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Writing Across the Curriculum

 

Holloway Hall

Philosophy: Entertainment for Everyone
Joerg Tuske
Philosophy Department

When I watch my students, it seems that they have a need for constant entertainment: they come to class listening to music on their iPods and they only remove the earplugs seconds before class starts; whenever I get into a conversation with one of my students about their plans for the weekend, I get to hear about video games that seem completely meaningless to me. I used to try not to judge this behavior and think of it as a sign of approaching middle age on my part. However, the other day I realized that this need for entertainment might have reached a level that interferes with my role as an educator. A student in one of my upper-level classes asked me why I had not scheduled a movie on the syllabus. While I do not think that showing a relevant movie (and subsequently discussing it!) would be out of place even in an upper-level philosophy class, I find the expectation of a “movie experience” troubling.

It is troubling because it is an expression of the desire to be entertained and I am not sure how to respond to it. Sometimes it is very tempting to give in to this expectation and to provide some entertainment. Students like it, which translates into better course evaluations and for me it is less work because I don’t have to prepare or grade anything for class. I don’t mean to suggest that showing movies has to be entertainment. There is a whole legitimate subject called the study of film where movies are treated like literature and are studied accordingly. Instead, I am worried about using movies in order to make points that could be learned from reading, well, books and journal articles. For example, there is now a whole range of textbooks that teach Intro to Philosophy through movies. On some level this works great: in order to make a point about Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” or Descartes’ “Evil Demon” I can show the first of the “Matrix” films and point out references to the history of philosophy in between scenes of Keanu Reeves engaging in acts of gratuitous violence. Who would have thought that philosophy could be so cool?

Sometimes I can make a point by showing an older movie or even a foreign movie with subtitles but that is pushing it. (I once showed parts of the movie “Gandhi” and received the comment “boring movie” on the evaluations.) It is wonderful if students get to appreciate movies that they probably would not have encountered otherwise, but then I am supposed to teach them philosophy, not how to develop good taste in movies.

It’s not just movies: many aspects of pop-culture (especially TV) are pounced upon by publishers and turned into, for example, a book series called “X and Philosophy” where “X” stands for such popular cultural icons as “The Simpsons”, “The X-Files” or “Harry Potter” (incidentally, the first book in the series was “The Matrix and Philosophy”). This is a great way to communicate to the public, particularly high-school students looking for a college major, the value of philosophy but is it appropriate at the college level? Why does every intellectual pursuit have to be relatable to what we see on TV or in the movie theatre? Of course I want students to be able to relate what they learn to their real life experiences. However, I worry that too many of their experiences are dictated by the entertainment industry.

One concern that literally keeps me up at night is how to make sure that study abroad experiences are not just glorified sight-seeing trips that provide an entertaining glimpse of another culture. I take students to India on a regular basis to study Indian philosophy. Many of the students who go have never been outside of the US and when they get to India for the first time they want to do the kinds of things that tourists do instead of sitting in a classroom doing what they have been doing back home. In many ways I can sympathize with this. For many students, this might be the only time when they are overseas for more than a week and naturally they want to make the most of it. In this case it means that they want to be entertained by their host culture. However, as a teacher I am trying to get them to understand that studying aspects of a culture in the classroom with students and professors from that culture is a much more rewarding experience in the long run because it is something that they are not able to do as tourists. While visiting the Taj Mahal or the ancient ruins of Hampi is no doubt worthwhile, it is precisely the sharing of an everyday activity, such as learning together in the classroom, with people from another culture that makes studying abroad such a rich and rewarding experience.

I don’t even want to start talking about my own role as a performer and entertainer in the classroom, which requires me to keep up with the pop-culture I tried to get away from when I decided to enter academia, so that I can pepper my classes with entertaining references. As always, it’s a question of finding the right balance. But now I have to grab my copy of Plato’s Dialogues and my light-saber and get ready for class. Today we are going to learn about Luke Skywalker’s ethical dilemma when he finds out that Dearth Vader is his father…or perhaps I should try to find a real life example.
 

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