Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Is teaching 'a calling'?

First, if you're not checking out Worst Professor Ever, you should: funny, insightful stuff from someone who had the courage to put academic life behind her.

Second, I've been thinking a great deal about what sorts of attitudes toward teaching make someone a good teacher, particularly (though not exclusively) a good teacher of philosophy. A natural thought is that a good teacher sees teaching as a 'vocation' or a 'calling.' I think this is a very dangerous way to think, for reasons that Worst Professor Ever nails.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Quality teaching: Just add seasoning?

This article from the Journal of Political Economy got my attention with its provocative conclusion about the relationship between instructor experience and student learning. The researchers, Scott Carrell and James West, studied calculus courses at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a nice controlled setting: All students have to take the course, and instructors use an identical syllabus and administer identical exams. They then considered how students fared in related courses over the long-term, comparing the subsequent academic performance of students taught by more credentialed instructors to those taught by those with less seasoning. Drum roll...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Finding the Mean in Intro to Philosophy

(cross posted at A Ku Indeed)

Without a doubt, of all the courses I have taught, the most frustrating is Introduction to Philosophy (called “Classic Problems in Philosophy” at my college). Every time I teach it I am left thinking that the course was a total bust for one reason or another. I typically then try to fix the problems from the last run and alter the course next time, only to find that the changes fix those problems but create whole set of other new ones. Trying to figure out the course structure for this class that seems to maximally “work” can drive you a bit nuts.

One of the problems with this particular course is that it’s hard to nail down what it is meant to accomplish – or, perhaps, another way to think about it is that it actually needs to accomplish too many things at once because there are so many different types of students in it. On the one hand, there are the prospective majors or minors you would like to attract, so you need to give them enough coverage and depth in particular issues to allow them to more seamlessly integrate into the next higher level of philosophy classes.

On the other hand, it is clear that the course is mostly filled with non-majors. Some students take the course because they think it is interesting, some take it because it fills a distribution requirement, and some take it because it fit their schedule (and some for one or more of those reasons combined). That’s a lot of people with a lot of different agendas. Moreover, it’s also a simple fact that an introduction-level course in philosophy tends to have students with a wide range of abilities, a range that is considerably narrower in upper divisional philosophy courses. Let’s face it, for some students, theoretical abstract thinking of the type done in philosophy comes easy, or is fun. For others, it’s an extremely difficult task that they never seem to really get the hang of, much less enjoy. So you need to challenge the ones with more ability while not leaving the others behind – lost, dispirited, and probably hating philosophy as a subject.

There are so many ways to talk about the difficulties of teaching this class well. In this post, though, I just want to think about a a narrower question, with the above concerns in mind — should you use more content or less? In my previous times teaching this class, I went with a “three problem” format, where I taught a problem a month (lot of detail, obviously). Students who want to major love that approach. The rest: not so much. Moreover, all students are left with the incorrect belief that philosophers really just think about mind, free will, and personal identity, and that’s it.

This time, I swung the pendulum the other way completely. I used a book with 50 problems in it, and we covered a problem a day (36 in total, I think). My original thinking was that this approach would be better for the larger percentage of the class, as we wouldn’t get too deep into any particular issue so philosophy would be more accessible. At the same time, I figured, majors and minors would get a better grasp of the whole field, and I thought that might serve them well later on.

Bzzzzt. Wrong. I think this method is a failure – or at least it was for me teaching it. The future majors and minors were fine. No problem with them – but they are naturally interested in the subject, are willing to overcome frustration, and probably have higher ability levels overall (not that we make them that way — philosophy majors tend to come in with pretty high ACTs). The rest of the class…well, it didn’t work as well for the most part.

Why? I think I honestly underestimated, for one thing, just how difficult these problems really are. The book was simple – each problem discussion was four pages long — so very “coffee table” oriented, content-wise. But once you start talking about these issues, it is clear that each problem is a world unto itself and difficult to get one’s head around in one hour. Each of them requires more than a day to discuss, even if you keep things very, very simple.

Hence the problem: because the problems are so theoretically complicated – even when they are treated simply — many students (I think) felt frustrated and likely developed a feeling of helplessness. With no time to digest each problem, talk about it, reflect on it, and so on, it was like being hit by a mallet every class. “Didn’t understand Wittenstein’s beetle problem? Well, no worries, we’ll be moving on to the Liar’s Paradox next time, where you’ll be similarly thrown for a loop! And then on to the Veil of Perception! Ha ha!” I can only imagine how that approach dispirited many, leading them into total frustration.

This is leading me to think that perhaps the best approach is like virtue – in the mean. Not three problems, but not 36 either. Perhaps one problem a week, using the same book I just used. One way to go about it might be to ask students to choose, at the start of the semester, the 15 problems that seem most interesting out of the 50. From there, you can work on week-long discussions (with extra handouts and reading, perhaps) on those topics. I think this might actually work – not too much content, not too little, a lower level of depth but more time to reflect, digest and think about the problems we are looking at.

Or at least that’s what I’m thinking at the moment. Any ideas? Similar frustrations? Perfect solutions?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bad news on the student evaluation front

The legitimacy of student teaching evaluations is always hot button. (See some previous discusssions here, here, here, and here) As a halfhearted defender of the usefulness of student evaluations as a defeasible indicator of some measures of teaching quality, I find this study disheartening: Students aren't always truthful on these evaluations.

Dennis Clayson's college students have picked apart everything from his "impossible" tests to his choice of neckties.
The University of Northern Iowa marketing professor says he doesn't take criticism personally when students grade him on teacher evaluations, but he has wondered: Do they always tell the truth?

