Thursday, December 18, 2008

Teaching philosophy: The discipline or the problems?

Bruce Fleming is worried that teaching literature is now less about literature and the worlds literature represents than about teaching the discipline of literary studies. Is there a parallel problem for philosophy — that we sometimes teach the discipline instead of teaching the problems that inspired the discipline in the first place?

Fleming on literature's pedagogical woes:
We're not teaching literature, we're teaching the professional study of literature: What we do is its own subject. Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarified a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays isn't, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes, and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives. It's, well, academic, about syllabi and hiring decisions, how works relate to each other, and how the author is oppressing whomever through the work. The literary critic Gerald Graff famously told us to "teach the conflicts": We and our squabbles are what it's all about. That's how we made a discipline, after all.

Nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who've just touched down on Earth. We professional storekeepers explain the vegetable section, the dairy section, the meat section, note similarities and differences among our wares, variations of texture and color, the fact that there's no milk where the applesauce is, and perhaps the fact (which we bemoan) that there are no papayas. We're teaching the store, not what's in it. We don't presuppose visitors know anything about where the things on display came from; if they do, it's because we told them — that can be our work too, speaking of the world before it ended up in the grocery store. But we're the ones who decide whether or not to include that world outside, and how much. We just want to rack up sales. All this fixation by the storekeepers on the store misses the point: People grow food in order to eat it. Similarly, books are meant to be read. Reading is the point of a book, not integrating it into a discipline.

Thus, Fleming worries that the academic study of literature has distanced itself from the human concerns that lead people to write and read, with the result that students may learn a great deal about how to study literature but miss out on the insights into the human condition that literature may offer.

I'm in no position to say whether Fleming's views on how literature is taught are accurate. But I'm curious whether the critique applies at all to teaching philosophy in academic contexts. I expect that there is such a problem in graduate philosophical education, but I'm thinking in particular of the introductory level philosophy course, where oftentimes the course objectives are both 'disciplinary' (help students learn to reason, read critically, etc.) and 'humanistic' (help students understand their own ethical or philosophical views, appreciate timeless intellectual problems). Can these objectives be pursued simultaneously? The very best philosophy instructors succeed on both scores, but my own experience is that this is quite a challenge. To the extent students come to such courses with any expectations at all, those expectations are largely humanistic (they want to know what to think about God's existence, immortality, human nature, ethics, etc.) and students find the emphasis on disciplinary objectives off putting. Logic and close analytical reading are hard, after all, and suggest that answers to these humanistic queries are more elusive than students might have expected. Being turned off by philosophy's being a discipline is of course a sign of intellectual immaturity but understandable all the same. Students reasonably think that what we have to offer them is not a set of techniques but answers (or at least sketches of answers).

Conversely, students who gravitate to the disciplinary dimensions of philosophy are often uninterested in its problems qua human problems. I've taught a number of students who I would describe as good philosophy students: quick, with agile minds. But many of these students seem to have a relationship to the problems of philosophy that's actually very arid. There seems to be little at stake in their minds with respect to such problems.

Is this a challenge in the philosophy classroom? And if so, how do we meet it?


  1. Hmm, I would have thought it better to teach students how to think than what to think. But perhaps that isn't exactly what you meant when contrasting 'techniques' and 'answers'. Perhaps it's more an issue of how the teaching of techniques is presented -- i.e. are they being taught as a means to enabling students to discern important answers for themselves, or are the techniques taught in isolation, apparently as an end in themselves (or at least as an instrument of unknown or unclear application)?

  2. I don't think philosophy need worry about succumbing to the equivalent of where many literature departments have found themselves. However professionalized we've become, we're still reading philosophy.

    As someone whose teaching philosophy is more Russellian, I tend to think that our job is to take students away from their concerns and subjectivities and to leave them with larger concerns having little to do with themselves. Philosophy is one way to do this.

    The humanistic impulse - to ask the big meaning and wisdom questions - is to be applauded and encouraged. But I don't think that any single discipline ought or can fulfill this desire. Rather, it is something that can only be achieved through a thoroughly broad and deep intellectual engagement in the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences. Such engagement takes a lot of time and a special appreciation for the history of all these disciplines. It really can't be done in four years, though the best institutions provide the groundwork for achieving it over a lifetime.

    In short, to ask philosophy to do what a liberal arts eduction should do is to ask too much. I don't worry about philosophy - I worry about the state of higher education in general.

  3. Interesting blog, and topic. I've often found that discussing philosophy with people who don't or haven't studied the field in an academic setting, the conversations are vastly different than those philosophers have amongst themselves. Though this isn't unexpected, and likely happens in any field of study, it does seem to indicate a difference in how professional philosophers view their discipline as opposed to how students or lay audiences do. Though this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it is unfortunate, as philosophy allows individuals an avenue to examine their place in the world unlike any other discipline. Teaching or helping someone think in new (better?) ways is something philosophers are in a prime position to do, and it may be their greatest strength.


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