Skip to main content

With Meghan Sullivan and Maria Salazar

Carrie Welsh  00:02

This is Ethics & Education. I’m Carrie Welsh. And today we have a great conversation about love and teaching.

Meghan Sullivan  00:10

The most morally interesting and fraught and thought about parts of our lives involves love.

Maria Salazar  00:16

What actually happens if you love your students?

Carrie Welsh  00:20

Maria Salazar is one of our graduate fellows. And she talked with philosopher Megan Sullivan about what it means to bring love into the classroom, and why more philosophers should be studying love.

Maria Salazar  00:38

I’m Maria Salazar. I am a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center studying philosophy. I do ancient philosophy and I’m working primarily on Plato and eros and political eros.

Meghan Sullivan  00:51

My name is Meghan Sullivan. I am the Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. And I work on lots of topics: ethics and virtue ethics and prudential rationality. I also work on philosophy of time and metaphysics. I’m known around campus for teaching a really big introductory philosophy class called “God and the Good Life,” which encourages a bunch of Notre Dame students, several hundreds every year, to think about their lives and the kinds of decisions they make in philosophical terms, and to try to set goals that are more philosophically meaningful.

Maria Salazar  01:31

So I want to ask you a few questions about your work on love and love in the classroom and so on. I’ve been thinking about this, because we were talking about how difficult it is to talk about love, and how strange it could be in certain contexts. And so because I work on love, and it’s seems kind of hokey, when we sort of express that we’re working on love in a philosophical way.

Maria Salazar  01:57

And so today, bell hooks died, and I thought we would start by reading something from her book “All About Love,” which actually, you know, compels me to think in this way, because she writes in her introduction, how difficult it is to really talk about love and be taken seriously while you’re talking about love. So she writes,

Maria Salazar  02:17

Taught to believe that the mind, not the heart, is the seat of learning, many of us believe that to speak of love with any emotional intensity means we will be perceived as weak and irrational. And it is especially hard to speak of love when what we have to say calls attention to the fact that lovelessness is more common than love, that many of us are not sure what we mean when we talk of love or how to express love.

Maria Salazar  02:38

Everyone wants to know more about love. We want to know what it means to love, what we can do in our everyday lives to love and be loved. We want to know how to seduce those among us who remain wedded to lovelessness and open the door to their hearts to let love enter. The strength of our desire does not change the power of our cultural uncertainty.

Maria Salazar  02:56

Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. In the realm of the political, among the religious, in our families, and in our romantic lives, we see little indication that love informs decisions, strengthens our understanding of community, or keeps us together. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise.

Maria Salazar  03:20

So, right, so I was hoping maybe we could begin by talking about some of the difficulties that we find ourselves in. So talking about love in this in philosophy.

Meghan Sullivan  03:32

Yeah, I love it. I mean, it strikes me just what a loss, for philosophy for people who cared deeply about education. She was just such a unique and important thinker and somebody that really had her handle on some truths, that, as she herself says in that passage, we sometimes have a hard time keeping our grip on.

Meghan Sullivan  03:51

She’s right! I mean, it’s 2021, 2022…we have a very hard time talking about love in any context, other than romantic and family relationships. And this is probably a huge loss for our culture. Compared with, I think, the ancient Greeks and Romans, who spend so much of their time thinking about the different forms of love that show up in their government, in their friendships, in teacher student relationships, the kinds of love that’s missing from their lives. I think just having this much more expansive conception of what it means to love other people would give us such so much more energy in life for dimensions of our life that like bell hooks says are loveless right now maybe even designed to quash it.

Meghan Sullivan  04:41

Maria, a topic that has brought you and I together–We both teach college students at are different institutions, and we both read a lot of Greek philosophy and find ourselves with this vertigo of teaching our students philosophical theories like Plato, that talk really movingly and deeply about the love that a philosopher ought to have for people who are seeking wisdom. And at the same time, everything that we learn about teaching and all the kinds of institutional practices that we are engaged in when we teach don’t really have much room for love. In fact, it sounds super weird. It would raise eyebrows in the philosophy department at CUNY, your Notre Dame, if you came in one day and said, Hey, guys, I really love this particular student. If I’m like, Oh, my gosh, I really love Johnny, my dean would probably pull me aside and be like, “No, this is, we have to have a meeting about this.” Unfortunately, this is because we can’t think of any kind of love that’s has you know, the kind of heteronormative romantic love between two consenting adults. Like that’s just the only kind of vocabulary of love we have. But what a loss because I do, I’m gonna say it on your podcast, Maria, like, I do love some of my students. And I wish I could love so many more of them and figuring out what that is, I think is a big part of what it is to pursue the good life in teaching and to think of yourself as having a vocation as a teacher. So I don’t know Maria, do you love your students? I is this so weird?

