“Never Oversimplify”

Philosophy Department Graduation Ceremony Address
Saturday, May 15, 1999
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia

Being in politics, I meet a lot of people that I don't know, from all walks of life—on the campaign trail, at meetings and in the schools, at conventions. Since being on the school board is not a full-time job—or, not a paid full-time job—conversation often gets around to: “so…what do you do for a living?” I feel sorry for them when they ask me that, because I know that my response—“I'm a philosophy professor”—is almost always a conversation-stopper. “…Oh…” Or, “Wow…” Or, “I almost took a philosophy class once, but…” Now, what do I say to that? “But you were too dumb, huh?” I'm sure lots of you graduates get the same sort of reaction when students, or relatives ask you: “so…what are you majoring in?” “Philosophy.” “Oh…” Frankly, it scares people off… right? I suppose that's why we rarely have more than a half-dozen graduates each year. I'm generally content to let the conversation quickly turn to other things, with a deflection such as: “Yeah, it's really a lot of fun. What do you do?” And that then gives them a lot to talk about.

But some interlocutors are more persistent: “Philosophy, huh?….So, what's your philosophy?” Now we're going somewhere, but I'm not sure I want to go there. 'Cuz you know what's coming. You either have to answer them, by crushing two dozen centuries of wisdom into a few measly sentences. Or, even worse, you have to listen to them crush their take on two dozen centuries of wisdom into a half-baked slogan. So, what are the options here? Generally things like: “What goes 'round, comes 'round” or “Everything works out for the best” or “It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you're sincere” or “Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing” or “You win some, you lose some” or…whatever. You know what I mean. Now, suddenly, Charlie Brown and Vince Lombardi are the philosophers, and we're lost on a desert island somewhere. At this point you can hem and haw, and try to change the subject. But, remember it was the persistent interlocutor who got us this far.

So, if I'm really cornered, I generally offer: “Never oversimplify…That's my philosophy.” Try that…it generally closes just the right doors. The problem is that philosophers are pressured into encapsulating their experience into slogans, in a way that other majors and professions are not. Imagine asking a math major: “So…what's your mathematics?” Or asking a doctor: “So…what's your medicine?” Actually the only other field where this sort of encapsulation is expected is politics. Thus we have the tyranny of the sound bite. People want to know how to prevent violence in the schools…in 25 words or less. Or they want to know when schools will be more accountable…but, be brief. Now, there are politicians who will offer those sound bites. In Ancient Greece they were tutored by “sophists”—traveling tutors who taught you how to “win friends and influence people”. Believe me—the challenges of the modern political world are nothing new. If I'm really cornered for a sound bite, I try to answer: “Never oversimplify…That's my sound bite.” The trouble is, it won't make the evening news.

It is at the heart of philosophical training never to oversimplify: Look at all sides of the issue. Look for false dichotomies. What are the reasons? This is why, to me, Socrates is the seminal figure in philosophy. He taught us to question the easy definitions and the obvious assumptions. When Socrates was pressed for a sound bite, when his life was on the line, he came out with: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a man.” I like that, precisely because it doesn't oversimplify. It keeps us searching. But the trouble with holding up Socrates as a role model…is that he was executed. The Athenians got so tired of him that they put him to death. Socrates failed because, despite his best intentions, he did oversimplify. He oversimplified what people are like. He attended only to the reasoning part of the human, and ignored the emotional and physical impulses that are part of us as well. Reason is all well and good…for some…in its place. But let's not get carried away. After all, how often have people changed their minds about things by just reflecting on reasons? It's worth reflecting on this in your own case: Choose some issue that you have changed your mind about at some time. I hope there is such an issue. God, abortion, homosexuality, gun control, eating meat, letting a friend go to UVA….What actually made the difference for you? In many cases it's new experiences, rather than philosophical arguments. Philosophical arguments get you thinking…but they rarely get you moving.

Socrates had the good sense to stay out of politics. That didn't ultimately save his life, but it did probably extend it. However, Socrates had a student, Plato, who did, apparently, dabble in politics. Plato differed from Socrates in two important ways—he recognized that humans are more than just a brain, and he emphasized the importance of upbringing and education in the process that leads people to hold whatever beliefs they have. Socrates had tried to change adults, by talking to them. Plato saw that the best way to change adults was to influence them as children. And that this could best be done through social and political structures—not just by discussion. Plato thought the only way to save society was for politicians to become philosophers (very unlikely, as Plato discovered in Syracuse), or for philosophers to become politicians. I guess this is what led me into politics.