Monday, December 13, 2010

A weird student locution

We know students have odd tics in their writing. But in grading essays this quarter, I've come across this locution (or variations of it) a lot:
"According to S, S states/says/claims/argues ...."
Seriously weird, as if philosophers wrote not in the first-personal, but in the meta-first-personal: not 'I will argue that P' but 'I claim that I will argue that P'.

Anyone else notice this locution — does it tell us something about student writing, reading, etc. that we should take notice of?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Professorial Stereotypes

From an interesting short piece by Christine Overall (HT Samantha Brennan):
 I conclude that we have a responsibility to inform people about our work and clarify what professors do. This means making our professional lives more visible to our students and to non-academics. We can demystify our research by discussing it in our classes, publicizing our results through the popular media, and bringing our expertise to bear upon current debates in newspapers, magazines and blogs. We can talk with non-academic friends, family, neighbours and our own students about our teaching methods and goals, as well as about the support we need for enhancing what universities fondly call “the learning environment.” We can also inform students and the public about core values in the academy, such as shared governance, peer review and academic freedom, and how those values benefit the broader community.
If we think our work is valuable, productive and worth doing, then we ought to be telling people about it, rather than thinking our work is so profound as to be inaccessible to non-academics. And certainly not acquiescing in the cringe-worthy media image of professors.
 I wonder whether we should seek to do as she suggests, or just not worry about it? I tend to think we should try to undermine these stereotypes, as one way to underscore the value of philosophy in particular, and the humanities in general.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

AAPT Workshop on Teaching and Learning in Philosophy

Readers: Do consider submitting a proposal to the upcoming workshop on teaching and learning in philosophy, organized by the American Association of Philosophy Teachers. Details below the fold...

Undergraduate Philosophy and Religion CFP's

My colleague Matt Pianalto just started a blog that will compile calls for papers for philosophy and religion undergrads, for conferences, journals, and any other relevant events. You can check it out here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

75 tips for college students

The other night I got one of those emails from unknown students which just starts "Hey" and continues with some request (usually to be admitted to one of my oversubscribed classes). My immediate reaction is to ignore (that was my wife's advice) but this time I just decided to do something different. I wrote back explaining the over-subscription situation, and finished with this "By the way, you might want to address people you haven't met more formally in future: I don't find it irritating but many will" (which is a lie, I do find it irritating, but there's no need to tell her that). My original version had more verbiage in it, but my 14 year old (whose missives to teachers are like business letters) told me to take it out on the grounds that "she'll never do it again, but she'll be scared to meet you".

I was prompted to do this by Andrew Roberts' book The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education(see tip 53). The central idea of the book is that students need a map of how to get the most out of college, and that lots of them arrive not understanding key things. Why not just make it explicit for her?

In fact I don't currently have a copy of the book, because each copy I get goes to the next high school senior who walks through the door (which an alarming number of them seem to be doing these days). As suggested by this, 75 Tips would be a great Christmas present for the college-bound high school seniors and college freshmen of your acquaintance.

Roberts divides the book into 9 sections -- an explanation of how universities work; tips for choosing a college (upshot  - don't make such a meal of it, you'll like wherever you go pretty much); tips on choosing classes (including the sensible tip not to take more than a couple of classes with any professor -- because most of us have at most 2 classes worth of learning to impart) and on choosing a major; tips on being successful (including the excellent advice, too often neglected, to study with other people); on interacting with professors (don't address then in your first email with a "hey", go to their office hours (I always tell students this, and they say they have had experiences of being distinctly not wanted, and relax when I point out that if he really wants to get rid of you you can leave and he won't remember you), also, get to know at least one professor reasonably well, which, I should say, is brilliant advice but not entirely easy to follow at a place like mine); what to do with your extra-curricular time; whether and when to go to graduate school; and a final section explaining how professors behave and what incentives they are responding to (they want to research not teach, and teach graduate students not undergraduates -- a friend who recently graduated from an Ivy-ish institution told me that in his address to them on the first day of freshman year the Provost just told them that they should know that Professors would have no interest in them).

The tips are each easily digestible -- if you can't read the book you should maybe postpone going to college. My guess is that it will be read by parents more than students, but especially parents whose experience of college is 5 years or less (or none) would do well to read it to guide their offspring. But even those of us who know the college world well will only give at most half these tips to their kids, partly because some won't occur to us, and partly because others ("don't address a professor with "hey" in your first email to them) seem blindingly obvious. Apparently not.

I should probably disclose that the author sent me the manuscript completely out of the blue a couple of years ago (I've never met him) and I almost instantly gave him a good number of comments on it. There's one thing that I regret: the phrases "rape" or "sexual assault" don't appear in the index, and if I were giving comments now I would press him hard to discuss sexual violence on campus. But I was much less aware of the issue then than I thankfully am now.

By the way, the student in question did reply, almost immediately. She said "Dear Professor Brighouse, thanks for the tip, I will utilise it in future. Hopefully I'll be able to learn more from you in your class" which showed a willingness to learn and a slight cheekiness that I rather appreciated. Maybe I should give her the book. I have been very close to only a few undergraduates in my career, though I try harder these days (and my increasingly elderly demeanor seems to induce trust). I forwarded the exchange (stripped of the name etc) to a current undergraduate who is one of the handful whom I've known, and has known me, best (very well indeed), knowing she'd laugh, because after 4 years and numerous detailed email and personal conversations she simply can't bring herself to address, or even refer to, me as anything other than Professor Brighouse.

Crossposted at Crooked Timber

Open Source Teaching Materials

I recently ran across this article "Online Startups Target College Book Costs" in Bloomberg Businessweek. It discusses online textbooks and materials available for free download and for purchase at prices quite a bit lower than typical publishing. I wonder if anyone out there is familiar with this method of publishing and how well it might, or could, work for authors.
I presume this could work very well for students. For better or worse, at least many of my students access PDFs of readings on their phones and other devices. So this would just be more of that: although I do not like it, perhaps this is a trend that is irreversible and/or not worth fighting about.

