The Home Is the School

Teaching philosophy with kids in the house.

Mary Townsend
Mary Townsend is an assistant professor at St. John’s University, Department of Philosophy. Her most recent book is The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic.

Is Aristotle a person, or is he a subject that you study?” This is a question from my youngest son, a star, a tap-dancer, almost eight, standing beside me in our living room as I conduct a Zoom class for my undergraduates. He’s become proficient at Zoom over the last few weeks, as many have; he and his brother use it themselves to connect with their own New York City public school teachers. He’s taken to regarding my classes as his personal audience: he has dressed up as Batman in three different capes over the last few weeks, for the thrill of applause. Today, he’s trying to impress my metaphysics class, all four of them, on our optional live chat, which is supposed to answer questions left over from lecture videos and discussion boards. He succeeds. I explain to my extremely patient and long-suffering university students: the way my attention works is that I can’t help trying to parse my son’s explosively sudden question as metaphysical distinction first, before dragging myself back to their question about whether the study of metaphysics, according to Aristotle, ends in the contemplation of the first cause, God. They laugh. They are kind, and intellectually forgiving enough to recognize that both questions, theirs and the second grader’s, are metaphysically interesting; and let’s be honest, his antics are adding a human touch.

Aristotle is both a person and a subject you can study, if you desire. I am a university professor in a philosophy department in Queens, New York, where my job (and lucky I was to get it) is to try to explain ancient, existential, and political philosophy to patient yet harassed undergrads. The students must pass my core courses in order to graduate into jobs in pharmacy, education, homeland security.

They’re the best students I’ve ever taught. Not on paper – the schools they went to aren’t considered to be as impressive as the fancy prep schools that produced the often rather nihilistic honors students I taught while finishing my PhD – but they have a moral seriousness to them, an immediacy in caring about philosophy, if they care at all, that is profoundly soothing to my spirit.

I’m worried about them: about two thirds are doing some kind of work in my classes right now, and one third is not. I am not sure how long the two thirds will be able to sustain their interest, their internet bill, their devices, their health, their parents’ rent. We’re supposed to go for five more weeks.

Continue reading at Plough Quarterly.