The Virtues of Difficult Tasks

Chris Schneck
Adjunct Instructor, Philosophy

One student – I’ll call her B – had an interesting past. She had gone to an elite midwestern university and failed out, largely due to her social life there. However, she often showed up excited and engaged, ready to learn. I was very early in my teaching career and struggled with keeping students engaged during logic classes. Logic is a course that even philosophy students dread, given that the content is so dry, but B would show up excited.

B started sticking around after class to ask questions. This is not uncommon for students who become interested in logic, but B did not seem overtly interested in logic, just learning in general. Other students would also start hanging around, and it became a common occurrence to sit around after class for a few minutes discussing the “why” behind different concepts. One night we talked about why you can add any statement you want after “or”, another about the nature of hypothetical statements and possibility, and so on.

Around the midway point of the semester, my own curiosity got the best of me. “Why are you so interested in such a boring subject? How is logic fun for you?” I asked her. I imagined she loved logic puzzles, or maybe crosswords. How else could you be so interested in such a dry subject? This is like teaching torts! She responded that “…it’s not about fun. It’s about learning something difficult. It’s about not getting it the first time and still mastering it.”

This really piqued my curiosity. As a young teacher just starting out your career you’re often exposed to the idea that you need to make everything fun. It’s difficult competing in that attention economy, and very little came of trying to make logic “fun”. However, nothing about “fun” really piqued B’s interest. “I’ll watch TV to have fun,” she said, and the others students agreed, “Yeah – it feels way better to get good at something difficult.” Not every activity requires fun to motivate us. Sometimes it just feels good to overcome a challenge.

This is something that still informs my relationship to my students. There is, it appears, a natural drive to want to master difficult things. Rather than compete for attention with various technological and social distractions, I give my students something difficult.