My main concern is how well this would work for authors. A company Flat World Knowledge is mentioned in the article above; I could only find one philosophy or ethics book in their catalogue.

Some of my concerns (and some replies to my concerns) are these:

1. What kind of advertising / marketing would one get going this sort of route?

In reply, obviously there are tons of books put out by traditional publishers that get the "advertising" of being in a catalogue, sitting on display tables here and there, etc. but those books do not sell very much and fall stillborn from the press, so to speak. Maybe some higher-selling texts are often as a result of the authors' own marketing?

2. What sort of "prestige" or image is there with this route? How might publishing course materials in this way figure into tenure and promotion at various schools?

In reply, I do not know how the second question should be answered: perhaps it depends on the school, and I would hope that, at schools that are interested in teaching, they'd be impressed by materials that are designed to improve the learning process for students, by reducing costs and increasing accessibility in various ways. About the first question, I suppose it depends on what one cares about: if there's a way that e-publishing gets one's materials into the hands (and I-phones) of more students than many traditional alternatives, then, if that's what one cares, about, it likely won't matter if it's not with Oxford or whatever. Of course, if a major publisher can get the desired results, then one would want to go the traditional route: the problem there, of course, is that the costs seem to be higher than many students would like to have to burden.

3. What's the possibility for making some $ off a text?

In reply, I suppose many books don't make the authors any money, so the point is probably moot. But perhaps sales of printed versions would result in some money for the author, perhaps more than traditional routes due to the lesser overhead for e-publishing. And perhaps, following the contemporary music industry, perhaps there are alternative "business models" on which the main product is often acquired for free and money is made in other ways.

Here are a few of my questions. I wonder what other questions there are and what the answers should be. If anyone knows much about this method of textbook and teaching-material publishing, I'd appreciate hearing more about it. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Teacher Does What We All have Done, or Wanted to Do and Suffers the Internet Age

You may have heard of the viral video of a Cornell teacher reaching his breaking point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuLaQoQP9oo. I wouldn't include it, but for two things: 1) it was mentioned in Newsweek, and 2) it went viral. It might be worth it for us to talk about it. I showed the video to my students today in order to encourage some discussion about respect in the classroom - in both directions.

I felt so awful seeing the video. I know that I have done that, or the equivalent. I don't think that I have done it recently, but certainly I did it early on in my teaching career. You know how it goes: there are some behavioral problems in your classroom, you bite your tongue, use the principle of charity, soldier on...until you break. And when you break, you break big. The break will happen on a day when you are tired, the students appear especially passive, you have spent your evenings and weekends grading, grading, grading, preparing, preparing, preparing and, well, we all know what happens next: that one thing that you may have been able to shrug off two weeks ago just sets you off.

I asked my students to compare this to the incident a number of months ago of a Jetblue flight attendant who lost it with a rude passenger and quit. The general reaction was "you go!" People supported his moment of lashing out in a way that people online have not with the Cornell teacher. Why? I am not asking that rhetorically - I think that the question is interesting and instructive. For example, if a student were to lose it in the classroom we have a whole (administrative) apparatus that would be operative in dealing with the situation. But passengers in a plane are not merely rude but positively disruptive. My own students noted that the in the course of being angry about disruption, the teacher disrupted the classroom.

I'm not condemning the teacher - not at all. I can't, since I know all too keenly the instincts that compelled him and that he wasn't able to tamp down that day. But neither do I think that his behavior represents the best judgment (I would hazard that he would not either.) But why do we celebrate the Jetblue attendant's reaction to rudeness and denigrate this understandable (but perhaps not justifiable) reaction to rudeness?

I ask this also because I think that we can learn from this as teachers. The one thing that my students agreed on was that no matter what was and wasn't rude or over the line, the teacher's reaction was ineffective. That's probably right. So. Here are the practical questions:

1) How do we deal with behavioral issues in the classroom - especially a large classroom? (I exempt myself here - I can say "call the student into office hours," but my classes are very small compared to many courses taught by my colleagues.

2) How do we think about education, students, ourselves in a way that can prevent that build up of resentment and frustration? Some degree is inevitable: our students are frustrated, and often quite rightly and often for reason that have little to do with us directly. We are frustrated, mostly because we want to do well, and to have some sense that we are doing well. But day to day, it is very difficult to get a sense from our own students that we are reaching them in any respect.

Perhaps this makes clear what an emotionally complex terrain the classroom is. We haven't talked about this much. Are there things we want from students that are misplaced (a sense of accomplishment) and are there things that they are expecting of us that are misplaced (a sense of approval)?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The humanities in crisis: Never was?

Michael Berubé at CT launches a salvo against the 'humanities in crisis' CW (responding to an interview with Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust by Tamron Hall). I hereby quote at length (and of course invite sage comments):
...students are “now making the jump to more specialized fields like business and economics, and it’s getting worse.  Just look at this:  in 2007, just 8 percent of bachelors degrees were given to disciplines in the humanities.”  So things are getting worse?  Really?  No, not really, not even according to the graphic MSNBC put up at the :13 mark (data source: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).  Go ahead, look at it again.  I’ll wait right here.  Compared to 17.4 percent in1967, yow!  We are totally in trouble!  … except that the decline was entirely a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, when the percentage dropped to about 7 percent.  And it’s been 8-9 percent for the past 20 years now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A 'fatal error' policy for student writing?

Fifteen years ago, the business faculty at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville adopted a 'fatal error' policy for student writing.  They first identified what they called eight fatal errors in student writing: misspelled words, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, errors in capitalization, errors in punctuation that obscure meaning, mistakes in verb tense or subject/verb agreement, improper or inadequate citation, and failure to conform to the assignment format.

