Awakening Judgment in a Community College Philosophy Classroom

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.


The mission of community colleges has recently taken center stage in the national public debate. Should community colleges be dedicated to training workers for the economic marketplace, or should they provide the first two years of a liberal arts education? The framework of the debate offers a microcosm into the more general discussion about the value of the liberal arts in higher education. I argue that the goal of the liberal arts is to awaken judgment in students by training them to think for themselves. The ability to think critically is a lasting tool that outlives economic trends and defies the fluctuating demands of the marketplace. It moreover is a requisite skill that facilitates participation in the democratic process. As professions come and go, and the marketable skills of today become obsolete in tomorrow’s world, the individual who has learned how to think will be well-poised to adapt to a changing world. With the soaring price of college tuition, community college is the only affordable stepping stone to higher education for millions of American high school students. Thus community colleges share in higher education’s responsibility to cultivate the liberal arts in order to awaken judgment and nurture the deliberative process that grounds our democracy. Failure to do so would result in a social injustice.

The Socratic Challenge

Allow me to tell you a tale about two students whom I have known in the course of my career in higher education. Both were employed but decided to temporarily forsake employment for the sake of the liberal arts. One of these students I never met. I read about him. The other was my student at Nassau Community College on Long Island. The first student lived in another time and place. Though not wealthy, his parents earned a sound livelihood. His father, Sophroniscus, was a statuary who carved sculptures in stone, and his mother, Phaenerete, was a midwife. Like any father who has a budding business, this student’s father may very well have dreamt of hanging out a shingle, “Sophroniscus and Son.” That is until the student left his father’s home to “find” himself. No doubt his parents worried about his future, as all parents do, when he chose the academy over the workforce of his day. The son of Sophroniscus and Phaenerite actually bequeathed a legacy to us that has had a far greater influence on western civilization than the products of his father’s lucrative business in ancient Athens. You have all, no doubt, heard of him too–Socrates. The Socratic legacy which imbues the liberal arts, endures even though the professions developed in the ancient world are long forgotten.

Socrates’ conviction, articulated in Plato’s Apology, that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living for a human being” (38a) is not empty words. As a decorated veteran of the wars between Athens and Sparta, Socrates’ principles were tested on the battlefield, argued in the marketplace, and defended in the Athenian courts.

The other student I alluded to earlier, sat in my community college philosophy classroom. He completed the first two years of a liberal arts education and then turned his associate’s degree into a stepping stone to transfer to New York University (NYU). The statistics that relegate community colleges to the role of workforce development would not have foreseen his success. The cost of college was a major obstacle for him. Like the young Socrates, he too was a warrior who joined the army fresh out of high school and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was a sergeant in Iraq, and received training as an armament and electronics repair specialist. Instead of seeking work in industry, he came to my honors introduction to philosophy class when he returned to civilian life. And he did extremely well. He was awarded a full Community College Transfer Opportunity Scholarship as well as a Pell Grant to attend NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. With the help of college faculty, administrators and New York State senators he overcame the additional hurdle of the military’s attempt to reinstate his active duty through the “Individual Ready Reserve,” and he attended NYU.

Hardened in battle yet separated by millennia, the two students I mentioned were both on a trajectory to join the workforce of their day. However, they recognized that training for a specific vocation without initiation into the practice of inquiry was a temporary solution. After all, the workforce of today may be unemployed tomorrow. But if one has mastered the skill of thinking for oneself, the very methodology which Socrates embedded within western civilization, then one is ideally suited for the new century unfolding before our eyes. Decades from now when the high-end technical programs being funded through federal grants become obsolete due to the rapid pace of technology, who will remain unemployed and who will have the mental dexterity to weather retraining? I would venture a guess that those individuals who have had a liberal arts education and have learned to think critically will adapt well.

A Teachable Moment

But what exactly is learned through the liberal arts? And how is this seemingly amorphous subject matter taught?

Training in the liberal arts is intended to transmit the skill of critical judgment. The ability to think critically and formulate a judgment of one’s own transforms the individual from a state of docile, blind obedience, to one of engaged, active participation, the same critical attitude required of all participants in the democratic process. In the philosophy classroom, this skill is learned through active engagement with a text that challenges one to not only memorize facts but first and foremost evaluate them.

In Plato’s Apology (30e-31c) Socrates likens himself to a gadfly, thereby anchoring the metaphor of a social critic in the collective mindset of western civilization. Socrates goes so far as to insist that he is “god’s gift to” human beings. Far from the arrogance that the modern contemporary mind might read into such a claim, Socrates argues that he is fulfilling the mission ordained by the god of the Delphic oracle, Apollo. The state, Athens, is compared to “a thoroughbred horse that was somewhat sluggish because of its size,” and is in dire need of a wakeup call. Socrates likens himself to a gadfly to indicate how he sounds the alarm. Similar to the annoying pests that rouse livestock from their slumber and make them move, Socrates as social critic intends to jar Athens into rejecting mythology and embrace philosophical reasoning and critical inquiry.

