Get Destroyed: College Philosophy Edition

By Sooyong Kwon

This is a story strung together by my Teacher Assistants’ comments on my submitted essays. So if you want to see me get destroyed, read on.

In the fall of 2017, I had just started school at one of the most resourceful and respected academic institutions in the world, and I realized there are roughly two types of people on campus: those who want to change the world through social work, and those who want to make a fortune. To me, either is a valid option, because people have the right to choose what makes them happiest. Though I find myself swaying back and forth between the two options at the moment, I was a part of the first camp when I first matriculated at this university. The joy of having “made it” to such institution while coming from a low-income immigrant background and the astute realization that I wouldn’t be here without the incredible support from my community compelled me to search for ways to positively change the world and to give back. I realized that policymaking is one of the most effective ways to make social impact, and so I decided to pursue Ethics, Politics, and Economics as my major, which focuses on the interdisciplinary tools used to analyze policies.

One of the pre-requisite classes for this major was Introduction to Ethics, taught by the famed professor Shelly Kagan. He is one of the best philosophers alive, and he believes in the grading scale as it was intended: A is excellent, B is good, C average, and D is, well, bad. To write even a half-decent essay to the standards of arguably the best philosopher of this century is immensely difficult, to say the least. Here’s a snippet of the feedback on my first essay, which I doggedly toiled over:

“I’m glad that you try, at the end of your paper, to respond to the instrumentalist’s challenge, although I’m not sure that your response is successful. Grade: B-”

Kagan told me to stretch my neck out to actually make an argument for every paper I submitted. But the first feedback did not deter me. I had just finished the IB Diploma Program at my high school. I had to make the decision of entering the Diploma Programme during my sophomore year in high school when I still wasn’t fully comfortable writing essays in English, and I had graduated the Programme with flying colors. Two beliefs had fueled me throughout the process. First, I have immense drive and work ethic. Second, I believed that I was smart. I’d always been good at my studies and understanding concepts. Hence, I believed that if I tried my best in anything I do, I could achieve it.

I was in for a big reality check. I spent even more time writing my second paper, and here’s a snippet from it:

“I thought you ran into some difficulties in the middle part of the paper when you discuss self-defense in particular. Specifically, I think there is an ambiguity between (1) the particular ends that a person has and (2) the person as an end in herself. This ambiguity makes you devote a lot of attention to the question of whether the receiver is required to help promote the attacker’s particular end of harming the receiver. In fact, however, the FH demands, not that the receiver promote all of the attacker’s particular ends, but merely that the receiver respect the attacker as an end in herself. Grade: B-”

I still have no idea how to fix what my TA suggested. I became very frustrated, and started to blame my TA. I’m trying, AND I’m smart. It must be that the TA doesn’t like me. Out of desperation, I asked to look at the essay of my friend who took the class with me. He happened to get an A, and I knew in my heart that our essays couldn’t be so drastically different in quality as to merit four grade differences.

Again, I was wrong. His essay was so eloquent, concise, and logically airtight that I found myself not envious, but awestruck at this beautiful expression of his mind. This is when I realized that I, perhaps, was a fish in the vast ocean, and that I wasn’t so smart after all. I was surrounded by the brightest of minds, and it seemed like I was mediocre at best. My self-esteem plummeted. Coupled with my irregular sleeping patterns and obsessive studying habits that often meant skipping meals and not exercising, I started spiraling down. My skin broke out badly and it seemed like I had so little going for me on campus. It was a gloomy period of time.

My experience in this class isn’t a cinderella story either. The third essay feedback is as follows:

“First, with respect to the moderate Humean view, you say that derivative desires can only be criticized if they rest on false beliefs. But might the radical Humean argue that, in this case, what is criticized is not the derivative desire itself but rather the false belief upon which it rests? … Second, I’m not sure I understand your argument against the first objection … I really liked your objection to Kantianism, but I think that it suffers a significant problem. Grade: B”

At this point, I had solidified in my mind that I was not smart enough for philosophy. Introduction to Ethics traumatized me well enough, and the two other philosophy prerequisite classes for my major seemed like a death sentence awaiting me.

The new semester rolled around, and I needed to take a class called Introduction to Political Philosophy. I pride myself on my work ethic, and so I tried hard to do well in the class again despite a glooming sense of futility. The first essay went no differently. Nothing else to expect from a dimwit:

“I’d like to see you think more deeply about what is being lost in the attempt to resolve the politics/religion problem. Grade: B.”

When my frustration reached a level unknown to me previously, it triggered something in me. For the next essay, I obsessed over the assigned readings like a maniac, scrutinizing over every single word and its relationships to the overall argument. I didn’t allow myself to skip over any sentence without having understood not only its meaning, but also its significance. I did that for over 200 pages of dense reading of Hobbes and Rousseau. I wrote three drafts, went to multiple writing consultation tutors, and dedicated so much time. To my pleasant surprise, the feedback for this essay was different:

“This is an excellent paper. The care and thoughtfulness with which you read Hobbes and Rousseau is abundantly clear. Grade: A.”

Fast forward to this semester, and I’ve just received feedback for the essay I submitted for my seminar class on Western philosophy.

“This essay is substantively good, but suffers from linguistic and stylistic weaknesses. You are smart, and it would be a shame if you were held back by something that can be fixed with a little bit of attention and practice! Grade: A-.”

My writing is still a work in progress, but at least my experiences have set me along the right path. Since we’re on the topic of philosophy, let me quote from this thinker who tortured me so much for the past two years:

“Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable” (Hobbes 65)¹. (citations still confuse the heck out of me.)

Yes, there are geniuses. It seems like there are more of them on this campus than anywhere else. However, for the rest of us who comprise the other 99.99% of the world population, our efforts determine our ability more than anything else.

I reject the idea of innate intelligence – it brought me down a dreary path of depression, inadequacy, and self-loathing. I felt numb, dumb, and not myself for the first time in my life. It wasn’t that I was not smart enough for philosophy. As an immigrant, I had limited experience reading academic works, and understanding philosophical texts with complex sentences confused me greatly. Even though I really wanted to, I didn’t give up and my efforts have rewarded me—my TA thinks I am “smart” now.

According to research conducted by professor of Stanford Graduate School of Education Susanna Claro, et al. in “Growth Mindset Tempers the Effects of Poverty on Academic Achievement,” growth and fixed mindsets matter a lot in your ability to develop. A fixed mindset is characterized by a belief that intelligence and abilities are innate and cannot be changed in a meaningful way. Those with a fixed mindset have unchangeable aptitude, avoid challenges and failures, and give up easily. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and abilities are not innate and can be developed with effort. They analyze mistakes, accept challenges, and learn new skills. Claro argues that students from all backgrounds benefit from mindset training that converts their fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Smartness is not an innate trait. It is rather a label that boxes you in, and when you fail at something outside of this little box, it devastates you.

Through my struggles with philosophy and the associated identity crisis, I have experienced firsthand the effects of having a fixed mindset. Now I understand that intelligence is not innate, as evidenced by my improvements in philosophical thinking and writing. I can again convince myself to dream wildly as I once did. After all, with enough hard work, I can do anything I set my mind to.

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