The philosophy teacher provides a service. He is not in the least interested in imposing particular ideas on his students. He is well aware that it is not possible, literally, to impose an abstract idea on anyone. In his presentation, he puts a series of ideas on display. Students find some of these ideas attractive and others unattractive. In this regard, the philosophy teacher is like a grocer in a grocery store who displays a variety of foods. His customers find some of the foods on display, but not all, to be attractive. Philosophy students are selective consumers of ideas; grocery store shoppers are selective consumers of food products.
Students in a philosophy classroom, however, often act very differently from the consumers in a grocery store. A student, when presented with an idea he does not like may react with outrage, fearing that that idea might harm him. Ideas of God, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, for example, may provoke outrage. The consumer in a grocery store never takes what he does not like personally. He calmly passes by the kumquats, caviar, and chocolate covered ants. What he does not like does not bother him. He is in control, purchasing only what he wants with undisturbed tranquility.
A philosophy teacher can be suspended or lose his job for displaying particular ideas on hot-button topics. The ultra-sensitive student insists that his teacher present only ideas that he finds agreeable. Consumers do not demand that the grocer provide only food products that suit their taste.
The philosophy teacher may envy the grocer, wishing that his students would view the ideas he offers in the classroom with the same emotional calm that consumers have when viewing the various products displayed at the grocery store. His envy would be understandable, though unacceptable. Comparisons between the philosopher and the grocer are legitimate, but very thin.
The philosopher and the grocer do indeed provide a service. They offer something that is beneficial. Their interest is not primarily for themselves. The grocer provides what his customers want; the philosophy teacher provides what his students need. It is one of the essential paradoxes of the human being not to want what he truly needs.
A student could count himself fortunate if he had Martin Buber, author of the classic, I and Thou, for a teacher. In an article entitles, The Education of Character, Buber recounts some of the difficulties he encountered as a teacher. When he tried to explain that envy is despicable, he is opposed by those who are poorer than their comrades. When he attempted to explain that it is wicked to bully the weak, he sees a half-disguised smile cross the lips of the strong. He feels the same frustration when he ventures to teach that lying destroys life. “But as soon as my students notice that I want to educate their characters I am resisted,” he writes. And so, as Buber avers, “The test of the educator lies in conflict with his pupil”.
The grocer operates under the maxim that the customer is always right. The philosopher knows that his pupils are often wrong. Conflict arises when the student commits himself to conforming to his culture or when finds it too difficult to change. Therefore, he finds his own reasons to reject the eternal ideas of truth, beauty, goodness, and justice.
Eating is a common denominator for what is edible and what is understandable. We speak of food for the mind and how certain ideas are difficult to digest. Francis Bacon famously stated that “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some to be chewed and digested”. Both food and ideas enter the person. However, the effect on the person can be different in a most important way.
Philosophy is in the business of love, in accord with its brief definition as “love of wisdom”. Therefore, it is transformative. What we eat becomes us. Knowing about the eternal verities transforms us into something higher. This is why Saint Thomas Aquinas states that it is better to love God than to know a lion. Love changes us into that which we love. Knowledge, as well as eating, resides in us.
C. S. Lewis, not well known for his poetry, has expressed the matter with irresistible clarity in his poem, “On a Theme from Nicolas of Cusa”:
But when the soul partakes of good
Or truth, which are her savoury food,
By some fat subtler chemistry
It is not they that change, but she,
Who feels them enter with the state
Of conquerors he opened gate,
Or, mirror-like, digests their ray
By turning luminous as they.
The philosophy teacher loves his students and therefore, wants them to become more fully themselves through their integration of truth and goodness. In this way they become more God-like. The student, by contrast, may resist this kind of change since it requires giving up something and reaching for something new. The classroom and the grocery store, consequently, are radically different arenas. Their aims, however much they have in common, are ultimately distinctive.
If the philosophy teacher has no higher aim than to supply his students with a variety of ideas, in the manner of a grocery store, then he has lost sight of the nobility of his profession. Difficulty should not be daunting, opposition should not be discouraging. The sustained effort will prove to be worthwhile. As Buber remarks, “The educator who helps to bring man back to his own unity will help to put him again face to face with God.”