Five General (and Useful!) Truths Learned in Grad School: Here for Free!

Five General (and Useful!) Truths Learned in Grad School: Here for Free! September 20, 2018

Grad School: Fear Not!

I had a lot to learn when I went to graduate school in philosophy at a secular university. Mostly, of course, I learned as much philosophy as I could from outstanding scholars and teachers. You hear a lot about bad teaching in graduate school, but (with rare exceptions) in my experience, professors who teach, teach well. What was best about graduate school?

I met people dedicated to thinking well, interested in students, and excited about new ideas.

I meet some Christians who are afraid to go to graduate school or who worry about “surviving.” My experience was challenging, but good for me. There are not many political conservatives in most graduate programs or religious believers, so as a political conservative and very religious person, my ideas were often tested on multiple fronts and levels at the same time.

That is not always fun, but since arguments are what philosophy does, the testing probably was good for me and was nothing like constant. Mostly, discussion in an epistemology class or in a seminar on Aristotle were about epistemology or Aristotle and while in philosophy everything can have implications on anything, mostly mastering (or trying to master!) the area was the focus. Everybody experiences graduate school differently and I went decades ago, but in hanging around higher education, I think there is still great value in the experience and not just in learning a subject area.

In addition to the philosophy, there were more general life lessons. I am confident that my parents, teachers, and earlier professors tried to teach me some (if not all of these), but I had finally gotten grownup enough to hear them. I have used these truths in business and in areas unrelated to philosophy.

Five General Truths I Might Not Have Had to Learn in Grad School, But Did

Understanding why someone loves an idea (even one I end up rejecting) is a good way to grasp the idea. 

A nearly useless kind of reading is the sort that students do when they need a quick paper: let’s read this chapter, find a problem, and attack it in five pages. Just a bit better is the partisan who says: let’s read this chapter, find where it disagrees with me, and reject the ideas for that reason. Some Christian worldview “thinking” comes close to this approach with literature.

The difficulty is that this creates an impenetrable mental wall to any good ideas that might be in a work. There is also (hear me out!) the possibility you could be wrong. Instead, I learned to read a book as if it were true, on the author’s terms, even reading charitably. What is charitable reading? A charitable reader will read as if right and only find an error if she cannot find a sensible reading that does not contain the error.

That does not mean never having an opinion about the writer. I think WVO Quine mistaken in his atheism, but he also has some interesting ideas about the nature of science. Some of those are helpful, others not. These are my conclusions, but that is not the end of thought!

Every day take away: Listen to the “crazy” idea at work. Consider why your valued colleague espouses that idea. Consider adopting it! Even if you reject it, you will be more confident in your rejection and may have found a version of that idea you can use in your business.

The best conclusions produce better questions. 

If I decide Quine is mistaken, what is my alternative idea? I do not have to have one to think he is wrong, but having closed off one approach, the natural next step is ask questions about alternatives. In fact, if I think Quine right, then applying those ideas will be interesting.

Good conclusions produce further thought! The best dogmas (even in empiricism!) are ones that lead to deeper questions!

Every day take away: Having concluded how we should solve a particular problem at home, what are the implications? Where do we go from here? Problem solving is good in any home or business, essential, but problem solving that creates new opportunities? Better.

Being knowledgeable about one area does not make the person immune to bad ideas in other areas. 

Spend an entire day wresting meaning from Aristotles Metaphysics Zeta and you get a very intellectual limber. That is good and generally helpful. That does not mean based on this general mental sharpness you should try to fix your air conditioner or have gained expertise on politics.

An appeal to authorities is wise. An appeal to an authority that is not an authority in the area is bad reasoning. Graduate school shows you (often in a mirror) that authority does not travel by osmosis from one field to another. The care it took to read Metaphysics Zeta somewhat well should remind me that most fields require that much care or more for competence!

Every day take away: Know what you know. Know what you do not know.

I have opinions about aesthetics, but am untrained. As a result, someone else makes those decisions in the workplace.

There is no substitute for reading a book. 

You cannot sum up or put in five hundred words many important ideas. They are hard and require careful explanation. There is not one wasted word in Republic. You can get your nose stuck in a book, that’s not good, but you had best have your nose in a book a great deal if you want to learn.

Every day take away: Read. Be informed and realize that “long form” books and articles are necessary. Nobody can read for you. For those with commute time, but no time to read, the audiobook is wonderful.  

Eventually do something and see: Commit and see. 

The stereotype of philosophers is that we just sit about discussing the possible meanings of the sentence “Coe is Doe” and the relationships that proposition might have with “Doe is Coe.” We do this sort of thing, but it is not all we do. Many philosophers use their degree work to go into law, government, or business while continuing to “do” philosophy as it is modeled in grad school.

The active life of trying out what we think is correct was modeled for me. The activism in the department rarely was for causes I supported, but the pattern was good. Think hard and act. Often committing yourself to a cause, making college debt free, and doing it changes your mind. More often it clarifies your mind.

Commit yourself and often you see.

Every day take away: I have watched higher education institutions study problems and gridlock rather than doing something, monitoring it, and changing over time. You cannot talk a problem to death, but you can talk a college to death. Act reasonably, but act. The same idea is easy to apply to business where the “committee” is often a way to not act.




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