Philosophy Matters
Page 2 of 2

Nick Smith

Smith is always on the lookout for ways to help individual students recognize their own potential. After Grennen told him she'd been feeling too timid to speak up in his seminar on Marx, Smith took action. In class the next day, he began by asking the students to write briefly about the topic of discussion. With that opportunity to collect her thoughts, Grennen was the first to speak, and the spell was broken. The following year, she had the courage to write a senior thesis, on the way Facebook turns our social interactions into commodities—and defend it for an hour in front of professors and peers at the head of the conference table in Room 8.

Another attraction of the philosopher's life, for Smith, besides getting to talk about philosophy all day with students, is the opportunity to write about it. His first book, I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies, came out in 2008, and he's been in demand ever since, for his thoughts on public apologies. He had this to say about Tiger Woods: "Tiger clearly accepted blame and understood this was more than a private matter because of all the people it influenced in various ways" (The San Francisco Chronicle). Eliot Spitzer: "The words are vague and its meaning is ambiguous, like someone telling you that they love you on the first date" (Philosophy Talk blog). And Lance Armstrong: "The kingpin of the Bicycle Mafia lied to us for years, lorded over a spandex wall of silence, and now confesses on Oprah" (The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog).

But apologies, Smith has written, are "dizzyingly complex social rituals," which he prefers not to reduce to "good" or "bad." They are, perhaps most important, a promise to do better, and he always makes it clear that he holds out hope for the moral development, over years or even decades, of the transgressor.

In class, Smith deftly argues any position he wants his students to consider—libertarian one moment, socialist the next—without revealing his own opinion. In debates, he always argues on the side of the minority, which was just one student against 12 in a recent debate over the justification of torture in his Philosophy of Law course. The students choose a side, literally and figuratively, based on their own opinions. If they change their minds during the course of the debate, they cross over to the other side of the room.

Smith's questions are calibrated to provoke: Should parents be allowed to terminate a child after birth—as some philosophers have advocated—if the child has a very debilitating disease that results in early death? Should people have the right to sell their own organs in an attempt to provide a path out of poverty for their children? And he often ratchets up the rhetorical pressure. "I say hyperbolic things so people will respond and chase me back to more sane, moderate views," he says. During the debate on torture, he added new information to his hypothetical situation: There was now reason to believe that a terrorist in custody had knowledge of a nuclear bomb set to detonate. Smith then asked the majority, who opposed torture under any circumstances, this question: "You have one culpable person versus millions of innocents. Isn't it a kind of moral cowardice not to sacrifice this one person to save others?" One student changed his mind.

Nick Smith

"It's rattling," says Smith, "when you realize you have this very firm belief that you will hold a sign for, but you can't justify it very well. What these students realize they need is more philosophy."

If students come to college to learn how to question, get a broader perspective, make an argument on paper or in person—in short, to learn how to think—then philosophy classes can be just the ticket. And although some critics have taken a jaundiced view of the liberal arts in general and philosophy in particular in today's economy, the number of philosophy majors at UNH and nationwide has been holding steady or even rising. In fact, philosophy majors consistently score near the top in both quantitative and verbal sections of grad school admissions tests, like the GRE and LSAT, notes Drew Christie, chair of the UNH philosophy department. (He acknowledges that these results may also reflect the type of student who is attracted to philosophy.) Hypothetical imperatives notwithstanding, a philosophy major makes an excellent foundation for law school, medical school, and jobs in the high tech industry, among others.

Grennen sees a direct connection between her study of philosophy and her decision to take a job working with autistic children when she graduated last year, and now she's happily headed toward a career in special education. It was in Smith's freshman honors course in Philosophy and the Arts that she first began asking herself the big questions: Why do I believe in God? What is beauty? What am I living for and why? Newhouse, who had a similar awakening in the same course, says Smith's teaching reminds him of a quote from the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "Like the boar's snout, my words will tear open the foundations of your soul." And that's a compliment. Because seismic shifts in the tectonic plates of the soul, unsettling as they may be, can be of value no matter where you're headed. For these students, philosophy offers not only the intellectual preparation for a good career—but a start on the path to a good life. ~

Page: < Previous 1 2