Here's the policy:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Philosophical 'violence' as an alternative to physical violence

Gerald Graff's 'Hidden Intellectualism' (Pedagogy, 2001) is a meditation on how students' seemingly unintellectual interests (sports, etc.) can be an avenue to the development of their intellectual dispositions and talents. (That's one way to see the nascent 'philosophy and popular culture' movement, as encouraging people to see patterns of philosophical thinking in pop cultural objects.)

Aside from this, Graff remarks that argumentation is often marginalized in educational settings because it too closely resembles the very violence that educators and parents are trying to forestall via education:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Reply, by Martha Nussbaum

The following includes some thoughts from Professor Nussbaum concerning our recent discussion of Not for Profit. We appreciate her taking the time to read and respond to the posts.


Martha Nussbaum

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.  

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010

The future of the humanities: Dollars and nonsense

More news from the 'future of humanities' front: Cornell president David Skorton is aiming to launch a nationwide campaign on behalf of the humanities, including a plan to "hire more than 100 humanists at various career stages over the next decade." (Dear Dr. Skorton: You can find my CV and other information here. Thank you, and I hope to hear from you soon.)

No doubt the humanities could use the efforts of an Ivy League president. It could also benefit from thinking outside the economic box. Two ideas along these lines:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Achieving the gender equitable syllabus

I'm not sure what to do about the inadequate representation of women in academic philosophy. There are certainly many explanations for it, one of which is that the relative lack of women on philosophy syllabi signals to women that they are not welcome in the profession and should not aspire to membership in it.

I simply don't know enough to say what role this phenomenon has in explaining the inadequate representation of women in our field, but it strikes me as plausible enough that we philosophy instructors should make efforts to include the work of women philosophers in our courses. Even if this turns out to have only a very small role in explaining the inadequate representation, it does no harm to include the work of women philosophers in our courses when appropriate.

This post at Feminist Philosophers motivated me to look at my own syllabi for gender equity and representation. The results:

Monday, October 18, 2010

We're still not teaching the meaning of life. Huh.

A few years back, we ISW'ers took a Yale law professor to task for his claim that the humanities have given up teaching about the meaning of life. Not so, said we philosophers!

But now, one of our own, the distinguished moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, is issuing a similar complaint. From a Chronicle of Higher Ed article on Stanley Cavell:
In God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, the latest in a number of recent books critical of the modern research university, the influential Irish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that "neither the university nor philosophy is any longer seen as engaging the questions" of "plain persons." These questions include: "What is our place in the order of things? Of what powers in the natural and social world do we need to take account? How should we respond to the facts of suffering and death? What is our relationship to the dead? What is it to live a human life well? What is it to live it badly?" Now in his 80s, MacIntyre is among a small group of philosophers who have sought to address such questions. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Requiem for the final exam?

The Boston Globe reports that university faculty are giving final exams less frequently:
In the spring term at Harvard last year, only 259 of the 1,137 undergraduate courses had a scheduled final exam, the lowest number since 2002, according to Jay M. Harris, the dean of undergraduate education. Harris said he’s hesitant to read too much into the numbers, which, he said, don’t include whatever final exams were scheduled in language courses, don’t reflect the other forms of assessment that have replaced exams, and don’t account for small seminar classes, which typically would not have a traditional, sit-down, blue-book final.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fish Food

Mark it: Stanley Fish said that the crisis of the humanities has officially arrived -- their collapse "already happened, on Oct. 1, when George M. Philip, president of SUNY Albany, announced that the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs were getting the axe."

His proposed course of action -- not necessarily for SUNY Albany in particular, but for humanists (and those who love them) generally: "The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them."

See the rest of his article at The New York Times's site, here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/11/the-crisis-of-the-humanities-officially-arrives/.

I'd appreciate it if someone could help me to understand what Fish thinks "the core enterprise" of the humanities actually IS. After all, as far as I can tell, he dismisses the central characterizations of (the value of) the humanities that we've been discussing here in conjunction with Nussbaum's book.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Class sizes revisited (now with Bystander Effect!)

A year or so ago, I asked about the impact of class size on learning, particularly in the philosophy classroom. The conventional wisdom among educators is that smaller class sizes are more conducive to learning, though (based on my limited knowledge of this literature) this conventional wisdom has not been easy to corroborate. In particular, the question of the impact of class size on student learning is hard to study at the post-secondary level. Suppose that a faculty member teaches two courses, one a 50-person lecture and the other a 4-student directed reading. That yields a student-to-faculty ratio of 27-to-1. But that number obviously conceals the massive differences between the learning experiences in the lecture course versus the directed reading.

So along comes a study tailormade to yield valid findings about the impact of class size on learning — and it suggested to me an explanation for why smaller class sizes might have a positive impact on student learning, particular in inquiry-oriented disciplines like philosophy.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The humanities in decline: Are we overreacting?

In the wake of our Nussbaum series, I found these discussions by W. Robert Connor, Cheryl Ching, and Ricard Greenwald of why the humanities endure (part I, part II) an interesting counterweight to Nussbaum's book. These authors certainly make the humanities out to be far healthier than Nussbaum does and imply that we humanists might be succumbing to a popular cultural trope: the declinist narrative.

Connor and Ching challenge the claim that the humanities (at least at the university level) are in decline. Yes, they are smaller relative to other disciplines, but that's due to an explosion in students studying fields like business. The humanities defy the declinist narrative:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Back atcha

Our friend and ISW contributor Harry Brighouse has directed Crooked Timber readers to our posts on Nussbaum's Not for Profit, but there's now a good discussion of themes and matters Nussbaumian going on over there. Do check it out!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Birkbeck conference: "Why humanities?"

