Educate Yourself

As philosophers, we have a facility with critical thinking skills. We can identify hidden, weak, or unjustified assumptions in an argument, push positions to their logical or practical conclusions, identify defining values, find common ground, open up new options, and, as Wittgenstein would say, make strange the familiar. However, a set of critical thinking skills is not a substitute for knowledge of a field. I realized early on that my skills and knowledge as a philosopher and my experiences with addiction would only go so far.

I needed to vastly expand my knowledge of addiction and recovery research as well as popular understandings of that research. The two can be quite different. I needed to understand the defining questions, entrenched disputes, dominant theories, emerging trends, newly opening fault lines, and the major players in the field. I needed to be able to identify the dated views and not make the mistake of addressing them when the research had moved far beyond. I needed to be a cartographer. I approached my education in this field as seriously as I had my graduate education in philosophy. I read widely, ranging from monographs and academic journals to memoirs and news articles, listened to podcasts, watched documentaries, attended conferences, and took online courses. No matter how much I learned, there was (is) always a concern that a fraud alert will sound. In a culture that values expertise acquired through formal education (as I discovered with our own Counseling Center), there is an added burden to prove one’s knowledge.

It was interesting becoming a student of addiction research. I have always known philosophy carries a disciplinary arrogance. This may be a consequence of the discipline’s longevity; ours is one of the oldest. Many of the natural and social sciences have roots in philosophy. The arrogance may also be a legacy of philosophy’s practitioners. It is a field that continues to be dominated by white males. White women and men and women of color remain underrepresented. Graduate school is where some of us become genuinely arrogant while others fake it in order to be taken seriously or appear legitimate. Our college’s Counseling Center scratched my surface and my arrogance seeped through. While I cannot counter the actual or perceived arrogance of our discipline, I could address my own by cultivating humility. One way I did this was by becoming a student of taekwondo. I was the only adult in some classes; it was late-forties me with my posse of children who would regularly correct my blocking, striking, and kicking techniques. It is hard to be arrogant when several adolescents say to you, “Miss O’Connor, you are going the wrong way.” Humility also helped me to cultivate patience about all I did not and still do not know about addiction and treatment research and the accompanying public health, public policy, and legal considerations. It is an achievement and not a cop-out to acknowledge that I am doing the best I can and now know when to consult others who are working more closely on a particular dimension of the problems.

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