Last Thursday evening, when I realized that I had approximately twenty-four hours before I would be locked out of my office, my email account, my Blackboard courseware account, and the webservers at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University, I started emailing the 80 or so students on my rosters for Fall 2016. I did not go into the specifics of the lockout, other than to say I’m not allowed on Campus and won’t have University email. I didn’t mention the “instructors” that will probably appear in classes on the first day of the semester to replace me. I didn’t mention that I was losing my health insurance and salary.
I gave the students my personal email and assured them that all was OK, that we’d have a little bit of catching up to do once the semester really began, but that that this would be doable. If they liked, they could start the first readings for the semester. In my introductory courses, this was a short chapter on informal logic and Max Schulman’s charming little short story, “Love is a Fallacy.” Students in my advanced elective, “Language, Speech, and Thought,” could pick up a packet of readings on truth that spanned early correspondence theory, relativism, pragmatism, and Tarski’s account. My tone in these emails was as calming as I could muster. “Stay the course,” was a strategy that has seen the faculty and students of LIU-Brooklyn through multiple strikes, hurricanes, September 11, police chases through the campus, and other calamities.
Now that I am locked out and have some time to think about the situation, it seems I might have missed an opportunity for a memorable lesson. Here is what that last email might look like:
Dear Beginning Philosopher,
You must have heard by now that your planned instructors will not be teaching your philosophy courses at the beginning of the semester. Your university has locked out its entire faculty and will be using replacement “teachers” in classes starting Wednesday. The first few days of the academic year are very important, and I am sorry to miss those first days with you. Since I am locked out and have a bit of time free, I’d like to use this letter as an opportunity to introduce some topics that I wanted to discuss in your courses this semester. Those of you who are taking the introductory course, “Philosophical Explorations,” will be introduced to informal logic, fallacies, Plato’s Republic, Buddhism, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and other works. The informal logic component of this course will be very useful to you. Logic is the study of reasoning, and when we understand the principles of logic, we are able to distinguish good reasoning from bad reasoning. Take for example, an argument given by LIU’s Vice President Kane in a letter to the LIU Community. Kane argued that the lockout was needed in order to assure stability for students. In other words, LIU had to lock out the faculty in order for the students not to suffer any instability. If we were to break this argument down into premises (reasons) and a conclusion (the point being supported), we would have something that looks like,
- The LIU administration should do what will assure stability for its students.
- Locking out the faculty will assure stability for its students.
- Therefore, the LIU administration should lock out the faculty.
In this argument we have 2 premises (1 and 2) and a conclusion (3). When we determine whether an argument is a good one, we must decide whether the premises are true and whether they support the conclusion. Look at premise 1. This looks right to me. Assuring a stable, productive learning environment for students should be the highest priority of any administration, so that premise seems fine. Let’s now look at premise number 2, which claims that locking out the faculty will assure stability for the students. It is very hard to imagine how, under any possible scenario, this could be so. Kicking the professors out of the university, and forcing untrained people to teach means that those who are prepared and trained to teach you will not be able to do so. The dean of the college was informed he, a biologist in his 70’s, must teach a dance class. A student worker was told she must teach the very course she is taking. If the purpose of a university is to educate students and the administration locks out the people who are educating the students, then the university is not doing what it is meant to do. What could be more destabilizing than that? So, premise two is false and this argument has a fatal flaw.
In the first week or so of the semester, you would have also studied logical fallacies. Fallacies are common mistakes in reasoning. For example, one fallacy is called “appeal to fear.” Whenever someone tries to persuade another through fear, and not through reason, that person has committed that fallacy. For example, if an employer seeks to get an employee to agree that a particular labor contract is acceptable, but at the same time the employer is withholding salary and health benefits until the employee agrees, then that employer is appealing to fear. This has, in fact, happened in the case of the LIU administration and the faculty employees this semester.
Later in the semester we will be turning to perhaps the greatest work of the Western philosophical tradition, Plato’s Republic. Like practically all of Plato’s writings, the Republic is written as a dialogue, or discussion, between Plato’s teacher, Socrates, and various others. This work touches on a variety of topics, including a definition of justice, the nature and value of education, the best form of government, whether it pays to be a just person, and whether the soul is immortal. Some of you may have read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in high school. The allegory, which talks of the difficult process through which we become educated, is taken from Plato’s Republic. One of parts that always stuck out in this work for me is at the very end in a section known as “The Myth of Er.” After previously talking about the importance of education in this life, in this myth, Socrates tells a story he admits to being mere rumor. It is about what happens after we die. Basically, the story says that after we are dead we are given a choice as to our next life. We must choose among various potential lives, circumstances, genders, and so on. In the story, the people who have not been trained well in virtue will inevitably choose bad lives, while the good will choose good ones. The moral of the story, for Plato, is that it incredibly important who our teachers are. If we are not educated well, we will make poor decisions not only in this life, but in future lives, as well. I am thinking about this story when I consider that so many of the supposed “instructors” you will have shortly are completely untrained in the subjects they will “teach.” Notice the quotes. I use them to say that these terms are being used by the LIU administration, but these terms are not really applicable.
So, dear students, I hope to meet you and discuss these ideas in more detail and, hopefully, more pleasant contexts. I take what happens in our classes very seriously, and it dismays me that the LIU administration doesn’t do the same. If you would think about these ideas, I would appreciate that, even if you don’t agree. And if you’d like to discuss this more, you can join me at the rally to be held in front of the campus on Wednesday, September 7, from 8:00am until 2:00pm. Reasoned dialogue is, after all, what true learning is about.
Looking forward to discussing philosophy with you soon!
Margaret A. Cuonzo
Professor of Philosophy
Coordinator, Humanities Division
Long Island University-Brooklyn
1 University Plaza
Brooklyn, New York 11201