Those who just can't get enough talk about the future of the humanities should check out the conference on 'Why humanities?' at Birkbeck, University of London on November 5. Here's the description

This conference gathers together some of the leading voices in the humanities today. The purpose is to discuss the value of their disciplines in the context of university cutbacks, with a view to developing newly articulated defences of the worth of research in humanities disciplines.

Not For Profit Episode 8: Don't Be Complacent.

Like the other participants in the symposium, I am very enthusiastic about Martha Nussbaum’s newest book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
To give the central argument in a nutshell – Nussbaum thinks that we are experiencing a crisis in the form of very great pressures to vocationalize education both at the compulsory and higher levels, and that these pressure are squeezing out the humanities. But education in the humanities, she thinks, plays a vital role in creating a citizenry that is capable of engaging in a fully responsible way in democratic institutions. It is through education in the humanities that we learn to understand and empathize with others – the humanities expand our imagination and help us to see the reasonableness of a great deal of disagreement on key questions. If the humanities are under threat, so is democracy itself – not necessarily the particular democratic forms, but the way that they are used by citizens.

I agree with a great deal of the argument, and think the book is terrific, and should be read widely. A lot of what I would have wanted to say has been covered already by the other participants, so I am going to restrict myself to two, rather disconnected, comments, neither of which is really new to the discussion.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Not For Profit: I shall not praise Sisyphus. I shall not praise Sisyphus. I shall not praise Sisyphus.

We expect too much from our students. It’s not because what we are asking of them is unachievable; it’s because we don’t give them what they need in order to do what we are asking them to do. The failure does not belong to those who came before us, the elementary schools, the High Schools. It doesn't belong to administrators. The failure occurs in our own classrooms every day. Yet, we go home convinced that, if only our students had been better educated, they would have seen the pearls we so foolishly cast into their pens. Yet, we continue to practice our old habits, teach the way we were taught, and decry the limitations of each generation of students. We roll the stone to the crest of the mountain convinced we’ve made progress, and there at the bottom lay another strangely similar stone. I shall not praise Sisyphus!
A striking feature in Prof. Nussbaum’s argument, and one that is commonly neglected, is that education in Humanities has become overwrought with failure on the part of its practitioners, and no one else is to blame but ourselves. By “its practitioners” I do not mean the elementary school teachers, the high school teachers, the college professors; I mean all of us who profess to teach in the Humanities.

In what follows, I will reconstruct Prof. Nussbaum’s argument to reveal the thesis that, I think, is at the core of what she is saying, something that is at the core of Humanities education, viz., that to teach humanistically, we must individualize instruction, avoid authoritarian reliance on tradition, and emphasize the development of intellectual skill over dogmatic insistence upon content. We must become practitioners of humanistic education rather than keepers of the mystical cult of wisdom. Following these considerations, I shall recommend a new way to approach teaching Humanities, one that needs no institutional approval, no financial backing, and no media press to fan the flame. What it will take, however, is self-honesty, the dethronement of our academic egos and the willingness to become teachers, real teachers.

In Ch. 4 of her book, Prof. Nussbaum leads with the Socratic mantra that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Liberal education, she tells us, functions according to the belief that “through both content and pedagogy” students will begin “to think and argue for themselves”, that the ability to think and argue “in this Socratic way” is deeply valuable. The “Socratic way”, then, begins with a deep awareness of ourselves. No doubt the self-reflective, Socratic way of thinking is under strain. But is the strain merely that from economic growth? Prof. Nussbaum argues that, “[t]o the extent that personal or national wealth is the focus of the curriculum, Socratic abilities are likely to be underdeveloped.” I don’t disagree that our Socratic way of thinking is under strain any more than Socrates believed that good reasoning was under strain during his time. I would disagree, however, if the strain on education were believed to be any different now than during Socrates’ time on account of the economic motive driving modern education. Nussbaum points out that the result of a culture that fails to examine itself is that it leads to the pursuit of ambiguous goals; it is easily influenced by the appeal to authority; and it is openly disrespectful of reason by treating argumentation as a zero-sum competition. Humanities education generally has failed in all three areas, but I don't think it's because of the pressure of economic growth. Regardless of the cause of the strain, the effect is the same; so too is the solution.

As Aristotle taught, “[the purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good…Otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit.” Nussbaum’s emphasis on Socratic self-examination and her consideration of the Aristotelian purpose of “the inquiry” provides sufficient evidence for the consideration that, what we have failed at in education is to take an honest, self-reflective look at the benefit of what we are teaching as THE driving force behind our practice.

Let me illustrate: Most of our students write very poorly. They also generally have limited critical thinking skills and a serious difficulty engaging in disciplined, academic conversation. Yet, we ask them to independently work through some of the most difficult literature in the Western philosophical tradition; we tell them how to think about this literature and criticize their naive interpretations; we, then, ask them to write on that literature in a clear and unambiguous way. Finally, we are surprised when they aren't any good at what we have asked them to do. The real question is not why they cannot think well or think critically or think Socratically. The real question is what are we doing to teach them to think well, think critically, think Socratically.

Humanities education today is on the defensive. While it is certainly possible for us to enter into the debate to show the economic relevance of Humanities education and the prudence of ultimately taking a Humanities degree a la Daniel Pink in a new Right-brained world, we haven’t done ourselves any favors in defending the Humanities because we often fail to do the one thing we most promisingly espouse: to teach our students the skills to think critically and imaginatively (and how to write similarly). We too often make the mistake of believing that, if we just throw texts at our students (and the standard critical objections and replies that we learned to pass our comps) our students will magically appear at the end of our courses as disciplined, critical thinkers. Alas they don’t, and we’re surprised when the next generation of students enters our classrooms far behind where we expected them to be. But wasn’t their previous teacher, instructor or school doing exactly what we have been doing all along, pretending that the encrypted texts we have come to value will transform our students into disciplined thinkers, even though they are without the skills to do so?

