The Philosophical Angle

Socrates drank hemlock after being found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, and impiety. Seneca submitted to the whims of Nero when the Emperor, inevitably, required that his old tutor die. Seneca’s stoicism was truly tested in this, given that he slashed his veins, took poison, jumped in a warm bath and finally had to be steamed to death before Nero’s edict that he kill himself was finally enacted. I, fortunately, expect no such demonstrations of stoic fortitude from my students but, if we are to think about their behaviour and development as self-regulating beings, then I think that a discussion of their personal philosophy becomes unavoidable. We have talked about the development state, their response to authority, their thoughts on their own thinking, but what of their philosophy?

If you are in a hurry and jump in your car, every red light between you and your destination risks becoming a personal affront, an enraging event that defies your expectation of an ‘all-green’ ride into town. There is no reason why you should expect such favours from the Universe, whatever your belief system, but the fact that this is infuriating to you remains. In the case of the unexpected traffic light, which sounds like the worst Sherlock Holmes story ever, the worst outcome is that you will be late, which may have a variety of repercussions. In preparing assignment work, however, a student may end up failing with far more dire and predictable results.

“Watson, I shall now relate the entire affair through Morse tapped pipe code and interpretative dance.”

While stoicism attracts criticism, understandably, because it doesn’t always consider the fundamentally human nature of humans, being prepared for the unforeseen is a vital part of any planning process. Self-regulation is not about drawing up a time table that allows you to fit in everything that you know about, it is about being able to handle your life and your work when things go wrong. Much as a car doesn’t need to be steered when it is going in a straight line and meeting our requirements, it is how we change direction when we know the road and when a kangaroo jumps out that are the true tests of our ability to manage our resources and ourselves.

Planning is not everything, as anyone who has read Helmuth von Moltke the Elder or von Clausewitz will know: “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. In this case, however, the enemy is not just those events that seek to confound us, it can be us as well! You can have the best plan in the world that relies upon you starting on Day X, and yet you don’t. You may have excellent reasons for this but, the fact remains, you have now introduced problems into your own process. You have met the enemy and it is you. This illustrates the critical importance of ensuring that we have an accurate assessment of our own philosophies – and we do have to be very honest.

There is no point in a student building an elaborate time management plan that relies upon them changing the habits of a lifetime in a week. But this puts the onus upon us as well: there is no point in us fabricating a set of expectations that a student cannot meet because they do not yet have a mature philosophy for understanding what is required. We don’t give up (of course!) but we must now think about how we can scaffold and encourage such change in a manageable way. I find reflection very handy, as I’ve said before, as watching students write things like “I planned for this but then I didn’t do it! WHY?” allows me to step in and discuss this at the point that the student realises that they have a problem.

I am not saying that a student who has a philosophy of “Maybe one day I will pass by accident” should be encouraged to maintain such lassitude, but we must be honest and realise that demanding that their timeliness and process maturity spring fully-formed from their foreheads is an act of conjuring reserved only for certain Greek Gods. (Even Caligula couldn’t manage it and he had far greater claim to this than most.) I like to think of this in terms of similarity of action. If anything I do is akin to walking up to someone and yelling “You should hand in on time, do better!” then I had better re-think my strategy.

The development of a personal philosophy, especially when you may not have ever been exposed to some of the great exemplars, is a fundamentally difficult task. You first need to understand that such a concept exists, then gain the vocabulary for discussing it, then interpret your current approach and see the value of change. Once you have performed all of those tasks, then we can start talking about getting from A to B. If you don’t know what I’m talking about or can’t understand why it’s important, or even discuss core concepts, then I’m yelling at you in the corridor and you’ll nod, compliantly, until I go away. Chances of you taking positive steps in the direction that I want? Very low. Probably, nil. And if it does happen, either it’s accidental or you didn’t actually need my help.

I try to be stoic but I must be honest and say that if Nero sentenced me to death, I’d nod, say “I expected that”, then put on some fast saxophone music and leg it up over the seven hills and far away. I don’t think I’d ever actually expect true stoicism from most of my students. but a simple incorporation of the fact that not everything works out as you think it will would be a definite improvement over the current everything will work out in my favour expectation that seems to be the hallmark of the more frequently disappointed and distressed among them. The trick is that I first have to make them realise that this is something that, with thought, they can not only fix but use to make a genuine, long-lasting and overwhelmingly positive change in their lives.

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