Welcome to the Valley of Death

This is not a lecture #4: Black Lives Matter

This segment features a hard trek through forsaken land. And I wanted to offer a couple of suggestions, related to the Discourse forum and our philosophical investigations.

Discourse is a group project

I was very happy with the enthusiasm and cooperation you brought to bear for you Youth in Plague-time projects. Clearly, you appreciate the chance to work together on a joint enterprise: ‘shared experience is the greatest of human goods,’ as John Dewey wrote. For the most part, though, you don’t seem to experience writing (to, and in response, to others) on Discourse as a ‘group project.’ Probably it resonates more with traditional, individual academic exercises where you, the student, are asked to respond in writing to a prompt (based on a reading) provided by the teacher. As some of you said, honestly, it’s a performance for a grade. I would like to encourage you to shift your perspective on what’s going on in Discourse, and try to see it as a group project. Everyone in the group, including the teacher, depends on everyone else to make the project go forward, and to be gratifying. The purpose of this communicative game is to produce ‘events of illumination’ (mutual understanding): it’s the kind of the game where, if the players play only for themselves, then nobody can win.


As the teacher, I don’t care very much at all about your grades. I don’t think they are very meaningful. I think grading, in general, is a counter-productive process, with respect to the kinds of education that I value. But students have been indoctrinated to believe that grades are important, are the most important thing in school, the veritable currency of education. Because you believe in them, I am able to use them as a lever to motivate you to do what you might not otherwise be inclined to do! I don’t feel good about that, but it’s not any different than how anyone else uses grades, so my feelings of guilt are not going to stop me from pursuing my own teacher goals, though the use of grades. The fact that what I want is good for you — at least in my estimation — probably does not make my actions more ethical. Because grades inherently work, I think, against your subjectivity (and mine too), against our integrity.

The grading scheme I would like to adopt for our group work in Discourse is quite simple. A good-enough student who posts when s/he/they are required to do so, in the manner that I require, deserves a B, because B — in elementary school — basically means good. The excellent A requires more, and different. What an A requires is being, or showing oneself to be, an authentic human being. Someone who is interested, as a philosopher ought to be, in the truth, and in justice. That means, in practice, staying in a conversation, and with one’s fellow Discoursers, until the end, and not just throwing in an opinion, with no regard for its impact on others, and then leaving the room and not returning. A commitment to seeking truth, for oneself, with and for Others.

The justice part, following from our talk about Levinás, involves paying attention, giving respect, to the Other, without necessarily needing something in return. When one writes or says something to an Other, and they say something in reply, an authentic adult human being responds. In this case, that commitment to seeking the truth and recognizing the Other, is what makes the game work, is what makes Discourse a group project. This is a source also of our own private satisfaction, the feeling one gets from being recognized and from doing right by an Other. And from creating understanding together. In practical terms, this means coming back to Discourse repeatedly, when called by Others, until the conversation reaches a natural ending.

If you are only able to pretend to care about these things, but you still do them, because the higher grade is sufficiently important to make you do things you don’t really care to do, that’s fine. Pretending, when it brings it’s own pleasure, soon enough becomes a habit.