Lessons for life

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An unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates

Tragedies, it is often said, are great levellers. True to the same, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought back into focus some of the core ideas central to philosophy that are are perennially relevant to the field of journalism as well: the well-known five ‘W’s and one H principle. The coronavirus has thrown a new light on all aspects of life, including perspectives in teaching, studying and practising philosophy. An analogy from the field of journalism, one feels, would be appropriate. In journalism, a news report is often judged in terms of its completeness vis-à-vis the five ‘W’s (Who, What, When, Where, Why) and the all-important H (How). The age-old philosophical system also looks for answers to the same questions, albeit at a more sublime level. That means, Who am I?, Why I am here?, Where I am supposed to proceed?, What is happening within and beyond? ‘When’, a time-related query, is also very relevant in the philosophical context. The question ‘How’ concerns how we are supposed to deal with all these in our limited span of time in the context of ever-expanding universe.

By teaching philosophy, we expect our students to become ethically and creatively enlightened, enabling them to take responsibilities to transform themselves and society at large with insights and perspectives. Critical thinking and social building are also expected of them. We employ various pedagogical methods such as assignments, discussions and extensive interactions. We also modify the syllabus, taking into account the student’s actual needs.

By studying philosophy, a student gets an opportunity to be trained to think professionally, access and analyse logically to understand and solve problems in the social system. They will also learn how to ask meaningful questions. They develop values, clarity in thinking, compassion, creativity and strengthen perspectives and develop broad approaches to life and awareness and consciousness to connect mentally with humanity. By partaking in the academic atmosphere, they are able to discuss and interact with teachers and fellow companions. The system provided them the right ambience for discourses and enabled them to develop personal skills and clarity of thought through direct interaction. But, unfortunately, COVID-19 deprived them of opportunities for personal interactions, even though it opens up new avenues.

Theory into practice

For students of philosophy, the pandemic compels them to observe social behaviour in a new context. How the human being develops new insights and perspectives is an area to be observed, studied and analysed philosophically. Justice, sacrifice, compassion ... these social values will be re-examined. A philosophy student may evaluate the situation through various yardsticks of theories such as existentialism, utilitarianism, pragmatism, socialism, humanism and so on. From the perspective of political philosophy, students are also observing democratic freedom and the individual rights in the current scene.

Many of us make use of digital platforms and MOOC courses to impart knowledge remotely. It is important to prioritise what students are supposed to know for the future instead of doling out outdated theories. Let teachers use social media platforms with compassion to guide the new generation of philosophers. Let the students also be familiar with the E-sources like Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Academia.edu.com, Research Gate, Project Gutenberg, Shodhganga, Sophia Project, PhilPapers, Stoicism Today, Internet archive, hundreds of digital libraries and e-magazines like Philosophy Now, The Philosophers Magazine and Philosophers’ Imprint, which are available in the Net.

Let students watch plenty of films and documentaries and web series on all aspects of life of all beings as well as history and evolution of everything in the universe. When they come to the classrooms as part of the academic session after the period of social distancing, their experience of observing and reading will enrich them to absorb the subject in a more meaningful manner and equip them to think globally and act locally.

Philosophy links us to everything that makes us human. In this peculiar situation, we can make our students read more original works in philosophy, history and literature. This is also the time to read and re-read the classics and to encourage them to be creative, imaginative and to grow beyond the syllabus and academic regulations.

The pandemic has engendered a new stream of thought as, globally, people begin approaching life from a philosophical perspective with fresh insights. Maybe the onus is upon academicians to relive timeless principles and enrich human beings with the values of compassion and universal brotherhood instead of focusing on linguistic and scientific terminologies alone. May be it is time for Stoicism and Humanism to make a triumphant comeback in their new avatars to make the world a better place.

Let them know that when they protect dharma or values, that will protect them. Let them know how to enjoy the sublime within. Let them feel that when they walk on the Earth, they are walking on tiny dust in an ever-expanding universe that has millions and millions of galaxies and nebulae and the Earth has a history before the histories of all the species, religions, systems, cultures … Let them be humble and learn to say that ‘I am a tiny part of the same’ and enjoy that harmonious moment of understanding that everything is one.

Let them know through their experience that interpreting the world is not enough. That how to change within and beyond with a new perspective is more important. Let them know that by reason alone we cannot understand the truth. Let them learn themselves to accept and respect silence, to see everything with awareness and awe with gratitude and compassion. Let us raise our minds above everything with patience, compassion and humanity.

The writer is an Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Madras Christian College. jojan@mcc.edu.in

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