During one of those ethics classes, I sat through one of the strangest “discussions” I have ever heard. The course was taught for a couple of years by a good guy who liked to mix it up a bit with the students and was pretty quick on his feet. I don’t remember the overall context of the discussion, but at one point he said, in effect, a person cannot be said to have or be given a right if the person cannot exercise that right. For example, it makes no sense to say a person has the right to jump over a building if he or she cannot jump over a building, or to say that a dog has a right to read when I dog is not capable of reading.
A bit later, as the class came towards it close, the instructor entertained questions and it became clear through a little give and take that some number of students did not agree with the assertion that a dog does not have the right to read even though it cannot read. The instructor cleverly turned his questioning this way and that to get at the core of the students’ objection to the assertion. But the core was not forthcoming. I was caught up in the mystery and, having raised my hand said, perhaps people are thinking that, while a person does not the right to drink till he or she is 21, clearly he or she can drink and therefore ought to have the right.
My attempt at opening Aladdin’s lamp however seemed to fall on deaf ears. I had thrown my bread on the water but nobody rose to the bait. The instructor plodded on until finally, he uttered one of the strangest sentences I have heard uttered in an academic setting, “We all do agree, don’t we, that dogs cannot read!”
“Well,” they do look at the TV set, one student dumbly replied. Yea, intoned another, “How do we know dogs can’t read.” I am convinced that people can get trapped in a web of words, of false distinctions and empty jargon, of such power that they are sometimes led by the “logic” of that “discourse” to say and to believe the most amazingly absurd things. We all tend towards the solipsistic; only ongoing vigilance, effort, and the exercise of imagination keeps us from succumbing to it completely.
But this was something different. This approached something like a willfully and defiantly maintained delusion. I chewed on this case for some considerable time off and on over the years after. Eventually I came to understand the event more psychologically. The students clearly identified with dogs. Were they saying, as if from the depths of their unconscious, we are, in this class, like dogs. We cannot read either; we cannot make out any meaning in what we have been asked to read. We cannot understand a word of this, but, even if we are dogs, we have a right to understand, a right to grasp it, and that right should not be taken away from us even if we lack the capacity to do it. And who knows, you may not see it or grant it, but how do you know that I, like the dog, do not understand in my own way.
This was before the time “dawg” replaced “dude” as a casual appellation. That it—that one’s buddy is now a “dawg”—is worthy of some thought. But I infer from the above that students feel not infrequently like dogs in the halls of learning. I infer also that many students want to understand; but the method by which learning is delivered has so beaten them down that they can only sit in front of the TV quite wordlessly.