Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Philosophica Americana
"It is time to do something else"

"In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined"

"Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers. On many campuses, debate over modern issues like war and technology is emphasized over the study of classic ancient texts.

"Rutgers, which has long had a top-ranked philosophy department, is one of a number of universities where the number of undergraduate philosophy majors is ballooning; there are 100 in this year’s graduating class, up from 50 in 2002, even as overall enrollment on the main campus has declined by 4 percent".

"At the City University of New York, where enrollment is up 18 percent over the past six years, there are 322 philosophy majors, a 51 percent increase since 2002.

"'If I were to start again as an undergraduate, I would major in philosophy,' said Matthew Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor, who majored in mathematics and statistics. 'I think that subject is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow.'

"Nationwide, there are more colleges offering undergraduate philosophy programs today than a decade ago (817, up from 765), according to the College Board. Some schools with established programs like Texas A&M, Notre Dame, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, now have twice as many philosophy majors as they did in the 1990s."

"David E. Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, a professional organization with 11,000 members, said that in an era in which people change careers frequently, philosophy makes sense. 'It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking,' he said.

"Mr. Schrader, an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware, said that the demand for philosophy courses had outpaced the resources at some colleges, where students are often turned away. Some are enrolling in online courses instead, he said, describing it as 'really very strange.'

"'The discipline as we see it from the time of Socrates starts with people face to face, putting their positions on the table,' he said.

"The Rutgers philosophy department is relatively large, with 27 professors, 60 graduate students, and more than 30 undergraduate offerings each semester. For those who cannot get enough of their Descartes in class, there is the Wednesday night philosophy club, where, last week, 11 students debated the metaphysics behind the movie 'The Matrix' for more than an hour.

"An undergraduate philosophy journal started this semester has drawn 36 submissions — about half from Rutgers students — on musings like 'Is the extinction of a species always a bad thing?'

"Barry Loewer, the department chairman, said that Rutgers started building its philosophy program in the late 1980s, when the field was branching into new research areas like cognitive science and becoming more interdisciplinary. He said that many students have double-majored in philosophy and, say, psychology or economics, in recent years, and go on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, investment bankers and even commodities traders.

"As the approach has changed, philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy. Some, like Ms. Onejeme, the pre-med-student-turned-philosopher, who is double majoring in political science, see it as a pre-law track because it emphasizes the verbal and logic skills prized by law schools — something the Rutgers department encourages by pointing out that their majors score high on the LSAT.

"Other students said that studying philosophy, with its emphasis on the big questions and alternative points of view, provided good training for looking at larger societal questions, like globalization and technology."

"In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined"
by Winnie Hu
The New York Times
Published: April 6, 2008

"What constitutes an instrumentalized classroom? Perhaps one of the most conspicuous signs of such a classroom is the subordination of the instructional materials to the survey paradigm. A feature of postsecondary education in the United States since the forties, a survey course, regardless of discipline, almost invariably means that a wide range of materials will be examined from an unspecified vantage point for the duration of the course. In literary departments, surveys typically function to introduce students to national, historical, or generic fields ('Survey in British Literature,' for example). The paradigm recommends itself for its efficiency. The survey course covers a lot of ground quickly, and it can be taught with an incredibly high student-to-teacher ratio. Moreover, it encourages precisely the sort of histrionics on the part of teachers that create the impression of pluralism and the 'free marketplace of ideas' for students—people who are regarded by their teachers as simultaneously empty vessels and indisputable authorities on 'what they like.' To be sure, students often enjoy such courses, but less because they are indeed successful than because their 'exposure' to a field of knowledge can be orchestrated so that the discovery of their 'ignorance' becomes indistinguishable from the pleasure their instructors take in being smarter than those who are, by their instructor’s own definition, incapable of seriously evaluating his or her intelligence. This, of course, does not distinguish survey courses from other large lecture courses.

"What gives the idealism latent in the survey paradigm its political charge is the fact that, in the name of providing a general exposure to a subject area that should open up students’ choices, it consolidates and gives institutional legitimacy to the epistemological assumptions students have been hailed with since elementary school—assumptions that are demonstrably narrow and thus incapable of promoting open choices. The assumptions animating idealism are restrictive because they contain as an implicit foundational claim the notion that the sphere of ideas is autonomous (i.e., separate from society and material history) and determinant in the last instance (i.e., ideas make the world go around). It is because ideas are assumed to make the world go around that partisans of survey courses believe that it is responsible to present the sphere of ideas as that which enables a historical period to cohere. It is not a compromise for the sake of pedagogical expediency that motivates this focus—after all, other sorts of courses and major requirements can be imagined—what motivates this focus is a belief in idealism as such. And while it is true that surveys often deal with history,they do so in a manner consistent with the tenets of idealism. This means two things: on the one hand, it means that history is reduced to what we refer to as intellectual history—a reduction that automatically privileges the experiences of those able to give their experiences intellectual expression, and that simultaneously excludes or renders impertinent all otherwise contemporaneous experiences. On the other hand—and this is perhaps the most decisively restrictive aspect of idealism—its approach to history requires that the discourses of intellectual expression be seen as instruments of an intelligence that manipulates them from an ontological elsewhere. In other words, cultural discourse is not only treated as merely historical in the sense of engaged in the day-to-day struggle for existence, but it is also seen as ultimately incapable of infecting the mind with matter. In effect, survey courses, even when they are historical at the level of content, are ahistorical at the level of pedagogical articulation because they proceed as though 'great ideas' engage other 'great ideas' in some timeless sphere where material history never enters. When this arrangement is mapped onto the typical format of an undergraduate lecture, where the mind of the teacher expresses itself in front of what is, on one level, a secretarial pool devoted to materializing his/her ideas (one thinks here of Saussure’s students), the problematic political effects of survey courses are made particularly clear.

"In learning to survey, students absorb a lesson about their relation to knowledge, a lesson that, not surprisingly, is fully coincident with capitalist ideology: those who are in a position to sense the truth of the idea that mind dominates matter learn not only that this idea has always been true, but that it must be true—for if it were not simply a matter of truth (a concept that ambiguously and therefore conveniently refers both to a place and a condition), then one would have to come to terms with the power relation within which this idea has been made to appear true. Idealism is designed to shield truth from power by making the former apply to a sphere of existence that maintains what power it has by denying that power affects this sphere in any way. This is how even the most radical critiques of capitalist patriarchy are instantly neutralized—they are treated as more “great ideas,” a fact that suggests yet another way surveys are inherently restrictive, namely, they are incapable of being effectively critical of the context in which they are offered. For if we agree that being effectively critical has something to do with empowering students to change their social relations, then a course that essentially reproduces the existing social relations within its own organizational dynamics not only cannot be critical, but actively contributes to a maintenance of the status quo. Such a result can hardly be construed as either neutral or open, and in this respect survey courses are indeed problematic even on their advocates’ own terms. To insist, as some proponents of survey courses no doubt will, that one can override the limits of the model through “creative” design, is to fall back into idealism. Specifically, such an insistence relies on the notion that one can simply escape the history embedded in the model, bypassing the domains of the term’s derivation, the relations implicit in the very concept of an overview, the tradition of its institutionalization, and so forth, merely by thinking about things differently. This is not to say that educators are purely passive bearers of what has preceded them, but if we are in some sense capable of historical agency, why should we waste our energies trying to revitalize a patently deficient paradigm? It is time to do something else."

"Survey and Discipline: Literary Pedagogy in the Context of Cultural Studies"
John Mowitt

No comments: