Meditations on contract faculty teaching philosophy

This post was written by Rational Hoplite in a recent thread. I thought it was worth sharing in its own right because it speaks to a major issue in the profession. — BLSN

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.

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  1. Great post. As a part-time psychology professor, I have similar frustrations. It bothers me to no end that psychology students are not required to take a single course in basic logic, critical thinking, or theory construction, despite the fact that most of what we do in the social sciences is based on theories either handed to us by philosophers, or unquestionably taken to be true by most psychologists within the field. In my own class I try to educate students about the importance of philosophy in the social sciences (beginning with the difference between an ‘opinion’ and a ‘reason’). About ¾ of my students eventually get what I am trying to do and it opens their eyes to the importance of critical thinking… the rest insist that I am not teaching science but philosophy. It is especially sad that most of my colleagues would tend to agree.

  2. I had my say on this topic over on ‘How can you call yourselves philosophers?’ But it’s interesting to compare the troubled Anglo-Saxon situation with ‘Why does France insist its pupils master philosophy?’ – especially its last couple of sentences. That is how I felt when I came to take finals – thank you UEA philosophy teachers.

  3. Rational Hoplite

    Thank you, Brad, Margaret.

    I hope BLSN’s decision to offer my post as an independent thread does not too much distract readers from more important business, or from the thread from which this was carved-off. I am, in any case, flattered BLSN found some value in my anecdote. Having warned him that his decision to start a new thread might encourage me to add a note or two of clarification, herewith.

    I did not make clear my position regarding the core-requirement “introduction to logical thinking” course, and would like to. In and of itself, the course aimed to achieve very worthwhile goals, and faculty-consensus was that it was doing at least a satisfactory job of achieving them.

    I am not anti-logic, or anti- “formal” philosophy. My issue with the course – and please note, it was the *only* philosophy course required of all students – was that the neither the documentation nor the spirit of the intended learning outcomes made any room for ensuring that students would have any opportunity for a guided confrontation with what philosophy as a discipline is all about.

    By analogy: A survey course on world religions that focused on Buddhism only, or an introductory course psychology that focused only on research methods, would fail to do what an introductory course targeting first-semester first-years should do; and that is: introduce students to the discipline – to the topics it addresses, the questions it asks, and to those issues which might be particularly characteristic of the interests and concerns of specialists in the field. Where there is a characteristic mood or there are characteristic methods associated with the domain, these too should be offered-up for the students’ consideration, while establishing also – or, if “establishing” is too tall an order, at least *pointing out* – the relevance of the discipline to other fields and domains of specialized-enquiry, and to the human intellectual experience generally.

    Now: An introduction to logic course is not a kind of “introduction to philosophy” course. It would be a poor surrogate for one, and in fairness, this particular “introduction to logical thinking” course was not intended as a substitute for one. Rather, the department of philosophy had convinced the core curriculum committee that the interests of the students would be better served by this kind of “introduction to logical thinking” course than by a (traditional?) introductory survey course. (Implied was the judgment that such a survey course was not necessary for undergraduates at this institution — see infra.)

    In and of itself this was a brave and ambitious move, and the faculty sponsors of it have my respect for attempting to do what (in their considered opinions) was most likely to vouchsafe and advance the interests of the students. But there are one or two flies in the ointment.

    As indicated in my initial post, most of our students – forgive me, and do bear in mind that I once numbered among them – were woefully unprepared for the rigors of higher education. The majority of students applied for admission to this school only, confident that they would be accepted without much ado or scrutiny, and confident also that by attending their local four-year institution they would (1) be fulfilling their parents’ dreams of sending a kinsman to college, and (2) be getting college out of the way on the cheap, before setting-out boldly in pursuit of mortgages, car payments, future ex-spouses, and visitation rights for the children of their first marriages.

    It was freely acknowledged none with a high school diploma and 2.0 GPA would be refused admission. This was, in fact, a point of pride for the president of the university, who (at least publicly and in official communications) made it clear that he was pleased to allow opportunities for higher education to the most diverse group of applicants possible, and to those who might not otherwise have such opportunities. (Read: Because no other school would let them in.) One very senior official told me that 75% of the school’s graduates would live and die within a fifty mile radius of where they grew up. (He did not disclose the source of his data, but – having grown up in these latitudes – that seemed about right.)

    Fortune 500 companies do not visit the campus in the Spring to headhunt or recruit. Neither do the CIA, the FBI, or the Department of State. This was just as well, since the glass-ceiling for graduates from this school is very low, despite which circumstance few ever manage to bump their heads against it. The who’s-who of alumni includes one B-actor from the 60s, and a former state beauty pageant winner, and a graduate is more likely to end up getting a restraining order issued against him than a masters degree, being handed an OUI than JD.

    …Which I precisely why I loved these kids.

    Over the course of five semesters, here’s what I dug-up and pieced-together about the raison d’etre of the logic course:

    (1) It was decided that most students simply couldn’t hack a rigorous introduction to philosophy course, period;

    (2) There was insufficient departmental consensus regarding the content of an introductory survey — and after all, one man’s Nietzsche is another man’s Antichrist. Is there room for Plotinus? Pascal? Diderot? Kierkegaard? Whose hobby-horse gets into the stable? Besides, the dominance of white Western males on any syllabus simply didn’t reflect the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Furthermore, it would be nigh impossible to exert any quality-control over the adjuncts teaching these courses. (We can’t have a gal with a bias for political philosophy while some guy is punting too much aesthetics, now can we?)

    The course eventually approved by the Star Chamber dodged all these potholes; but whereas the horse designed by committee gave us the camel, this resulted in something rather less attractive and serviceable.

    Rules for establishing/determining validity and invalidity (etc.), it was decided, are incapable of offending our tender-minded charges, while the 100-question entry- and exit-tests (20% modus ponens/modus tollens, 20% categorical syllogisms, etc.) not only ensured standardized intended learning-outcomes, it also maximized the returns on standardized-assessment procedures and student evaluation/grading.

    But wait, there’s more!

    (3) The course-content covers the sort of analytical reasoning batteries that appear on (e.g.) the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, US Customs and Border Patrol entrance exam (etc.), and thus the course helps prepare students for these standardized assessments. (NB: Which few would take, four years later and after they had forgotten/repressed most of what they learned.) Thus there was a distinctly terrestrial and practical value to the course – something very likely absent an introductory survey; and,

    (4) Being able to detect logical fallacies, wrangle adroitly to the mat a lithe and muscular categorical syllogism, and identify the logical structure of arguments (or: detect the absence of structure), are important skills, and these skills are more important than the ability of a university undergrad to demonstrate knowledge of what philosophy is, what philosophers do, why they do it, and why the whole damned enterprise – formal philosophy (inclusive of logic), and the history of ideas of which the history of philosophy is a part – matters. And besides, that sort of thing would be way over their poor hoodied heads anyway.

    Again, in fairness, this approach does has much to recommend it, and I can see how – in the light of contemporary trends in educational theory and the gut-wrenchingly poor reasoning/critical-thinking skills on the part of incoming students – faculty from other disciplines and departments and university brass would *ensemble* be very enthusiastic about the philosophers helping cure freshmen of some of their pre-matriculation ills.

    Distilled to its essentials a la a kind of triage, I imagine the reasoning when along these lines: Students might be better-off for knowing about the main branches of philosophy, et cetera, but it is not self-evident that they will in fact be worse-off for not knowing about these things, while it is crystal clear that they would be worse-off for (e.g.) not being taught how to spot a logical fallacy, and much worse-off for not having been shaken of their shallow subjectivism and their uncorrected conviction that what’s true for you might not be true for me, or, that any statement of opinion or preference is an argument, and that all arguments are equally valid — you know, like, um, from the point of view of the person making it, you know?

    So much for the ointment offered for the sequalae of public education and lackluster parenting. The first fly fidgeting around in it is: Reducing the point and purpose of the one required philosophy course to a remedial role is in and of itself offensive, and serves to undermine entirely the integrity of the basic/core liberal arts curriculum.

    Note: In the case of this institution, the basic/core liberal arts curriculum was remedial – through and through. The mathematics department was in fact running their own remedial section of “critical thinking”, the content of which was almost identical with philosophy’s “introduction to logical thinking” course. (This didn’t seem to bother anyone.) The history and literature departments, meanwhile, were positively thrilled that philosophers weren’t trying to interfere with their claims to addressing the students’ woeful writing/communication skills, and lack of (Marxist) historical consciousness. It amused but did not surprise me that our standardized entry/exit tests (dutifully recycled every third semester) consistently phrased questions in ways that demonstrated the department’s commitment to atheism and pro-choice – it was always Bible-thumpers and fetus-huggers who committed the fallacies, you see. It was difficult to avoid wondering whether some gaggle of pontifical and tenured neurons had decided: “Philosophy might actually get the kids thinking, and, you know, a misinterpreted Plato could have the children thinking distinctly anti-democratic/anti-social- justice thoughts”. But well they knew there is nothing about working in small groups to make Venn Diagrams that would have commuters scraping-off their Obama-Biden bumper stickers.

    There’s a line in Steppenwolf – I suspect it is known to many readers of this blog – where the protagonist Harry Haller remarks (quoting Novalis),

    “Wait a moment, here I have it. This: ‘Most men will not swim before they are able to.’ Is not that witty? Naturally, they won’t swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally they won’t think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown”.

    And *that*, I firmly believe, is part of our mission: To invite students to swim. We point out that perhaps the pyramid upon which they think they sit – and from which they think they enjoy a confident and commanding vista of the world – is, in fact, really a hastily and artlessly lashed-together raft, and that much of what they think they see from the pinnacle of their unmeasured mountain of others’ artefacts is, if not illusory, mistaken — or at least, is a field of unchallenged assumptions which, uncommanded by them, are in command of them. We enliven them to words, and suggest – in spite of all the positive press that iModernity gives to “stories”, communication, hyper-interconnectivity, etc. – words-unconsidered have a remarkable tendency do remarkable things with us. We ask of them the simplest of questions: How do you know – and how do you know you know? Teaching philosophy without the strategic and loving infliction of a little aporeia is not philosophy. Aristotle’s wonder comes later; but it follows a bit of wandering.

    Thus, the second fly: Allowing that an introductory survey of philosophy will (inter alia) introduce and explain a little the “branches” or “departments” of philosophy, one finds time enough therein to acquaint students with “If P, Q” (etc.), in the context of introducing and explaining a little the branch of philosophy known as logic. It is not a particularly tall-order, and frankly some of the work of Gilbert Harman should be sufficient to inspire doubt as to whether just a little bit of basic formal logic should even be considered “remedial”.