So what exactly is the problem? Humanities education is not the education of a set of doctrinal forms, propositions and institutions. It is not the education of a cultural elite that are gatekeepers of the promise. Humanities education, as it has been passed down to us from its founder and greatest practitioners, is the teaching of the skills that make relevant what it is we are thinking about, be it Aristotle or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am not arguing for the removal of Aristotle for Buffy, but I think we ought to consider that, when teaching, teaching the skills of writing and thinking is more important than the content we are trying to teach.

So what exactly is the solution? In a response to one of the earlier posts at ISW, Michael Cholbi makes a distinction between the investigative and the developmental face of education. The value of this distinction, I believe, was unfortunately lost when it became a question of teaching moral traits as opposed to intellectual traits. Discovery, or “investigation”, involves tools that need to be developed. The developmental process of acquiring the skills of intellectual investigation, however, is massively under-taught in our high school and college classrooms. Textbook instruction in basic logic is not enough. What we are after are the skills necessary for being able to have considerable access to a variety of points of view, and to be able to traverse these points of view, moral or otherwise, with relative calm, ease, understanding and clarity.

A few decades ago, the American Philosophical Association published “The Delphi Report” on critical thinking. It came out of the APA’s committee on pre-college philosophy. It is an amazingly helpful text when thinking about what skills we need to be working on with our students and what we need to develop in them through a wide range of intellectual practice. The irony of the document, however, is that it’s origin was a committee on pre-college philosophy. If you are lucky enough to have students with all of the intellectual skills imaginable in your classroom, kudos to you! But if you’re like most of us, it’s not just the pre-college practitioners that need to figure out what and how to teach about critical thinking. We need a good dose of honest reassessment, clarification and assistance ourselves.

We need to reevaluate the way we teach our courses. What if we put the development of intellectual skills first and content second? What if we made the focus of the course student-driven rather than exercise our degree given right to be the "sage on the stage"? What would our classrooms look like, and what would the experience of our students be? Consider Bok’s book on the underachieving colleges that Prof. Brighouse mentioned earlier. What happens when our students are moved from passivity to action when they begin collaboration? I don’t think collaboration is the “key” to the problem, but it is a good example of how passivity doesn't work, but agency does, because it’s finally a chance for our students to focus on the skills they need to begin understanding what we are asking of them. I see it everyday. I teach high school by choice. I have taught at four different high schools and one university. What I have experienced in unambiguous terms is that when students engage in the activity of developing their own intellectual skills, they learn very quickly and love what they are learning. But when they are stuck in tedious passivity, whether because of busy-work, or because the professor won't stop talking, their own intellectual skills atrophy, and they become bored and uninterested in learning. Perhaps it's not their fault; maybe when our students fail to learn it's because we are failing to teach. That's my thesis.

I think the most important idea that has come from the ISW project over the past four years has come from its creator: we must recognize that in education, we are the weird ones, not our students. We love studying this stuff, and they don’t; we have the intellectual skills to penetrate these texts and ideas, and they don’t. We cannot expect our students to do what we do until we teach them how to actually do it, because they don’t know how. Recall Aristotle: “The inquiry is of no benefit if it doesn’t help facilitate making people better.” When we teach Aristotle, it’s not because Aristotle has intrinsic value. It’s because of what Aristotle offers, the benefits that come from reading him. But if our students can’t read Aristotle, then we need to teach them how. That is what our practice should be about; and that is what we are not admitting, that we are actually pretty bad at teaching. We practice these skills pretty naturally; others don’t. And if we really value what Humanities has to offer, then we better begin thinking about how to teach the skills, not just the content, necessary for good thinking, and for democracy for that matter.

In conclusion, I want to offer a perspective from my own classroom. We study the standard content of the discipline, but the focus of my courses is how to develop the skills necessary to understand what we are studying. The point of teaching this way is that every student be taken seriously as an individual and taught to advance from where he or she is in the development of his or her intellectual skills, to the next level of investigative inquiry necessary for them to move forward. They learn how to think critically, to write and to dialogue in a disciplined, organized and thoughtful way, all the while learning how to see what is so interesting about the standard cannon of intellectual literature. I have changed my paradigm: I do not teach two classes of 17 students each; I teach 34 classes with two labs for inquiry and investigation. I believe this individualistic approach to teaching and the emphasis on skills is central to any Humanities education. We take students where they are and teach them forward. That is what Prof. Nussbaum insightfully had in mind when she wrote, "Each student must be treated as an individual whose powers of mind are unfolding and who is expected to make an active and creative contribution to classroom discussion."

I am deeply grateful to be a part of ISW and for the opportunity to reflect on teaching, teaching philosophy and the Humanities. I believe that what we do here is a small, but significant, step forward toward giving back what we have been given. There is hope for Humanities education, and it begins with taking seriously what our role is as teachers. Therefore, I shall not praise Sisyphus!

One Student's Story

This is very relevant to our discussion on Nussbaum. I have contact with some of my former students. One who has returned to college after a few years in business recently contacted me to discuss the quality of education he feels that he is receiving from one of the top 30 universities/colleges in the country.
In a word - crap!
Here are some of the reasons given:
1) Classes are too large - in many cases over 250 students. Professor shows little enthusiasm for what she is doing, talks in a monotone, and uses only PowerPoints.
2) One of the courses is taught by a graduate student who admits to being ill-prepared and often appears to not adequately understand the material being discussed.
3) Material in course associated with his area of concentration that should deal with real life situations, does not. The teacher admits that much of the material is not relevant to what they will face in actual concrete situations but maintains that she must teach this material, as it is required by the state.
4) Lecture, lecture, and more lecture.
5) In-class discussion section for one of the courses is essentially the students giving the material verbatim from the text without analysis by either the students or the instructor. In short, there is no discussion although the weekly allocated time period is supposed to be dedicated to analysis and discussion.
6) One professor gives materially incorrect information in the areas of his/her area of expertise.
This is a person who returned to school to get his teaching certificate so he could teach in secondary schools and emulate those teachers who he thought instilled in him a love of learning, but who is now questioning his decision because he thinks that he will not be able to teach the way he thinks he should; instilling in his students a love of learning and the ability to critically think about what is being taught and discussed. I wonder how many students we are turning off to learning by having the educational institutions that we presently have.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bleg: Workload, quarters vs. semesters?

