Thursday, September 9, 2010

Doing our part for democracy

In Chapter 4 of Not For Profit, Margaret Nussbaum defends her conclusion that democracy needs the humanities by highlighting the benefits of Socratic methods in education. Since we’re all philosophers here, I’m guessing we’ll have a hard time disagreeing with her on this point. While even the most skilled Socratic thinker’s passions can overrun his or her reason, it’s at least a bit more difficult with an inclination towards self-reflection and logical thinking.

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.


  1. Adam
    Very nicely argued. I would suggest that Philosophy Departments need to find ways to make philosophy relevant to the vast majority of students who are going to college not to pursue knowledge, but the information and skills needed to get a job and advance within a career. This is the reality -like it or not. One way to do this to to make the case that a BA/BS degree in philosophy counts for something and that one does not nee a MA or PhD. to make philosophy an integral part of one's life.

    I tell my students that as a business person I would hire someone with a major or minor in philosophy, or liberal studies, or humanities before I would hire a person who has only a degree in management, accounting, public relations, marketing, etc. I can train people the old-fashioned way, on the job, into the culture of the organization and what their jobs will require of them. What I do not have the time to do is to teach them how to think critically and imaginatively. This takes time – time that should begin, as Nussbaum (and others) so cogently argues, in the earliest grade levels. These critical thinking skills should be fully developed by the time students graduate from high school. Unfortunately, we, as educators, have failed miserably in this fundamental responsibility. How many students do you get intro courses that cannot write a coherent sentence, let alone, think critically?

    So, I would suggest that we find ways to train people to function philosophically (Socratically) out side of academia.

  2. Adam: You wonder if "how and by whom" philosophy courses are taught is an obstacle to philosophy's contributing more fully to the humanistic education that (Nussbaum argues) is needed for a functioning democracy.

    There's little doubt in my mind that you're basically correct, and that the problem is one common to nearly every academic discipline: how to integrate the faculty roles of educator and researcher. You ask if philosophy teachers are ready to take up the pedagogical and cultural challenges Nussbaum gives us. Maybe not, and for reasons stemming from the sort of training we receive: As many have noted, the Ph.D. is a research degree, for the most part. Nussbaum is understandably focused on K-12-college education, but don't her arguments suggest that graduate education in the humanities needs to change? That it needs to become more "humanistic"?

    So: Suppose you were designing a graduate program in philosophy from the ground up. Along with the usual goals of producing good researchers (and students who can get jobs!), what would the program look like if one of its central goals were to produce philosophers able to advance and maintain philosophy's direct contribution to humanistic education (and its indirect contribution to our democracy)? In short, how would humanistic graduate education differ from what we have now?


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