This week I started teaching philosophy at Northern Arizona University, one of Arizona’s three public universities.
I am Arizonan. Although I went to UCLA for undergrad and graduate school, I always felt a little guilty about that. My parents both went to the University of Arizona (in Tucson). Only my father graduated, with degrees in education and business. My mother, a psychology major, quite correctly questioned the behaviorism that dominated psychology at the time. Frustrated, she dropped out and pursued a career in business.
Ultimately, it was philosophers who helped move the field of psychology forward. They formulated alternative models to behaviorism, drawing on ancient Greek traditions, especially Aristotle’s functionalism, which represents the psuche as a set of life capacities or functions.
I have never been fond of psychology. Too often, ancient philosophers have said the same things psychologists have said and said it better. There is a wisdom in ancient traditions that contemporary psychology only clumsily comprehends. The ancients were not constrained by modern “science” and its supposed moral neutrality. How can we understand humans and human problems without considering the moral hue of things?
It is only my opinion, but our current mental health crisis should lead anybody to question the ability of psychological science to solve what are fundamentally social and societal problems. We are facing social, political and familial injustice on a massive scale, not individual psychological problems. We are sad because societies and families are sad, not because there is is anything fundamentally wrong with our individual brains. So many “mental illnesses” are now characterized in terms of trauma (as Margot Julian, who has a background in sociology and anthropology, pointed out to me). People are traumatized because modern society is traumatic. Any real solution is a social solution, not an individual, psychological or biochemical solution. How do we create healthier communities? You cannot fix yourself, if you do not fix your community.
The irony of my own trajectory is that I took my first philosophy class in Arizona, the very state I avoided going to college in. It was a Pima Community College video course. Each week I eagerly awaited a VHS tape in the mail. Each week I would receive a new lesson about philosophy. At the same time, I took a video course in psychology. I instantly knew that I wanted to study philosophy, not psychology. To me, philosophy was the mother science — the study that encompassed all other areas of inquiry.
Since then, I have always connected my commitment to philosophy with Arizona. As a teenager, the sparse, Sonoran desert seemed to be asking me all kinds of questions. Perhaps the desert is a natural place to ponder timeless questions. It is a place of relative emptiness, and so there is room for a person (and her mind) to wonder and wander. There is space. There is time. There is the searing heat, too. It makes things shimmer.
I am always terrified when I start teaching. I remember my own college experience. At UCLA I had professors who literally changed my life. I know what an impressionable time college is. I know what one professor can do for a student’s life. It is a scary thing. I always wonder whether I am rising to the task. I am always wondering, how do I reach them? I resist standardizing anything, because every class is different. Every student is different. We are fortunate as professors to be able to construct our own curriculum, to react to the times and to our individual students.
Teaching in higher education is hard for so many reasons. One reason it is hard is because we professors so often internalize our disciplines. I have been studying/producing philosophy for nearly half of my life. Sometimes it is hard to put myself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about philosophy. I rely on my students to tell me when they do not understand. I worry that I am out of touch with them. But perhaps this is the perfect challenge for them and for me, when we try to reach each other across a divide.