    Eight weeks for “basic” formal logic is a terrible way to impress upon students what philosophy is and what philosophers do, and I for one would prefer my charges to advance to the next semester knowing that metaphysics isn’t about new-age healing, that God might not be necessary for moral behavior, that axiology has nothing to do with the undercarriage of a car, and that epistemologists do not check for urinary tract infections. One cannot clean-up a lifetime of woolly-thinking in a semester; but a semester might be long enough to point out the value of asking good questions and of demanding certain kinds of good answers — and of course, knowing more or less what a bad answer is.

    “Do the ethics course next semester”, “Professor Jones has a great epistemology course — check it out” — this is what we should want to say to students throughout and after PHI-101, and that’s tough when the students’ first philosophy text is Hurley, Kelley, or even Tomassi.

    Some students will tune-out, for sure. Many do not like the way their intellectual backsides ache when – the rug of certainty yanked from beneath their UGGs – they thump hard upon the floor of doubt — many, for the first time in their lives. (I certainly did not enjoy the experience of being diagnosed with having wonky a-priori, and in a mixture of shame and armadillo-style protest bundled my bruised barbarian butt onto a commercial fishing boat and hauled lobsters out of a rather cold sea for for six months.)

    But *that* is thinking, and though in extreme cases it might end with the Glasperlenspiel, it begins (as Chuck Pierce said so well, so long ago) with the irritation of doubt. Decartes improved: Dubito (vexo?) ergo cogito. Using elementary logic to clean-up thinking when *real* thought is scarcely in evidence strikes me as a very curious proposition. It begins with doubt, and cultivating doubt as a learned habit cannot begin with logic, and should not be left to chance. As Aristotle never said, “To entrust to chance that which is most important is a very effective derangement”.


    I would like to follow-up with my take on the difference between being educated, being well-trained, and being knowledgeable — a theme, I am very happy to note, connects well with Professor LaBossiere’s current and excellent post. I would like also to return to a discussion of the purpose(s) of higher education, and the unique role philosophers play in advancing that purpose or those purposes. Whether I do in fact add more to this thread depends entirely on whether or not my remarks herein seem to the readers of this forum to have been worth their effort, and whether additional clarification of my position is desirable.

    Those who may have waded through any of this: Thank you. I have abused, I think, the generosity of the host, and for that I apologize.

    Comment and criticism –especially the latter – are very welcomed.

    As aye,

  4. RH,

    As I have long argued, so you have made brief and beautiful. Thank you for your comment.


    Jamie Farren

  5. I quite enjoyed that, RH. Your prose is both lucid and enjoyable.

    The issues you touch on are worthy of attention and concern. Adjunct faculty are in a precarious position, both pedagogically and otherwise. And the kind of system that mistreats its instructors is the kind of system that does not especially care whether the students actually get an education that is commensurate to the size of their tuition.

  6. Rational Hoplite

    Thank you, JF and BLSN. Re-reading the post I wish I could agree with any of the kind words you have offered. (I need to start proofreading with greater care, and I am embarrassed at my slip-ups and oversights.) But the kind words, whether or not wholly deserved, are very much appreciated. It is comforting to know that polite engagement is alive and well in cyberspace. Thank you, BLSN, for allowing me to spill rather a lot of digital ink upon the pages of this excellent forum. RH

  7. RH,

    I am curious to hear your thoughts on the difference between being educated, being well-trained, and being knowledgeable.

    Please share if you have time.

  8. Rational Hoplite

    Hi, Dregs. Sure. I’m going to ask in advance for your apologies for a few things: First, I seem to have a clinical inability to proofread effectively my own copy, and this is sure to be rachitic with embarrassing oversights, typos, and lapses. Second, there is probably a lot of prefatory and supplementary fat, here, and illustration-overkill; but selfishly, I am hoping to expose to healthy criticism as many of my thoughts as I can. I am reluctant to leave off the page anything that might be rattling around in my head, lest I miss an opportunity to be corrected. You are welcome to skip right to the punchline – the section “IN OTHER WORDS…”*


    I blame the old Jesuit. He made most of us a little nuts, but he got under my skin so quickly (and deeply) that I withdrew from university altogether. “We do not seek to answer every question”, he thundered, “but question every answer!”. Sustained examination and criticism of our fundamental presuppositions – that’s what his philosophy class was all about. I wasn’t aware that I have any fundamental presuppositions; but once the existence of these were pointed-out – once I got it into my head that I was toting around with me rather many unconsidered beliefs, habits of thought, habits of action, and (as he put it) “unexamined” default-settings – I became… well, unsettled. Life on autopilot seemed to me to be working well enough — but, was it? This was the terrible new idea that had begun to percolate into my marrow, and I didn’t like the way it felt. We were the great unwashed, he would remind us – barbarians, who knew neither Latin nor Greek, barely literate in our own native vulgate, chasing degrees rather than seeking knowledge.

    Four or five “Barbarians!” later, I did an Ishmael. As my substitute for cap and gown, I unquietly took to a ship.

    The captain who was willing to take me on was, in fact, a lot like the old Jesuit, except that the captain was a bear of a man who tended to use profanity rather a lot. I was (at the time) clear-eyed and strong, and so the captain was willing to overlook the fact that I had recently been “one of those college types”. It helped that I had good sea-legs, though there was no reason why I should. My glasses and the poor eyesight that necessitated them were not an advantage; but the job he trained me for didn’t require distance vision, and I spent little time at the helm. (I spent considerably less time at the wheel after I nearly drove us up into a sandbar I couldn’t see.)

    Trained — that’s the key word. Deck-hands on lobster boats need to do a few things only. Once the pot (trap) is “broken” up onto the rail, we pull-out the lobsters. Keepers get tossed into the lid of the live-well for banding, doubtful sized specimens get measured, and undersized critters get tossed back into the sea. After measuring, the keepers get banded and dropped into the well. What follows next depends on whether one is fishing “singles” (one pot, one marker-buoy) or “trawl-lines” (a main-line with market-buoys at either end, to which line are attached ten or fifteen pots by “gangions” – lines that connect the pots to the mainline). Stacking the pots at the stern, keeping all lines in order upon the deck, and setting the pots was equal parts bullwork, tradecraft, and art. Emptying, refilling, and hanging bait bags is easy, once you’re shown how to do it. Banding lobsters took a bit of skill (and initially: courage). Rolling fifty-gallon plastic drums of bait from the dock to the boat via a ten-inch plank was challenging, especially at low tide when the boat sat four or more feet lower than the dock. (Twice I spilled gallons of bait trying to work the barrel along the plank. The first time most of the bait went overboard, the second time all over the deck. The second misadventure left a mess, but we still had the bait. The first cost me part of my pay and scuppered the trip. The range and depth of the captain’s expletives were, on both occasions, impressive and terrifying.)

    Trained. There was an over-arching goal (catch lobsters), which was realized by the successful performance of a number of goals (tasks) nested within the entire process (bait the pot; set the pot; retrieve the pot; etc.). There were procedures to be followed, and these could be written-down and ordered in a series (first, do this; second…). The steps had to be followed in order. Deviation from the procedure would assuredly result in a trap that “didn’t fish” (didn’t catch lobsters), or physical injury. Both of these were incompatible with the fisherman’s raison d’etre. As for ancillary or prerequisite skills, these consisted of physical strength, physical endurance, sea-legs, and the absence of the kind of constitution that would incline one towards sea sickness, muscular fatigue, or boredom. It was necessary also to be at all times attentive and mindful of hazards. At any given time there would be hundreds of fathoms of line on the deck tied to traps which were weighted with bricks and destined to be pushed overboard and set on the ocean floor. You did not want those lines wrapping around your ankles and dragging you down, and for the deck-hand fishing trawl-lines, one reason why good training was fundamental: Well-trained in a task means you no longer think about how to perform it, and that frees your attention for other tasks and responsibilities.

    I will never know whether my back injury (requiring surgery) was really why I gave up fishing. (At the time it was the proximate cause of my abandoning the trade, with which I had developed a love/hate relationship.) The captain didn’t care about my unexamined fundamental presuppositions – or, if he did, he never harassed me about them. (It was in any case impossible to hold a conversation while working, and the engine was so loud that we communicated necessaries by shouting — the captain, in orders and profanities; me, with obedient acknowledgement that I heard the orders.) I was taught only what I needed to know; and when I asked questions, I learned that they had damned well be relevant to what I needed to know. Curiosity was a virtue only to the extent that it indicated my willingness to better-learn the trade, and that it signaled the time might be at hand to teach me something else. Curiosity generally was not appreciated, and was countenanced as an intrusion.

    But the fact was, there was only so much the captain *could* teach – that is, in the sense of “teach me how to be a good lobsterman”. I could be taught how to read a chart, use the Loran, and work the helm; but it takes years of experience to know how and where to set the traps, how to sense oncoming weather, and how really to pilot a smallish boat bobbing around ten or more miles out of sight of the land. Training carries one so far only in that business; the money comes from good judgment, and that comes from experience and time alone. As for being informed and knowledgeable, the only news I really needed was the morning weather forecast from the local lobsterman’s association, the Coast Guard, and NOAA. (“Wind, 20 to 25 knots; seas, five to ten feet”. Anything like that or worse meant we’d be working on gear and not going out.) Market-prices for lobsters of course fluctuated, as did fuel prices, the price of bait, and the price of gear; but I was a grunt, not a colonel, and expansive or synoptic views of the industry were irrelevant to the officious discharge of my duties. Gauge-sizes for measuring the lobsters could change, but did so infrequently, and anyhow all lobstermen knew enough of the relevant laws and rules to stay on the right side of the law. Following developments in the Middle East, macro-economic trends, or developments in maritime jurisprudence would not have benefitted us much, really.

    One day a very large shark came into view. The captain, seeing the dorsal fin before I did, steamed over and ran along the side of it. He shouted to me above the engine. “Take a look at that”, he bellowed. It seemed nearly the half length of the forty-foot boat. “That’s why you want to stay out of the water”, he nodded his head sharply. Yes. One more reason to be sure you’re not dragged over with the weighted mainline and fifteen forty-pound pots. With 100 gallons of bloody fish-heads and skate wings for bait on deck, the thought of capsizing immediately took on a new and very unpleasant aspect.

    After recovering from back surgery I returned to the university, and took work as a baker. For my final three years of undergraduate study I worked 30 hours per week, six days a week. My own training took about three nights (I baked from 1am till 6am, and went to class right from the bakery), and I guess it took about a month before I got into the swing of things. Within six months I was the lead-baker, meaning I worked alone, six days a week, preparing and baking all the products for the morning rush. Thereafter – roughly twice a year over the course of three years – it fell to me to train new bakers.

