Monday, March 11, 2013

Education and Breadth

I'm one week into my spring term. It's the time of the teaching season when profs ask each other "Did you get a good start? What are you teaching? Is it interesting?"

We all mean: can you make it through the next 10 weeks with enough vim and vigor to start your summer research plans without first going on a bender?

When I answer the question by saying that I'm lucky to be teaching an upper-division course on John Stuart Mill, I get blank stares. I expected my friends and colleagues, none of them philosophers but most with advanced degrees--even PhD's--to have a sense of who Mill was. At least to know that this course has to do with 19th century history, maybe ethics or something like that.

In fact, the classes' first reading assignment started like this:
Who wrote On Liberty? Nearly everyone with a college education could tell you – well – should be able to tell you that the author is John Stuart Mill.
But no. My well-educated, inquisitive, politically-informed friends give me blank stares. They have advanced degrees in physics, chemistry, biology, business, engineering. (Business, even! No matter that Mill's Principles of Political Economy was influential in its time.) Mentioning utilitarianism or "the greatest good for the greatest number" does not jar something loose or get a glimmer of recognition.

Here I've been down on "No Child Left Behind" and its effect on my current students. But if the intellectuals around here--the ones in their 30s, 40s, and 50s with the benefit of good college educations and post-grad education on top of that are absolutely unaware of one of the leading intellects of the 19th century, then my expectations must be completely out of line.

Let's talk about the important stuff going on in our own times instead.

On a side note, when given the argument below and asked to categorize it as valid or invalid, true premises or not, my students want to know if they're going to be held responsible for all kinds of arcane literary and historical facts which have nothing to do with philosophy!
Since Moby Dick was written by Shakespeare, and Moby Dick is a science fiction novel, it follows that Shakespeare wrote a science fiction novel.

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