Sunday, June 02, 2013

My Mill Course: A Recap

For the spring quarter I taught a 10-week course on John Stuart Mill. Time to look back, or as we now say, "to assess." I asked to teach this course because I've admired Mill but am not an expert and was looking for a way to increase my expertise by a notch.


  • that Mill would be a clear writer for all that I assigned (most of which I had not read for a decade) and that his positions would be clear.
  • that my students, going into this advanced upper-division course, would be familiar with some version of utilitarianism and that most would be well-disposed towards consequentialism.
  • that applying Mill to contemporary issues would be irresistible.
  • that Mill's philosophy would have the appeal of being libertarian, and since that's a prevalent political philosophy among our students, that clarifying his libertarianism would be a popular discussion topic.
  • that the course would cover a wide range of issues and increase the depth of our knowledge of the 19th century (my own and my students').
Expectations, Met.
  • Mill is a clear writer--so clear that the many points at which he fails to be consistent in his views were obvious. This was actually good because it meant that my students could develop good criticisms of their own and develop confidence in their critical abilities.
Expectations, Failed.
  • Students entered the class with no memory of utilitarianism, even if they had taken an ethics course. Many students met only the minimal requirement of one previous philosophy course, and for some that course was critical thinking, a course which did not include Mill. For others, I never figured out why there knowledge (memory?) of Mill was rudimentary or non-existent. Except that I did notice that some were unable to compare/contrast Mill's "Liberty" with his "Utilitarianism" even when only 2 weeks had passed between these discussions. Quite a number of them seemed to know the material well enough, and then a few weeks later, to have no specific memory of it. Were they faking it in the first place? Possibly. Had they failed to develop skills for committing their thoughts to long-term memory? Probably.
  • It was irresistible to apply Mill to contemporary issues, but students found it difficult or impossible to apply his views in a way that challenged their pre-existing views. For example, any discussion of Mill on marriage quickly devolved into a catalog of reasons in support of gay marriage without an attempt to understand the reasons some people oppose or the specific arguments that would derive from Mill. Several students continued to believe that Mill wrote against the polygamist Mormons in "On Liberty," even though we discussed that topic in class on two separate days. I would like to develop techniques for making my class discussions both lively (which they are) and progressive, in the sense that the discussion moves people from one position to another. Rather, the discussion only seems expressive. It does not affect people's beliefs about what they have read, or else their (often shallow or false) views become even more entrenched.
Expectations, Exceeded.
  • Although contemporary libertarianism was only of interest to 3 students (only 2 of whom actually came to class), I was able to investigate this question easily on my own and was satisfied to improve my understanding.
  • We had more than enough material to make 10 very densely packed weeks (it's a 4ch course). I spent the last week on epistemology (induction, Mill's methods, and his hope for the development of the social sciences). I might have left that material off. The course could be extended very easily to a longer term by adding contemporary utilitarianism to the mix.
Although I got to know him better than I had even hoped, my appreciation of Mill was not diminished after 10 weeks of intense study. I learned much more about his faults (and especially the inconsistences of his application of his views to the issues of his time), but I also saw the value of a philosophical life spent developing a thoroughly comprehensive and consistent view.

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