Socrates' Big Swinging Ice
Later, after the tryouts were over
and he and Taylor were told that they had both made the team, they smuggled in
a wineskin of Purple Jesus into the stadium to watch the
big football game. Like the others they wore one-piece coveralls to combat the
carnage of the game. They both had a riot. Maybe it was where they were in the
stands but everybody was drinking from wineskins and squirting each other with
the purple liquor and passing people above their heads, or maybe it was because
they were happy to have made the cut, or maybe football games during Frosh Week
were always that wild, it was pure mayhem. The experience was a
never-to-be-topped peak to a memorable week. But the non-stop good times had to
end, and with its end came the day Reid had been dreading: the first day of
That day was mass confusion and
total chaos. Most students had no idea where their classes were. During
registration earlier in the week they were given a wimpy little map but it was
way out of scale. It was so crappy Taylor cracked that they must have done it
on purpose. And half the buildings didn't even have signs. One would think that
such a top university would have spent a little time making a decent map or at
least made sure that the buildings had signs. Someone in the student government
had dropped the ball. It was a fiasco.
Reid wanted university to be
different from high school, and expected professors to be sporting white beards
and wearing tweed jackets and antique spectacles, and who used interesting
words and clever turns of phrase, but that wasn't his experience for his first
Making it to class one minute before
it started because he couldn't find Dunning Hall, he entered the packed lecture
hall self-consciously looking for Alex. Instant claustrophobia. Packed right up
to the last seat. Not finding him, he sat down in the front row in one of the
last available seats. When the professor walked in he didn't think she was the
teacher. Instead maybe she was a secretary or teaching assistant. Very tall and
thin and wearing a navy-blue business suit, she looked pissed off.
"This is Commerce 101, section
D. Anyone who is in the wrong class please get up and leave now." Tone
very firm. After a brief silence a few people were in the wrong class. Raising
a large Styrofoam cup of coffee to her pouting mouth, she allowed them to leave
"My name is Dr. Deely. I am
your professor for this semester." She lowered her head for another
awkward sip. Why she was wearing a man's suit? What was she trying to be? Then
she glanced at the student right beside him.
"Will you please pass out these
course outlines to the students." His heart jumped into his throat. He
hated sitting in the front row, especially for the first class. No one spoke;
you could have heard a pin drop.
"As you can see from the
hand-out, there will be a bi-monthly quiz worth twenty percent of your grade, a
midterm worth thirty percent, a term project to be worked on in groups. That's
worth twenty. The final exam in December will be worth thirty. Any
questions?" No one moved. It felt like a starting gun had gone off at the
beginning of a race. He had done enough racing to get into this university so
the last thing he wanted was more of the same. When does it stop? After a
minute he felt burnt out and indifferent, and wanted to get out of there badly.
After the class he found Alex in the
same flannel shirt he was wearing yesterday. He said he was sitting in the back
row. Having the same math class they walked together. He seemed to know where
he was going. Jeffrey Hall was two storeys high from the outside but it had a
winding stairwell three levels below to a large auditorium. Descending the
steep cement steps the air cooled so that sweat turned cold. Someone had turned
up the air conditioning to a thousand degrees below zero. It was worse than a
refrigerator; it was dangerous.
"I should have brought a sweater,"
he said to Alex. "No, two sweaters."
The lecture hall was over-crowded so
that some students had to sit on the cold cement stairs, but he and Alex were
able to grab the last two seats in the back row. They were so high up the
professor lecturing at the chalkboard was actually a full level lower. Metal
chairs scraped raw against the unfinished floor because the tips of the metal
legs had worn through. It grated the ears.
When Alex pulled out his textbook he
saw Reid didn't have one.
""You don't have a
textbook?" he said, looking concerned. A pronounced line between his eyes
crept to life. He said he didn't.
"Studying math at university seems
so wrong when there are so many more interesting subjects out there," he said
flippantly. His comment surprised even him.
The teacher, carrying a large pile
of papers, was a small Chinese man. The murmur died down and the tension in the
"Ha. This is Math 110:
Differential and Integra Calculus," he said with a thick accent. "I'm
Mr. Wong." Straining to understand what he said through his thick accent,
he wondered how many others could understand what he was saying. It scared him;
a math teacher who couldn't enunciate well boded trouble. Short choppy words
garbled were a bad combination.
