Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Episode 2: Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Marcel, and Glenn Beck

There’s really not much in the second chapter of Nussbaum’s book that I disagree with – in fact, I found myself doing a lot of affirmative nodding and muttering “preach it!” to myself under my breath as I read along. I’ll first mention a positive reaction I had to the chapter, and then focus on a concern that I break into two parts.

Much of what Nussbaum says reminds me strongly of the thinking of Gabriel Marcel (who I also tend to enjoy quite a bit). For Marcel, some approaches to life are ‘problem’ oriented (Nussbaum’s ‘growth’ model), and see things/situations as ‘problems to be solved’. Marcel thought that such an approach inherently involved drawing up a separation between the agent and the problem, and the cultivation of ‘techniques’ possessed by the agent to control and/or master the problem/thing. Other approaches are ‘mystery’ oriented (closer to Nussbaum’s human development model), and see things (or some one or more things) as not reducible to a formula or complete reductive understanding. They always involve an overlap between the agent and the issue in view, as opposed to a separation, and they do not involve techniques of mastery or control, but rather carefully cultivated attitudes (Marcel’s ethics) and abilities like creativity, faith, hope and love.

It’s not hard to see that approaching life always as a ‘problem’ leads a person to see others as means to an end (as they are objects to be controlled), always involves attempts to reduce others to ‘formulas’ and categories that can be ‘understood’ in a reductive manner, and so on, whereas seeing relations with others as in some sense involving mystery involves a kind of basic respect for the irreducibility of the other, and a commitment to cultivating critical thinking, creativity, tolerance, and love in one’s life. Clearly, the Marcel/Nussbaum approach is superior for the fostering of a strong democracy, whereas the remaining approach is destructive to it. I agree and concur.

Thinking in terms of respecting ‘the other’ made me think of a specific set of others – my students and their parents. Many of them, in Southwest Missouri where I teach, would not react well to what Nussbaum (or Marcel) says. Moreover, it struck me that Marcel-reading philosophers shouldn’t be Nussbaum’s intended audience – my students and their parents should be. I’m already convinced by the need for the Humanities. They aren’t, and frankly they are the ones who will lead the market-driven end to the Humanities that Nussbaum fears. So I tried to re-read the chapter through their eyes. Although I think I could come up with a lot of responses from their point of view, I’ll focus just on two questions or concerns that would arise quickly.

I. Objection One: I Pay a LOT of Money for College, and Nussbaum’s Concerns Aren’t My Own

We can read Nussbaum’s chapter as focusing on all private and/or public education, primary and secondary, and/or college. Clearly she means all of it, but some specific attention is given to colleges. I teach at a private liberal arts college. Many of my students and their parents are not interested in paying 20K a year to assure that democracy flourishes, or that students cultivate capacities that may or may not (in their view) lead to human flourishing. Instead, they are there to learn a trade, to earn the degree that functions as the gate keeper to the middle class and a low chance of future unemployment. Twenty thousand bucks is a lot of money, and let’s face it – my school is cheap.

Given that reality, how do we convince those in the audience that the Humanities are needed? Of course, the obvious way to go is to convince people of the instrumental good that these skills play in assisting people in their future economic pursuits. So we convince them that all those philosophy and romance literature courses really are, in the end, getting them the maximum bang for their buck.

Personally, I think as Humanities educators we do a poor job in outlining why this is actually true (me included). However, with Marcel in mind, I wonder: do we even want to reduce the Humanities to an instrumental good, to see it as yet another “technique” in the tool-kit of a person who already sees the world and others as ‘problems to be solved’ (controlled/manipulated)? I think Nussbaum would clearly say no, but I am not left, at this point in the book, with a good way of attacking this concern. I’m also left thinking that we are faced with a paradox that is similar to the paradox of virtue: how do you get people to approach the Humanities as a valued embrace of the mysterious if they are not already disposed to think this way? If they are not so disposed, what do we do then?

II. Objection Two: Isn’t Nussbaum Just a Card-Carrying Liberal?

Of course, one way is to appeal to a sense of justice that people have already from the start. In fact, Nussbaum spends a lot of time pointing out that growth orientation does not necessarily lead to increases of liberty, health, education, just distribution of resources, and so on. My imagined audience might well agree, suggesting that growth is not a sufficient condition for the more robust set of goods Nussbaum prizes.

However, I can easily imagine some of my students and their parents agreeing, but thinking that in the US we already have the kinds of minimum political entitlements that, with the growth model, suffice for justice. If there are inequities beyond this, this is not injustice but a matter of choice on the part of individuals (work harder!). According to these folks, the growth model + negative liberties are sufficient. To argue otherwise, they will object, is to inject a clear political – liberal -- aim into the education system. At that point you’re trying to train my kid (or my friend) to be a good liberal. Let’s face it -- that’s not going to play well on FOX and on Glenn Beck, and frankly the audience Nussbaum needs to hit to achieve her aim importantly includes that demographic.