Maria Salazar  06:23

I mean, I tried to love my students, right. But yeah, I mean, so this is the point, right? Like the from the beginning of philosophy, we see that not only is is Plato obsessed with love, the love between, for instance, Socrates and Alcibiades, or Socrates, and Phaedrus, but also the love that Plato himself has for Socrates. Right? He’s obsessed with the guy. And he clearly loves him, right? And so we see this as the paradigm or the paradigmatic teacher student relationship. And yet, somehow, it seems it’s incredibly difficult to imagine what that would look like for us today. And also incredibly difficult to imagine what what that means, like, what the, you know, what actually happens if you love your students, right? But you do, I mean, we’ve spoken about this, and that, you know, love, we imagine that love would have a deep consequence for the institution, if we sort of perceived ourselves as loving our students. I was wondering if you could sort of say a little bit more about that.

Meghan Sullivan  07:28

One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially the last two years, when we’ve been doing like, you know, teaching has gotten so disrupted the last few years. And that’s caused me to reflect quite a bit about what I want out of teaching and how I know when it’s going really well. And this has gotten me into these questions of love, I think, I think we oftentimes think of teachers who love their students as being teachers who do things for their students. So I really love my students. So I took them on a field trip to Belgium, or I really love my students. And that’s why I spend so much time making sure that they’re absolutely excellent writers. It’s all action oriented forms of love and attention. And one of the things that was really weird, especially about teaching during the pandemic, is we had to scale back our ambitions, you could love your students, but you’re not taking them on any experiential learning field trips. You can love your students, but also realize that they are too stressed out this semester to really master the art of the expository philosophical essay. So whatever it means to really love and care and attend for these people, your teaching philosophy to it’s going to be something different than doing things for or to them as a result of your class. It’s going to have to be like being with them, or like paying attention to them in the right kinds of ways. And that sounds a little hippy, but this is something that the, the Greek philosophers, especially Plato, spend a lot of time on this idea of how do you perceive somebody, somebody else’s quest for the good life? How do you understand what it is to care for another person’s soul or to understand them and their particularity, but also somebody who’s striving for virtue or striving to care for themselves? And I found myself think, you know, you can you can get demoralized pretty quickly, when you’re not able to do things for your students very effectively anymore, because you’re teaching on Zoom or because they’re going through something really difficult. You might start to have these nihilist thoughts of like, well, I’m a bad teacher, or there’s this activity of learning is pointless, especially if you’re learning philosophy. And I found that, like, Plato is actually a huge refuge for me during teaching in the pandemic, because I realized one of the most important things I can give my students is just like, my attention and care for them and their souls and their particular services. stances. And that attention itself is a way of teaching them philosophy philosophies is like very strange discipline in that we share it with each other sometimes by by just making our thoughts and ideas present to one another. And that’s where, you know, thinking about love in terms of in terms of presence and thinking together and wanting to know another person’s mind and soul. I think I think it’d be really liberating in an era when we can’t really do we can’t have very action packed classrooms.

Maria Salazar  10:33

Yeah, so I mean, that’s right. So love as a kind of presence, we tend to think I think of love as an act of activity. Right? So love is clearly an activity, right? You see those graffiti everywhere. You know, love is a verb, right? And it is. But it’s not only active, it’s also passive. It’s completely motivational, right? If you love something, if you truly love something, presumably you want it to love you back, and you want to act in such a way that, that that person will also love you back. And I think that’s we tend to forget that we’ve tend to have forgotten that. And as a teacher, presumably like, you want to be moved, you want to be in a position in which you’re moved by your students as a subject, not only as an object, right?

Meghan Sullivan  11:19

Yeah, absolutely. And what it means to really appreciate the dignity of your students and like, and like who they are, specifically, I think when we teach philosophy, again, we’re teaching this love of wisdom, we’re trying to impart this love of wisdom, to particular people in their distinctive lives, I think, I think it’s incredibly important for us to realize how as a teacher, we come into each new relationship or classroom situation, we should be really humble. Like, we don’t actually know these people, yet, when we’re trying to impart something as serious as wisdom to them, we really have to spend a lot of time getting to understand and appreciate and see them before that transfer has any hope of occurring Socrates. In the symposium. Socrates says at one point, he you know, I think this is Socrates, one of the interlocutors at this symposium says, you know, the way what if only wisdom just flowed like water down a string of yarn into the minds of the person you’re trying to impart it to, so I could just like, download all of my philosophy into you, Maria. If only that was the way education worked in this subject, but it doesn’t, the way it works is instead this kind of relationality and our life together and appreciation and understanding of you. And then the skill of the teacher of philosophy in trying to help you care for the particular life that you’re trying to develop wisdom within. And it’s just much more specific and much more difficult, and not the kind of thing that’s ever going to be purely transactional. And that’s, that’s true, I don’t know, teaching philosophy for 15 years. And when it’s going really well, it definitely has that quality of, of give and take and back and forth. And it’s not, you can’t predict the change that’s going to happen in the students that you’re teaching philosophy to.

Maria Salazar  13:22

So imagine that because you mentioned Alcibiades and Socrates. And we’ve been sort of talking about Socrates because of course, he’s the paradigmatic case. And so imagine a saw an Alcibiades, rather a contemporary Alcibiades, you know, the quintessential fails on right, like, he’s just, he has everything going for him. And yet, you know, he still, his desires are out of whack. Right? So we see the relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates, also by these being madly in love with Socrates, Socrates, seemingly not interested but also interested in a way. And we sort of we wonder what responsibility Socrates had tell somebody. So you’re saying like, we want to meet a student where they’re at? What about the case of Alcibiades, who has his desires completely out of whack?