He turned to the chalkboard and
began writing high school formulas on the board. Mr. Wong spoke as he wrote out
axioms and formulae, board after board, looking tiny in contrast to the
twenty-five foot high blackboards. When he filled one board he would push it up
so another square of black came-up from below like a rotating chalkboard. He
couldn't be bothered to write them down; Alex scribbled them into his notebook.
What made it worse what how Alex breathed through his nostrils and made an
annoying hissing sound. He didn't realize it but every time he breathed there
was faint whistle that bugged the hell out of him.
Two people sitting on the steps
beside Reid talked the entire class, oblivious to what the math teacher was
saying, in a language that was foreign to him. The chilled air emitted through
the vents swept off the cool pavement into the marrow of his legs, so he
reached down and pulled up his socks. Mr. Wong kept writing mathematical
hieroglyphics in an endless mass production of squiggles and lines until the
first board he wrote on resurfaced from a full rotation. After a while, the
nostril hissing and the constant whispering bothered him so much he was
steaming angry when the class finally ended.
Reid trekked across the arts and
science quadrangle from his calculus class to the philosophy department beside
the music building, the uneven pavement cracked and scattered with trees and
mountain bikes. Climbing the stairs to the third floor he found the classroom
at the end of the hall, and sat down in the third highest row under a high
sloping ceiling where he was level with two painted portraits of former heads
of the philosophy department above the chalkboard. One was a portrait of a man
leaning back in a big chair in a tan jacket with a bushy white moustache
smoking a pipe, with a large window showing a field of evergreens behind him.
The other portrait was of man with a white beard and grey tweed jacket with
rows of books in the background. The most obvious thing about the portraits was
the look of intelligence. This was what he thought classrooms would look like.
These two men were different. They looked so together, like they were comfortable with the fact that they were
outcasts. Being a philosophy professor had to be about as individual as anyone
could be. They weren't trying to fit in anywhere.
When Michelle walked in she saw him
after a quick scan of the room. With her knapsack draped over her shoulder and
red t-shirt and ponytail, she looked very laidback. Unlike his business class,
there were no preppy button-downs or topsiders here. She climbed the worn steps
and sat beside him.
"It's my elective," he replied,
anticipating her question. She pulled out Fundamentals
of Ethics and placed it on the desk.
word," she said and smiled. Her green eyes were lit up as if electricity
pulsed through them. Reid could see the light metallic green with little flakes
of light in them. All he did when he listened to her talk was observe those
incredible eyes of hers. He liked the lines around her mouth but those green
eyes were really something.
The mild rumble of voices quieted
down when the professor entered the half-filled lecture hall. He was young,
with a bowl haircut covering his forehead that made his head look perfectly
round. But he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. No business suit or tie or
anything - just a regular short-sleeved golf shirt with the top button done up.
And there was the way he walked too. He walked on his toes, sauntering. He was
on time but he moved as smooth as maple syrup, floating on the balls of his
feet. The only thing that was professorial was his wing-tipped Oxfords, and
even those had seen a lot of action. He realized he had been expecting someone
with a goatee and Birkenstock sandals and hair down to his ass.
"Good afternoon everyone, I am
Peter Bakhurst, your teacher for this course. I trust all of you have been keen
and read the first chapter in your textbooks?" His voice was peppered with
an English accent that could be heard when he said ‘chapter.'
The classroom was quiet until the
student to his right laughed. His stomach seized with panic. Reid thought the
professor would think that his laughter was because of a comment that he had
whispered. Bakhurst smiled and raised his hand, holding it for a split second
and then whipping his finger in a that's it! motion.
"That is what I would like to see in this class. That is what I want from each of
you." Bakhurst surveyed the class, looking briefly into Reid's eyes until
he stopped at the guy sitting beside him.
"Thank you mister..." Bakhurst
invited him with a nod to volunteer his name.
"Who's confused? Anyone?"
Everyone looked uncomfortable. Reid certainly did, but Michelle was smiling -
and getting it.
"Just for the record class, it
will be easier for you to learn if you assert yourself and ask dumb questions."
Reid rarely put up his hand to speak in class because the down side of putting
yourself on the line is simply too great. There is very little up side, and too
much to lose if you give a stupid answer or ask a stupid question.
"The only stupid question is the
question that is not asked. Questions are a rite of passage. The word ‘question' comes from the Latin verb quaestus, which means: to seek.
