Picture of demonstration against the LIU lockout

Socrates On Flatbush Avenue: Reflections on the LIU-Brooklyn Faculty Lockout

by Margaret Cuonzo

On September 3, 2016, three days before a proposed contract was to be put to a vote, the unionized faculty of LIU-Brooklyn was locked out of the campus, university email accounts, and Blackboard courseware.  Salaries and health care were cancelled.  Hundreds of replacement teachers were hired.  Below is the text of a speech shouted from a loudspeaker to a crowd of students, faculty, activists, and reporters outside the locked gates of LIU-Brooklyn during a Teach In for students on September 9, 2016.  You can also view and open letter I wrote to my students, “Dear Beginning Philosophers” at the Gotham Philosophical Society’s website. Those interested in supporting the LIU Faculty Federation can go here or call the University President’s Office at 516-299-4177.

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Good morning, everyone!   My name is Margaret Cuonzo and I have been teaching philosophy here at the Brooklyn Campus of LIU for 23 years.   Some of that time was spent teaching about Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher who has come to be a symbol of philosophy itself.  Although no writings of Socrates are known to exist, we do know some things about him from his student Plato and other writers of the time.  Based on these sources, today I’d like to engage in a little thought experiment and consider what the famously wise Socrates might say and do about the LIU lockout.

First of all, Socrates wouldn’t be behind those locked gates pretending to teach courses when he really knew nothing of about the subject.   If there is one thing Socrates could admit it was his own ignorance.  Unfortunately, some of those “instructors” that the LIU administration has planted in the classrooms cannot do the same.   They are being paid a lot of money to teach one or two days of class.  More honest and sympathetic instructors readily admit their own ignorance to the students, but are being coerced into “teaching” classes.  In either case, this is the administration’s fault, due to its own ignorance of what is important for our students.  I have heard stories of what is happening in those classrooms: “Professors” are themselves students registered to take the very same courses they are assigned to teach; Dance instructors are harming student dancers’ bodies with outdated teaching methods; philosophy “instructors” have taken one philosophy course in their lives and can’t even pronounce the names of the philosophers whose works they are attempting to teach.  Some “instructors” have been assigned to teach two classes at the same time and are trying to do so by running from classroom to classroom.  Socrates knew that it is worse to believe and act as though one has knowledge when one is ignorant than to realize one’s ignorance and act accordingly.   Now, if and when the real professors get back in the classroom, not only will they have to teach the material, they will have to undo the damage being done right now by those fake professors.

Socratic ignorance as embodied in Socrates’ famous claim, “All I know is that I know nothing,” was meant to be ironic.  This is why the Delphic oracle pronounced Socrates the wisest man in Athens.  The kind of ignorance being taken for knowledge inside those locked gates has no irony.

More importantly, the LIU administration cannot admit its own ignorance with respect to what is good for this institution. They seek to take away faculty power over the curriculum, class sizes, who is chair of a department, and which classes with low enrollments should be taught in any given semester.  These are all matters of which an honest administrator would admit to not having full knowledge.  Yet, the administration, in its proposals, indicates that it believes it can best make these decisions without the input of the faculty and students involved.

Socrates, too, knew that true education does not have to happen inside the walls of any building. He did much of his teaching in an open air marketplace in Athens that resembles the Fulton Mall down the street more than it resembles the Humanities Building.  Socrates, of all people, would know that despite those buildings over there having the word “University” printed on them, education may not be taking place there.  And just because we are standing out here on Flatbush Avenue, this doesn’t mean that education isn’t happening out here.  Look at the professors standing here today.  Here is Dana Hash-Campbell, who danced and taught with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  There is Andreas Zavitsas over there, whose research in heat resistant adhesives helped shield Apollo spacecraft.  There is more knowledge out here on Flatbush Avenue than in that entire block of buildings behind those guarded gates.  If you want to learn something, it is best to be here near the curb with these people than in those supposedly “smart” classrooms with boards that don’t work and instructors with no training.

Let’s now turn to the most important contribution to Western philosophy that Socrates gave us: the Socratic method.  This method involves reasoned dialogue.  When we use this method, someone poses a question, and then an answer is proposed, and then a dialogue unfolds in which the participants analyze the answer, its consequences, and so on, and the answer is eventually revised, accepted or rejected.  “What is justice?”, “Can virtue be taught?” and many other such questions are treated in this way in Plato’s examples of the Socratic method.  At the end of this process, all the parties wind up knowing a lot more than they did at the beginning.  This is the beauty of reasoned dialogue: people end up in a better position of knowing something thanks to being able to engage in reasoning with others.  For example, at the beginning of Plato’s Republic, the question “What is Justice” is posed.  A speaker in the dialogue then proposes that justice is speaking truly and paying one’s debts.  Socrates then asks whether we should return a weapon lent to us by a friend who has now gone mad.  It is agreed that we shouldn’t return the weapon and shouldn’t be completely truthful with that person in some cases either.  So, this definition, that justice is speaking truly and paying one’s debts, is rejected, and they move one step closer towards arriving at a better definition.  Notice that this process takes time.  It is hard.  It involves accepting that one is wrong a good deal of the time.  Eventually, though, progress is made.

This is not what has happened with this administration.  For years, the administration has not engaged in a meaningful dialogue with its students and faculty.  Letters from the Faculty Senate have been sent.  Resolutions made.  Invitations to communicate made.   All that we get back is obfuscation and misleading claims such as “if faculty salaries are raised then student scholarships must decrease” when the administration knows full well that faculty salaries are just 10% of the budget.  This lockout, I am afraid, is the result of that same unwillingness to engage in a reasoned conversation.  Instead of working through the contract, discussing the consequences of it, how it might be revised, and what it would mean for the students’ educations, our hands were forced with a lockout.

While we can’t force the LIU administration to admit its ignorance or engage in reasoned dialogue, we can engage in such a dialogue here on Flatbush Avenue, as I imagine Socrates would have done.  What is truly important for our institution? What resources do we need? The day may soon come when this administration is gone.   Whether or not that happens, we have the power at least to be clear about what is good for this institution and its students and faculty. I look forward to being part of that difficult, important dialogue with you.

Margaret Cuonzo is Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of the Humanities Division at LIU Brooklyn.  She specializes in philosophy of language, logic, and philosophy of science, and is the author of Paradox.

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