Meghan Sullivan  14:09

Yeah, let’s try to identify all the different ways teaching could go horribly wrong. And Socrates is a great example of this too, because he has a lot of misadventures, Alcibiades being the big one. But we find this in our own lives. Like one way teaching can go badly is your students just don’t learn anything from you. They keep getting D’s on exams, they don’t turn in their papers on time, that’s teaching going badly. But that’s not the only way it can go badly in a philosophy classroom. You can also have the little Alcibiades, the student who loves you, loves the performance of seeing seemingly being really smart in class. They’re the student that like absorbs all the philosophical vocabulary words and is really happy to talk about the phenomenology of ontology with their friends. And they also are starting to realize ways that philosophy can be used to pursue their own quest for power or their quest for respectability. But they’re not getting what philosophy is really about. Either they don’t actually care about the truth. They don’t actually care about trying to figure out the the real nature of really complicated moral problems. They’re so addicted to you or to the performance of philosophy that they’ve missed the entire point of why the enterprise is interesting in the first place. And what do you do with that student, I think that students actually way harder than the one that is just kind of zoning out in class, because that student makes you feel great as the teacher obviously makes you feel really powerful, and you can feed their weird desires. But at the same time, wisdom is not being served by by this interaction. And also by these I mean, he poses a really serious problem to folks who would think that they’re in the, in the vocation of trying to teach philosophy to other people.

Maria Salazar  16:05

Right. And so you might think, I mean, my intuition is that the reason, or at least one reason why Socrates fails to properly educate Alcibiades is because else because Socrates didn’t know how to be loved appropriately. Right. So part of loving involves becoming a lovable person. And it’s very difficult to imagine us Alcibiades, loving Socrates, appropriately right. He was filled with, with these uncertainties, right. And so it’s hard to to imagine loving this empty vessel of uncertainties, at least for Alcibiades, to imagine to imagine Alcibiades, loving Socrates. So, would you say perhaps that one of the responsibilities teachers have is not only to love their students appropriately, but to be loved by their students for the right reasons?

Meghan Sullivan  17:03

I think so, man, this makes the job extra hard, because you’re not only responsible for your own intentions towards your students. But now you’re also responsible for their intentions back to you. But I do think that the way that we talk about philosophy and the way that we model philosophy to them the way we treat them, and the way we treat they see us treat other philosophers is going to give them a model or a vision for what it is to be a lover of wisdom. And I suspect that one thing that happened for Socrates and Alcibiades is Socrates era. You remember Socrates says he doesn’t have a philosophy. He’s practicing ignorance. He’s just going around asking innocent questions. And as a result of his radical openness, and the openness of the kind of philosophy that he was teaching other people to practice, he never really tells us, you know, he tries to hold back what he thinks the answers are any holds back a little bit of where he is in his only just tells us he hasn’t learned anything. He’s the most ignorant man in Athens. But that doesn’t give much for Alcibiades to latch on to about what’s an example of somebody who’s caring for their beliefs. So but that could be part of the problem. I think so I mean, Socrates, right. He’s a hero. But I think he also really liked the attention and liked the power of philosophy, even if it you know, even if he was tortured about it, and was tortured with his, with whether he was a sophist or not. So that, you know, some of Socrates, his own character probably came in and made the made the job pretty difficult. But I think I think you’re right, when we have these really enthusiastic philosophy students who are not quite grasping why we want to pursue wisdom together. It’s the responsibility of the philosophy teacher, the person who would think that they embody the pursuit of wisdom for other people to notice that the dynamic is off and to try to do what they can to correct it. Because also philosophy is this weird kind of discipline that we always practice with other people. And it’s not neither, despite the fact that a lot of people think of philosophers as folks sitting around with like black berets smoking clove cigarettes locked in their room by themselves. It’s not possible discussion and dialogue and reading each other’s books and getting into arguments on the internet. And because it has this dialectic dimension that can’t be brought out of it, we have to then really, I think, be very attuned to what’s going on with the people that we’re practicing philosophy with.

Maria Salazar  19:43

Right? So being being present for them.

Meghan Sullivan  19:48

And you know, as you were saying before, being present in the right kinds of ways of being like present for your students doesn’t mean like TMI, like over sharing information that’s irrelevant in the pursuit of wisdom, like I’m going to present to you Maria, by telling you everything that I think ate yesterday. For this really surreal dream I had last night being present means being present in all the ways that are relevant to like figuring out the truth and figuring out what a good life consistent.

Maria Salazar  20:13

Yeah. And that seems that that kind of creates the space for students also to begin engaging in discourse with one another, right?

