Monday, September 22, 2008


This weekend there was a profile in the NYT of an unlikely philosophy department to have a large # of majors and the philosopher who built it. [No, I'm not linking it; I'm dissing it. If you want to find it, check the Leiter Reports.]

Here on this blog, we might use it as a case study in the pedagogical beliefs and techniques that exclude women and other vulnerable students from our discipline. I recommend Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences (by Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt, 1997) as a detailed case study in the attitudes that communicate to students the ideals of male academic privilege. This study and others have been essential in guiding the interventions that have helped the sciences correct their skewed gender ratio. For instance, weed-out classes are designed to weed out the least "talented" students but have the effect of weeding out the least tenacious as well. Those students that are less tenacious may be so because they lack self-confidence, or it may be because they have many talents and don't benefit from a masochistic viewpoint, or because they misread the moral message that strict (usually masculine) teachers convey.

Here's a student, quoted in the philosopher's profile:
“I was expecting a survey course, and in walks this big scary guy, using words I’d never heard before, talking about Hume as background for Kant, telling us how hard the class was going to be."
This student (male) ended up admiring the professor but admitted that many others drop his classes.

The philosopher
says that philosophy requires a certain rare and innate ability — the ability to step outside yourself and observe your own mind in the act of thinking. In this respect, he recognizes that his detractors have a point when they criticize his approach to teaching. “It’s aristocratic in the sense that any selection based on talent is aristocratic,” he told me. “I know it offends everyone’s sense of democracy, this idea that everyone’s equal, but we all know that’s just not true.”
And here he assumes that if he fails to communicate with a student, it is due to the student's innate low intelligence.

This is not the pedagogical model that philosophers should be known for. And these are not scholarly goals that we are required to adopt in order to love our discipline. Philosophy can be practical; analysis can be useful; and our students can be successes without pursuing PhD's.


Brandon said...

Yes, I had the same reaction to this; what really bothers me is that there is someone going around who thinks that he can teach you how to think philosophically (and in a single course!), and that if he fails, this is due to your not having the 'talent'. When I hear that, I hear "Sophist"; this was exactly the sort of nonsense that Socrates was arguing against when arguing against the Sophists.

Nick said...

Can I get clear on your suggestion? Are you basically saying that calling on students to judge themselves and their talents harshly is more likely to cause female students to drop out?

Supposing this is the case, what do you think the reasons for the phenomenon are?