    Some recruits had prior experience, but most were new to the trade, as I had been. Like lobstering, it was essentially procedural. There was a specific target: to bake bread (and a few other things) effectively, efficiently, and safely. There was a process that admitted of little wiggle-room, innovation, or variation – too much or too little salt, too little steaming, too much time in the oven with the vents closed, and we’d lose product, money, and time. Their graduation from my baking class was contingent solely upon their successful and compelling demonstration that they could in fact effectively, efficiently, and safely bake bread, and my assessment did not include an essay portion requiring them to fill a few bluebooks with reflections upon the sublime aspect of the bakery’s massive commercial mixer, or sage thoughts on the adage “Man cannot live by bread alone”.

    Here, now, we are nearer to the heart of the matter. I did not train them for *their* sake, or with a view to their broader edification – no more so that did the captain who trained me, or the owner of the bakery who trained me. I trained them for the sake of the owner of the bakery; and, while their training did of course benefit them, as it had benefited me (we could now take those skills and work elsewhere), I trained them for *our* (the bakery’s) immediate advantage, and not theirs. I explained goals, and the processes. I showed them how, and I drilled them, and I required them to produce the desired outcome, following the desired process.

    And here is what I did not do. I did not aim to cultivate them or improve them. I did not aim intentionally to kindle in them sparks of wonder about the world, or suggest to them the joy of discovering the power of an enlivened and active intellect, or the importance of a sustained habit of curiosity, on the one hand, and learned doubt on the other. And, though it was clearly foreseeable to me that their mastery of these new skills would be a benefit to them, my “benefiting” them and their broader “improvement” – at least beyond the very narrow scope of baking these particular products – was not my concern.

    Sure, they were both ends-in-themselves and means — they were of course fellow human beings, and not machines or automata. But the point about training is: It aims to make discreet skills more or less automatic – aims to remove thought (and even attention) from the process. A well-trained baker can knead two boules of dough on the bench while thinking about other things – the Bruins game, an unfinished Sudoku puzzle, a passage from Melville, whether he left the iron on. Not so for the novice new to the behavior of gluten. Most soldiers plod through field-stripping drills until – given the right training, practice, and the development of a real and abiding sense of how important it is – they can strip and reassemble their rifles and side-arms with less conscious attention than is required for nickless shaving.


    This is one way into the difference between education and training: consider the difference between what an educator does, and what a trainer does, why they do what they do, and the concerns appropriate to the former and the latter. But let me acknowledge, first, the following. The verbs ‘educate’ and ‘train’ are different words, and so it is natural and reasonable to expect that they point-to or stand-for distinctly different activities. Likewise for the words ‘educated’ and ‘trained’, ‘educator’ and ‘trainer’. It could be that the relationship between genus and species: education is the genus, training) is the species, and the cognates follow-suit. But consider these two sentences:

    A. The surgeon is well-trained, but she is not well-educated.
    B. The surgeon is well-educated, but he is not well-trained.

    The first question is: Is there a meaningful difference between A and B? Are either of these, in fact, intelligible? The second question is: Assuming that neither A nor B is nonsense, which surgeon would you prefer to work on you? If you prefer A (as I do), then – however culturally-loaded the word “educated” is – you suspect (as I do) that it does stand for something different from “trained” (or “knowledgeable” or “informed”).

    One final illustration of what I mean, and then to the heart of the matter.

    A few summers back I was called upon to provide antibiotics three-times daily to a family member, by intravenous drip. The family member had a PICC-line (peripherally inserted coronary catheter) inserted by a nurse-specialist, who then trained me in how to administer my patient’s daily ration of antibiotics through it. I confess to finding the whole thing daunting and intimidating, even though – stripped to its essentials – the procedure *qua* procedure was not fundamentally different from baiting and setting lobster pots, or baking bread. I was very nervous the first few times I did it, and undertook each step slowly and very carefully; but by the end of the week it felt as if I had been doing it for years. The experience had given me an idea.

    Class number two, “introduction to logical reasoning” (see supra), and I have decided to try an experiment to make as live and real as possible for my students the difference between education and training. I brought the IV pole, an empty bag of antibiotics, and empty syringes previously filled with saline solution and Heparin (an anticoagulant) to class. After explaining to the students the purpose of the demonstration, and how it fit in with the course objectives and the previous discussion, I asked them to keep their heads in the role-play, and follow along as if they were training to be paramedics.

    “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Today we are going to learn how to deliver a course of antibiotics via a PICC-line, effectively, efficiently, and safely. At the end of this session each of you will be capable of delivering effectively, efficiently, and safely a course of antibiotics through a PICC-line. Do you understand me?”


    “Do you have any questions about what we are doing this morning?”


    “Good. Let’s begin”.

    I walked them through step by step. “’PICC’ stands for peripherally inserted coronary catheter. ‘Peripherally’ means…”, etc. At each step I had they respond to my questions with the answers which were fundamental to the task in question. The demonstration took twenty minutes. Some were actually taking notes. All eyes were bright and focused. They answered with gusto, like a group of soldiers.

    When the demonstration was complete, I asked them: If this was actually a training-session, what other things would be probably do?

    “We would each try each one of the steps ourselves” a girl answered immediately.

    “Excellent. Right. And once I have established that each and every one of you can successfully and safely perform each of the steps, what else might we do?”

    [Same girl.] “We’d try to do the whole thing, like, on a real person, or one of those dummy things, probably, I guess”.

    “Right. And how would I assess you – how would I evaluate and grade you?”

    [Boy] “You’d see if we could do the whole thing without making any mistakes”.

    “Right – anything else? Ok, what if I said that your assessment would include the following: you would also need to demonstrate that you can teach someone else how to do the procedure, and that I would then assess whether the person you trained could do it properly. Would that make sense?”

    [Class] “Yes”.

    And that (I explained) was training. They seemed thrilled – and I do not exaggerate – to have learned how to do something. *Do* something. There was a target; there were steps; there was an objective way to confirm successful target-acquisition. And everyone in the class left the room that day knowing how to do something they did not know when they woke up that morning.

    But that was only half of the point of the demonstration. The next set of questions I asked the students were different. Should people who are not nurses or doctors be allowed to do this? If I botched-up one day – say, I didn’t bleed the IV of air, or forgot the Heparin (unlikely, since I in my own training was drilled to remember “SASH” – saline, antibiotic, saline, Heparin), who should be held responsible – me alone, or both me and the person who trained me? Is it appropriate to be delivering antibiotics and Heparin without knowing anything about the relevant pharmacology? Why is it acceptable to train a non-specialist to deliver drugs through a PICC-line, but not acceptable to train a non-specialist to insert or remove a PICC-line? The nurse who trained me didn’t ask me about my background, job, level of education, or anything. Should she have? Would any of that have been relevant? (Does one need nursing or medical training in order to be a legitimate “medical ethicist”? This question would have been a bit much for my first-semester freshman, but it was on my mind.)

    Knowing that such questions might be worth the trouble of asking – and wrestling effectively with them – requires different habits of mind. I suppose one could say, it requires a different kind of training. But I am not sure “training” is the best word. Following the steps of the procedure required only the ability to follow a finite number of steps – and the good sense to remember to keep one’s hands and the injection-site clean. When the IV nurse was training me how to do the procedure, these and other questions kept popping-up, and it took effort to shunt them to one side in order to remain focused on the training at hand. The questions “popped-up”, because I see the word as an educated person – however few my real skills, no matter how gappy and discursive my knowledge.

    That tendency to see complexity where others see simple wholes – and also: the tendency to doubt whether seeming complexity is perhaps merely confused simplicity – are what I want to call the habits of an educated mind. Educated persons (I suggest) not merely observe differences where less-educated persons assume or apprehend homogeneity; we anticipate the possibility of being able to make finer distinctions between things – just in case a warranted and sustainable distinction advances opportunities to be more informed about a thing or situation.

    Some people have – or very nearly have – this habit, even absent a “formal education”. It is to some extent rather like having pretty good sea-legs despite never having been out to sea. I am less certain that this habit it is also like sea-legs in another respect: Some people never get them, and are forever wobbly, unsteady, and prone to sea-sickness. (A deckhand who needs to ply himself with Dramamine before every trip is likely to find the job more trouble than it’s worth.)

    Can these habits of thought be taught? I believe that we can try to enliven students to the possibilities of thought – of learned-doubt, and of methodological skepticism. If we succeed in being evangelists for thought, we may then serve as guides – guiding students through the main questions of the principal departments of philosophy, and/or through the history of ideas of which the history of philosophy is a part. One can train someone to read, but you cannot train someone to be an enthusiastic, hungry, ludic reader. You can train someone to solve “If P, Q” puzzles; but once one learns the trick, solving these puzzles isn’t really thinking at all – no more than remembering SASH, kneading boules of bread-dough, or baiting a lobster pot.

    Anyone who has trained soldiers – especially those who train soldiers for combat roles, and in combat-related skills – knows that the very point of training is to take thinking (about the execution of the targeted-task) out of the equation. Drill, repetition, drill, practice, demonstrate, repeat, etc. – the point is to acquire some “know-how” skill which will become automatic, thus leaving the one’s “attention“ free for other things. (Say, not being killed.) This is why training students (of logic) to solve “If P, Q” puzzles, resolve categorical syllogisms, or spot fallacies is not philosophical education. These are puzzles, not problems.


    1. An educator takes a comprehensive view of the student and the student’s best-interests, and is concerned with both the student’s cultivation and development. Imparting domain-specific knowledge or skills will be the documented and appropriate goal, but the educator’s actual concern and actual interests are neither circumscribed narrowly by nor confined solely to those goals explicitly documented in the course-content.

    2. An instructor may of course “train” or and “drill” her students as part of her efforts to impart knowledge, to realize the intended learning-outcomes, etc.; but where there is training and/or drilling only, the instructor is not fulfilling the purpose of an educator.

    3. A trainer punches a clock and instructs according to a schedule, and may justifiably refuse to train a student outside appointed contact-hours or outwith contractual obligations. An educator is always on duty, and will never refuse reasonable opportunities to advance a student’s attempts at self-improvement.

    4. “To have been educated” means to have benefited from the intentional and sustained efforts of others to guide one’s efforts to improve oneself, and to have benefited from such admonition, exhortation, recommendation, and instruction as was appropriate to the shared-goals of the instructor and the student, provided that these were indeed shared goals, and that those efforts on the part of the instructor have been made for the sake of the student him- or herself. “To have been trained-well” means that a student has mastered certain skills, whether or not those skills are beneficial to the student. (“Smith is well-trained in the art and science of safely, effectively, and efficiently making and distributing crystal-meth”.)

