A Lesson in Disinterestedness

Is it really possible to teach lessons about knowledge being for its own sake and learning being its own reward? How, in our hyper-utilitarian age of credentials, competition, and consumerism can such things be instilled and affirmed?

Here is a story from when I studied in Poland.

It so happened that I would be absent on the date of a scheduled exam in “Main Problems in Philosophy” due to a conference and so I arranged to write my exam in the professor’s office in advance.

I showed up to his office at 1 o’clock and he handed me a piece of paper with two questions that he had written out for me:

1) How would you argue for God’s existence with a friendly agnostic?

2) Why is beauty so hard to define, and how would you discuss this with high schoolers?

He told me I had ninety minutes. It was quite a delight to write and we even discussed the conferences I had been attending as I wrote my essays.

When I finished, I was excited for him to read it, but he asked me to hand him my grade card for him to sign.

“You’re not going to read my exam before grading me?” I asked, perplexed.

He smiled as if to indicate that he thought doing so would indulge me too much.

“I’ll read it tonight so I can enjoy it. Weren’t you just mentioning something about disinterestedness?” referring to an earlier point I had made in the conversation.

Then he gave me a ‘5’ and wished me a great summer.

The kind of questions he gave me, the fact that he had written them out by hand, and the way he didn’t really need to assess me in that manner since I had been in a class of four with him for a whole semester are all details of a certain kind of education I received and for which I remain grateful.

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