Not a Baby Course

It was 6:35 p.m. on the first day of classes at the beginning of my second college semester. I sat crammed into a desk/chair combo made for a fifth grader in Room 207 of the Willard Building on the University Park campus of The Pennsylvania State University grinning like a crazy fool.

A few minutes earlier, a tall man with graying disheveled hair wearing a black overcoat and carrying a messenger bag had walked into the classroom. He’d plunked the bag on the table, took off the overcoat and tossed it over a chair, then pushed his hands through his already disheveled hair. It didn’t help.

He’d then stood there, unpacking the bag while looking around the room, assessing us as we assessed him. There were approximately twenty other people present, all of which appeared to be college-age students. He’d then taken a sheet of paper from the unpacked stack, said a name and for a few seconds, seemed to scrutinize the face of the person who’d responded.

Then he’d continued, “Okay, now that I’ve matched names with faces, I’ll tell you that I’m Dr. Hanold, the chair of the philosophy department here at Penn State. I don’t get the chance to teach very much anymore but I’m in this classroom tonight because I like to get out of the office and interact with all of you. I lead several sections of graduate students but this introductory level course is my favorite because I get to see if I can influence some of you to become philosophy majors,” he finished with a big grin.

“But first,” he went on, “I think it’s only fair that I tell you what type of class this will be. Quite frankly, this is not a baby course. This is an adult course. Some courses here at Penn State are what I call “baby courses,” where you are expected to memorize information in order to regurgitate it on exams. This is not one of them.”

That was when I started grinning.

I had no idea what PHIL 001: Basic Problems of Philosophy actually was, but I was enormously thankful that I would not be expected to memorize and regurgitate information. My fifty-six-year-old brain could no longer memorize at the same speed it once had and my internal recall mechanism seemed to be dysfunctional entirely too often. And, I especially liked this guy’s straightforward approach.

I tuned back in to Dr. Hanold. “In an adult course you get to use your brains. In this class we will wrestle with question like: Why is there a universe? What is truth? Are we really free? Now don’t panic, I didn’t say that I expect you to answer these questions, just that I will expect you to think. To consider the problems posed, to form opinions about a particular problem, to come up with arguments either for or against that opinion, and then to write about it.

“We will have lots of discussion. In fact, class participation will probably count for more of your final grade in this course than in any other course you’ll ever take.”

Then he paused, looked toward the still-open classroom door, and said, “So . . . if that all sounds like more than you bargained for, walk out the door and drop the class; there’ll be no hard feelings.”

I don’t remember whether anyone walked out but I stayed firmly seated in the second chair right inside the door. I was finally in a class where I didn’t feel like an incompetent fool. Thinking about and wrestling with problems and issues was what I did best. At long last, maybe my ‘advanced’ age would be an asset instead of a handicap.

In the end, I wholeheartedly agreed with Dr. Hanold. Philosophy 001 was not a baby course. It was an adult course led by an adult who obviously modeled the behavior he expected.

Dr. Hanold was an impressive rarity in a university classroom; he matched the correct names with the correct faces within two class periods and used those names regularly and without hesitation. (His internal recall mechanism worked perfectly.)

If any of us were a little slow to participate in the lively class discussions, he used a specific name and said, “What do you think?” If any of us tried to dominate the discussion, he gently stopped the flow of words and said, “Let’s hear from someone else now.” If any of us felt sure of an argument and thought we had a leg to stand on, he’d immediately say, “Well, yeah, I can see what you’re saying but have you considered . . . ?”

I was particularly impressed with his ability to have the last word without even a trace of arrogance or self-righteousness. Believe me, I have a super-sensitive BS-detector but it hardly bleeped in that class. So, I suppose PHIL 001 was not only not a baby course, it was also a bleep-free course.


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