    5. To “be educated” is to doubt whether one is sufficiently knowledgeable, sufficiently good, and sufficiently wise; to know that one as yet has room for improvement in respect of each of these, and to know that it is appropriate for human beings to be concerned about this – aye, and sometimes to worry about it – to be an educated person. (To conscientiously aim to impart this successfully to students is to be an educator.) One may be the master of many wonderful and important skills, and prodigious in his encyclopedic knowledge, and frightfully well-informed of events and persons and all things-current. But if he does not have the habit of doubting the value of his skills, does not sometimes scruple a little over the ends to which he puts his knowledge, or question sincerely the utility of his worldliness, then – though perhaps a towering and impressive figure – I would not describe him as “educated”.


    When I resumed my undergraduate studies, the old Jesuit was still there, and he became my favorite philosophy professor. Because of him, I was able to extract more from my short stint as a lobsterman, and to appreciate why I had learned from the rough old salt who often reduced me to tears with his scowling. It was my sad honor to be the last person at our university to see the old Jesuit alive. I had picked him up from the airport in late December, after his visit to his sister (a nun). He died two nights later. He would, if alive today, no doubt continue to insist that I am an unwashed barbarian. I am sure that this is at least half true.


    * I address similar points on Professor LaBossiere’s post “Should everyone got to university?”

  9. RH, my first inclination is to call this string of posts a “bravura performance”. I hesitate only because too much flattery sometimes has a way of putting a stop to the show, like cheering in the middle of a symphony.

    Lacking the propriety and good sense to follow either my first instinct or the hesitation, I’ll violate one further instinct by making a narcissistic self-reference. What you are saying about the point of education is very much in keeping with what I would like to say about the virtues of the philosopher. [Recall: here, here, and here.] Do you think that the idea of ‘being educated’ is just the same as being like a philosopher? If so, then what distinctive activities are philosophy departments supposed to be engaged in?

  10. RH,

    Thanks for your detailed reply. Please let me paraphrase to check that I’ve followed you:

    One is trained qua P insofar as P is some task that one is able to do well. Dimensions of ‘well’ might be such things as efficiency, accuracy, repeatability, and so on.

    One is knowledgeable qua P insofar as one can recall P, where P is some body of information. Training would seem to be an instance of the application of knowledge toward some end, though not necessarily one’s own knowledge.

    One is educated insofar as one has the habit of seeking and evaluating the assumptions made by the training and knowledge one has and encounters. Dimensions of ‘evaluating’ would be such things as considering their origin, probability, alternatives, further implications, and so on.

    Please let me know if any of this seems disagreeable.

    If you’ll pardon a bit of fun, this tripartite division of states implies 7 general archetypes for those granting their possible combinations:

    1) The Trainer who imparts how to do things but not why. (training only)

    2) The Theorist who imparts the what and why of things only. (knowledge only)

    3) The Gadfly who imparts insatiable questioning. Woe to those bitten, who thereafter know no rest. (education only)

    4) The Teacher who imparts the what, the why, and the how. (training-knowledge)

    5) The Professor who imparts the what, the why, and the disposition to interrogate them both. (knowledge-education)

    6) The Monk who mysteriously imparts insight and awareness under the yoke of seemingly endless training. I’ll never forget you, Sensei. (training-education)

    7) The Educator who imparts the what, the why, the how, and the disposition to interrogate them all.

  11. Rational Hoplite

    ** Dear Dregs —
    I see – just now – your post. What follows (below) was written today, before I saw your contribution to the discussion. Do pardon me — I will read your comments now. Everything infra may be unintentionaly obiter to your observations. RH


    BLS Nelson,
    You remain too extravagant with your compliments, Sir. Gently, I refuse to accept them. But the kindness is appreciated.
    Thank you most of all for the references to your posts. You are an outstanding writer. Blending genuine erudition with wholesome and informative wit is not easy, and you have a talent – a gift – for it.
    I agree with your readers: Publish, Sir, and cast your net wider still.
    I am in general and specific agreement with your observations — provided I have not misunderstood them, for I doubt that I am in any sense your equal. Your sketch for a taxonomy of philosophical types seems to me spot-on and very well-considered (I conclude that I am a “lone-guru”, though I would self-identify as a “guide” rather than a guru). Our affection for Nietzsche is shared, and both your students and those in your immediate professional orbit are fortunate.
    * * *
    You ask: “Do you think that the idea of ‘being educated’ is just the same as being like a philosopher? If so, then what distinctive activities are philosophy departments supposed to be engaged in?”
    As for the first part of your question: It seems I have put myself in hot water. (How like the unfortunate lobster.) What I have written (supra) seems to commit me to just that; and yet I would not argue that “being educated” is exactly the same as being [like] a philosopher. I doubt that what I add, now, will be a satisfactory answer, but I am grateful to you for the opportunity think more rigorously – patiently? attentively? – about this specific question.


    Let me start here. In practice, it is unlikely that I would be either quick or willing to label or identify anyone I didn’t know personally or know well (e.g., through one’s works or other accomplishments) as ‘educated’. But I do have a tendency (in every-day, pedestrian discourse) to distinguish (as consistently and as circumspectly as I can) between the ‘intelligent’, the ‘knowledgeable’, the ‘informed’, the ‘talented’, and the ‘[well-] educated’.

    When and where I do offer intentionally one descriptor rather than another, it is because, first, the context is the assessment or evaluation of a specific someone, and second, there is some specific matter in contention – say, the basis for praise for someone, or the grounds for dismissal what what s/he said or did. When the specific someone happens to be a student of mine, and the context is my professional opinion of him or my assessment of her, I stick to things like “seems motivated”, “appears to be working below his potential”, “has failed to demonstrate understanding or interest”, etc. To my students *themselves*, I have indeed challenged them to be “not just informed or knowledgeable, but educated”. I cannot deny that such exhortations were intended as a specific kind of encouragement (channeling the old Jesuit?), I I think my meaning is: Seek always to be better than you are now, and never tire of examining what “better” might mean. I hope my real-time deployment of these descriptors is better than ad hoc, and are not merely straws stacked upon and above a vacuity; but I will admit that as fulcra for moving forward some claim about a specific person, these adjectives seem to me to have limited value.

    [NOTE: In attempting to engage thoughtfully your question, I have succumbed again to logorrhea. I will not be offended if none reads what follows. The last two or three paragraphs provide imperfect short answers.]


    Among my four closest friends, I am surely the least *intelligent*. I hope they would not be too quick or too willing to agree, or, would at least be gentle (and not too enthusiastic) in assenting to that proposition; but I do believe (and I have grounds for believing) it is nonetheless true. We are all rather *knowledgeable*. We read deeply in one or two domains, and read fairly wide outside of our preferred domains, too. We are not all equally-knowledgeable about all things, but we like learning from one another. Likewise for ‘informed’: Smith is much more *informed* than the rest of us about X, Jones, about Y; but broadly speaking we are reasonably *well-informed* guys. (“As compared to who? What is the standard?” Good questions.)

    When describing any one of them to another friend, family member, or acquaintance, I am proud to point out that they are all *well-educated* – certainly better educated that I am… or, was. (The tense of the verb makes all the difference, here.)
    When I make this claim, I am pointing to at least two things specifically.

    First, each completed (with flying colors) undergraduate studies at excellent, elite liberal arts colleges. (I was Summa at a not-so-excellent, non-elite state university.) Second, their matriculation to those colleges, and their genuine receipt and appreciation of the full complement of benefits available to them while there, was due mainly to the fact that they were *prepared* for them, having been *actively cultivated* by their parent or parents. From the earliest ages they were raised and reared in homes that valued thought, curiosity, meaningful exchange and dialogue, reading, traveling, exploring, and reflection upon one’s discoveries – both the ab intra and the ab extra kind. (I was raised on re-runs and grape Fanta.)

    I am the only one among these four to have pursued (and to have earned) a PhD, but any one of them could have; and I would never claim or insist that “I am the best-educated among us”, even though it is a documented fact that among us I hold the highest academic qualification. I am also the only one among them who is a philosopher – or at least: the only one who, ceteris paribus, can make that claim with a straight face. But they are all *very philosophical* gentlemen. I cannot say the same for some of my other super-smart friends with advanced academic qualifications, some of whom are not (by their own admission) widely-read, and who (despite their advanced degrees from excellent institutions) would not count as “well-educated” as per my qualification above.

    With respect to a group of six of my intimates, it seems to work-out sort of like this:

    i. All of my “well-educated friends” are very intelligent, and are in fact also well- and widely-read.
    ii. Only one of my “well-educated” friends has an advanced degree.
    iii. All of my “well-educated” friends are “very philosophical”.
    iv. None of my friends are “philosophers”.
    iv. All of my friends with advanced degrees are very intelligent, but not all of my friends with advanced degrees are well-read, and only one of them is “very philosophical”.
    v. The one philosopher (me) is possibly the least intelligent among the group of friends in this sample, and is (was?) not as “well-educated” as most of the friends in this sample.

    A few things stand-out (to me) about my “set”: Two of my close, long-time friends (but: not from the group of my four closest friends) have advanced degrees (a PhD, an MBA); neither was “well-educated” (in the sense intended in this analysis); neither is well-read (the PhD knows her stuff inside-out, and reads light stuff for pleasure; the MBA rarely reads at all, and does so mainly to kill time during layovers at airports). Neither is very philosophical. Both have abused me lovingly and perhaps correctly for overthinking every little thing, and for sometimes creating my own minutiae — something my “very philosophical” friends have never done.

    When I describe a subset of friends as “very philosophical”, what I mean is that they are inveterate skeptics who have also the habit of doubting-methodically. They masticate what they read (and again: they read broadly) rather than simply sip it up. They are ever-ready to consider the possibility of nuances in words or turns of phrase, and are reluctant to accept some prepackaged nostrum or legacy-assumption solely on the grounds that it “trending”, or was issued from the mouth, pen, or keyboard of someone of popular (and therefore: possibly ephemeral) eminence.

    Their work, however, lies elsewhere, and they are not full-time scrutinizers. All but one has more than superficial knowledge of formal philosophy (the main branches, the key questions, the roster of heavyweights, etc.), but none is ignorant of the existence of the field, or is heedless of the fact that it does in fact exist and has its own preoccupations. To the extent that they are acquainted with my researches, they seem to find them interesting. I have always benefited from exchanges with them about what I am reading or writing at the moment, and they prove always to be patient and informed listeners. (The MBA seems unable to bear more than a three-minute summary before he suggests we go get a drink, or a foot massage, or both. I readily accept his proposal. He’s buying. If Hume can retire to backgammon…)

    But my philosophical friends are not themselves disposed to the life-subterranean; and while they seem to admire my commitment to being a guide (cum lone wolf), it’s simply not their bag, and isn’t paying their bills.