Meghan Sullivan  20:24

Yeah. And this is obviously also one of the hardest problems I think that we face when we try to teach philosophy is trying to teach students how to talk to each other about philosophical matters in a way that’s not pretentious. That’s not just performing philosophy. But it’s showing that they’re genuinely curious. One thing we spend a lot of time on with our students here at Notre Dame is the first few weeks of class especially trying to show them how to make their questions stronger than the spirit of Socrates. And what do we mean by strong questions? Well, a weak question is a question that you already think you know the answer to, and you’re asking to somebody just to kind of get them on record. Or to get more like things stated in the common ground. So a weak philosophical question about animal ethics might be Maria, I find out you’re not a vegetarian, but I am be like, hey, Maria, why don’t you like animals? It’s a weak question. Because it presupposes that you know, you eat meat, because you don’t like animals. I’m not really interested in whatever you have to say next, I just want you to maybe share a little bit of your reasons so that then I can object to them. And we teach our students how to be just objection machines and a lot of philosophy classes. But those questions are not particularly curious or philosophical, they’re definitely not going to engender loving concern for the truth and other people. A really good question about vegetarianism is one that I really don’t know what, where you’re going to go next. But I’m going to learn something about why you’re not a vegetarian that will shape how I think about you. So I might say like, Maria, can you tell me a little bit about when you started to have values around what you eat? Like, was there any particular point in your life? Where this question about like, why why do I what I appeared to you? And could you share that with me? Like, would you be willing to tell me a little bit about like, where that was? And it’s an open ended question, because I don’t know why you be what you eat. Hopefully, I can become a little bit more involved in your examined life as a result. But also, whatever you say, next, is going to give me a lot more information about how confident you are in that your food ethics, if that’s the topic that we decided we’re gonna do philosophy about your level of confidence, and which feels you might want to change your mind about and which things you’re really confident in. And maybe if you’ve had experiences that I’ve never had, that are going to be relevant to this question, I’m gonna learn a little bit about those. Or maybe even, I’m just starting to build up a little bit of trust between the two of us that we both care about this general philosophical question, what should good people eat? And that’s where, you know, Socrates is on fire. In the Platonic dialogues when he’s in the middle of a conversation. And he gets the person who’s initially really defensive, the interlocutor thinks they’re in it for a fight, to realize, no, wait, we’re on the same page, we’re trying to figure out this whole eating thing, which is a really perplexing part of human life. And so being able to teach your students that that’s a skill, being able to ask questions that get people from want from thinking that philosophical discussion is just warfare, to thinking that we’re on the same page, and we’re both probably not understanding the relevant question. So we need to think about it more. I think that that’s a that’s a genuine art form, and one that has to have this relational, caring, loving dimension and do it if it’s going to work in a classroom.

Meghan Sullivan  24:06

I mean, here’s something we learn from Socrates. It might get like, tedious after a while, but he keeps going around telling people like, I’m the dumbest guy in Athens. Like, I’m just, I’m ignorant. I just, it was just what is thinking. And then of course, he goes on to ask a really like, you know, smart question about the nature of justice. But he’s disarming because he really tries to cancel out your assumption that he’s just trying to look smart. And in, in the Catholic tradition, I’m Roman Catholic, and we’ll talk in, in the history of Catholic thought about Holy fools, like people who they don’t they don’t have a reputation for being the smartest theologian. They don’t have the most theory or this big system worked out to try to explain something complicated about religious Faith. Instead, they just go around like noticing things and trying to bring them to other people’s attention. And oftentimes the things that they notice turn out to be extraordinarily profound. And it’s because they kind of go through their life in the simple way. But they are trying to really pay attention to God or to other people.

Meghan Sullivan  25:16

So I think also being willing to be, you don’t want a, like, cultivated jokey manner, if that’s not who you are, but also at the same time really checking your your intentions. I think we have to do this as great philosophy teachers, thinking, Am I trying to just perform philosophy? Do I just want Maria to think that I’m smart as a result of the speeches that I’m making? Or do I want her to get something, like, What’s the thing that I want to change in her the way that I want this encounter to give her something that she doesn’t have? And really being able to center other people rather than, like, our perception, or how we are perceived, I think that’s also a really, really important skill and a way of loving other people.

Maria Salazar  26:00

Yeah, and loving other people more generally as well, right? Like, presumably we all want to be in relationships in which that’s how we love and that’s how we are loved.

Meghan Sullivan  26:09

Okay, this is why I like bell hooks, one of many reasons why bell hooks is freaking awesome, is because we think that that’s the easiest thing in the world to, to, like, get get beyond our appearances as a teacher, and just really get engaged in like caring for the soul and changing the students that are in our classroom. But for some people, it’s way easier than others. And, you know, bell, bell hooks tells us that if you’re in a Black body, if you’re in a disabled body, if you’re in a woman’s body, if you’re in a short body, it can be really hard for the people that you’re trying to do philosophy with, to, to get never get beyond your appearance. It’s just because of all the weird structural factors that make some people only be walking examples of appearances, or change the way students are willing to engage with them. And so that, you know, a complicated part of being a teacher is learning how to also get students to lower those, lower those gates and appreciate you as somebody who wants to give this to them.

