I’ve just completed a second syllabus for my Introduction to Philosophy course. My first syllabus is a descendant of one that I created about 20 years ago. It covers many of the standard topics that one would expect in Phil 101: Descartes’ epistemology, Hume’s arguments against causation, Paley’s argument for God’s existence, the problem of evil, free will, the abortion debate, conceptions of social justice.
While I find all of these topics keenly interesting, most of my students — and I teach about 100 students each semester — are obviously more impassioned about issues concerning God, abortion and social justice. These are the issues that seem to matter most in their lives and about which they are most likely to have some pre-formed belief that a good course in philosophy will seek to upset or challenge.
My second, new, syllabus leaves out God, abortion and social justice, retaining Descartes and Hume, but adding new material on epistemology and metaphysics. I’m quite sure my students will find these additional topics far less interesting than the material that I’ve removed from the course syllabus.
Why propose to teach a course that I know will elicit less excitement from my students, result in less classroom discussion, encourage fewer students to continue their philosophical educations with upper-level courses, rob me of the pleasure of seeing cocksure teenagers struggling to defend views that once seemed to them so obviously right?
The reason for the second syllabus is this. The topics on the first syllabus that get my students so excited are also the topics that arouse the most passion. And, if some of our state legislators have their way, passion is the last thing I’ll want to provoke in my students. You see, my campus may soon become a concealed carry campus. This means that while I am presenting an argument in favor of a right to abortion, or against the existence of God, or in favor of tax policies that would strip these students of their inheritances (I also present arguments on the other side of these issues), I will at the same time be worrying that a depressed or disturbed or drunk or high college student is in the audience, armed, and fed up with what I or fellow students are advocating.
It’s of course obvious that gun violence in my classroom is far more probable given the legal presence of guns than not, and even if the danger remains remote, why should I bother to keep on my syllabus those issues that promise most likely to incite gun violence? Why teach topics that increase the probability, however small, of provoking an unstable but legally carrying shooter?
So, my plan is this. On the first day of the semester I will explain to my students that I have prepared two syllabi for the course. One they’ll find much more interesting than the other, but we’ll adopt it only if I receive a promise from the students that they will not carry weapons into my classroom.
I can already hear the counterargument: “Promise? What good is a promise? They can still bring their guns.” But, first, if students elect to adopt the “no guns” syllabus, they might at least feel safer to discuss controversial issues than they would if no promise had been made. Second, the discussion we’ll have about the choice in syllabi will raise their awareness of the new dangers they face on a campus where students, even if depressed, disturbed, or drunk, or high, are free to carry weapons. Finally, although promises can be broken and students might show up to class with a weapon, I have faith that this will not occur. Is this faith misplaced? If it is, then we should wonder at gun laws that do no more than rely on people’s decisions to use their weapons responsibly. These people don’t even promise to do so.
Larry Shapiro is a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he has been on the faculty since 1993.
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