Folks, I've posted a survey below  asking for input about the relative workload on quarter calendars and semester calendars. (We had a discussion of the merits of quarters vs. semesters back in 2007.) I'd appreciate your voting in this admittedly unscientific survey — and to keep the results as clean as possible, please forego Chicago style voting: vote just once. When you're done just hit the 'Next' button.

EDIT, 9/23: Several commenters note that they do not (or did not) teach the same number of courses per term (e.g., a 2-2-1 load). Note, though, that the survey asks how many courses you usually taught on either calendar.

Also if you have thoughts about the merits of these calendars, feel free to post them as comments. Thanks to all!
Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Not for Profit, Episode 7: Philosophy for Democracy

If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they do not make money. They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate (Nussbaum, Not for Profit, p. 143).

I always learn much from Nussbaum’s writings, and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities is no exception. Like the earlier contributors, I’ve found this book to be timely. (My college is in the midst of a “program prioritization”, and it’s quickly become obvious that even -- especially? -- academics on my campus have real trouble describing to each other the value of what we do in not-solely-economic ways that can be useful for planning purposes.) I’ve also found the book to be thought provoking, inspirational in its scope, and maybe even a bit heroic in its mission.

Michael and Chris are right to clarify that the real subject is not humanities per se, but humanistic educations, and I’ll be using “humanities education” interchangeably with “humanistic education”. Most of us know very well that subjects can be taught, and learned, in ways that are rote, that discourage critical thinking, and that stunt rather than enrich imaginative and empathetic capacities. Nothing about the study of any particular subject necessarily leads to any specific affective or cognitive outcomes! So, I think that the book should really have been subtitled, “Why Democracy Needs the Humanities To Be Taught In Particular Ways”, though that presumes that they should be taught at all, which is precisely the point of contention.

(“Democracy”, by the way, is most clearly characterized on pages 24 – 25: a system in which people “hav[e] a voice in the choice of the policies that govern [their lives]”, in which there is “a strong role for fundamental rights that cannot be taken away from people by majority whim”. And “humanities” are those subjects that foster imagination, creativity, and rigorous critical thought, but even subjects in the natural sciences can include those “humanistic aspects” (p.2).)

Many of the thoughts, questions, and concerns that swarmed me as I finished the book have already been raised and explored by my fellow commentators, so I’ll toss out (in the sense of “present”, not “discard”) a couple of topics and questions that haven’t yet come up. That’s not to imply that the previously-raised topics have been exhausted, of course!

1. As I made my way through Nussbaum’s book, I wondered not just whether humanistic education is itself at risk, but whether democracy itself – or, less hyperbolically, democratic citizenship as an ideal – is at risk. Though I’m well aware of the futility of harkening back to some putatively Golden Age that never actually existed, I found myself thinking about some of the ways in which, in this country, we’ve seen a general retreat from public engagement of all sorts, and maybe even from the idea of a citizen as anything more than a once-every-other-year voter. Clearly there are many who have been happy to see that. But in any case, it’s worth thinking hard about the extent to which commitment to democratic ideals is, as Nussbaum fears, a form of mere “lip service” (p. 141). Nussbaum’s book is, it seems to me, as much a paean to the value of democratic citizenship as it is to the value of humanities education. So, even people who are indifferent about the latter should find the book a stirring defense of the former.

2. Speaking of non-existent Golden Ages, I can’t resist noting the interesting and depressing similarities between Nussbaum’s concerns and those conveyed by one of my favorites, John Stuart Mill.
(As Nussbaum notes in the chapter, "Cultivating Imagination",) Mill was one of the most committed defenders of the kind of education that Nussbaum, too, advocates, and for similar reasons. In observing that there are some similarities in theme to an essay written roughly two centuries earlier, I don't mean to diminish the sense of urgency that Nussbaum brings to the conversation, but instead, I hope, to add to it.

In “Professor Sedgwick’s Discourse on the Studies at the University of Cambridge” (1835), Mill begins on a high note: “If we were asked for what end, above all others, endowed universities exist, or ought to exist, we should answer—To keep alive philosophy.” But he goes on to lament the “absence of enlarged and commanding views” in contemporary English society, a fault for which he suggests universities are at least partly culpable: “…Perhaps this degeneracy is the effect of some cause over which the universities had no control, and against which they have been ineffectually struggling. If so, those bodies are wonderfully patient of being baffled…. All is right so long as no one speaks of taking away their endowments, or encroaching upon their monopoly. - While they are thus eulogizing their own efforts, and the results of their efforts; philosophy—not any particular school of philosophy, but philosophy altogether—speculation of any comprehensive kind, and upon any deep or extensive subject—has been falling more and more into distastefulness and disrepute among the educated classes of England. Have those classes meanwhile learned to slight and despise these authorized teachers of philosophy, or ceased to frequent their schools? Far from it. The universities then may flourish, though the pursuits which are the end and justification of the existence of universities decay. The teacher thrives and is in honour, while that which he affects to teach vanishes from among mankind.”