Maria Salazar  27:15

What do you think the best way of doing something like that might be? Like if you feel that you are already pre-judged based on your appearance, so for instance, you know, being a woman teacher. I mean, so when I first began teaching, I was told that I would wouldn’t be taken very seriously because I was a woman. And I remember, I remember walking into the classroom thinking like, ‘well, the first thing I’m going to do, I’m going to, I’m going to go up to the board and write a word in Greek and that’ll get them,’ right. And I did that. And then I turned around. And in the front row of my classrooms, my first classroom I ever taught, was a student who I actually went to high school with, who sat behind me in homeroom. And it completely obliterated any idea I could ever have of authority of, right. And so in those instances, like, what do you do, right? What do you do to make it so that you can still be a teacher, but also be able to be loving and loved?

Meghan Sullivan  28:20

Yeah. First, I think it’s important to note that this is hard. Like, you know, we live in an era where the Chronicle of Higher Education every single day posts, like your three hacks to win authority back in the classroom, as though it’s the kind of thing like, if you just wore a black suit, everything’s gonna be fine. Or if you speak in a lower register, or if you like, make the students call you Professor Salazar, then the problem is going to be solved. Well, no, like the problem of misogyny is not going to be solved by a really simple hack that you just learned about on a Wednesday morning

Maria Salazar  28:54

Like writing Greek on the board, for instance.

Meghan Sullivan  28:56

Yeah! Like these are significant problems. It’s taken ages to try to create structures where wisdom can be pursued by fallible, sometimes awful human beings with each other. So I’m realizing like these are genuine problems. And I think when I’m talking to graduate students, or early career teachers, and they’re noticing these problems, one of my obligations as somebody who’s a more senior teacher, is to listen and really try to understand what’s going on for them and to take it seriously. So not just say, like dismissively, “A,h Maria. You’re never going to be taken seriously in the classroom. So don’t worry about it.” That’s garbage advice!

Meghan Sullivan  28:58

Like instead, it’s being like, “Okay, one Maria, teaching is hard the same way like you know, performing cardiac surgery is hard. And when you first start doing it, it’s going to be really hard, but you’re going to great get get a lot better at it over time. It’s and you’re going to develop your own style for doing philosophy with students and you’re going to learn through trial and error how that does work. are instantiated in your practice. And I’m here to help you try to figure that out. And that means kind of dialing into particular dynamics that are not going well.” And I like to get really specific, I think, with teachers who are struggling with this. So don’t just say like, “Well, my sophomores in this new class don’t respect me.” But say like, specifically, what are the things that you’re noticing? “Well, they’re always like four days late turning anything in.” It’s like, okay, well, let’s work on how you convey to them the importance of turning their assignments in on time, and what you can do to kind of nudge the right behavior, and then also hopefully have a better discussion about the why.

Meghan Sullivan  30:39

This is super time consuming, by the way, which also means Rome wasn’t built in a day. And if folks are trying to build their teaching persona, it’s gonna take years for them to get it right. And a lot of coaching and support and help. It’s also why teaching evaluations delivered the day after Thanksgiving are not the best way to tell how an early career teacher is doing.

Maria Salazar  30:57


Meghan Sullivan  30:57

But it’s a big investment. And also an investment on the part of somebody who’s learning the skill of teaching, and you got to kind of walk I think, before you run and, and see it as a kind of skill that you’re, you’re really working on different dimensions of at different times. But it’s a humongous issue. And it’s one that definitely does disproportionately affects teachers of color, and women and teachers, it just don’t fit the easy, you know, culture does so much in how and how we learn. And certain kinds of cultural scripts that students pick up on just makes it “easier”–scare quotes–for them to learn in certain kinds of classes. But those scripts are screwed up. And they’re not wisdom producing.

Meghan Sullivan  31:01

So one of the hard things we have to do as teachers of philosophy is try to do the really hard work of rewiring those scripts. And I think even Socrates kind of knew that. I mean, you can look back didn’t have a lot of diversity in the people he was doing philosophy with, though, did I mean, he did do it with children and with slaves, he broke out of the mold of smart people and sophus. But Socrates was also trying to get Athens to rewire its practice of teaching and learning philosophy. And also, I mean, you don’t tell this to early career professors. At the end, it didn’t work for Socrates. it was so hard that he found himself going up against an incredibly powerful current in Athens and he ended up, at least within his life and practice, failed. Of course, we learned from, from his example, and it’s, it’s helped further generations of philosophers. But it’s, it’s a difficult task, I think we have to take it the task itself with a fair bit of humility.

Maria Salazar  32:35

Yeah. And hopefully, we won’t end up like Socrates, though.

Meghan Sullivan  32:38

I hope not! I worry, at the end of every semester, doing like teaching evaluations, or we do podcasts about teaching, I worry if I’ll like say that one thing that’s gonna get me brought in front of the assembly.

Maria Salazar  32:53

A nice tea for you.

Meghan Sullivan  32:54

I know! Thank God for tenure.

Maria Salazar  33:00

Well, I mean, so this goes back to the bell hooks point about, you know, appearances and so on, how it makes an effect, it makes the loving relation more difficult. And in a way, it seems like, at least to me, that love is the only way to kind of break that, that relation of, you know, judging somebody based on appearance, judging somebody based on preconceived notions, or so on, and so on. I mean, we do this all the time, right, when we sort of seem to love somebody because of how they fit in with our lives. And we tend to say that that’s not a good or appropriate way of loving, the appropriate way of loving is, is loving somebody precisely in the way that you said, you know, for who they are, and in a way that you give them gifts, right? You give them the gift of your presence, you give them the gift of yourself, you give them the gift of your time, etc. And you also give them the gift of being lovable, right? To love appropriately means to be lovable in return. It’s it has to be and it seems like love really is the only way. I mean, I hate saying it because of course it sounds so hippie, like we were saying in the beginning. That love seems to be the only way to get past a lot of these problems.

