Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Confessions of a Fourth Year English Major

Let me be the first one to express my absolute horror and disbelief at the fact that there can exist a fourth year English Honours student who owns neither a dictionary or a thesaurus. And let me also be the first to admit that that student is Yours Truly. It's true, I'm guilty. Amongst all of the Anthologies of Literature on my new bookshelves, you will not find one single dictionary. Though, in all fairness, I don't believe that I have ever claimed to be the "model English student." This fact is already quite evident to those of you who have noticed spelling errors or grotesque gramatical mistakes. (I have an intense dislike for proof-reading)
However. Now that we have dealt with the shock of the above statement, I will proceed to explain why this issue matters at this particular point in time. I'm learning a new language this year. However, it is not French or Latin or Spanish, or even Dutch: it is a language infinitely more difficult for me to grasp, and I have usually never been one for difficulties with languages. This language of which I speak is the language of Philosophy.
Normally when taking a course in a foreign language, I don't feel overwhelmed by any great degree, because chances are, there are no students in the class who can actually understand what the professor is saying. Everyweek, we study a new list of vocabulary words and are quized on the previous week. We learn how to tell time, how to order food, and how to speak to someone else in this new language. It would be somewhat ridiculous for Roberto DiFranchesco (the Spanish Prof) to assign a fifteen page paper in SPA102, because he knows that although the students have already taken one semester of Spanish, there is not nearly enough of a base to create a paper of that length- the structures of the sentantces, the terms, and the vocabulary is simply not advanced enough to handle that task, even if it were merely discussing the antics of Raquel Rodriguez in Destinos.
In my Christian Philosophy class, however, I was overwhelmed the moment I entered the classroom two and a half weeks ago. One of my friends aided in this feeling by commenting to another friend, "Well. This doesn't look like a very promising crowd now, does it?" Hmm. I was probably the least promising of them all. I am a child of books and novels: I love to read, but I don't "do" philosophy. My intro to Phil course was in the second semester of my first year, and I took it with Gideon Strauss. We watched some excellent movies, memorized the Tin Can Theory, and I did a project on Plato's two-realm theory. I did not learn the language, or even the introduction to the language of Philosophy. To be fair, he set a disclaimer at the beginning of the course: If you're not serious about learning this information, don't come to class. He told us that it was possible to get an A merely by completing the assignments that were given, and he was true to his word. His concern (from my point of view) was not to teach students philosophy, but to teach students how to love philosophy. Plainly and simply, I was not interested in loving philosophy, so I did the work, completed the course and passed with an A. And I can't tell you anything about any philosopher except for Plato. (and even that's sketchy)
So here I am, enrolled in PHL 261 with Craig Bartholomew, feeling somewhat as if I'm treading water in the middle of the ocean, without the aid of any floatation device. I have no vocabulary in Philosophy. I don't know one major philosopher from the next. I found myself borrowing my housemate's dictionary last week to read Plantinga's Inagural Address-- I had to look up at least three words in almost every paragraph. I don't have an encyclopedia of philosophical terms in my head that I can reach into at will; I don't know any of the isms that are scattered randomly through discussion in class. Kierkegaard, Tertullian, Kant, and Dooyeweerd do not signify anything in my vocabulary, which represents a significant problem, considering that the major paper for this course is 15-20pp on Dooyeweerd.
RobJ just wrote a blog encouraging non-philosphers to get courage and speak up and participate; the language that I have have been learning for the past three years is English Literature. It is as if I have been taking French for the past four years and step into a 300-level Spanish course: both languages are based on the same principles and therefore have similar root words, but if I open my mouth and start speaking french instead of Spanish, I'll look (and sound) like a right nit-wit.

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