On the first day of teaching a new class, I start by showing my students Raphael’s The School of Athens. I tell my students that we will conduct our class, and our learning journey together, in the spirit of The School of Athens, by extending to each other the invitation to ask big questions and by creating a public place to propose tentative answers to then have them bolstered or refuted.
I then direct their attention to the poorly clad old man laying nonchalantly on the steps of the school, blocking the way of Plato and Aristotle who are approaching from the background. Rumor has it that this is Diogenes of Sinope, the “father of cynicism”. Ancient sources describe him as a frustrating individual devoted to a life of boastful simplicity and unhindered defiance of social norms. He’s a pain, an uncomfortable pebble in the shoe of all who have taken on an intellectual journey with passion and honesty. However, the stories say that “Still he was loved by the Athenians”. I urge my students to join the Athenians in loving the spirit of Diogenes: while seeking for knowledge, I encourage them to love the uncomfortable questioning of authority: my authority as a teacher, the authority of their textbooks, and the hardest of all authorities to question – that of their own entrenched assumptions about the world.