that list, the community college has especially borne the brunt of policies implemented to reflect that misconception. There is no doubt that basic skills and specific training is important for a strong economy, but it is not sufficient for it. More importantly, it only contributes to the creation of a citizen, for what it means to be able to substantively participate in the life of our remarkable society. It does not constitute citizenship. It is, then, incumbent upon community college instructors to persist in their obligations and loyalty in the face of ignorance and resistance. This is no easy task. From the U.S. Department of Education to accreditation agencies and community college districts, there is a widespread push to reduce “education” to “measurable outcomes” and make faculty “accountable” for such. This is code for conceiving of education in exclusively computational terms — critical thinking and real intellectual transformation are not part of the programme.
The survival of our society depends on clear, coherent, meticulous, comprehensive, and creative thinkers. We are not yet a society of widget-makers, a society of people who can’t think very well, and so must be content to let others do their thinking for them. Slowly, slowly, however our public education system is being mutated into one for precisely that purpose. Once that metamorphosis is complete — if it is not stopped and usurped by a system that promotes and respects intellectual achievement — then even a million gadflies will not be enough to stir us.