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Scenes from a classroom: the Great Books in practice


A true-life vignette from Khawaja’s Phil 100 Critical Reasoning class. We’re reading passages from David Kelley’s The Art of Reasoning textbook (Chapter 5, Exercise D), and determining whether or not the passages contain arguments. All quotations are given verbatim.

Passage 1

I’m a sick man…a mean man. There’s nothing attractive about me. I think there’s something wrong with my liver….

I’ve been living like this for a long time, twenty years or so. I’m forty now. I used to be in government service, but I’m not any more. I was a nasty official. I was rude and enjoyed being rude….

When petitioners came up to my desk for information, I snarled at them and felt indescribably happy whenever I managed to make one of them feel miserable [Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground]

Student response: “Ohmygod, this passage is soooo long! I do not want to read about his liver!”

And the Underground Man thought he was mean.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, ca. 1857

Ralph Waldo Emerson, ca. 1857 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Passage 2

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul simply has nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. [Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance“]

Student response: “Ohmygod, this passage is like sooo stupid! What is he even saying? Like, what is a ‘hobgoblin‘? It’s like not even English.”

Careful what you wish for, Ralph.

We had a useful and productive discussion about the nature of argument. Class adjourned on time.




  1. irfankhawaja says:

    It cracked me up without quite cheering me up. My favorite was the one about being careful assiduously to avoid answering the question asked.

    I want to use it as a writing guide, but I have a feeling it’ll get me in trouble. “From [name of a very important office within the College]: Dear Professor Khawaja, it has once again come to the attention of this Office…your use of academically inappropriate language in the classroom…Please refer to the Faculty Handbook….We trust that you…” etc. But I think I’ll do it anyway.


  2. One of my best students just turned in a paper beginning (deliberately satirically, I should add): “Since the dawn of time, applied ethicists have debated whether first trimester elective abortion is considered ‘wrong’.”

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