Socrates’ message remains a wellspring of inner strength until our own day. We need only consider Martin Luther King Jr., who invokes Socrates in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail as a role model in social activism, when he struggles against the injustice of racism in America. King, who championed non-violent protest as a force to be reckoned with, directs us to Socratic inquiry to unearth one of the roots of civil disobedience. “There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth” (2), King remarks, and Socrates is the master teacher who demonstrates its essential role in any “constructive” change.

King proceeds to draw an analogy between Socrates’ role in ancient Greece and his role in twentieth-century America. Both are “nonviolent gadflies,” social critics who fight injustice. For both, tension is a part of the methodology that leads to change, “tension in the mind” for Socrates and “tension in society” for King. Overcoming the respective forms of tension, yields freedom. Socrates frees the ancient Athenians “from the bondage of myths and half-truths.” King liberates segregated America of the 1960s from the “dark depths of prejudice and racism” (King 2).

Reference to King’s use of Plato’s metaphor of Socrates as a gadfly serves multiple purposes in the philosophy classroom. First and foremost it reminds us why we should keep reading and teaching specific texts that ground the liberal arts like Plato’s Apology. The Apology is not a relic of a bygone era. It resonates in our own time. Witness Martin Luther King Jr. who internalizes the Socratic message in a jail cell without the aid of books, Internet, or even the outmoded technology of the 1960s-the typewriter. Student recognition of the capacity of critical inquiry to empower the civil rights leader not only to argue against his contemporary critics but also to seek inspiration in his struggle from one of the classics of western philosophy brings about a shift in the student’s cognitive attitude. Suddenly the millennia that separate ancient Athens from our own day vanish and the tools of critical judgment gain the spotlight. Pedagogical analysis can now proceed to an array of topics: the logical analysis of Socrates’ arguments in his defense; the reasons for Socrates’ indictment; broader issues of social justice; or the role of critical inquiry in democracy.

The Liberal Arts and Democracy

Why did this senior citizen of the ancient world, who by his own admission was nearing the age in which he would have died a natural death, refuse to relinquish the right of free speech grounded in reflection and critical inquiry? Socrates engages everyone he meets in conversation about moral virtues. He is seeking meaning and purpose in our lives as human beings. Socrates reminds us of what we ourselves are prone to forget in our materialistic world. Trees and rocks, computers and iPods are material objects, not moral agents. They cannot envision possibilities to transform the status quo. Human beings, however, can. The ability to conceive of ideals is nurtured by a critical judgment that can reason beyond the given to envision new scenarios and creative solutions to existing dilemmas.

Perhaps I sound naīve and overly idealistic. Who apart from professional philosophers engages in such inquiry? Sometimes I ask myself this very question. Certainly, one might think that students at community colleges do not have time for such reverie. After all, someone has to pay the rent and put food on the table. Most of the students I teach hold jobs while they are in school. Some help raise their siblings, while others are single parents. Many return to school after watching their own brood graduate and go forth into the world.

Yet when I myself have these very thoughts, I tell myself that the temptation to think that education should suppress reflective inquiry for the sake of practical everyday obligations would constitute the ultimate act of elitism. The twentieth-century neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer reminds us of the importance of the Socratic message. He suggests that we become human beings, not just beings who have a human genetic code, when we engage in a critical attitude and thereby assume a responsible stance to the world. “It is by this fundamental faculty,” Cassirer writes, “by this faculty of giving a response to himself and to others, that man becomes a ‘responsible’ being, a moral agent”(Cassirer 6). The response in question is reflective, and not the mere parroting of memorization.

The habit of critical inquiry arms individuals with the requisite tools to participate effectively in the democratic process. The liberal arts empower all equally with the tools to fend off brainwashing, whether from subtle, charismatic influences or more overt, malignant forces.


It has become very fashionable to impose a corporate model on institutions of higher learning. Strategic plans no longer offer vision; they produce branding. We do not teach students; we address the demands of consumers. The participants in education are no longer just teachers, students, and administrators; they are stakeholders. We are being asked to embrace the notion that education sells a commodity, much like any business, and that the managerial model will lead to balanced budgets in dire economic times like the present. The problem with the corporate model of education is that although institutions of higher learning are in need of balanced budgets, they are not in the business of producing commodities.

The teaching and learning fostered by the liberal arts is a transformative process with long-range implications that are not always measurable in the short run by standardized tests. Training to think critically awakens one’s judgment and conditions individuals to be engaged citizens in the democratic process. We are heirs to the Athenian experiment with democracy. The mistaken indictment of the Athenian courts and subsequent death sentence did not silence Socrates’ voice. Instead his words continue to propel us to nurture critical inquiry. In twenty-first-century America, a limited economic birthright should not bar students from the liberal arts education that cultivates this skill.


Cassirer, Ernst. (1944). An Essay on Man. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.

King Jr., Martin Luther. (1963). “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Retrieved from

Plato, Apology. In Reeve, C.D.C. (Trans.). Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy from Thales to Aristotle(2005). Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World