    How is it, then, that the (admittedly) least-well-educated and possibly the least-intelligent friend is the one to earn his PhD (from a mediaeval British university, in case that matters), and yet is the only “philosopher” among the bunch? And what, anyway, marks me off as “the philosopher”?

    Well, I’m the philosopher because I am the one with degrees in the field, who knows the historical and professional landscape, and the one who has taught it professionally. I am also the one who seems pathologically incapable of hearing, witnessing, or reading anything without his brain immediately attempting to create a 3-D tree-diagram of possible conceptual relationships and explanada (with footnotes that may or may not stretch back to Plato), who lectures aloud to himself while driving, and who habitually sees in most things an opportunity to demonstrate a point, develop a line of questioning, or enliven an example for a collection of fidgety super-terraneans. Every hill – midden or munro – could have some ore within it, and so I travel always with my pick-axe and hammer — and scalpel. They do not.

    It is not false modesty when I insist that I am the least intelligent among my four closest friends. (Comparing our SATs, GREs, ASVABs, and IQ tests would probably clear up the matter. Deo volente it will never come to that.) But I think the philosopher – and not merely the able student of philosophy, or the diplomat – is, as you have rightly suggested, a different kind of animal. (Can wolves… ruminate?)

    If Nietzsche was a philologist and sort of classicist, then, we are probably correct in concluding that one needn’t have degrees in philosophy to be rightly counted among the philosophers. Around the time I was reading Westermarck’s “The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas” and Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh”, I discovered within myself a growing reluctance to esteem or to value (as a matter course) the work of “trade-philosophers” over and above the work of writers who struck me as highly observant, knowledgeable, and concerned sincerely to illuminate. I appreciated also that non-philosophers seemed better at not losing the problem in the puzzles.

    To *illuminate* — rather than, say, to reinterpret (again!) what Hobbes (Lock, Kant, Rawls, etc.) “really meant” by X, or, what an Aristotelian (Hobbsian, Lockean, Kantian, Rawlsian) “approach to” Y or Z might be. I have often dreamed of there being a moratorium on papers and books of this sort, especially when many of them seem intended – not so much to provide crucial, much-needed illumination – but to demonstrate the scholar’s prowess as a scholar. Such papers seem to me like the difference between a Jimi Hendrix and an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo: Hendrix uses the guitar to create a voice, one that is essential to the story his song is telling, or to the mood it is trying to communicate; Eddie is simply showing-off his with guitar gymnastics. It’s very impressive that he can do it, but…

    I am very reluctant to write much further about this. For one thing, it causes me terrible flashbacks of conferences and faculty colloquia, where I have wanted to stand up and scream “Who bloody cares? What, really, is at stake? Had you not spent your sabbatical answering this question, what would have happened? Who would have been worse-off?”. And for another thing, I don’t want to come across as a guru.

    Guru- (and I suppose guide-) types are often guilty of claiming (or: of seeming to claim) some kind of unique gnosis about what philosophy is, and about what philosophers are supposed to be doing — and the “doing” they seem most often to have in mind is “leading one towards enlightenment”, or, some shamanistic “therapy of the soul”. Philosophy as therapy does have a very distinguished heritage, and I myself am a fan of Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius – and many of the “graceful-life” philosophers – as well as essayists like Petrarch and Montaigne. But in the worst cases (you allude politely to this), the guru’s gnosticism – however sincere and well-intended – is not always matched by a genuine knowledge of the literature of our trade, or any real “depth”. (The metaphysics of the University of Sedona, after all, is not the metaphysics of either Aristotle or Roderick Chisholm.) But if a German philologist can be a philosopher of monumental importance, so too can a PhD in philosophy be a poor philosopher. (Another treatise for another time.)


    As to the question “What distinctive activities are philosophy departments supposed to be engaged in?”, I would say by way of preface that this answer is contingent upon – is hostage to! – a compelling answer to questions about what any given individual and bona fide philosopher should be doing. (Not being part of department might be one of those things.) You have done an excellent job suggesting answers to this question, and I hope I have not done too poor a job indicating my own (similar and complementary?) position.

    Institutionally, however, I suppose the activities of the department qua department are not wholly reducible to the (proper-) activities of each member of the department; and just in case this is so, I suggest the following – colors herewith nailed to the mast.

    The primary activity of the department should be ensuring that no student incapable of successfully passing two consecutive semesters of introductory philosophy should be allowed to advance in her or his studies. The department should be guardians of the dignity of higher education, and to that end the department should be committed to effecting and realizing the provision of two required semesters of philosophy — to be taken by all incoming freshman, and taken sequentially and without exception. Such a two-part course of study would consist of one semester focusing on what philosophy is (and: the main branches of philosophy, and the main topics addressed therein — headline acts flagged as appropriate), and one semester focusing on philosophy and thought in the Western classical period.

    Efforts to engage thoughtfully and conscientiously the traditions, cultures, ideas, ideals, and Weltanschauungen of other peoples loses much of its value when, say, the Chinese exchange-students know more about Socrates than their classmates born and raised in the West – a situation I have personally encountered. It is also pure folly to allow Western students to attempt to engage Laozi, Kongzi, Mengzi, etc., on their own terms, without some basic frame of reference for the Western philosophical tradition. It is shameful to invite Western undergrads to “jump into the cultural gap” and explore stories and novels from Indian or Senegalese authors before they’ve encountered Alcestis and Admetus, Jason and Medea, and the dysfunctional families of Oedipus and the Atreids. Philosophers have a unique obligation to ensure that the world of Plato and Aristotle (and not just Plato and Aristotle) gets some air-time, too; and with the death of the classics curriculum, I believe the philosophers need to jump into the breach.

    So much for philosophers (and departments) and their role in the context of higher education. More broadly, I believe we need more philosophers in more departments reading *less* philosophy – and while they’re at it, writing fewer papers that perhaps a only few dozen specialists may read, and which in any case do little or nothing to address genuine problems (even at the “meta-“ level).

    “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States”
    “Whaling Voyage By One Ishmael”
    “Philosopher Proves Schopenhauer Correct”

    (Apologies to Melville.) No. It doesn’t work that way. More philosophers, I believe, need to get back into the business of keeping an eye on what behavioral and social scientists are doing with the territory we ceded to them a century ago.

    My own work in the domains most interesting to me at the moment (the concept of violence; the concept of gratitude; the differences between the Western and Chinese [Traditional Chinese Medicine] conceptions of allergies, and how this might bear upon differing conceptions of health and health-vulnerability) means I am these days reading very little recent/contemporary philosophy. And there’s little need to – unless my aim is merely to engage in the cut-and-thrust of issues now being addressed and solved by other professional philosophers.

    Here’s an example. Humble efforts to explore and analytically explicate, say, the nature of gratitude, have been replaced by the work of folks like McCullough (vide: Largely unchallenged by philosophers, McCullough et al. have withdrawn the subject of gratitude so far from philosophical purview that it now very difficult to convince people that that gratitude is *not* properly within the exclusive domain of experimental social psychology. That’s bad enough. What’s worse is when this sort of conceptual analysis is deemed “fringy” by other philosophers. What I confront repeatedly in my research into the concept of violence is that ideas about right and wrong are increasingly brushed aside or deconstructed into (evidence-based, non-normative) analyses of “aggression” or psychopathology, and where everyone seems to be in agreement that “empathy” is the answers to all of humanity’s problems. Who, then, is left to point out that current social/behavioral science definitions of ‘aggression’ are conceptually flawed (deeply!) , and that the current fetish for ‘empathy’ rests in part upon a particular translation judgment (ca. 1903 – vide: Hasn’t the mere absence of “empathy cards” from Hallmark suggested to anyone that maybe the sympathy/empathy distinction has been overworked?
    (“Overworked”… what does that mean? A fine philosophical question.)

    Philosophy departments need, in any case, to develop and mandate introductory courses which are suitable for their entering freshman cohort — rigorous, and part of a gate-keeping strategy, but nonetheless appropriate to the quality of the in-take. Department members need to work in concert to try to get students “thinking about thinking” (the name of the slightly famous Dershowitz, Nozick, and Gould course, vide: They should aim to create critics, not partisans – watchdogs, and not lapdogs (or running-dogs). Philosophy departments should aim – through the individual efforts of each unique member, of course – to make all students at least a little “guide-like”. That improves our odds of none becoming too lost.

    They should help students to become a little wolf-like, too. The sheep population is positively out of control. It always have been.

    I am ashamed to have written so much, and when this 32 ounce can of Monster wears-off, I will probably want to repudiate half of this. But I thank you for the chance to be corrected and/or admonished by friendly peers.


  12. Rational Hoplite

    Dear Dregs —

    That was good-reading. Cheers!

    With respect to your synopsis (the first part of your comment), I think it would do me too much justice to say you extracted it from what I offered. What is agreeable to me – what I think is sustainable and accurate – about your analysis is due more to your own creativity than to the lump of raw material I thrust upon this virtual community. As I am not that smart, I will re-read your comment, and think about it. But rest assured: I liked it, and I am very happy we are still engaged in discussion.

    Your “seven” — they are magnificent. If you intend the scheme as a rough-guide field-guide to “types”, I think it is as good as anything Audubon has published. It weds well, too, with BLS Nelson’s taxonomy of philosophical types. Nice.

    Kind of obiter: Francois Jullien (Detour and Access*) does a brilliant job explaining how Kongzi (Confucius) would answer his students without answering — indeed, this is the theme running through this book. In traditional Chinese watercolor (Jullien says), often the best way to paint the moonlight is not to paint the moon at all, but to execute brilliantly a painting the clouds. Your characterization of The Monk remind me of this.

    Also kind of obiter: In Chapter 3 of the Zhuangzi (my edition) we find a discussion between a butcher and Lord Wenhui, who is impressed with the butcher’s talent for jointing meat. Here’s one version of the story:

    There’s a similar story told (also in the Zhuangzi, Chapter 19, my edition) of Confucius watching a swimmer. Here’s a link to a version of that:

    The butcher can carve up an ox and not dull his knife — indeed, this butcher hadn’t changed or sharpened his knife in years. He doesn’t know how he does it, but he feels his way through the carcass, and just does it. Likewise the swimmer: Confucius thinks the old man is drowning. But after diving in the whirlpools and rolling with the current, the old man calmly steps out of the river. He says to an enquiring Confucius that he has “无道” — wu dao, “has no way”, in the sense of having special systematic method or program for how he does it. “I was born in the hills, so I was used to it. I grew up along the waters, and so I grew accustomed to it. I did what I did not know, and so I followed fate [命, ming]”.

