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!


  1. First, let me congratulate Jason on one of the best thought out and straightforward defenses of the role of the ‘Socratic” teacher and the ultimate goal of a humanistic education that I have read. He clearly states what I think is one of the proper solutions to the issues raised by Nussbaum, namely to focus on how we teach.

    But, I also want to praise Sisyphus in so far as we need to realize that we are pushing against the tide, and the tide is very, very strong and apt to push us ’out to sea’ unless we can find ways to change the system. We need to keep pushing back against the present ‘one-dimensional’ system in the manner outlined by Jason, but at the same time we need to find ways to effectively make the humanistic modal the norm, not the exception.

    I am not suggesting that Jason fails to realize this. I am only stating something that is probably obvious - that if we do not take seriously the conceptual framework that defines the present economic, and by extension, the social/political system, which includes our educational systems, and find ways to change this overarching framework, that we are bound to fail to develop the type of students that Jason (and Nussbaum) argues we should be developing and consequently we will increasingly put democratic institutions and autonomous individuals at risk. As long as there are teachers like those I mentioned in my post “A Student’s Story” that seem to define the university experience for many of our brightest students, at least at the undergraduate level as Kevin pointed out, those of us who try to implement and follow the modal outlined by Jason (and Nussbaum) are going to be beaten down and seen as increasingly irrelevant to acquiring the skills to achieve the goals associated with success and achievement as defined by the economic modal.

    It really is a very simply problem. An organization only has so much money that can be spend covering the costs of developing and delivering its product. The product of the present education system appears to be students that are capable of becoming productive members of the economic system. Consequently, they need the skills that this economic system needs in order to remain healthy and viable. After all, an effective system is designed to protect and further its own interests. So, if the economic system needs more of x, y, and z, then those elements of the educational system that focus on a, b, and c are not relevant to furthering the needs of the system that the educational system feeds. The money spent to cover the costs of delivering a, b, and c are going to be shifted to improve the ability of the system to deliver x, y, and z. This is a simple, but extremely powerful, function of market transactions.

    Until we can change the system we should keep on pushing the rock uphill. But both have to be done concurrently and that appears to be an underlying problem – how to do both.

  2. Jason and John: Good stuff.

    Two ideas: assessment. I mention it because of Jason's pessimism about the effectiveness of standard techniques of humanities education in instilling the very attributes that he (and Nussbaum) think it should instill. Humanists should embrace assessment, not run from it. Why? First, it can help us to define what goals humanities teaching should achieve. Second, it can help determine whether those goals are achieved. I think a focus on assessment can help the humanities by compelling us to expound on 'humanistic' education and by showing that we generally do achieve what we claim to. I don't think that academic policymakers should take seriously our pleas about the importance of the goods that humanities education delivers unless we can show that we're engaged in an evidence-based enterprise of trying to meet those goals.

    Second: incentives. What, if any, are the current institutional incentives (K-12, collegiate, etc.) for humanists to deliver Nussbaum's humanistic education? Can we identify and develop better incentives than we have at present?

  3. Jason,

    I read your piece with great interest when you posted it, but I'm only now getting to respond to it. It came at just the right time for me. I've moved to a new institution this year and had just graded my first set of midterms in a 100-level applied ethics course. The midterms revealed that most of my students had far greater difficulty with critical thinking than I had anticipated—and far greater difficulty than the students I used to teach.

    My first reaction was exactly the one you mention: I lamented the fact that their previous teachers had (evidently) never demanded critical thinking from them. My more considered reaction was that I would need to shift my focus from "getting through the content" to teaching critical thinking skills.

    This seems right in line with what you're recommending. Would you mind sharing some specific ways to implement the changes you recommend? What kind of assignments have you found most helpful? What classroom activities have been most productive?

  4. Questions for everyone:
    What would you teach (books/authors) in a course if you wanted to stress the importance of the humanities as it relates to living a meaningful life? What if you wanted to stress the importance between studying the humanities and the viability and health of democratic institutions?

    Some of my selections; Plato, The Apology and Phaedo; Homer, The Iliad; The Bible, Job: Camus, The Plague; Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird; Hosseini, The Kite Runner; and Marshall, The Lakota Way.


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