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On the Virtue of Hemlock

February 5th, 2012 Posted in Curmudgeonry

In his recent Boston Review essay, philosophy professor Carlos Fraenkel manages the neat trick of advocating a sensible position — that high-school students should be taught philosophy — so ineptly that he ends up proving the opposite, namely, that while it may be the case that students should learn philosophy, this is quite independent from the attempted teaching of it.

Not that Fraenkel is actually trying to teach students anything; he wants to radicalize them in pursuit of things like “economic justice” and “equality,” terms he assiduously avoids defining even as he decries the way they’ve been too narrowly defined.

Only a professional philosopher can get away with that. A philosopher or a clever teenager, because each has two qualities essential for sophistry — an overabundance of free time, and a fascination with the curvy shape logic can take when one applies a little heat and pressure.

Fraenkel seems to think that a rudimentary understanding of semantics and logic are necessary and sufficient to enlightened discourse, but his reasoning is flawed; they are certainly necessary, but not sufficient. Witness his devilish effort to undermine the religious faith of his students with sophomoric questions about Biblical contradictions:

“I asked them, ‘Do moral norms depend on God’s will? Would it be fine to murder an innocent child if God says so?’ The students found the idea outrageous.

‘But doesn’t God order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?’ I asked. There was a moment of confusion.”

Even an atheist moderately versed in theology and ecclesiology understands there are thoughtful responses to his questions, but Fraenkel’s goal isn’t truth, it’s eradicating beliefs inconvenient to his political vision.

Which may illuminate why someone might oppose teaching philosophy to students, namely, that this entails letting philosophers near them.

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