Thursday, March 10, 2011

Teaching JS Mill

I admit I loathed the compulsory philosophy and ethics class I had to take as an undergrad. The lecturer had the only monotonous voice I've ever heard in person, literally droning through his lectures. His were the only lectures I've ever fallen asleep in. I was bored by his outlines of how to construct an argument, how to be logical. And I resented the assignments, particularly the one that asked us to justify why we ate meat.

Irony of ironies then that I now have to teach much of the same material we covered then, focusing on freedom of expression and JS Mill. Oh Mill, how do I make thee interesting? How do I convince my students to read all the way to the end of each chapter? How do I break you down to explain the intricacies of your argument to my international students, who sit with dictionary in hand and a puzzled expression on face?

Further ironies abound that I'm grateful for the Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists case because it gives the students a concrete example of what Mill is talking about. We shouldn't suppress opinions we believe to be false because that would be denying ourselves and others the opportunity to strengthen our own argument and develop a justified belief for why Phelps' opinions are horrendously awful, callous and contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, who they presumably worship.

So way to go US Supreme Court for your decision to overturn the original ruling, claiming that free speech trumps privacy in this case no matter how much it disgusts us. Bless you, because for the first time all semester my students grabbed hold of an idea and wouldn't shut up.

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