Fully human

A student who grew up in Viet Nam and arrived in the USA just two years ago scheduled an appointment with me for assistance in revising her final paper for Philosophy.

My job is to help her with her articles, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and plural forms and uses, and when to use a capital letter for proper nouns. I also assist students like her with claims, thesis statements, and rhetorical structure–but I am not a “content tutor.” Of course, I often understand the content and find it interesting to observe how young people interpret, say, literature or philosophy.

In this case, Western philosophy, in English, as interpreted by a person raised in a culture quite different from the Western university system norm.

Philosophy 109 challenges many native-born and US-educated freshman students; taking this course as an English-learner with very little “Western” experience must be ridiculously difficult. So I first assessed how the course had been going for her, and she said, “So-so.” What had been most difficult? Note-taking, she said. With the texts she could take her time, translate, and eventually tease out the ideas; but class lectures were really hard. In addition, she struggled with the concept of opposition and rebuttal as structured in the philosophical argument.


Her assigned argument for the term paper was: “The arts, sciences, and philosophy are valuable because they help us to become fully human.”

The paper began with her assertion that the arts make us more fully human because they are beautiful to behold and inspire in us joy and appreciation.

“Is the best art beautiful?” I asked. She said yes, and I asked her, “Is it only art’s beauty that makes us human and good?”

“Not only,” she said, after a moment of hesitation. “Sometimes–sad is beauty. Sad is not good, but sad also makes us human.” She hesitated again and then went on: “I think good art, and good science, has both sides. I think this but it isn’t in my paper. Should I put it in my argument?” We agreed to work on a sentence or two that might express her interpretation more completely while heeding the general conventions of Introduction to Western Philosophy.

Sometimes, syntax is content.*

Without exception (well, almost), I learn so much from student interpretations of ancient concepts. Rather than rolling my eyes and scoffing at how little they know, I’m searching their perspectives for what it is I ought to know about them and their experiences. The stance of most older authorities is that young people must integrate themselves into our norms and conventions; but we will age out of our power base, at which point we’d be better off recognizing their norms and points of view and exercising our neurons by learning how to adapt to the next set of conventions.

Philosophy and the arts will stay around. I have no doubts about that. The ways in which human beings interpret them may change; all to the good–stasis would destroy philosophy and art, thus keeping us from our potential to be fully human.



*[You might want to read Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic text, The Trivium, for a deeper explanation of how to approach ‘mastery’ of the liberal arts and learning.]







Philosophy & English are friends

At my day job, I do a great deal of tutoring in writing at the college level. Most students who sit down to work with me expect that I will help them learn to use commas and apostrophes, to write thesis statements and to unclutter their sentences. I do that, but the most important part of tutoring writing at the college level is actually rhetoric. One of the things I constantly tell my students is that Philosophy and English are friends.

Many freshmen have no idea why either course is required for a bachelor’s degree. I hope that the ones who find their way to my office for writing help finally understand–however reluctantly–that composing essays and learning critical thinking skills do merit their attention and do, in fact, transfer to whatever set of skills their majors may require of them.

This past week, my sessions featured the “Analysis for Rhetoric” paper and papers for several different Philosophy professors, including essays based upon readings of Garrett Hardin (the famous “Lifeboat Ethics” essay) and Mortimer Adler. Most of the time, I helped my students read rather than write. It isn’t possible to write effectively about a text one does not understand, and rhetorical analysis is new to most college freshmen. Between the not-knowing-how and the not-understanding, most of the student attempts at paper-writing end up weak and wordy.

With no foundation in rhetoric, essay structure disintegrates. Even sentences often operate with a rhetorical function that few 18-year-olds understand until it is pointed out to them: sentences that offer parallels, for example, or if/then speculative structures, or the this-therefore-that causative rhetoric. If the student hasn’t yet figured out how to analyze a text for rhetorical strategies, he or she certainly cannot structure a credible paper about it. What I have learned is that many people know what they want to say but cannot relay it to a reader who isn’t psychic. I have to keep reminding narcissistic young people that, amazingly, the professor does not share their assumptions or “know what they mean.” Sometimes I use Lego blocks to give a visual, concrete example of linking, scaffolding, and therefore building an essay in a fashion the reader can follow.

After years of tutoring, I often do know what the student is trying to say; but I pretend I don’t. If I say it for them, they don’t learn how to say it themselves–and that isn’t teaching.


Two excellent books to study regarding how grammar structure relates to elegant writing are Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences and Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic work The Trivium.