But, can a philosopher become a politician, and remain philosophical, and live to tell about it? That's what I'm still trying to determine. Let me share some of the struggles. Local public schools deal with a number of issues—class size, teacher salary, adequate facilities, Standards of Learning tests and accountability, ability grouping, and school violence. We address these issues in a political context in which there is little public consensus about how to address them, and in which there are limited resources to address them. Not ideal…but not unusual. You can already see the importance of my slogan “never oversimplify”.

I'll focus on just one issue: Should children be grouped in classrooms by ability levels, or should we have relatively inclusive classrooms? In a university town in which intellectual achievement is valued above most everything else, you can understand that there are strong pressures toward ability grouping. Yet this county is nationally famous for its philosophy of inclusion. Several years ago, in 1991–1992, the Oscar-winning documentary movie “Educating Peter” was filmed here. This movie showed the experiences of a third-grade class in which Peter, with Down Syndrome, was regularly included. Later, because of our reputation, a family in Loudoun County, in Northern Virginia, moved here with their emotionally disturbed son, who had not been included in regular classes there. He was successfully included in classes here for two years. Then the parents brought suit against the Loudoun County school board for not including their son, when it had been shown, here, that a “less restrictive environment” could be successful for him. The Supreme Court eventually ruled in Loudoun County's favor—granting localities the right to make inclusion decisions for themselves. A decision with which I agree.

Are inclusive classrooms “worth it”? Now there is a huge and complex issue. “Never oversimplify.” Any philosophers in the room are already thinking of several aspects to this issue. Of course you don't have to be a philosopher to think carefully about this issue—but it helps. There are moral issues of “the good of the few” versus “the good of the many”. But there are also definitional issues about what “the good” is. Let me just mention two wrinkles that don't necessarily pop out at you immediately. Would it be best for “the bright students” if they were isolated from slower ones? My daughter Meagan was always troubled by the dilution of material, and distraction of problem students, and she has really flourished at the high school, where there is much less inclusion. But one thing she mentioned to me in ninth grade, without really realizing the implications, was that her ability-grouped classes now had a narrower range of points of view being expressed in discussions. How much is a wider range of points of view worth?

My proudest accomplishment in my time as school board chair has been the formation and work of a committee that is addressing issues of diversity in the secondary schools. The value of this work is clear in the light of concerns about school violence. It is easy to come up with sound bite slogans about how to address school violence. But the real work takes place in trying to find ways for all students to feel engaged with their school and classmates and the educational process. Yet the more we separate the achievers and the underachievers—the sheep from the goats—the more we alienate students. Some alienated students eventually drop out…others take revenge. We all suffer in either case. Clearly inclusion comes in degrees, and I don't know how much inclusion is worth how much. But I do know that the best answers to this hard question require a great deal of openness to considerations on both sides of the issue—analyzing the considerations, and synthesizing a judgement. These are just the kinds of things we learn as philosophers. “Never oversimplify.”

Let me close with a story that all of our majors should be familiar with—Plato's parable of the cave. Plato imagines people living in a cave, chained to a low wall in such a way that all they can see are shadows that are cast from behind them onto another wall opposite them. They learn a lot about the movements of the shadows, but know nothing of the people with puppets by the fire who are casting the shadows. Imagine one of those people being freed and turning around to see the fire and the puppeteers. The freed prisoner would at first be blinded, but then gradually become accustomed to the fire. Then imagine that person wandering around and finding her way out of the cave altogether. Again she would be dazzled by the sun, but would soon warm to life in the real world.

Plato imagined philosophy to have that sort of liberating effect on people. How did it happen that you were first unchained? Did someone free you? Did it happen by accident? Or did you figure out how to break your chains yourself? Have you experienced the study of philosophy to be liberating in this way? Presumably you are now on your way out of the cave. What will life be like in the real world? In Plato's Republic the philosophers got paid by the state—though it took them another 30 years to graduate. (Imagine the drain that would be on your parents' bank account.) In our republic philosophers only get what they can earn. Can we survive in the real economic world, and retain the liberation of living outside the cave? That is the part of the story that will probably most concern you tomorrow morning and in the coming months. But once you do get acclimated to the real world, while savoring the experience of liberation, will you be willing to go back into that cave? After all, there's still a lot of work to be done down there. Your philosophical skills can be put to good use. Your skills won't always be appreciated there. They're looking for sound bites and easy answers. They'll want you to oversimplify. There aren't many rewards for going back into the cave. But perhaps you will free someone. That can be reward in itself. But for now, you are just making your way out of that cave. Notice how bright the sun is. Don't shy away—and remember to wear sunscreen.

Good luck and God bless you.

James C. Klagge
Chair, Montgomery County School Board
Associate Professor of Philosophy,
Virginia Tech