3. It’s impressive to me that Nussbaum’s book itself manages to demonstrate several of the features that could be part of a humanities education. One of those features is especially related to the cultivation of imagination and moral sympathy: the careful interlacing of general claims and principles with the telling of individual narratives (by or about, e.g., Pestalozzi, Winnicott, and Tagore). While we'll want more empirical evidence of some of the causal claims than is found in the book, let’s say that the best case for humanities education requires telling the stories of particular people and the ways in which they have felt their lives enriched by humanities education. What does that mean for us as philosophy instructors? I’ll focus on what we can do in our courses; others have addressed and will address the equally pressing question of what we can do elsewhere.

We could help by, when appropriate, incorporating more writings from authors who straddle borders between philosophy and literature (Rebecca Goldstein, Richard Powers, and Colson Whitehead are contemporary US authors who come to mind) or between philosophy and autobiography. We could definitely help by continuing to resist pressures to increase class sizes, because the kind of “cottage” model that Nussbaum advocates fits poorly, it seems to me, with our actual “industrial” structures of class enrollment and teaching. And we could help by incorporating meta-level discussions into our conversations with students. Some of the most effective teachers I’ve seen – regardless of discipline – have been very explicit with their students about the fact that formal education is as much meta-cognitive (and I’d add, meta-affective) as it is cognitive. They have designed assignments that require students to reflect on themselves as learners, so that they can tell their own stories most effectively to audiences – including, perhaps, skeptical family members – who might need convincing of the not-solely-economic value of this sort of education.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Not For Profit, Episode Six: Passivities

Nussbaum's book is rich with ideas, examples and arguments. I'd like to focus on just two things, though if I had the time and the space, I've no doubt I could get wonderfully lost in a dialogue with and about this book. I will do a two part post. First, I'd like to focus on the notion of passivity and the role of imaginative capacities in education. Second, I'd like to suggest some conclusions I have drawn concerning administrative choices in higher education

Part One: Imaginative Capacities

Like most philosophers reading this book, I found myself nodding in agreement over and over again regarding the indispensability of a Socratic education. But I wonder whether Nussbaum's other central pillar of an education for democracy - imaginative capacity - is in some sense even more crucial and in more danger of disappearing. I wonder too, if it isn't the area over which the humanities and arts have the strongest claim.

Arguably, the mathematical, natural and social sciences are practiced best when practiced Socratically. In addition, the mathematical, natural and social sciences are exceptionally well-placed to engage students in activities that require independence, creativity and problem-solving. If the humanities and arts are being slashed at the expense of other programs that are regarded as more valuable, defending the arts and humanities as foundational for critical skills may not be enough (not that Nussbaum does that). In addition, in my experience, students who enter college with impoverished critical skills are nevertheless able to acquire them if given the right sort of higher education.

On the other hand, the arts and humanities are arguably in the best position to cultivate the ability to imaginatively project beyond the self and the present. One might say something stronger than this - that while this capacity is not the exclusive domain of the arts and humanities, it simply cannot be developed independently of it. I think this is true. In addition, in my experience, students who enter college with impoverished imaginative skills are rarely able to develop them further in even the best institutions of higher learning. I have suggested in the past that the explanation for this cognitive - some skills, if not developed at an early enough age simply atrophy.

Furthermore, if we still wrestle with the kind of passivity that motivated the great educational reformers to whom Nussbaum introduces us, and I think we do, it is the capacity for conscious, imaginative activity that is the key. Passivity is so corrosive because it strips thinkers of their agency - it weakens their ability to direct their attention and make choices about what to think about and how to think about it. In fact, it corrodes this ability to such a degree that among the things one who lacks it cannot imagine is that one can even exercise choice in such matters. As the late David Foster Wallace writes in his brilliant commencement speech, the inability to make personal, intentional, conscious choices about how to directs one's thoughts places a person in "an imprisonment so complete that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up" (This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, New York: Little, Brown and Company: 2009, page 32.)

Finally, the critical skills embodied in and developed by Socratic activity are at best hollow and at worst dangerous when not developed in dynamic interaction with the development of the kind of projective imagination cultivated by the arts and humanities. We wish to admire Socrates, not the Sophists. One thinks of current political figures whose argumentative skills are finely honed but whose conscious compassion and empathy are, to say the least, stunted. Perhaps this is the key to earlier concerns in this blog about the many examples of highly educated demagogues.

Part Two: Who, Specifically, is Behind All This?

There is no doubt that, as Nussbaum puts it, democratic education is on the ropes. The systematic dismantling of the arts and the humanities is only the beginning of a wholesale destruction of the democratic model of higher education for the purpose of political expediency and perceived economic gain. But who is doing this? As Nussbaum points out, the business world has been telling us for years that college graduates do not have the necessary skills for the workplace. Administrators hear that. But what they refuse to hear is that the skills they are looking for are: creativity, flexibility, resliance, precision, independence, and intellectual integrity. They aren't looking for flat-footed, instrumentalized "job skills," built for "the common man" in the "practical," "real world." It's not educators engaging in this kind of anti-intellectual, empirically baseless speculation. It's not the business community urging liberal arts colleges to become vocational institutions. And it is not educators or business people who are justifying the existence of higher education by re-casting the sciences along wholly pragmatic lines while using the same to sacrifice the arts and humanities. Nussbaum's example of the University of Chicago's Viewbook being scrubbed of all images of students sitting, thinking and reading in favor images of gleaming laboratories was haunting - not because it came as a shock but because precisely the same thing happened at my own small liberal arts college. The people who are driven by these anti-intellectual, short-term, callous motives and who are doing the hands-on work of dismantling higher education are administrators (obviously not all of them - there are many who fight the good fight). They are the fastest growing group in higher education, the group with the highest increases in salary, and, some have argued the main reason for rising costs in education.

One thing practical we can do right now is end administrative bloat.