This article discusses a major issue in teaching philosophy.
A few years back I was lecturing (adjunct) at a local state university — a non-elite, non-ranking institution with mercifully generous admissions standards, and (hence) a student body fielded mainly from two smallish contiguous area codes. I myself did a semester there very many years ago before completing my undergraduate studies at an equally non-elite non-ranking university with equally charitable admissions policies, in one of the two aforementioned area codes.
This institution had but one “core requirement” philosophy course — an introduction to logic, which frog-marched the students across the badlands of modus ponens and modus tollens, categorical syllogisms, and logical fallacies. At the beginning of the course students sat an 80-question exam consisting of these topics, and at the end of the course sat a version of the same exam — similar ratios of question-types, but different phrasing. Performance on the exit-exam (we were told) could not count for less than 80% of the students’ final grade.
We were given rather a lot of lee-way as to how we delivered the content; and although there was predictable convergence, no two instructors taught the course the same way.
Once it became clear to me that this was the only philosophy class the undergrads were required to take, I took it upon myself to ensure we covered a few other things — among them, (1) an introduction to the main branches of philosophy, and how epistemology and logic are related; (2) a reading and discussion of The Euthyphro; (3) a discussion of the differences between knowledge, belief, and faith; and (4) a discussion of the difference between ‘training’ and ‘education’.
This last topic mattered to me, because of the nature of the course content, on the one hand, and the departmental parameters for assessment, on the other. I had scope to *train* students as I saw fit, to the end of ensuring they performed well on the exit-exam; but the generous latitude notwithstanding, there was very little space therein to advance one whit the students’ education — in the true sense of the word.
Since I used the first two weeks of the term to introduce students to the mood and method of philosophy – to make real for them, so far as possible, what “being philosophical” (about something) might mean, and how important it is that those we designated as “educated” (rather than “well-trained” or “degree-holding) have a philosophical attitude – students tended to leave the first fortnight of my lectures with precisely the sort of look we like our students to have at the end of the session. Students often lingered behind to chat, or follow-up with questions or comments; and even if only a few disclosed to me their symptoms, many showed signs of having been bitten by the bug. But it was very dispiriting to hear students leave the lectures of my colleagues, who – by staying squarely on-track – began their lectures with “All men are mortal…”, and thereafter faithfully plodded through their chosen textbook.
Not that there was anything at all wrong with that. But our students – many of whom should not have been at university, frankly – were, in their first month of their first semester, still looking for those things that would distinguish college from high school. Yomping around on the terra incognita of “If P, Q” on day-one of their first philosophy class ever wasn’t winning hearts and minds to the cause. (There seemed to be little point in discussing the etymology of ‘philosophy’ – which most of my colleagues seemed to do before “Socrates is a man” – if one was going to ignore the question “How does knowledge differ from wisdom?” and jump straight into validity.)
At the first faculty meeting (in October, five weeks into the term), the HoD asked how the new adjuncts were faring; and I – too prideful and stupid to know either my place or how one should respond to such questions from one’s new boss – dared to offer for discussion whether this “core requirement” was such a good idea, and ask of the assembled troops whether it seemed terrible to anyone else that the *one* chance we are guaranteed to make an early impression upon undergraduates is with BARBARA rather than Socrates.
The HoD and senior faculty were very kind and gracious in their response to my untimely meditations. It is how my queries were tabled, though, that is the point of this story.
I insisted – and quite possibly pounded the conference table – that it was our duty (I pray I did not say “solemn duty”) to have our students leave the classroom a little better than they were before they entered it. A little more curious. A little more skeptical. A little confused, perhaps – confused in that positive, productive sense – but certainly a little better than they were when they slammed down hard on the alarm clock and stumbled out of bed in the morning. All educators (I insisted) have this duty; but of all departments, and among all specialists, we more so than others — for if not the philosophers, then who?
“Well” chuckled the four-year-and-still-returning adjunct next to me, “I think you set your standards a little high”.
“Shall we aim instead leave them no-better-off, or worse-off?”, I responded.
I remained at the university for five consecutive semesters, and in the narrow space allotted me tried my best to ensure that my students were getting their “If P, Q” (etc.), but were also learning to expect more from themselves, and were engaging their other subjects with an inquisitive and critical eye — and interested in taking more philosophy courses. My enthusiasm for these simple objectives was manifestly not shared by tenured faculty, while the adjuncts were concerned that coloring outside of departmental lines might redound negatively upon them and injure their status within the guild.
I will tell you that am between forty and fifty years-old, and in no sense or context am I an old-timer. But when I return to my cache of books from the likes of Hocking, Muirhead, Sidgwick, Santayana, or Royce, or rummage through JSTOR archives or Google Scholar for early papers, I confront every time the feeling that philosophy is no longer what it was, and that something wonderful has been lost.
That sentiment, I know, is absurd. But I know, too, that The Guild is not what it was — or, it seems to be no longer what it seems to have been. The basic questions we ask, and enjoin our charges to ask with us, have not changed — or, have not changed very much. I think we all welcome additional questions, as we do new voices to our shared stoa (painted or unpainted).
But I would not mind a real renaissance of philosophy — not by way of new books or para-genres (A Philosopher’s Guide to Metallica on the shelves of Barns~Ignoble left me shuddering), but by way of a return to confidence that what we do is very important. Not for the Guild, or the Academy; not for “democracy” or “social justice”, or even for Western Civilization, or for any single such thing; but for all the good things that may yet be made possible by the courage of an unassuming undergrad from a non-elite, non-ranking state college, who – having become a little more philosophical than she was the month prior – one day finds herself prepared and confident to say: “Sorry, I don’t think that makes sense — and here’s why”. She will need some logic to identify the problem, and for her “here’s why” to be compelling; but she will need philosophy to know that making sense of nonsense matters.