Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Their patience, our fortitude

We do not live in patient times.

I make no pretense of originality with this claim. Our culture is increasingly focused on immediate gratification at the expense of long-term goals and satisfaction. Students are hardly immune to this. And now voices advocating shortening the college experience and speeding time to degree are becoming louder.

And while I certainly think options to bring students closer to the 4-year college ideal should be explored, this piece in Inside Higher Ed reminds us that impatience is not an intellectual virtue. The authors, Nancy Rosenbach and Peter Katopes:

Many psychologists believe that a child’s capacity to delay gratification is an indicator that the child might someday grow to be a reasonably well-adjusted, content, and mature adult. What is it about the ability to delay gratification that makes it vital? It is the necessary precursor to innovation, development, change, and sagacity. The ability to wait for a reward is at the basis of hard work, scientific inquiry, artistic creation, and intellectual achievement. Because we as a society seem in danger of forgetting this fact, many of our young people are not learning to wait: rather, they have come to expect instant results. And that we are abetting their impulse is nowhere more evident than in our ongoing attempts to reform our educational system.

Plans to reform the American system of education have been largely ineffectual for several reasons. Perhaps most important is that the conversation regarding what education ought to be in this country has shifted radically, substantively, and, we believe, wrong-mindedly, from a concern about what our young citizens ought to be learning to how quickly we can rifle them through. Book after book, study after study, monograph after monograph bemoans the fact that not enough students graduate and those that do don’t graduate quickly enough.

As they note, our higher education culture now values product over process, efficiency over depth, credentials over understanding.

Instructors in every discipline must confront (and I would argue, contest) this cultural change. But I suspect that this challenge is especially urgent and daunting for us philosophers. Our discipline does not offer quick rewards. Its insights and wisdom can only be gained and appreciated slowly. Plato thought a few decades was sufficient for philosophical education. He exaggerates, but his views are closer to the truth than we might think. And time and again, I encounter bright, motivated, intellectually capable students who, because of this pervasive impatience, give up on philosophy prematurely.

I hope we will not surrender to what Rosenbach and Katopes call "a youthful notion of impetuosity." Indeed, they are right to note that doing so would mean failing in our "moral responsibility to help [students] grow into people capable of making rational decisions about the world they — and we — inhabit."

But as is often the case, diagnosis is easy and treatment is hard. What can we do in and outside the classroom to rejuvenate patience as an intellectual virtue? To borrow a typical Socratic question: Can we teach patience?


  1. Yes, my experience suggests that too many students (and people generally) expect that we'll, say, "solve" long standing philosophical problems and figure out what to think about pressing moral/social issues in 10, 15 minutes tops. ("We'll discuss arguments about abortion for 4 class periods!?!"). And then they sometimes react there are "no answers" or no way to "figure it out" after this brief discussion.

    I try to respond to this impatience by pointing it out and lamenting it, observing that complex issues (in all fields) take a long time to think about, that understanding the details of a topic has value (and is necessary for) a responsible judgment on a topic, that learning to focus on a particular aspect of an issue is valuable ("we are talking about this and only this argument now... or this just this premise.. or just this one objection... just this reply...),

    I also sometimes try to get them to evaluate impatience from something like a Golden Rule and then Veil of Ignorance type perspective: suppose you thought that things were bad for you and society should change for these reasons; would you want people to patiently listen to your case, understand it, think it through, debate it carefully, or would you want them to give up real quickly (and so give up on you)?

    On these lines I've observed that various positive changes that have occurred have taken a lot of time and patience; impatience and the like were barriers to this, so we should be patient about current issues.

    Nathan Nobis

  2. Thanks so much for this, Nathan! Those are wonderful thoughts.

  3. I spent about six years as an undergraduate (three of those at a community college) from 1997 to 2003, not because I needed to do so, but because I wanted to get as many philosophy classes as I could. I ended up with nearly all of the courses offered by the department. If I were in that situation at today's tuition rates, I'm not sure I would be able to make the same decision and might have tried to get through as quickly as possible meeting only the absolute minimum requirements.

  4. I would only add that we need to demonstrate patience ourselves with our students. It is not easy, but many professors are very impatient with their students. The suggestions Nathan offers are very important as well, but if we philosophically preach patience and act impatiently, we won't get as far as we could. I say this as someone who could use an extra dose of patience with my students around finals time!

  5. Great comments.

    Nathan: You're spot on, I think. I suspect that students' working epistemology is also responsible for their impatience. One of the real eyeopeners for students is the whole idea of a scholarly community or tradition. I recall a student asking me if there "have been any other philosophers who wrote about Kant's Categorical Imperative" (!). Their sense of where knowledge or understanding comes from is, well, naive. I'm not blaming them. It's just funny when you're inside the community or tradition for someone to imagine that the whole history of serious thought about the ethics of abortion, say, consists of a few articles.

    Mike - Point taken. The one lesson I return to again and again as a teacher is: They're not me. They may not have the background I brought to my study of philosophy, nor the natural abilities, nor the desire. And of course we're separated by my 15+ years of teaching and scholarship. One of the sources of our impatience, in my observation, is the misplaced lamentation that our students aren't us!


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