Meghan Sullivan  34:20

Yeah, I I totally think that I mean, I I drink the Kool-Aid! I’m writing a book about love and moral philosophy right now. So I think about all the time trying to try to make it sound really smart and sophisticated, when it is seemingly relatively simple, but very demanding kind of moral theory. I think a lot about this philosopher Iris Murdoch who she was a teacher, she was a novelist, she was a philosopher writing in the middle of the last century. And she talks about love as a kind of looking at other people like an intellectual looking at other people. She’s a Platonist, so the this idea of like perceiving the truth or perceiving the good is really important to her understanding of what it is to be a good person, to live the good life. And she gives examples about people who actively work to try to change how they are intellectually perceiving other people. And she thinks that’s has really the essence of love.

Meghan Sullivan  35:19

She has this great example, in ‘The Idea of Perfection,” of this mother whose son gets married. And the mother just doesn’t like her daughter-in-law, but she’s always like super polite to the daughter-in-law, she invites the daughter-in-law over for meals, you can imagine she’s really effusive and tries really hard to be generous to the daughter-in-law–she just knows she doesn’t like her. She doesn’t like the look of her, she thinks she’s like, boring, she can’t understand what her son sees in her. But the mother also realizes that this is like a defect in the mother’s life. The problem is not necessarily all with the daughter-in-law. Some of it is what the what the mother-in-law is willing to allow herself to see in this woman who she finds annoying. So she works over time, and trying to interrupt these thoughts of my daughter-in-law is boring, my daughter-in-law is annoying, to interrupt those thoughts and just keep making yourself like, look, again, she’s like, you know, she gives herself these little speeches, she’s like, I’m petty, I’m small minded. Let me try again. She never shares any of this with the daughter-in-law. In fact, it would be weird, it would hurt their relationship if she did it. But she just keeps, like working and working and working on trying to see her daughter-in-law in a more loving light. And she does. And this, Murdock says, is a kind of moral improvement for the mother. It’s something that’s a credit to her character.

Meghan Sullivan  36:39

And we can do this with students. I mean, how like, how often does this come up, you got a guy in your class. And from the first day of class onward, you’re just like, man, I just don’t like it. I’m really nice to him. I’m super professional, I treat him the same way I treat every other student but man, I just don’t like the look of him. I don’t like the way he asks his questions. Maybe you start to realize you’ve got a bias about what you think is like the smart philosophy student versus the annoying philosophy student. And you want to be a great teacher. And you think that thinking about the student in this dismissive way is unfair to him. And so you force yourself to like, look again. “Let me look again, at his paper. I think he’s annoying, but let me look again at his paper and try to gather like, what is it about? Why does he write the way that he writes? What does he think he’s doing? What does he care about?” And maybe giving more attention to that student and who he is, and what he’s learning that he gives himself. That’s almost always true–if you’re a good teacher, you’re thinking way more about what’s going on in that student’s mind and life in the class than they’re even aware of. And you just, you know, giving that gift of attention and presence, where you’re thinking a lot about that person, trying to get them into a way where you’re able to see what’s really dignified and worthy of philosophy in them.

Meghan Sullivan  37:56

And again, this seems really like, idealistic, but in fact, it’s totally the kind of thing you can do. You think like, “oh, my gosh, annoying kid is coming to office hours.” Take a minute here and try to think like, I’m gonna let down my assumptions about who he is, or that he’s annoying. I’m gonna stop calling him annoying kid in my mind. And instead, look again and think like, what’s going on for this guy? What, why? Why am I happy to share philosophy with him in particular? Why would I be happy, even if he doesn’t learn, like, doesn’t become skilled at philosophy, but at least we got to do this together for a semester. And that’s a kind of really important moral improvement, I think for teachers.

Maria Salazar  38:38

What kinds of things do you think we should be aiming at that are morally significant?

Meghan Sullivan  38:42

I mean, look, we’re transmitters of wisdom. Like, it’s a much bigger deal than teaching students how to like solve a differential equation that a computer could definitely do faster and more reliably. So I think philosophy professors should really shoot the moon. This is also the kind of stuff you can say once you already have tenure. I love Aristotle on this, you get to the second chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics, and he’s teaching his course on happiness. And he’s incredibly ambitious. The first chapter is the meaning of life and the function argument and what exactly the what exactly defines human beings against every other kind of animal that’s only the first day of class. And then you get to the second chapter, and he says, you know, sidebar, we are undertaking this examination not so that we can know what virtue is so not not so we can like define Plato’s vocabulary words about happiness and virtue, but so that we might become happy. Otherwise, there’ll be no benefit of it. You are taking this class not so that you can know philosophy facts for trivia night someday, but so that you can be happier you can be a happier person, not just feel happier, but actually be a better version of a human being. Otherwise, you know, there’s no point in this. That’s so ambitious! We don’t talk that way, I think, normally, at universities right now. And there’s an easy objection that just waits for any philosophy professor, you would say that is like, ‘Who are you, Maria Salazar, to think you can improve my life?’ But that’s exactly the business that we’ve been in for the last 2500 years, is thinking about death for a 14-week philosophy of death and dying class is not only going to teach you some facts about how philosophers debate this really important subject, but it will actually give you significant tools that are gonna help you handle one of the hardest problems any human being is ever going to get dealt. And I want my teaching evaluation to be based on whether or not that works. And that’s the really ambitious part of this business. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. That’s what we should be holding ourselves to.