    Throughout the Zhuangzi, the sage-author uses craftsmen (butcher, wheelwright, carpenter) and ordinary persons to demonstrate “kinds of knowings-as-doings” (or is it: doings-as-knowings?) which defy (or which seem to defy) “communicable learning”. Not only is this position anathema to many (“I know it, and I can do it, but I can’t explain it”), craftsman for Zhuangzi are put to nearly the exact opposite use to which they are put by Plato and Aristotle, viz., the knowledge of the craftsman is an inferior form of “knowing”, precisely because it is a (mere) know-how, and not know-why (etc.), and/or it is ancillary to some higher form or doing/knowing.

    The more time I spend reading (and reading about) the Chinese “sages”, the more I incline towards an “epistemological quietism”. And the more I re-read my attempts at making meaningful contributions to the discussions on this forum, the more I am convinced I should be quieter yet!


  13. RH,

    Thanks for your kind words, and I think many here (including myself) are quite glad that you’re not quieter.

    I find the (to my experiences) unusual perspectives in the little Chinese philosophy I’m aware of invigorating. I think it very valuable to work through different ways of thinking about familiar topics; thank you for reminding me of this!

    Regarding my synopsis, it is indeed what I thought you to be saying. Where I wasn’t certain, I did fill in what seemed most likely to me; please consider anything disagreeable to be the product of that bias. Lastly, I apologize for my laconic manner.

  14. RH,

    Regarding the relation between being educated and being a philosopher:

    I agree with your distinction between being a philosopher and being a “trade-philosopher”. Not all philosophers are philosophers by trade, i.e. professional philosophers. For example, Spinoza was a lense-grinder by trade; to think him therefore not a philosopher is absurd. In this sense, I intend to reply only toward being a philosopher.

    In this vein, I think it is a mistake to believe that something true of professional philosophy is necessarily true of philosophy simpliciter. But, enough of that; I believe that we agree on this point.

    Regarding the relation of being educated to being a philosopher, I believe that they are the same thing: One is a philosopher only insofar as one is educated, and vice versa.

    However, by ‘educated’ I do not intend the lexical sense, as one would find in the OED, but rather the technical sense that has been in use within this thread. (until I’m challenged on it, I will default to the paraphrase in my synopsis)

    Hence, philosophy is the seeking out and identification of the possible assumptions and implications of ideas (in the broadest sense).

    One is a philosopher only insofar as one does this. Similarly, one is a ‘philosopher of x’ insofar as the ideas one primarily considers belong to some field; for example, one is a ‘philosopher of physics’ insofar as one is primarily concerned with ideas of or relating to the discipline of physics.

    Some housekeeping activities naturally follow in addition to this–precising definitions, creating distinctions, and so on.

    Interestingly, this account leaves out something frequently done by philosophers: Advocating a position relative to some question or idea. For example, advocating a particular answer for a question such as ‘What is justice?’.

    Advocating such an answer is not philosophy. Insofar as a philosopher does it, they have donned another hat–for example, that of the political scientist or social theorist.

    Iterating the possible answers to a question such as ‘What is justice?’ is also not philosophy–although such iterations are essential to philosophy (they are the ideas it considers) and are frequently worked out by philosophers when they are not already available.

    What is philosophy, however, is seeking out the assumptions made by each such possible answer, and working out their implications.

    A few observations on professional philosophy:

    The work of the professional philosopher may be broader than this, but it cannot be narrower.

    A consequence of this model is that professionals in other fields sometimes do work that falls within philosophy, and professional philosophers sometimes do work that falls within other professional fields.

    In light of this, one might wonder if professional philosophy is redundant in the sense that it could be wholly absorbed by other disciplines.

    I think it is.

    However, I think that there at least two pressing reasons not to carry this out: The first is that the work of philosophy is too difficult and time-consuming to be exclusively done by specialists working in other fields. Although possible in theory, it is simply impractical as things currently stand.

    The second is that those well suited to other disciplines are not necessarily well suited to philosophy. At the same time, the work of philosophy as such is essential to every discipline; it counters ideational bias and shuttered thinking. It is, in a way, a sort of meta-discipline essential to the health of every discipline proper. The best way to ensure that it gets done seems to be to have specialists in it.

  15. Rational Hoplite

    Hi Dregs. Hope this finds you well.

    You write: “A consequence of this model is that professionals in other fields sometimes do work that falls within philosophy, and professional philosophers sometimes do work that falls within other professional fields. // In light of this, one might wonder if professional philosophy is redundant in the sense that it could be wholly absorbed by other disciplines. // I think it is”.

    Bold. I agree, but only because I am in thorough agreement with your caveat/qualifications. Are we in agreement, too, that this is perhaps the best reason for trying to impress upon all undergraduate the importance of philosophy? Namely,

    (a) we should want all future experts/specialists to be more philosophical than they might be absent a rigorous introduction to philosophy’s characteristic mood and methods;
    (b) any four-year institution with a shred of integrity will not want their bachelors to be largely or wholly ignorant of the Western philosophical tradition; and,
    (b) whatever else they do, we should want departments committed to the provision of a thorough, compelling, and interesting “introduction to philosophy” course for freshman, just in case lurking among the new intake are those particularly well-suited and naturally well-disposed to becoming professional scrutinizers. (The world may not need very many, but I despair for any polity in which there are too few.)

    By the way: It’s kind of you not to point out that the n-hundred words re: ‘intelligent’, ‘well-read’, etc., could (and should) have been left-out. This was all stream-of-consciousness stuff. Apologies to you and to anyone else patient enough to suffer it. I am a little fixated with the question “Why do some of us find ourselves driven (as it were) into philosophy?”; but that was a distracting line of light-weight analysis tangential to the topic, and it should have been edited out of the post. RH

  16. Wow, this has grown into quite the read.

    As a recent high school graduate, I’ve found this subject matter insightful, and your prose (by you I refer to those who have posted previously, as a whole) very enjoyable. I also hope to not overstep my bounds here, but think I might be able to provide a different if not new perspective.

    I’ve never before been educated on how or what it means to educate. And I think that the majority of my peers fall into the same boat.

    This seems to me the source of many problems in the world of education. One major problem being that many choose not to open themselves to the world of their educators and the material they teach. Whether this is attributed to laziness or willed ignorance I do not know. But I’ve found, and I’m sure some will agree, that a mind unwilling to learn is not a mind worth teaching, because most of the information will be lost to the closed mind. Such a mind must first be taught to appreciate knowledge, so that it might contemplate it, question it, or even expand upon it.

    For example….
    In my last trimester in high school, I took an introductory psychology course. I came into the course with a number of predispositions:
    1. That I was to partake in this course as a requirement of my school and of my state in order to fulfill my attendance requirement. I did not need it for credit, but it did have significant weight in my grade-point average. and getting a good grade was a priority.
    2. I had no particular interest in the course as a whole. While I had delved into some of the subject matter before, I had no real interest in learning the ‘basics of psychology’.
    3. I had previously experienced a different class with the same teacher. I did not particularly enjoy the class, due to the fact that it was filled with power point upon power point, and the number of dull and seemingly pointless notes seriously attributed to joint aches.

    In this situation, I found myself with a mind unwilling to learn. My predispositions had left me rather annoyed that I simply could not have the hour free to study what I wanted or just sleep in for a bit longer. As consequence, I found myself rather bored, and took my time in class to chat with my buddies about sports, girls, and the likes. My output of knowledge definitely suffered, even if my grade did not show it.

    I’m sure many of your students have found themselves in similar situations, and perhaps you yourself have experienced something similar.

    I did come out of the course with some knowledge. Granted, I would have learned more had my interest been peaked and my attention focused in on the coursework. I did not enjoy a vast majority of my days in class.

    So is there a difference between learning and being educated? And perhaps more importantly, where does the difference lie between being educated and being well-educated?

    Did the fault lie with me for not trying harder to ‘assume the position’ and merely absorb the information being thrown my way, or did it lie with my educator for not inspiring me to learn?

    Is it the job of the educator to inspire one to learn or to merely advance the knowledge they themselves have been taught onto their students?

    I believe it is not the job of the educator to make their course enjoyable; many lessons are rather bleak or uninteresting (or at least subject to personal interest and bias). I do, however believe that it is their duty to ensure that each student learns something of value, whether it be the course material or something else. In that way I believe my educator had failed me, or I had failed myself (depending on your view of the student-educator relationship, an interesting query).

    Much of this conversation previous to my post has been geared toward identifying or defining the differences between education, knowledge, and training. How does a student unlike myself develop the sense needed to understand the reasons behind an education other than society’s expectations for them to be educated? I personally do see many merits to being educated, and I love learning. Many of my peers seem either indifferent to education or bored of it.

    I apologize if some of my questions have already been answered, I may have skipped over parts of the conversation in order to reach its current state so I might contribute to it, even at this late hour. I also apologize if parts of my post are incomprehensible, it is late and my revision efforts are a bit lax. Feel free to direct me to previous posts if they contain my answers.

  17. Hi, Jared —

    Those are *great* questions. Truly. I’m looking forward to BLSN’s reply.

    If I may engage a bit, let me ask you: Where do *you* think the responsibility lies, mainly? For example:

    – With your teachers? (They have a duty to be the best they cam be about making coursework enjoyable and course-time rewarding, etc.?)

    – The school administration? (They have a duty to ensure that all teachers and the curriculum is both enjoyable and rewarding?)

    – Any student’s parents/caregivers? (They need to stay on top of the student, the teachers, the school?) Or maybe: All the adults in the student’s family?… in the student’s life?

    – “Society”, “the community” generally? (And if so: How? Why?)

    Allowing that there’s no simple answer to the question, and that any answer to it will probably “distribute” some responsibility among some or all of the above — what’s your best answer? (Sorry if this seems like a summer essay assignment! But it is wonderful to have you share your thoughts, and I’m hopeful this new line of cross-examination will be useful to us all.)

    It’s great that you found your way to this site/blog, and are ringing-in with thoughts and questions. The very fact that you have observations to share with us – and that you are willing to share them – is a credit to you.

    So, again: What do *you* think? And while we’re at it: What do you think school should be doing *for you*?


  18. Thanks Dregs, Jared, RH. Great thread discussion.

    My two cents in reply to Jared, I agree with you in the following sense. I think instructors have a duty to explain why their subject matters, why it is relevant to life, what makes it salient or valuable. The student should never be left asking “Who cares?”, even if at the end of the day they don’t care. The merits of the subject should be the very first thing students learn about it.

  19. Thanks for your responses.

    I hope the metaphor I’m going to give in response helps to clarify my position, forgive me if it is a bit cliché.

    So where do I think the responsibility lies?

