Philosopher Peter Caws

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Teaching Philosophy

Sketch of Peter Caws by Jacob Collins

a sketch from long ago of Peter Caws, by Jacob Collins


When I got my first degree in London my thought was that I might be a physics teacher, since I didn’t have a strong inclination to do lab work, either in research or in industry.  But during my year at the Institute of Education I had to do practice teaching in a secondary school, and that cured me of any desire to have anything further to do with British schoolchildren.  I crossed the Atlantic after the postgraduate certificate for other reasons, but once I had the Ph.D. the question of career came up again.  This time the options were fewer, but the prospect of teaching less daunting.  American undergraduates, I found, were far more docile than their British counterparts even at the university level, let alone in the schools.

So I got a job teaching philosophy, only to have it fall through because of a budget problem, which meant that because I was getting married I had to take whatever position offered at the last minute.  This turned out to be teaching freshman natural science at Michigan State University, for which I qualified because of my physics degree as well as training in the philosophy of science.  The year actually did me a lot of good, because I had to read up on biology, including genetics, and on chemistry and geology, thus consolidating the actual acquaintance with science that I have always thought to be prerequisite to dealing with it philosophically.  I also encountered for the first time the American custom of handing out evaluation forms to students at the end of the semester.  I’ve always enjoyed students’ comments (or learned from them even when I didn’t enjoy them) and the first one I ever got has stayed with me all these years.  The student in question was a pomology major (he was learning about fruit trees - MSU was after all a land-grant college) and while he conceded that I knew what I was talking about he thought there was something else wrong: “has a hard time expressing himself, has a hard time getting over his broken English.”

I was rescued from Michigan State by the University of Kansas, whose philosophy department recruited me in the following year.  As the principal state university KU attracted many talented students who could easily have qualified for Yale or Harvard, but who preferred for financial or other reasons to stay in Kansas.  Some of them were brilliant, and I owe to a small group of these a decisive turn in my philosophical work.  I’ve told the story many times before - how news of existentialism had just reached the Great Plains, and some students wanted to start a reading group on the subject.  When they asked me I objected that I was there to teach logic and philosophy of science - but we’ve asked the others, they said, and we’ll buy the beer.  (Can my recollection possibly be accurate on this point? it certainly wasn’t that the drinking age was 21 - that came later - but was Kansas dry? perhaps only with respect to hard liquor.  At all events that’s how I remember it.)  We did run the group, and it opened my eyes to a then (and in many places still) unjustly neglected domain of philosophy, which became a major interest.

So teaching is a two-way street.  I’ve been immensely lucky to have been paid for doing it ever since.  I was once asked to talk about it to new faculty members at the George Washington University and you can read what I said by following the link below (“The Culture of Curiosity” - my apologies for the fact that in this talk I repeat the anecdote about the Michigan State pomology student that I've recounted above.)  And looking back over it all after more than half a century I realize how much of what I put into the classroom never found its way into print – not that there’s any reason why it should have (it was once the norm for philosophy dons to pay more attention to their pupils than to their publications), but I sometimes get inquiries about particular points of teaching and where they can be found.  Other links may help to satisfy that form of curiosity.


The Culture of Curiosity

The Mantra