Meghan Sullivan  41:03

Maria, maybe I can pitch this question over to you. So from the Greeks onward, philosophers have been in this business of categorizing various forms of love: eros, philia, a little bit further in time we get agape. Maybe some of the listeners don’t even know the definitions. Honestly, sometimes I have to like Wikipedia the definitions to get them all right. Which of these love categories do you think is the most interesting, especially when we talk about something like teaching? You can share yours and I can share mine. And how do you define it as a category?

Maria Salazar  41:40

Sure. So mine is one of the ones that sounds really creepy when you say it. So I think eros. I’ve worked on eros, I think eros is fantastic. But you know, saying that you want to develop an erotic relation with a student is suspect, it just sounds wrong, right? For obvious reasons. The essential quality of eros, the one that we’re looking for, that differentiates it from other types of love, is that its reproductive, right. So it seeks to reproduce in kind. And so what that means in the obvious sense is, you know, you reproduce sexually, you have a child and so on. But the more relevant sense, the real sense in which Plato means it, is that you’re reproducing things in the image of beauty or in the image of justice, right, which is really what’s going on, when you when you’re loving somebody else. I’m loving an individual person because I see them as embodying, or being an embodiment, or instantiating, in somewhere or other the beautiful, the good.

Maria Salazar  42:47

And so through us together, you know, we together can reproduce the beautiful and the good. And it’s going to look like you, it’s going to look like us, it’s going to have our stamp on it. But it’s not, I’m not reproducing you, I’m reproducing the beauty in you or the good in you. And I think that’s what makes it great. That’s what makes it fantastic because, I mean, it’s completely creative. There are obvious political elements to it, right? If I reproduce justice with somebody else, I’m reproducing, I’m creating justice in the world, and which is why it’s so important. So Socrates called himself the Erastes, the lover of Athens, he loved Athens. He didn’t just love it. He was erotically in love with Athens. And what that means, yeah, he just he wanted all of Athens. And so finding himself as an Erastes of Athens meant that he wanted to reproduce the justice that he saw in the Constitution, right. So it’s so very distinct from what we imagine loving a country. So he didn’t love Athens, because it was his. It wasn’t his nation. He loved it because it was beautiful. And because he loved it, he wanted to create more beautiful things in its image. And so what I imagine is important for loving a student, when I love anybody, and when I love a student, I see something in them that I think should be reproduced. And that’s fantastic. So in that sense, it moves me. it involves a part of myself that I’m giving into the relation.

Meghan Sullivan  44:29

Because I both come at philosophy from a religious in a Christian context. And I teach at a Catholic University so we’re allowed to put Catholicism anywhere that we want it to be. We’re allowed to reproduce a lot of Catholicism if we want. Something that’s become really important to me, a form of love that’s really important to me and thinking about teaching, is agape, which is this idea of a kind of selfless love that’s offered really broadly and the model in the Christian tradition comes from comes from the parable of the Good Samaritan. But this idea of how do you fulfill this obligation to love God and to love your neighbor with the right intensity? So that’s kind of the fundamental moral question for Christians, and we get a couple examples of it and, and the tradition in the Bible, like one is the Good Samaritan, this guy who’s willing to go to extraordinary lengths to care for total strangers who are in need. So you can’t just give it to the people that you like, or the people that are going to benefit you down the road. Love is something that’s so important that you really owe it and you owe the capacity to see it in other in other people, even if they’re very distant.

Meghan Sullivan  45:44

One thing that’s also really important for Christians, and I think a lot about in my own teaching, is we have this story of God becoming incarnate as a person. So this idea of God being extraordinarily powerful, and knowing everything and having the capacity to do anything, and getting all of the glory, but still being willing to kind of come down to our level and to be like with us, and one of us in the form of a person and being willing to like empty Christian philosophers, sometimes he’s this idea of like emptying himself, of all the things that was frickin awesome and transcendent and wonderful God, to be here with us so that he could hopefully, like pull us up out of our darkness and ignorance. And that that’s an extraordinary act of love. And the really smart people, like Mary in the tradition, or people that understood that or tried to understand that just kind of pondered it and held that mystery in their minds.

