Train of Thought

A teacher writes a letter to his students

An old cover of The Walrus with an illustrated drawer of things
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

dam See teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College. Every semester, he receives feedback from his students: formal evaluations, anonymous notes, and opinionated emails. Last year, the adjunct instructor from Cobourg, Ontario, turned the tables and told his students what he thinks.

Dear students,

I am no longer your professor. Throughout the semester many of you have asked me what my personal beliefs are on the topics we’ve discussed. As I understand it, the reason that professors are reluctant to discuss their own beliefs comes from an attempt to instill and retain some veneer of objectivity in class discussions. There are virtues to this ideal. But when considering the role of the educator in society, there are other considerations to be made; and when designing and teaching a course on social, political, and ethical issues, things are never that simple. Insofar as your professors are people, their intellectual and moral proclivities will always surface somehow or somewhere in their curricula, offering distinctive personalities that students may choose to identify and/or contend with.

Let me begin with a passage from the author Howard Zinn, a personal hero who inspired me to write this letter to you today.

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in a democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth.…

I didn’t pretend to an objectivity that was neither possible nor desirable. ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train,’ I would tell them. Some were baffled by the metaphor; especially if they took it literally and tried to dissect its meaning. Others immediately saw what I meant: that events are already moving in certain deadly directions, and to be neutral means to accept that.

I never believed that I was imposing my views on blank slates, on innocent minds. My students had had a long period of political indoctrination before they arrived in my class—in the family, in high school, in the mass media. Into a marketplace so long dominated by orthodoxy I wanted only to wheel my little pushcart, offering my wares along with the others, leaving students to make their own choices.

I am writing you this letter from an old wooden table in Butler Library at Columbia—where Zinn received his Ph.D. and where John Dewey taught for more than fifty years. Their pedagogical ideals have informed the way in which I understand our relationship. I was your professor, with legitimate and important distance inherent in that role, but I am also—like you—a human being: fallible, passionate, and struggling to make the right decisions in life. In terms of the value of our opinions, we are equals. Like Dewey, I craft my syllabus with the personal interests and opinions of past, current, and future students in mind, but I also—taking a cue from Zinn—have my own values, ideals, and hopes for the future.

It would, for instance, be dishonest of me to deny that I assigned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “The Ballot or the Bullet” in order to inspire you to effect change in your communities. It would, likewise, be dishonest of me to deny that I assigned David Hume’s “Of Miracles” and Peter Singer’s “All Animals Are Equal” to challenge many of your fundamental beliefs about the world and to stimulate a little—or, I hope, a great deal of—cognitive dissonance along the way. My assignment of Socrates’s defence speech against “corrupting the youth” was intended to be much more than a history lesson. Likewise, my decision to teach Plato’s allegory of the cave not as an allegory of enlightenment but rather as one of mass ignorance and the sad nature of social progress was very intentional.

Philosophy at its best is revealing. At its very best, philosophy should hurt.

I understand teaching to be a tremendous responsibility—perhaps the largest responsibility that one can undertake in his or her life. The other day, one of you asked me, If there is one thing that you want us to take from your class, what would that be? My response? Think back to Zinn: “ ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train’…events are already moving in certain deadly directions, and to be neutral means to accept that.” Live loudly and actively. Piss people off. Challenge institutions. All of these ideas are intimately related. For some of you, the weight of these ideas will transcend that final letter next to my course on your academic transcripts; for others, it will not.

As for my own values, I believe that I have a moral obligation to reduce as much suffering in the world as I can before I die. In previous semesters, I have taught papers on famine relief, “just war” theory, and various economic injustices in America and abroad. I teach these topics because I believe that students should be informed of them and, more importantly, be inspired by them. I always end the semester with animal ethics because, as several of you put it very elegantly in class, unlike other oppressed groups, non-humans do not have a voice. In my personal life, I do my best to be a voice of the voiceless. I do not consume animal products, I speak out against animal cruelty, and I attend demonstrations against industries and practices that I believe to be immoral. But that is my moral obligation. I arrived at it after many sleepless nights, private failures, and moral hypocrisies, and through overcoming a great many personal challenges. You can’t get a moral obligation from a college class, nor should you.

I have told you many times over the semester that I choose course material based on how provocative I believe it to be for you. That is the purpose of education—to provoke. In my estimation, educators should play the gadfly whenever possible, because if they do not, they may ultimately end up accomplishing nothing more than a positive reinforcement of the attitudes, values, and norms held by the majority. We have had a great many discussions this semester on the danger inherent in conservative pedagogy of that sort, but what of that supposed professorial responsibility that I mentioned above? That responsibility—even when politically motivated—is frequently squandered on useless and futile abstractions. As once a college student myself, my experience has been that much of what one learns in college fits that description like a tight glove.

Zinn was once asked to give a speech on “The Problem of Civil Disobedience.” He opened that speech by saying that the real problem faced by today’s youth is that of civil obedience, which has been, he said, the true source of most of the world’s problems throughout history. People falling in line; living inactively; refusing to question themselves, their actions, the values they have been given, the rules they follow, the people in charge.

I would be a poor philosopher if I failed to challenge your fundamental attitudes, frustrate you, and pique your emotions—irrespective of whatever my personal beliefs happen to be. In this context, my own beliefs are completely irrelevant. Consider that it is impossible to be perfectly objective and play the gadfly at the same time. I try my best to strike the appropriate balance, though. I occasionally lose sleep over how best to accomplish that task. There were certainly moments like that for me this semester. Yet, as we can infer from Zinn’s words, educators who feign objectivity until their last breath may be viewed in retrospect as engaging in a certain form of dishonesty, and occasionally irresponsibility, especially since the future is always at stake. This is precisely why colleges are among the most important institutions in society. Zinn and Martin Luther King Jr. agree that if you believe in change and do nothing to bring it about, then you are not only part of the problem but the biggest part of the problem. That is a harsh, cruel, and offensive reality.

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

So, for whatever it’s worth, and with respect to whatever it is that you care about, in the spirit of Zinn, Dewey, Socrates, Hume, Singer, Malcolm X, and King, caring is never enough. Action. Free inquiry. Moral consistency.

To those of you who cared enough to read this far, that’s what I believe in. And that’s what I hope you take, if anything, from our class.

All the best,


This appeared in the October 2014 issue.

Adam See