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The Value of "Why?"

Portrait of Steve Zusman
Steve Zusman, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Curiosity and the love of learning know no bounds.  Whether it is an adult learner taking a class at Waubonsee or a young child learning about the solar system, we humans desire knowledge.

In his quest for knowledge, my three-year-old son loves to sing the alphabet song with me.  As I recite with him each letter, I always pause slightly when I reach the letter Y.  It reminds me of perhaps the most important question people can ask and one that my children ask more than any other.  “Why?”  The philosopher Socrates famously stated more than 2,000 years ago that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and it matters not whether you are three, thirty-three, or ninety-three, the question “Why?” still motivates us today in the same way it did Socrates so many years ago.  It is with this question “Why?” as our guide that philosophers like me both question and explore the world in search of knowledge and truth. 

Philosophy generally is concerned with helping to formulate intelligible answers to some of life’s biggest questions.  The history of philosophy has primarily attempted to answer those questions using logic and reasoned argumentation.  As a philosophy instructor at Waubonsee, I travel a path alongside my students, guided by some of the greatest minds the world has ever known, such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, and Sartre.  We explore these questions in great depth and I try to help my students formulate their own answers to these questions.

The foundation for philosophy is set up in both our Introduction to Logic and Introduction to Critical Thinking courses, where we learn what constitutes a good argument and how to recognize common bad arguments (for instance, “Why are some arguments persuasive, whereas other arguments are not?”).  In Philosophy of Art, we explore questions of art and beauty (such as, “Why is art important?”).  In Introduction to World Religions, we examine the philosophical ideas that help shape the world’s major religious traditions (and ask, “Why do believers believe what they do?”).  In Introduction to Ethics and Introduction to Medical Ethics, we ask questions about right and wrong, good and bad (for example, “Why should I be good?”).  In the History of Philosophy courses, we follow the history of these important questions from ancient to modern times (and ask, “Why have the answers changed over time?”).  Finally, in the Introduction to Philosophy course, we explore not only ethics and art, logic and religion, but also theories of reality and knowledge (and ask questions like, “Why should I believe I know anything?” and “Why are we here?”).

Although philosophy requires a childlike curiosity, its methods require the deepest reflection and evaluating an argument requires the strictest of analyses.  Philosophy also has practical value.  Those with degrees in philosophy are some of the highest paid in the humanities and many in government, law, and the corporate world see the value in thinking critically that comes with a background in philosophy.  Philosophy’s true value, however, resides in its ability to answer the human need to question the world in a systematic way.  We all begin life as budding philosophers excited to explore the world, and a philosophy class allows us as adults to ask that all-important question, “Why?”.  

So as you come across the letter Y, whether it is singing the alphabet song to a child, or volunteering for your communit-Y, consider taking a philosophy course and replace that question “Why?” ever so briefly with a “Why not?”.

Visit www.waubonsee.edu/programs to learn more about the philosophy program, as well as the many other courses of study available at Waubonsee.

Steve Zusman, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

July 12, 2018