Meghan Sullivan  46:44

So what does it mean to love students? Well one, not wanting to be above them, and not wanting them to perceive me as so much smarter than them or higher than them or distant from them, but instead really wanting to figure out what are the things in them that I have the capacity to elevate or to make closer to God or to be more dignified. To love your students is to be able to come down into their world and find those things and then pull them back up. And that’s a kind of, that’s a way of showing agape. And when we think that this is like God’s ultimate form of love was his capacity to do this for us. But we also have the capacity to do it. And with a lot of help in a haphazard way for each other to really try to understand and see somebody else, and see what’s really dignified and beautiful in them, and then pull it out.

Meghan Sullivan  47:36

So the thing that makes that kind of love, maybe different from eros, or there’s a lot that makes it different from eros, but one of these really interesting tensions I think they come out of wanting to incorporate love and pedagogy is a gap is about how you perceive your student. And there’s a lot more work on trying to really just understand and see that bit of dignity in them, and then figuring out how to move it. Whereas eros is a lot more about doing things together with them, and making things and being productive in the classroom. And probably it’s not either/or, especially for incomplete non-gods, like us, it’s probably important that we activate many different appropriate forms of love and friendship as appropriate, certainly with graduate students or certain kinds of students. That can be a really important dimension of learning and caring about wisdom together. But needing to have these different categories to understand the different goals, I think is incredibly helpful.

Meghan Sullivan  48:37

This is maybe also why love is incredibly important topic to think about in pedagogy because there’s trauma that comes, we know, in other forms of love. And there’s definitely ways that teachers can inflict trauma on their students. I think it’s very unfortunate the way this plays out sometimes in graduate school, which is a really intense, oftentimes interpersonal relationship between teachers and students. And it can be traumatic, and that can do a lot of damage. And sometimes if you’re not paying attention and thinking philosophically about how you care for your students, you might reproduce forms of trauma that you had in relationships when you were learning before. And we see that dynamic play out in really serious, life-altering ways, sometimes, in the field that we’re in.

Maria Salazar  49:21

How do you think we can rectify something like that? So if I’m a graduate student–I’m not saying this is me, by the way–but if I’m a graduate student who hasn’t felt loved appropriately, how do I even how can I even imagine a world in which I, as I say, if I were to become a professor, how could I imagine a world in which I love appropriately? I’ve never seen something like that.

Meghan Sullivan  49:47

These are hard issues, and why teaching is such a morally serious enterprise as well. I think that they’re like the Chronicle of Higher Ed three quick fixes to reversing trauma. No, it’s going to take a lot of work. One thing I have thought about, not in the teaching context, this is the first time I’ve actually connected the dots on this, but other forms of love, it is a little bit amazing. I have people in my life who have suffered from pretty serious forms of trauma and abuse. And nevertheless, are amazing mothers, partners, friends. We do have this miraculous capacity, as thinking, rational, emotional beings to change the terms of the most important aspects of our life. We can’t always do it, some some things are way too hard for us to bear. Certainly a lot of things are too hard for us to bear on our own. But, we’re not animals. We can sit back and think, I have an idea about what a good graduate program will be like, I have an idea about what a truly just classroom would be like, I haven’t been in that classroom yet. But I can crawl out of my platonic cave enough to kind of glimpse the good and to understand it in theory, and I can try to build it here and learn as I go and improve it. I have this idea of a goal that I’ve not yet seen. And there’s a there’s a bit of faith in that. But I am weirdly optimistic that even people who’ve never gotten the chance to experience these really great teaching goods, still, through a lot of work, and deprogramming and reprogramming might be able to build the system that they’ve never gotten to be part of. And I think we have to have that faith if we think that there’s any hope for racial justice in universities right now. Because for better for worse, we’ve not had classrooms that have been loving places to certain kinds of students to students of color, we just have never had that. So it’s going to be philosophers who are willing to work on dreaming up like what the kind of justice and love in the classroom looks like, scenarios that we’ve not yet experienced to try to make those possible.

Maria Salazar  52:00

I’ve actually never really considered it this way, that the desire for loving is somehow not placed in the loving action. It seems to come from somewhere else. But it’s this ingrained desire to love. It’s a desire to have a desire, right? And it’s very strange. And it’s quite nice. We’re always constantly desiring this desire.

Meghan Sullivan  52:24

Oh, my gosh, yeah. And this, these get to the point of like, why so much academic moral philosophy is about the meaning of the word ought in English, or like whether duties are wide scope or narrow scope, like, cool. But for the average person, the most morally interesting and fraught and thought about parts of our lives involve love. Like, was that text message to my sister-in-law to mean? Or should I break up with this person? Or should I drop everything to pursue this? Those questions of love are the things that engage us almost every day, kind of like breathing philosophically. And so that’s exactly the kind of work that philosophers should be doing to try to help and strengthen and point in the right direction. And sometimes I do worry that the the high paid professional philosophers are wasting their time with some of these more dry topics when we should, you know, we should go Greek and just be thinking about this one all the time.

Maria Salazar  53:20

You know I agree with that.

Carrie Welsh  53:24

Thanks for listening. And if you want to hear more, Meghan Sullivan has a new book out with Paul Blaschko. The book is called “The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning.” And we have a whole new audio series coming soon on ethical issues in higher ed. If you like listening to Ethics & Education, we would love it if you leave us a review on Apple podcasts.