It is a quest to understand. Through questioning one can seek enlightenment into the art of living. I call it Socrates' big swinging ice pick. One can use the
question-and-answer Socratic Method to break up the frozen seas within
us." There was some tentative laughter from somebody in the front row, but
Professor Bakhurst walked confidently in front of the lectern and stroked his
"The word `ignorant' comes from the Latin verb ignorare, which means: `to ignore,' and to ignore is a
choice." He wrote the two verbs on the chalkboard. Reid didn't know
whether to copy them down or not, or what he was getting at.
"Pyke, why did you laugh? Can
you tell the class why you laughed?"
"Because you couldn't have been
serious," he replied. Some students looked uneasy as Bakhurst took a sip
from a can of Coke he had brought in with him.
"You laughed because you had
enough courage in your interpretation that I wasn't serious. That is what I want like all of you to
do in my class: to learn how to think for yourselves." At the blackboard
he wrote: THINK FOR YOURSELF. His writing was a hybrid
between writing and printing. He looked at the words on the blackboard, then at
Bakhurst. He froze when he caught his questioning eyes.
"The art of philosophy lies in
its application to living life. Attend to thyself' is an old maxim of
Socrates. The basis of moral philosophy is the investigation of how best to
live your life. To do this you must wrestle with questions that arise as to
whether one way is wiser than another. Most of us never think about these
questions. Most people go through life ignorant of serious moral inquiry. They
choose to adopt the norm when the norm may not be the right - or wisest - path for them."
As he walked in thought to the
lectern, Bakhurst looked at his pupils not as a mass of people but as a group
of individuals. He looked at each of student in the eye. Reid had never heard people speak like this before. It was if he
was talking only to Reid.
"Samuel Johnson once wrote: `Wonder is a pause of reason.' I want this classroom to be a sanctuary of
wonder, a place to think with your imagination and to explore possibilities and
find your true path." He put his hand back on his chin. A hand was up, and
with a nod the student spoke.
"What's wrong with
"Nothing. I have no beef against reason, in fact we
cannot function without it, but reason, as you may or may not know, is only
part of the picture." He put his head down and walked, hand back on his
"I want to be clear about something:
we cannot function without reason, but reason is only part of the picture.
Martin Heidegger, a twentieth-century philosopher, wrote `Thinking only begins at the point where we have come to know that
reason, glorified for centuries, is the most obstinate adversary of thinking.' And, just as Einstein believed, it is my
opinion that imagination is more important than
your imagination to further your understanding of questions. As I used to say
when I was a young chap, `too much reason makes a
There was some selected laughter from certain areas in the classroom. "And
there's nothing more tragic than a fake human being." Something inside of
Reid, like a light or a flame, suddenly came alive when he said these words.
There was something in it that addressed a long and ongoing dialogue he has
been having with himself. For the first time in his life he wanted a teacher to
go on, to speak more and to teach him more.
is crucial for
survival but so is the imagination. Reason should not
be given free reign over the imagination." Bakhurst stood with impeccable
posture at the lectern, paused, and continued. "I regard that the two major components
of man's mind are the imagination and reason but it is the job of the
imagination to see over the harmonic interplay between both. Intellect lies in
the synergistic interaction between reason and the imagination, and this balance
is an art." Bakhurst held up his hand and
brought it down to add meaning to the word ‘art.' Reid looked over at Pyke's
notes. All he had written was: TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES
A BABY BLIND.
"You will be learning about
Aristotle's concept of the Golden Mean, and how it is the artful balance
between these two given poles, which can channel this energy into a higher
quality of life." Sue was on the edge of her seat still grinning, and
trying to suppress her excitement. He sat back in his chair and noticed that Bakhurst's
books had remained closed beside the lectern. Professor Bakhurst picked up the
pile of papers on the desk beside the lectern just as the bell rang.
"Please don't forget to pick-up
the course outline as you leave. They're here." He pointed at the pile.
"Try to read the first half of chapter one for next class. It's only a
half dozen pages. If I could give all of you some advice about reading
philosophy: please take your time. Re-read it if it doesn't speak
to you directly. Every sentence should help describe a thought; please be
patient in your learning." Students packed up their books but Michelle and
Reid sat still listening to Bakhurst. "And remember people, the trick is
to always carry a dictionary with you because language is the nomenclature of expression, and wordcarpenters are never caught without one." Michelle nudged him in the elbow,
and pulled out a brand new Funk &
Wagnall's Standard College Dictionary. Like a mechanic with her toolbox,
Michelle was not going to let any word pass her by.