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.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Undergraduate students writing together.

I taught an unusual class in Fall 2009. I had taught a freshman seminar (FIG -- for more information see here) in Fall 2007, and a group of students from that class asked me to teach another class that would be just for them. So I did. It was unusual in several ways. I was seeing a substantial group of students (14 of the original 20) after 2 years of academic development. They were experiencing a class with a group of people all of whom they already knew. And I knew that everyone in the class was there only because they wanted to be.

This last fact was intimidating – I felt that I really had to make the class good. But it also gave me some freedom to experiment; the students, after all, had opted into it knowing what I was going to be like. One experiment I decided to do was to facilitate them writing papers together in pairs.

Why? Mainly I was inspired, as I have been in much of my recent pedagogical practice, by Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges. Bok describes the experience of Uri Treisman, a calculus instructor at Berkeley, who noticed that his black students were performing much less well than Asian students. After he established that the gap remained even controlling for how well prepared they were, he looked at their study habits. The difference between the black and Asian students was that whereas Asians students worked in groups, thus enabling them to learn from one another and help each other overcome road blocks, the black students all worked solo. When they encountered problems, they could not get help, did not turn in their homework, and fell further behind. So he started encouraging black students to work in designated groups outside of class. “The results were dramatic. The grades of black students improved, their drop-out rate fell substantially; and many more than usual went on to major in science and math”. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Not for Profit, Episode 5: Beyond Mere Moral Education

In chapter 3 of her Not for Profit, Martha Nussbaum discusses the education of the moral and anti-moral emotions. She notes that Gandhi "understood very well that the political struggle for freedom and equality must first of all be a struggle within each person, as compassion and respect contend against fear, greed, and narcissistic aggression (p. 29)." Also, in the comments section of the first post in this series on Nussbaum's book, Michael Cholbi expressed this thought: "One topic I hope we might explore in this reading group is what pedagogically distinguishes humanistic education from 'mere' education in the humanities." In this post, I will offer some reflections on these related points.

Philosophy instructors are perhaps at their best constructing and analyzing arguments, offering objections, and raising doubts about philosophical positions. This is very important and is essential to an education in the humanities. As Nussbaum puts it, "Knowledge is no guarantee of good behavior, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behavior (p. 81)."  However, if this is all we do, then it seems to me that we have failed to advance from a mere education in the humanities to a humanistic education.

In my view, a humanistic education must not merely address how students think, though it must address that, but it must also engage the emotions and even the character of students. And my hunch is that this is something we (and I'm including myself here) are often not very skilled at doing. I must admit that when I seek to address the emotions of my students, or to encourage them to value and seek to acquire some particular virtue, I feel a little bit uncomfortable. Part of the challenge, I think, is to move beyond our comfort zones in this area and advocate certain human values discussed in Nussbaum's book such as respect, compassion, equality, and responsibility. Regarding this last value, I appreciated the following quotation from p. 54: "When people see their ideas as their own responsibility, they are more likely, too, to see their deeds as their own responsibility." A humanistic education will help students connect these two realms of life- their thoughts and their actions.

Here are some initial thoughts regarding how to go about humanistically educating students, drawn from Nussbaum's book as well as some of my own experiences:
  1. We should encourage our students to engage in Socratic self-examination, not just about their beliefs, but about other aspects of their character as well (pp. 47-51).
  2.  We should seek to develop the "narrative imagination" of our students. This includes cultivating sympathy and the ability to imagine what it might be like to be in another person's shoes who is very different from oneself (pp. 95-96). In a philosophy class this might include the reading of the right kind of fiction or history, or the viewing of an appropriate film. This engages students at an emotional level which may then reinforce what they are thinking about more abstractly in class. Most students don't get the emotional charge some of us do when reading Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, or _______ (insert favorite philosopher here)!
  3.  From my experience, a deeper discussion of particular virtues can be an effective and enjoyable way to seek to accomplish some of the goals of a humanistic education. I've used White's Radical Virtues in the past to foster this sort of discussion. White's book also nicely includes a discussion between each virtue and some contemporary moral issue (courage--masculine ideal, pacifism; temperance--environmentalism; justice--social justice; compassion--animal liberation; wisdom--multiculturalism). I've found that discussing what it means to be courageous, wise, compassionate, temperate, and just to be better than a protracted discussion of the categorical imperative or social contract theory.
  4. I've found that offering students a way to implement some of the material in their lives can be helpful. For example, when I teach Singer's argument that we're obligated to donate money to famine relief, most of my student are not yet convinced. However, I find that they are open to performing other actions, which I describe in class, such as visiting the Hunger Site; taking part in the ONE Campaign; or assisting the world's poor not by donating to Oxfam, but giving to Kiva.
  5. As a final suggestion, the development of philosophy courses that include a service learning component might help accomplish the sort of education I'm discussing in this post, and which Nussbaum is advocating as well.
In closing, I am arguing that we need to take the following words from Aristotle to heart and begin to try to put them into action not just in the other humanistic disciplines, but also to some extent within philosophy: 
The purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good...otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit.
If readers are interested in offering some comments related to the above, perhaps specific pedagogical practices aimed at a humanistic education rather than a mere education in the humanities is a topic worth discussing. Or maybe a discussion of some more general questions might be helpful, such as: Should philosophy instructors (and others in the humanities) be seeking to foster certain moral virtues in their students? What are the advantages of this? The dangers? Why are we hesitant to do this? If we decide to do this, which values should we emphasize?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Doing our part for democracy