    Essentially it is society that dictates my education. Society places a certain value on education. It is viewed as a tool to further society as a whole, and hopefully an education will help people reach their full potential and become a productive member of society.

    Society is the root of the tree that is education, and like any tree, the roots must be healthy and nurtured in order for the tree to grow and reach its end result. In the case of the tree that end result is a strong and tall tree that produces oxygen and a home to the wildlife around it.

    It is then natural to question our education system’s roots and decide if our system has a strong foundation, or if something needs to be changed in order to help it flourish. Personally, I feel as though there are many flaws in our system’s roots, and if remedied, the outcome would be worth the effort. And again, these problems stem from society. Society dictates what is important, and if the majority is wrong, then everyone suffers.

    My biggest problem with the education system is that it is a business. It’s easy to look at the cost of higher education nowadays and wonder where that money is going, and why so many young people are finding themselves with insurmountable debt. Not only is this debt reducing the quality of life for a lot of people, but it deters many others from seeking out higher education in the first place. One could go on and on about the many negative factors of the rising costs, but I have another issue with education and money. In our country, it has become common place to see a problem and throw money at it in hopes it will fix itself. There are merits to this, and it is admirable that there is some attempt at fixing it. There are also clearly defined problems in this as well. Covering up the problem instead of searching for its roots and fixing it is the chief concern.

    In our local, state, and national education policies, money is awarded to schools who meet the standardized testing requirements. This money is often times crucial to the day-to-day upkeep of a school. Any school that fails to meet these requirements has this funding revoked, and it is the students that suffer.

    School boards and politicians are in charge of the business side of schools, and they often times cut corners to maximize profits, or to line their own pockets, with no regard for what is best for students.

    To me, this is just one of a number of problems with the root of the education tree, and it only encourages the expansion of a diseased system.

    The effects of the diseased roots can be seen higher up on the tree as well. Teachers are discouraged from doing anything other than preparing students from passing these standardized tests, because their job depends on it. If these standardized tests were well suited for each student, this would not be a problem. As it stands however, these tests are generalized. Each student takes the same test, regardless of personal background, intelligence level, etc. Not only are the weaker students relegated to take a test designed for stronger students, but the strongest of students are punished for the results of weaker students and not challenged to grow beyond their current level.

    Personally, I’ve thought of myself in the upper tier of academic strength. I’ve been able to get good grades without trying, and I’ve actually been bored with school for a long time. This leads me to my response to your question “What do I think school should be doing *for me*?”

    I think school needs to be more individualized. Each student’s unique strengths and weaknesses should be evaluated, and their education should reflect those strengths and weaknesses. It is easy to counter-argue this ideal by saying that this type of separation leads to elitism, and those in the lower groups would struggle to fit into society, or that it is impossible to logistically provide a unique learning experience for everyone. My belief is that it would allow for growth in each student, and that it would do so realistically. With the recent technological updates and inventions, it is becoming more realistic for this to work. Instead of limiting each student to certain positions in life, it would instead eliminate the glass ceiling and allow for the growth of everyone.

    My own personal wishes for the education system aside, I think that society’s roots in education disease the whole tree. Teachers cannot give each student the individual attention they deserve. They must make their courses fit the standard. With no freedom to teach what they love, how can anyone expect their classes to be enjoyable? Don’t get me wrong, some teachers are simply bad teachers. But good teachers should be able to deviate from the curriculum in order to reach their students.

    Parents are unable or unwilling to give the child the education they deserve- oftentimes the only place for gifted students is in expensive private schools (see prev. argument regarding money). In my own case, my parents have not been able to afford to get me out of my current school. I’m subjecting myself to massive debt in order to go to the college I want.

    **In other words**

    I believe the system is broken. Society places certain limitations and restrictions on students and their family members, as well as school districts and their teachers. It seems to me that money is the deciding factor in a good education, and money is the driving force behind the whole system. In an ideal world, these monetary barriers wouldn’t exist, but since these barriers will always exist, something needs to be done so that money goes to the right place, so that each student gets his or her own chance to reach their fullest potential, and do what they love.

    I think each student’s education needs to be more individualized. Enough with standardized tests that waste everyone’s time and money. Enough with standard curriculums. No one person learns the same way, or is passionate about the same things, so why are we all taught the same way?


    I hope my response was on-topic. I realize it turned into a bit of a rant. Thanks in advance for your patience in reading and responding.

  20. Jared —

    Enjoying your thoughts — not, to my thinking, a rant at all. I share your concerns, and there is rarely a day passes that I am not thinking about this issue.

    I’d like to offer a thought or two; but before I do, I’d like to ask you one more question. What if I were to say to you that – apropos of school-age students (K-12) – the responsibility for actively cultivating the young-person rests solely and squarely with the parents — not the school, school-system, state, nation, or society, but the parents (or custodial care-givers); and: that the job of school teachers is only to *facilitate* a young-person’s education (viz., they are tools and resources for parents to use, and to work in partnership with); such that: ‘educating’ a young-person is fundamentally the parents’/caregivers’ responsibility – and let’s say: the responsibility chiefly of the adults in the young-person’s family and social-orbit? (Implied: The student him/herself eventually becomes – and is expected to become – a full-partner in the education process.)

    How does that strike you?


  21. It seems to me that what you are saying is at least somewhat true. After all, in a democratic society such as ours parents are responsible for electing school officials and politicians that make the big decisions regarding education. But if it is solely the parent’s responsibility to facilitate their child’s education, then are we not completely limited to our social class? If this is still true today, then is there really no room for social advancement? Are those with the opportunity to afford the better ‘tools’ as you call them the only ones able to access them?

    Perhaps this was completely true back when higher education was reserved for those entering priesthood or for those looking to become socially refined, etc. But in a democratic society that continues to put emphasis on attending college, how can the majority of parents who never attended college themselves raise their children to go to college?

  22. Jared —

    I’m thinking of how to make a reply to you worth your while, and haven’t abandoned the discussion. RH

  23. RH, Jared,

    Your recent conversation regarding the relative roles of parents and teachers in education is quite interesting. I hope neither of you mind if I make a few comments.

    RH, I think that your suggestion at June 19 12:43pm is entirely correct. I couldn’t have said it so well had I tried to articulate it, but I am in complete agreement with you.

    It seems to me that if we put teachers in an impossible position if we rely on them to do the work of educating our children entirely. Without even touching on the extent of mandated curricula with low education value (such as teaching to standardized tests, etc), the job is simply too big for one person with brief contact and a large classroom full of students with varied needs to accomplish.

    We would ask the impossible of teachers, and our children would bear the costs.

    In fact, I think any endeavor where we simply attempt to pour education into someone as with filling a glass from a pitcher is bound to failure. To be successful, the glass must both desire and seek to fill itself.

    This last is, I think, the key to Jared’s worry at June 19 12:40pm about how people who are not educated themselves can hope to succeed in educating their children: They must strive to instill the disposition to become educated.

    This is within the power of parents regardless of their own level of education. They do this by encouraging their child to explore, question, and reflect. No particular knowledge is needed for this. One need only nourish the bud of natural human curiosity.

    The teacher, then, uses their expertise to supply subject knowledge. If the disposition to become educated is in place, such fare will be rich food for inquiry and reflection.

  24. I just want to point out that this is more than mere speculation. My family was working-class and only one of my parents even finished high school. My own schooling culminated in a two-year vocational program for Nursing.

    Insofar as I am educated, it is due to the disposition I was raised to have.

  25. Jared –

    I hope my thoughts on your questions and excellent observations are still relevant, and welcomed. Over the years I have returned to this subject, to this very line of enquiry, so frequently that I may one day actually attempt to write something about it – or rather: attempt to finish writing something intelligible, well-ordered, and readable. This comment will dangle unfinished, unkempt, and I hope not too unreadable.

    It would probably be healthier for this thread (and gentler on you) for me to latch-on directly to one or a few of your specific claims or suppositions; but I cannot resist starting at what seems to me to be the beginning – forgive my fixation with origins. I suspect that some of what I offer herein will be both good and original – in Wilde’s sense of the good bits not being original, and my pretentions to originality not being very good.

    This preamble laid-down, I begin.

    I would like to know when our ancestors – the very remote ones – learned to connect coitus with pregnancy and birth. (Mark Twain’s “Adam’, in the latter’s diary, manages to work this out. It is altogether very amusing.) Sure enough, though, the merry business of mating and the messy business of parturition were somehow connected by long-forgotten but evidently very patient and insightful savants. Heaven knows how they worked it out, but allowing that they did so I doubt the data were patched-together neatly and quickly, but that it materialized both with a bang and a whimper.

    Past is prologue, aye, and for a very long time it has been available to human beings to reflect upon how the scratching of the sexual itch and the bringing forth of a new potentially-sentient being may be disconnected. Alas, it seems that the decoupling of coupling has not succeeded in yielded up for thoughtful consideration the most interesting of the implications — implications, namely, of the fact of this itch, the fact of scratching of it, and the intentional creation of incipient persons consequent to uninterrupted scratching.

    The natural history of breeding on the part of our species was long-ago sketched-out, and it is of course rewritten every now and then. But in addition to a few unexpunged errors (viz., that any phenotypic trait evolved “for the good of the species”), a few insights are always lacking, it seems – and here’s the one which most interests me.

    Once it was well-enough known and generally-accepted that one may choose whether or not to create intentionally offspring; and: that one may scratch the itch without breeding; and: that the emergence of the itch and desire to scratch it are themselves no justification for either the necessity or the desirability of creating intentionally offspring, then, pro-creators ought to be very circumspect, foresightful, and intellectually honest when permitting their itch-scratching to result in pregnancy, and pregnancy to result in birth.

    I have long held that this is the best way to read Shelly’s Frankenstein – viz., a novel about insufficiently Promethean creation of persons. (A different thread for another occasion, perhaps.) But it has long seemed to me that – after intentional killing – the intentional creation of another human being is the most morally significant act a human being may author. To create negligently, accidentally, or intentionally a new human being – a new locus of agonic experience! – is no trifling matter.

    I will not allow this to become a discourse on procreative liberty, or, on the philosophy of procreation; and so let me turn us back, now, to the matter at hand. For any parent who has intentionally or otherwise created a new life, at least four things should be immediately apparent and noncontroversial. The first of these is: The parents should foresee clearly that – sooner or later, ceteris paribus – this being will him or herself have the itch, and an inclination to scratch it. The second is: This being will throughout the course of its development manifest acquisitive tendencies – that is: it will have desires to get, to have, to possess, and to do things. Third: This being will at some point need to have sufficient knowledge and skills in order to acquire basic necessities – nourishment, shelter, etc. – as part of the development of acquisitive proclivities (unless: the parents anticipate and/or plan to provide for this new being all the things it should eventually like to acquire). And, at last: This new being, before its inevitable death, will very likely take regular stock of its circumstances — that is, will look into the ledger which describes its overall condition, and which includes entries for gains and losses, woes and weals.