So at this point, we’re left with an instrumental approach or a justice approach. The former caves into the very problem itself, the latter approach requires ‘going liberal’ (sort of like ‘going rogue’). Is that liberal approach present? To quote a famous speaker, “You betcha!” Just to mention one case: Nussbaum talks about how ‘fear’ can operate as the motive to suppress critical thinking, and that the adherents to the growth-model can push for the suppression of such thinking and such education out of a worry that basic injustices (on a number of levels) springing from growth-based systems will become apparent, and such transparency is destabilizing for the growth model. For the American conservative reader, this will sound off the wall, and an educational system (the Humanities!) that is based in this kind of thinking will be seen as indoctrinating in aim.

In sum, and again, I love this book – its message and its aim. However, given that I do truly care about both of these things, I so far worry about the delivery here. My concern is that non-true believers are not going to be motivated by much of what Nussbaum says – perhaps they may even be less disposed to the Humanities in the end.
These are all large problems I am pointing to here – not just for Nussbaum, but for all of us. Admittedly, I have no idea how to solve them without falling back into the trap of arguing for the instrumental value of the Humanities, and as I’ve already suggested, there is something not-quite authentic about that approach – in fact, when I use it, I am always under the impression that I am not being entirely genuine, and it bugs me.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Upcoming schedule: Not for Profit reading group

I hope all our readers have been doing the extra credit assignment and reding Nussbaum's Not for Profit. I kicked off our online reading group off last week, and here's the schedule for the rest of this event:
  • August 30: Chris Panza
  • September 2: John Alexander
  • September 9: Adam Potthast
  • September 13: Mike Austin
  • September 16: Becko Copenhaver
  • September 20: Vance Ricks
  • September 23: Jason Nicholson
  • September 27: Harry Brighouse
  • September 30: David Hunter

And as I mentioned, we'll also have a guest post from Tim Burke, and our author Martha Nussbaum will be replying to the posts once the group has concluded. I hope everyone will join in.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Episode 1

First, I'd like to thank Martha Nussbaum for putting her considerable rhetorical skill, argumentative ability, and professional reputation behind Not for Profit. This is the book that I suspect academic humanists have waited a long time for: a spirited, lucid, and accessible defense of their profession that directly confronts the challenges the humanities have faced over the past few decades, particularly at the higher education level. It is thus a worthy successor to her earlier book, Cultivating Humanity.

Since ISW is a philosophy teaching blog, I'd like to focus on two concerns that relate to the responsibilities of philosophers as humanistic educators. The first is philosophy's relationship to other humanities disciplines; the second, philosophy's reputation not for building human knowledge, but for destroying it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

One last reminder: Not for Profit discussion starts August 25

A last reminder (and an announcement): The start of our online reading group on Nussbaum's Not for Profit is August 25. I'm also pleased to announce that in addition to posts from the regular ISW contributors and a concluding comment from Martha Nussbaum, Timothy Burke will be guest posting during the reading group. Tim is a specialist in African history, but also dabbles in U.S. popular culture. His blog Easily Distracted is one of the most long-standing, and in my estimation best, academic blogs out there (and indeed, I've linked to Tim's work a number of times here at ISW: on assessment and institutional transparency, students' impulse to use phrases like 'fails to consider' in their writing, and most recently on tenure). I never fail to learn something and be provoked Tim's posts on teaching and higher education, so I know he'll offer  valuable insights on humanities education from a non-philosopher's point of view.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Oh great. Students are studying even less!?

As if helping students learn isn't hard enough: The time students devote to studying is in long term decline:
It is a fundamental part of college education: the idea that young people don’t just learn from lectures, but on their own, holed up in the library with books and, perhaps, a trusty yellow highlighter. But new research, conducted by two California economics professors, shows that over the past five decades, the number of hours that the average college student studies each week has been steadily dropping. According to time-use surveys analyzed by professors Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours.

The decline, Babcock and Marks found, infects students of all demographics. No matter the student’s major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Online teaching

I am teaching an online intro course for the first time and am wondering if anyone has some references on how to set up a successful online course. This course is for a community college. Any suggestions on how to do a good job would be appreciated. The text they use is A Journey Through the Landscape of Philosophy by Jack Bowen.

Call for Proposals: Teaching Philosophy Session at Central APA, 2011

The APA Committee on Teaching Philosophy is seeking proposals for a panel session at the APA Central Division Meeting, March 30-April 2, 2011, Minneapolis, MN on this topic:

“Does It Matter What I do? Student Engagement, Social Change and Teaching”

There are many ethical and social issues for which collective action would be required to prevent a significant harm or ameliorate an injustice. Some people (i.e., students) respond with despair to such situations, believing that it doesn't ‘matter’ what they do since their individual actions seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Others respond that they can make a difference, that what they do ‘matters.’ These issues raise some of the following concerns for philosophy teachers:

  • Philosophical issues: what’s the most reasonable response to arguments for and against personal obligations in cases requiring collective action?
  • Philosophy of education: what role should philosophy teaching play in contributing to social change and students’ social engagement?
  • Psychological issues: why are some people “optimistic” and others “pessimistic” here? What are the psychological (and sociological) influences?
  • Pedagogical issues: How do different teaching techniques influence students’ responses to such issues? E.g., does "service learning" or "community outreach" make a difference?

