Fuchs: Toward reasoned communication

Alan FuchsAlan Fuchs does not have to look far to see the deteriorating state of conversation in the United States. In terms of politics, he said, "So much of our rhetoric tries to almost give a caricature of your opponent's point of view, or you reduce it to an absurd position, which makes it difficult to communicate." In terms of the media, he said, "One side tries to shout the other down—that's not going to make any progress."

The result is a lack of communication—in government, in mass discourse and even on campus. Fuchs, professor of philosophy at William and Mary who was awarded on May 20 the institution's 2007 Thomas Ashley Graves Jr. Award for sustained excellence in teaching, said he believes such non-reasoned exchanges are antithetical to the strengthening of the diversity that marks the nation and the College. Among his goals in the classroom have been to help students to reason their arguments, to test their convictions and to be conscious of the fact that there are significant commonalities among people who hold differing opinions.

The Wren cross issue often came up in his classes, as did discussions of euthanasia, abortion, homosexual rights etc., precisely because it is emblematic of a larger issue, Fuchs maintains. "Given the diversity of background views, including philosophical and religious perspectives, how do we set the rules that we all can abide by in our common life?" he said. "How do we develop what some philosophers commonly refer to as an overlapping consensus?"

Fuchs has taught classes at the College that focus on ethics, on social and political philosophy and on philosophy of law. Course readings are heavy with historical philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant and John Locke, as well as with his own graduate adviser at Harvard, John Rawls. Fuchs uses the readings in order to "get the best possible positions" on important contemporary issues; then he encourages students to incorporate the reasoning methodologies from the texts into their own consideration of such problems.

"It's the process the students have to learn," Fuchs said. "When they get out of school and face a particular legal or business situation, they're not going to remember the particular details of Kant's third formulation of the categorical imperative, but if they have learned the process of evaluating a problem from this very distinctive point of view, that's something that is worth teaching."

In class, Fuchs walks among the students as he coaxes them to consider how one idea leads to the next. At one point during his consideration of his teaching style, he alludes to the Socratic method: "It is built upon the notion that the student does implicitly have this knowledge, and that what you have to do is to bring it out and help him or her to clarify it and see how it fits into a coherent pattern," he said. In that spirit, Fuchs masks his own views. If one side of an argument seems underdeveloped, Fuchs plays the devil's advocate; if the other side seems insufficient, he plays the angel's advocate. At another point concerning teaching, he alludes to a symphony: "A conductor doesn't make any music, but he or she brings it out and harmonizes it and gets the voices to speak to each other," he said.

Fuchs brings other practical strategies into his classrooms. Some he learned from ongoing conversations at the College, an institution that he believes remains far ahead of many of its peer schools in terms of its valuing excellence in teaching. One he borrowed from former talk-show host Phil Donahue. It involves eye contact. "You're engaged in conversation," he explained. "Move around. Get closer." Another valuable technique he learned from his wife, Janet, who taught honors students in secondary school. "She taught me the importance of wait time," he said. "When philosophers talk, part of the skill is this quick, sharp parrying. That's fun and often useful, but the great majority of people don't think that way, particularly about these important issues. It's not a terrible thing if you ask a question and the class is momentarily silent while the students think about their responses."

The sum of his in-class techniques has resulted in his courses placing among those most eagerly sought out by students of philosophy as well as students majoring in other disciplines. During presentation of the Graves award at the College's 2007 commencement ceremonies, President Gene Nichol said, "Alan's philosophy classes have won raves from students and colleagues alike for almost four decades, and now, as he acquires the title of professor emeritus, his daily presence, if not his lasting influence, will be greatly missed in James Blair Hall." Laura Ekstrom, associate professor of philosophy who admits that she has benefited from Fuchs' mentorship, said, "Students to whom I recommend Alan's courses often return to express gratitude and to comment on how much they have learned from him. He clearly commits his talent and energy to teaching. In virtue of this commitment and the evident respect with which he treats students and colleagues alike, Alan serves as a model for the rest of us in our work as instructors."

Whereas the students consistently evaluate Fuchs among the top-tier of William and Mary professors, his respect for them remains equally as complimentary. Although he has earned emeritus rank at the College, Fuchs will continue teaching classes in large part because he feeds off their enthusiasm. "It's been thrilling to teach here," he said. "I have taught briefly at other places, and there are many students who are willing to rationally defend their own views, but as a whole William and Mary students are particularly willing to engage in intellectual rigor and thoughtful views and respectful discussion. It is one reason I haven't been able to really retire."

Fuchs entered the teaching profession motivated by his "excitement and enthusiasm" in getting others to develop "a reasoned way of approaching very important problems," he said. On campus, his students consistently use his techniques as they engage their fellow undergraduates in the exploration of ideas: "They are devastating in their discussions in the dorms," Fuchs said. Once they graduate, former students routinely write to him expressing appreciation for helping them obtain the tools to successfully navigate the ethical issues involved in living in a society that seeks to continually balance the rule of the majority with a respect for the rights of the individual. "I got a letter from someone the other day who was out 20 years and who had heard about the Graves award," he said. "He still has his copy of John Stuart Mill, and when issues come up such as homosexual rights or abortion or just-rates of taxation, he thinks about them in the way that we taught in class. What could be more satisfying than that?"

In many cases, the College, as an institution of society, mimics the compositional makeup of the country. In that context, Fuchs is as content to let his students ponder campus issues as he is to steer them toward those with a seemingly higher visibility. In dealing with either, he reiterates that a well-reasoned approach might lead to finding what he calls "a coherent articulation of our considered judgments."

One technique he offers his students involves "writing the rules." The technique, which borrows heavily from Rawls' seminal "A Theory of Justice," involves having the students formulate their guidelines apart from their own political or religious preconceptions, "as if they were citizens living in this society that has diversity and that has these various other purposes," Fuchs explained.

The process helps people come to decisions that are just and that are intellectually defensible, Fuchs said. "It is not new. The reasoning behind it is the same as behind statements such as ‘love your neighbor as yourself,'" he explained. "It is an articulation of the idea of agreeing on the principles that would be reasonable for all people to agree to irrespective of their particular interests."

"In our society, people say things such as ‘I disagree with what you say but I'll defend your right to say it,'" Fuchs continued. "That's a remarkable point of view. In many other cultures, if you say the wrong thing people may kill you."