This content was published: April 19, 2017. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.
Philosophy instructor tackles old questions with new answers
Photos and Story by Janis Nichols
Since Socrates, Western philosophers have pondered the same questions. Among them: What is the meaning of life? What is truth? What is time? Does God exist?
Rock Creek Campus philosophy instructor Hannah Love would say there are no new questions but rather, old questions asked in a new context. Students are encouraged to grapple with the questions and generate their own answers.
“On the first day of class,” Love said, “I make it clear that I have no answers. Philosophy doesn’t give you just one answer. The questions remain relevant because science pushes us to ask old questions in a new way. New science keeps reframing old questions, and for students who need firm answers it can be frustrating.”
Yet while questions remain the same, students who study the great philosophical questions of the 21st century have most definitely changed.
“Students today are very straightforward with their questions,” said Love. “They learn that any perspective has strengths and weaknesses, and that no one view is the ‘winner.’ They take these discussions seriously, and by challenging — and being challenged — it prepares them for discussions outside the classroom. They become more comfortable with argument.”
Now in her fourth year at Rock Creek, Love revisits the standard approach to teaching the “limited” history of western philosophy. “I welcome diverse perspectives in my classes, and I want to offer more diversity in my curriculum. The history of Western philosophy is white and primarily European (the ‘dead white guy’ phenomenon), so it’s important to name that and seek out additional voices when possible.”
Many of her students, including those students working toward the Social Justice Focus Award, bring a unique lens to Love’s classroom. “They learn how to frame the questions from different sides, that all perspectives invite critical thinking. They also invite evaluation through critical thinking. Every generation struggles with the same questions. Current events force us to examine the way society is structured and make visible the hidden things that in the past were kept quiet.”
She added, “It is true that women and people of color are incredibly underrepresented in philosophy, both historically and currently. We hope that by talking about this, we are reminded that silenced voices matter and that their ways of knowing may be different from philosophy’s dominant paradigm.”
The type of critical thought that philosophers engage in is not taught in high schools because philosophy classes are not available to high school students. Instructors like Love must conjure exercises that grab the attention of students new to philosophy. One of her inventions is Media Bias Day, with students selecting the topics.
“They selected coverage involving Planned Parenthood and the mass shooting in Orlando,” she said. “They studied the coverage provided by news organizations including Fox News and MSNBC. Students get most of their information from social media. They are well acquainted with the ‘better first than right’ approach and came to question the use of anonymous sources, and how phrasing and word choices can skew a story.”
Love, who earned her undergraduate degree at the University of the South in Tennessee and her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, learned the art of argument at home. She grew up in a family that considered robust political discussion a contact sport.
“I grew up thinking that all families engaged in lively discussions over holiday dinners. These events were a big influence on me. Years later, when I was invited to meals with other families, I would wait for the debate to begin. I was surprised when it didn’t happen.”
Love went to college with an interest in medieval studies, and it was a course in medieval philosophy that cemented her interest in what is considered the oldest academic discipline.
“That class was the first to allow me to marry the personal to the philosophical. I’ve always been more interested in the practical application of philosophy, which connects the philosophical questions to real life. I did my graduate work in the philosophy of ethics. As it turns out, I think ethics is the easiest and most enjoyable way to make the big questions accessible to students.”
While she had zeroed in on philosophy as her academic pursuit, she wasn’t sure what she would do with it after her studies were completed.
“As a student, I sat in the back of the class and was mostly silent. For me, philosophy was about listening. In my first time as a teaching assistant, I was nervous. I had butterflies. Twenty seconds into it, I had an epiphany. I realized I loved it. The students make it fun. They push me to try harder. They make it wonderful.”
She added, “PCC is not a stereotype of anything. This college has an amazing reputation, and where else could I go where I would have smaller classes that invite seminar-style discussions? These students put their trust in me. It’s a privilege to be a teacher.”