The Committee is seeking a panel of instructors to address these and related issues in teaching philosophy. Please submit a half to one page proposal by September, 15, 2010 to Nathan Nobis, Morehouse College, nathan.nobis@gmail.com

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

But I Want to Save the World Now

I am extremely lucky to have wonderful students, not just in the sense that they are diligent and eager, but also in the sense that like many students at my school they are intrinsically interested in the welfare of others. This post is also a bit of a preview to our reading group on Nussbaum because students like these have found a use, and indeed, perhaps the primary use, of a liberal education. But...they see it as impeding their efforts...what do I do with a particular student of mine who is a good example?

"Hand and brain are cognitively connected": Vocational education in a democracy

Not to divulge too much about Nussbaum's Not for Profit in advance of our reading group, but Nussbaum claims that the goals of education have become too oriented toward economic ends: for students, their future incomes, and for societies, economic growth.

Along comes Mike Rose with a beautiful piece reminding us that students themselves don't see their educations solely in economic terms.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

teaching argument mapping

Colleagues: inspired in part by some of Mara Harrell's research (and of course by the work of Tim van Gelder), I will begin including the teaching of argument mapping in my courses this semester. It seems particularly apt for the Informal Logic course that I teach, but I plan to try it to a more limited extent in my section of Intro to Philosophy, as well.

Rather than representing arguments in the classic

premise A
premise B
premise C

format, argument maps use lines, arrows, and boxes to represent visually the relationships between an argument's premises, intermediate conclusions, responses to objections, and main conclusions. I don't know enough sophisticated HTML to code an argument map here. So, for illustration, here's an example courtesy of the Wikipedia entry on argument mapping: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Traffic_congestion_straw_man.png (the conclusion is at the top of the map; the supporting premises are below the main conclusion). There are several software tools -- some available gratis; others not -- for creating argument maps. The hand-and-pen method seems to work, too.

I can see several possible advantages to teaching students how to map the arguments they'll encounter. It seems especially useful for more complex arguments and/or for students who describe themselves as visual learners. But I'd like to hear, from anyone who's used or taught argument mapping for a while now, about some of the challenges that you encountered. Did you choose (or avoid) a particular software tool? What were some of the limitations of argument maps? Did you have a way to assess their effectiveness in helping your students reconstruct and evaluate arguments? If so, then what did you find?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Would you take this oath?

An Australian expert on university management has proposed a pair of "Hippocratic oaths," one for university faculty, another for university administrators. Here's the text of the faculty oath:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The late withdrawing student

The Philosophy Smoker has a lively discussion of students' seeking late withdrawals from classes under circumstances like these:
This has happened at least once a semester since I took this job. A student who has been underperforming all semester--turning in half-assed homework assignments, missing a lot of class, earning failing grades on exams--realizes suddenly that he or she is going to fail the class. But it's after the late withdrawal deadline, so there's no simple way to get out of it. So they write me an email or come to my office and ask me to give them permission to obtain a late withdrawal.
An anonymous commenter (6:50) makes a forceful ethical argument against granting these withdrawal requests:
when you grant these requests, you aren't simply doing them a favor. You are going on record as vouching for their having a reason that the University considers sufficiently extenuating. If you just grant it to make their lives easier, *you are lying*. You are also misleading people at other schools to which this student might transfer, etc. grades convey information, notably about the amount of effort a student put into a class, even if they do so in a broad way only. And so on. Your job is to teach people, part of which involves having the grades students receive at least somewhat accurately reflect the performance of students in your class. A student might ask nicely to have you change a C to an A, because then they could get into a better grad school. But it is, basically, wrong to do so. It constitutes an act of deception on your part. The fact that such deception benefits a student is beside the point.

"Teaching Philosophy" Survey

The journal Teaching Philosophy is running a survey about the journal and how it should develop. Please take it here: http://surveymonkey.com/s/JG8GKRH

Monday, August 2, 2010

Coming August 25: Nussbaum's Not for Profit

Dear readers, lest you forget: Our online reading group on Martha Nussbaum's defense of humanities education, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, will kick off August 25.

I'll get things started, followed by posts from Chris Panza, John Alexander, and the rest of the ISW crew.

Here are links for acquiring the book: Amazon, Princeton

And here's a PDF of chapter one.

I hope you'll all join in the discussion!

Humor Break

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