I want to thank everyone who contributed to this Symposium, because I learned a lot from it, and I admire the thoughtfulness and engagement of all the participants. Rather than answer each person one by one, I will now take up some themes that come up in several posts.
1. The Humanities In America
My book concerns a worldwide problem. This problem is certainly evident in the U. S., particularly in K through 12 and in state universities, which have recently suffered some alarming cuts (at SUNY Albany, to name just one notorious example). But it is also worth insisting that the humanities are in a comparatively healthy state in the U. S., because of several unique features of our system. First is its commitment to liberal arts education at the undergraduate level. Although under strain, this commitment is holding firm, as liberal arts colleges see a marked increase in applications. This system allows us to do two things at once: on the one hand, to prepare all young citizens for citizenship and life; on the other hand, to offer a more intensive training in one subject that in many cases will be preparation for a career. In most countries of the world (Korea being the only exception I know) this system is absent, and students have to choose just one subject. So, if they don’t major in humanities, they don’t do any humanities. Our system gives us a fine answer to the parent’s first objection: their child can get a solid preparation for a career, while still also getting a broad-based liberal education. If the parent doesn’t care about liberal education, we are entitled to say at that point, citizenship is for all, and we are entitled to require all young people to learn the skills it requires, whether this parent cares about it or not.
The second feature of our system that I have come (slowly) to love is its embrace of private funding. Private funding works to insulate the mission of our colleges and universities from political pressures, but it works only because of the antecedent commitment to liberal education – which means that bankers, CEO’s, and so forth have all studied philosophy and literature. What I find when I talk to our trustees and donors is that people who have become wealthy remember with delight and love the time when they studied ideas for their own sake, talked about Plato with their friends, etc., and that memory keeps them committed to supporting those activities. Politicians, by contrast, have perverse incentives: for their careers require them to show results before the next election, and this frequently leads to an instrumental conception of higher education, in which it is measured by its ability to help the state’s economy grow. The system of private funding is made viable by our tax incentives and by social norms that attach prestige to support for universities. Most other countries don’t have the structures that make our system work, and it would be difficult for them to start them.
We must not be complacent. Foundation giving to humanities has declined, during the past five years, from 17 percent to 14 percent. So we must all work to keep our donors involved with campus life, creating interesting intellectual events for them and telling them about what we do. I fear that a lot of us don’t bother to do this.
Those who are in public colleges and universities need not despair, but your job is harder, because the people to whom you owe your livelihood have not been selected on account of any love of higher education or expertise in it. So what you have to do is talk more, write more, just make a larger effort to show the worth of what you do.
2. Humanities Teaching Today
Like Harry Brighouse, I think that the humanities need to examine themselves and to ask whether they are playing a role that is worthy of what they can offer to democracy (and to individual lives). Not surprisingly, most participants focus on philosophy, where I believe that teaching is relatively good and things are in a relatively healthy state, though even here there is room for improvement. If we turn to literature departments, however, I believe that we do not always find there the respect for rigor in argument that we ought to find, and we often do not find the idea that opposing positions deserve respect and sympathetic scrutiny. I think that the American public believes that we all demonize conservative positions and engage in indoctrination for left-wing ideas. When this challenge has been posed to me (as it was by several of the callers on a recent C-Span Book TV show), I insist on the way in which we teach respect for argument and form communities of cooperative endeavor across political and ideological lines. I believe this to be true of many if not most philosophy departments, and it is certainly true of the University of Chicago Law School, where I spend most of my time, and where there are real conservatives to be confronted, as is more rarely the case in philosophy. But in literature departments I so often see opposing positions demonized and not engaged with seriously, and I think this is a grave failing of our culture.
Another failing might be the teaching of skepticism, but that is not one that I frequently see in philosophy teaching in the areas I know best (moral and political philosophy). In fact students come into the classroom with a naïve sort of relativism, believing that to assert a definite position is to denigrate people who think differently. And then, if things go well, as they often do, they learn the difference between mutual respect and relativism, and they learn how to conduct a respectful argument with people who think differently. They learn that having a position does not mean insulting someone else, because there is a way of putting forward one’s own position (by persuasive argument) that is not insulting but deeply respectful.
It may well be that people who listen to Fox News don’t think that they want this sort of respectful argument, but if they think again, they will see that democracy requires it for its survival. In a nation where dissent is demonized, democracy is at risk.
As for the suggestion that tenured professors shy away from teaching undergraduates, leaving that crucial task to overworked graduate students, that, again, does not correspond to my experience. Our Core courses that involve philosophy (Philosophical Perspectives and Human Being and Citizen) are taught in twenty-student sections about 95 percent of which are led by full-time faculty, many tenured. (Our administration requires departments to staff a certain number of sections of the Core, and if this were done inadequately, the department would suffer.) Nor is this sort of dedication a feature only of privileged institutions. My former graduate students teach in many different types of institutions, as the job market dictates, and they are all deeply immersed in undergraduate teaching. Where undergraduate teaching is not adequately staffed, we should certainly protest, but I think that the public is often under a misconception about the professioriate, thinking that we all dislike teaching, and we need to set this straight. Jason Nicholson is right: we must hold ourselves to a high standard, and teach humanistically. Where we don’t, we’re selling the humanities, and our students, short.
3. Critical Skills and Substance.
Certainly our students need more than Socrates: they need the cultivation of imaginative capacities, and they need to develop related virtues. How much of this is the job of the philosophy classroom. On the whole, I am with John Stuart Mill in his wonderful Inaugural Address as Rector of St. Andrews University. Mill says that higher education prepares people for citizenship, and citizenship needs the virtues, but not every part of the cultivation of virtue is the job of higher education. We have to rely on young people getting a certain formation of sympathy in the family and the schools, and university education will best be conceived as dialectical, showing the merits of the various philosophical alternatives and the arguments that support them. Of course when one has written things one can’t avoid having students know that one has positions, but then it is especially important, while showing the reasons why one has espoused a position, to encourage extremely strongly arguments on behalf of the opposing position, and students who are drawn to those positions. A classroom all too easily becomes hierarchical, and students can be afraid to diverge from the instructor’s known views. So empowerment of the opposition (whether it be utilitarianism in political philosophy or noncognitive views of emotion in philosophy of emotion) has always been one of my biggest efforts as a teacher.
But Mill made a further point, with which I also agree (and it’s closely related to Mike’s list of suggestions): universities may and should engage in “aesthetic education,” by which he means an opening and expansion of the imagination and the emotions through contact with works of poetry and fine art – but one might also include those works inside a philosophy curriculum, as Mike proposes. While developing the critical faculties, we can and should also cultivate the discernment of emotions and a type of flexible perspective-taking. This will become indoctrination only if it is not accompanied by critical challenges and rigorous argument.
Well, enough said. Let us carry on the fight wherever we are, by getting out there and talking to parents, trustees, and politicians, and by giving our students the painstaking genuinely humanistic instruction they deserve.