A date with philosophy

I went to a lovely AULR Alumni dinner at the Northern Club yesterday evening and found myself seated next to Jim Evans, who before his retirement was an Emeritus Professor at the University of Auckland and, as I was about to find out, was the man who fought to make Jurisprudence a compulsory component of the LLB degree.

It was a strategic move I suspect, as I had recently finished a review of a book written by one of his former students. It was a conversation where I was very much out of my depth.

It’s been more than a year since I took my last philosophy paper, and I struggled to recall the names of theorists whose writing had been very influential on my thinking at the time. For me, philosophy was never so much about the content (I wasn’t really aspiring to be one of those people who could pull theorists out of their pocket during a dinner conversation, and if I do, I’m probably just making it up) but more about the ability to think critically and the sheer frustration that often occurs when you are faced with an idea that you knew you didn’t agree with, you have a gut feeling that it’s completely wrong, but couldn’t really find a good (logical) way of arguing against or around it.

I basically took papers that were more so about a test of patience, rather than pure cognition. It’s a relationship involving months of mental pain, but the resolution at the end makes it (hopefully) worth it.

To make a music analogy to the works of Debussy, the joy is from the tension and the release.

Jim stressed the importance of being patient and asking the ‘why’ and ‘should’ questions. Most university students, myself included, sometimes just want to be told what we need to know and then be given the opportunity to tell you what we now know. Learning is like filling a refillable drink bottle. Exams is where we empty all that acquired knowledge and banish it to an attic corner.

Surely that can’t be the be all and end all of university study. I tried to make the argument once that all economics students should be required to take a ‘soft’ paper. I have a feeling that idea won’t go down very well. To have students open to the idea of learning how to think rather than learning how to know requires a very big culture change to get there.

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