As Nussbaum admits, however, her chapter gives little in the way of practical advice for how to get more Socratic methods into academia. She offers a couple of suggestions: following the Catholic (Jesuit?) university model of requiring at least two semesters of philosophy in college, or introducing philosophy to children early on in elementary education via something like the intriguing textbooks of Matthew Lipman. These are both great ideas, but I wonder how effective they would actually be in today’s modern educational environment.
The difficulty I see is not with the value of philosophy classes, but how and by whom they are taught. It’s all very well and good to see lots of philosophy courses that count as critical thinking in the curriculum, but one has to wonder how much of the crucial information is getting across when tenured professors sequester themselves into teaching graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses, leaving introductory courses to tenure-track professors and graduate students (who rarely if ever get any training in pedagogy, let alone the place of philosophical pedagogy in the humanities.) Heck, having no undergrad courses is seen as a sign of success almost universally across our discipline! How un-Socratic can we get?
Without our best thinkers on the front lines, at best students do not experience the liberating aspects of Socratic thought, but merely the best a good graduate student can do on a really tight schedule with no training. At worst, they experience the opposite of Socratic inquiry: defensive, pervasive doubt, and sophistical attempts to change the subject when a professor doesn’t want to look upstaged by a smart student in front of the classroom. When students see that — and I’m afraid it happens far more often than any of us want to admit — can we forgive them for taking the view that “it’s all just opinion” away from the course that is supposed to teach them exactly the opposite?
Recently, philosophy was controversially labeled a “problem discipline” within academia. In another recent incident, philosophers howled when NEH grants were offered to develop what were basically philosophy courses offered in other disciplines. One way to look at these debates is to see philosophy ignored by academia and the rest of the humanities: toiling ceaselessly with our contributions forgotten. Of course, another way of looking at them is to think that — just maybe —we’re not meeting a democratic society’s needs for education in our part of the humanities.
And if we’re not, we as philosophers need to change our discipline’s place within the humanities, our methods of educating young philosophers, and our expectations of our best to become educators of undergraduates and public intellectuals. (We also need to get a lot better at assessment — the Socratic critical thinking skills Nussbaum emphasizes, unlike some more esoteric philosophical skills, can be assessed.) Nussbaum is certainly pointing the right way here, and her credentials as a public intellectual cannot be doubted. But I wonder if philosophy teachers are ready to take up her challenge. If not — if we’re going to get all defensive about students and administrators just not seeing the value of what we do — maybe it is time for a new legion of Socratic critical thinking teachers to take up the reins, spurred on by grants from the NEH among other things. If Nussbaum’s right, it’s only our democracy at stake.