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

As Nussbaum admits, however, her chapter gives little in the way of practical advice for how to get more Socratic methods into academia. She offers a couple of suggestions: following the Catholic (Jesuit?) university model of requiring at least two semesters of philosophy in college, or introducing philosophy to children early on in elementary education via something like the intriguing textbooks of Matthew Lipman. These are both great ideas, but I wonder how effective they would actually be in today’s modern educational environment.

The difficulty I see is not with the value of philosophy classes, but how and by whom they are taught. It’s all very well and good to see lots of philosophy courses that count as critical thinking in the curriculum, but one has to wonder how much of the crucial information is getting across when tenured professors sequester themselves into teaching graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses, leaving introductory courses to tenure-track professors and graduate students (who rarely if ever get any training in pedagogy, let alone the place of philosophical pedagogy in the humanities.) Heck, having no undergrad courses is seen as a sign of success almost universally across our discipline! How un-Socratic can we get?

Without our best thinkers on the front lines, at best students do not experience the liberating aspects of Socratic thought, but merely the best a good graduate student can do on a really tight schedule with no training. At worst, they experience the opposite of Socratic inquiry: defensive, pervasive doubt, and sophistical attempts to change the subject when a professor doesn’t want to look upstaged by a smart student in front of the classroom. When students see that — and I’m afraid it happens far more often than any of us want to admit — can we forgive them for taking the view that “it’s all just opinion” away from the course that is supposed to teach them exactly the opposite?

Recently, philosophy was controversially labeled a “problem discipline” within academia. In another recent incident, philosophers howled when NEH grants were offered to develop what were basically philosophy courses offered in other disciplines. One way to look at these debates is to see philosophy ignored by academia and the rest of the humanities: toiling ceaselessly with our contributions forgotten. Of course, another way of looking at them is to think that — just maybe —we’re not meeting a democratic society’s needs for education in our part of the humanities.

And if we’re not, we as philosophers need to change our discipline’s place within the humanities, our methods of educating young philosophers, and our expectations of our best to become educators of undergraduates and public intellectuals. (We also need to get a lot better at assessment — the Socratic critical thinking skills Nussbaum emphasizes, unlike some more esoteric philosophical skills, can be assessed.) Nussbaum is certainly pointing the right way here, and her credentials as a public intellectual cannot be doubted. But I wonder if philosophy teachers are ready to take up her challenge. If not — if we’re going to get all defensive about students and administrators just not seeing the value of what we do — maybe it is time for a new legion of Socratic critical thinking teachers to take up the reins, spurred on by grants from the NEH among other things. If Nussbaum’s right, it’s only our democracy at stake.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Not for Profit, episode 3: "We are creating the Orwellian state!"

Nussbaum argues that if we want democratic societies to remain viable, vibrant, and healthy then we need to reassert the foundational role that the humanities (this includes the arts) plays in our educational systems. Citizens need to have a basic understanding of the polis including the various norms and values that are the foundation of the polis. Her basic thesis is that incorporating the humanities in our education is essential for having citizens obtain the necessary knowledge and expertise to be effective (skillful) citizens in a political and social system that recognizes and enhances our basic autonomy as persons to be able to knowingly and freely develop lives that are flourishing and worthwhile. We need to recognize that free market based economic institutions, understood within the philosophical context developed by Rousseau, Kant, Rawls, and Kylmicka are fundamental to the development and implementation of healthy democratic societies. As Lewis Feuer argues in his Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism, there is a close correlation between the development of competitive, capitalistic free markets and democratic institutions. 

Having spent thirty-five years in manufacturing, I have a special interest in, and I think unique perspective on, her arguments. I am going to defend the thesis that businesspeople should study the humanities because doing so enables us to establish and maintain healthy economic institutions that are maximally profitable, stable and viable that will enhance the ability of people to fulfill their organizational roles and to lead lives that are flourishing.