    Knowing these four things – and no parent-creator, however simple or humble , can *not* know them – will thus find himself obliged to prepare that new being for… well, the business of being.

    Considering space and reader-fatigue, I am not, now, going to argue this next point; but let me state as a verum factum that procreators are obliged – morally, for those who like that unusual adverb – to prepare their creation for a life – long or short, and who knows? – of itch-scratching, meaningful acquisition, meaningful doing, and at least satisfactory bookkeeping. Assuming that one will aspire at one point or another to have another conspecific help with the inevitable itch-scratching, a modest repertoire of useful-doings and acquisitions will be necessary; and when both the ends and the means to those ends are well-chosen, the new being in his adult form will have a reasonably good shot at keeping his books in a healthy shade of black. That is parenting.

    Back to terra firma. One day my parents returned from some sort of social gathering with the neighbors across the street – I was, I’m guessing, thirteen or so at the time. My father is talking to my mother about the neighbors’ decision to prime their son for trade school. “As long as he has a trade, he’ll be able to work, and keep a roof over his head. He can always go to college later if he wants to” – this was my father quoting to my mother (for emphasis? For my ears) the conclusion of the pater familias 50 meters north of our front door. My father was appalled, and continued to discuss the matter with my mother. “In this day and age, you’ve got to have a college degree. How can [ ] be so naïve?”.

    My father himself was not a university graduate – four years, a few failed courses, and no degree. (My mother married very young, and returned to university after she and my father divorced. She now has an MA.) This, however, did not stop my father from forever haranguing me about college, and the necessity of me getting a degree. Which college, which degree, did not seem to matter, and it seemed to be his view that college was bullshit – unredeemed and unmitigated. He has fortunate to have been part of the last generation of Americans to do well enough in the corporate world without university qualifications. He was a senior executive in a massive corporation. He carried a briefcase, wore a tie to work, and made a good wage. Everything he needed to know (he insisted) he learned on the job (he had climbed with wonderful dexterity the corporate ladder), and college was merely a detestable and expensive rite-of-passage — all the more reason not to overthink it, do it locally and on the cheap, and get it out of the way.

    This is all part of a story that I have rehearsed in my thoughts for two decades at least, and to continue it any further would be tangential to my tangents, even though these all curve back purposively and meaningfully onto the line of narrative-intent I’m constructing now rather poorly. But I will spare you.

    The point I wish to impress upon you, Jared, is this. I take well your observations about societal expectations, the non-irrelevance of these to our democratic society, the possibility of a perpetuation of classist hegemonies (i.e., without teachers, children are limited to their parents’ knowledge and expectations), etc.; but the business of educating – rearing, cultivating, etc. – one’s offspring is part and parcel of the terrific and terrible business of choosing to make offspring in the first place; and I hold that by not disconnecting sex from pregnancy (or: from the possibility thereof), or, by choosing to allow a pregnancy to come to term, both adult conspirators are duty-bound to ensure that this new being is in fact prepared for the exigencies of adulthood – and that such preparedness is none of “society’s” business.

    Teachers can do much to awaken or discover potentialities, talents, gifts, and perhaps also to excite the child about these; but there is very little a teacher can do to make a child better than its own parents are willing to try to make it; and I for one would rather we all suffer the consequences of our own lotteries than charge teachers with the engineering of future citizens – which is what comes to my mind whenever I think of educational trends in the US ever since Dewey.

    This is now over 1,400 words, and I have done little more than throw at you a fistful of suppositions and opinions — very unbecoming of a self-described philosopher, aye, and for that you have my apologies. I will sometime (if only for my own eyes) undertake to explain (inter alia) why I believe the role of a grade-school teacher is and should be very different from that of a university lecturer; why the duties of a teacher in public education are different from those of teachers at a private institution; and how “we” have failed “ourselves” by focusing on the point and purpose of Education in a social context rather than on Educators in a humanistic and interpersonal context.

    But to conclude nearish to where I attempted to begin: Anyone who would intentionally create or bring into being offspring of their own is thereby duty-bound to do the very best job he/she/they can do cultivating an employable and self-sufficient person. Surrendering one’s child to the whims and politics of the public school system (“It was good enough for me…”), and allowing the state, the child’s peers, and the ooze of entertainment media to raise it, is to fail miserably as a parent – and therefore, as a human being.

    A free society is not one in which we are each cheerfully our brothers’ keepers, but one in which we are free to choose who we shall and shall not endeavor to keep close in fraternal affection. In the best of all free societies, then, parents must assume full responsibility for their children’s development – expectations that the “community” ought to share that burden is among the few remaining dogmas of Democracy, and it glows blindingly at its most holy just before crushing collectivism knocks hard upon the doors of our sovereign abodes. Indeed, some children will be “left behind”; and for those who are, let’s be quick to remind them that it is their parents who failed and abandoned them – not “society”.

    That, in fact, is the one thing I do wish public schools would teach children: You are responsible for whatever children you make, and you – and not the community – will be held accountable for their shortcomings. A society which engineers it young is not free, and a society committed to being remedial is one beyond redemption.

    As for your future bill for college tuition and fees: Choose wisely your major. All you need for the pursuit of wisdom is a library card (Internet connection?), and friends wiser and older than yourself. Make yourself skillful, knowledgeable, and for Zeus’ sake eminently employable. Aim at financial security and financial independence, while leaving room for self-edification, self-experimentation, and the self-study of virtue. Please do not major in philosophy (but take as many courses as you can bear!), and if you must major in any of the social or behavioral sciences, assume always that all current paradigms need to be reexamined and overturned, that there are icons that still deserve smashing, and that the behavior of lab rats, the results of EEGs, fMRIs, or CT-scans, surveys, questionnaires, and anything that requires a course on statistics either to write or to read correctly will ever answer any question that was worth asking in the first place. (But: Knowing *how* to use diagnostic/imaging equipment and how to do regression-analysis…) And whatever your major: Study Mandarin and Spanish.


  26. ** Of the many typos and editorial oversights – damn them and their author – this needs immediate correction:

    “…and that the behavior of lab rats, the results of EEGs, fMRIs, or CT-scans, surveys, questionnaires, and anything that requires a course on statistics either to write or to read correctly will *never* answer any question that was worth asking in the first place”. RH

  27. I’m sorry it’s taken a few days to respond. I’ve had a rather busy weekend, and I also had to allow time to ponder and come up with a reasonable response to your post, which was both insightful and enlightening.

    I found one bit particularly interesting, and wish to examine it a bit further.

    “That, in fact, is the one thing I do wish public schools would teach children: You are responsible for whatever children you make, and you – and not the community – will be held accountable for their shortcomings.”
    and in particular
    “A society which engineers it[s] young is not free, and a society committed to being remedial is one beyond redemption.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with your first claim, that each his own he is alone responsible for. I also have a counter-claim, in that as a member of society, all other members of society are one’s own. For example, the people in my age-group are my peers. We share many of the same experiences, are of the same generation, and hold many of the same values, many of which differ from the values of the generations before us, and will differ from generations after us.

    Those who came before me are my parents, and the parents of my peers. To me, they are the ones who are responsible for our upbringing. As the majority of society, they create the rules, as well as care for the old and young in their charge. They are, if you will, the ‘parents of society’. It is then reasonable to follow this line of reasoning and claim that those who came before me and my peers are for the purpose of this claim, my parents. They are the creators of their offspring (my generation) and are solely responsible for the upbringing and education of their offspring.

    I am also interested in looking into the second part, and wish to delve into it further under the umbrella that is your line of reasoning.

    It is the minimum compulsory for every student in the United States to attend an education institution (public, private, or an approved home-school setting) from the age of 8 to at least 14. All taxpayers are also compelled to attribute to the funding of public education to their sovereign city, county, state, and country, in the aims that each student that falls within each residential district can be ‘educated’. In following your claim that each parent is responsible for his or her own child’s education, then for what reason are those without children required to fund the education of other persons?

    This is more rhetorical, as you also addressed this issue with: “expectations that the “community” ought to share that burden is among the few remaining dogmas of Democracy, and it glows blindingly at its most holy just before crushing collectivism knocks hard upon the doors of our sovereign abodes. ”

    I’d like to take a stab at trying to find an answer to this question. I often hear my parents or friends of my parents talk about this issue as well.

    The theory of social responsibility claims that each member of society has a obligation to benefit society at large. It seems to me that most of our laws and regulations stem from this basic idea. Just as it has been deemed morally wrong to commit cold-blooded murder, a law has been erected that states those who commit cold-blooded murder shall be punished. Just as it has been deemed morally right to contribute to the education of society as a whole, a law has been put in place that each taxpayer must contribute financially to the education of society as a whole.

    It is reasonable to argue that any society that has laws and regulations based on moral rights and moral wrongs is not free. Freedom implies the inherent right to do as one sees fit, regardless of moral consequence,, and without punishment. While we are *more* free than the likes of Communist China, we are not *free* beyond the laws and expectations that govern us as citizens.

    So in the name of fulfilling our societal responsibility, we fund education for our young, and determine the basic foundation for their day-to-day education.

    It is my belief then, that your claim that says parents themselves are *solely* responsible for the education of their children is only partially true. I feel that society in general has more adopted my line of reasoning, for better or for worse, and has put upon itself this ‘social responsibility’.


    As for your advice, I thank you most dearly. I have been questioning myself, or rather been forced to question myself, when others ask of me what my future holds. One of my favorite ideas in cinema follows your statement that “all you need for the pursuit of wisdom is a library card. . . and friends wiser and older them yourself.” I immediately thought about Good Will Hunting, and in particular of the title character’s pursuit of education, equipped with nothing more than your previous criteria. My own pursuit of education is not with the aims that I myself can become educated, financially secure, and renowned, but rather that I might contribute to the education of my predecessors, and do so (for lack of a better word) *better* than those who educated me. And perhaps that right there leads me to exactly what I want to do in life.

  28. Hi, Jared — cheers. Reading this now, and will give it the thought it deserves. So much to think about! Interestingly, you mention China. Is it clear from anything that I have posted here that I am based (since 2000) in China? When I re-engage you, it might now be very difficult for me not to discuss a little the (general/average/common) contemporary Chinese view of education — something I know rather a lot about. For kicks, you can check my China credentials by watching (if you can bear it) my video on Youtube (search: RationalHoplite Youtube). (Note: the ‘argument’ I offer in that video is *very* under-developed. Think of it as a [weak?] heuristic.) You can even have, if you like, a glimpse at my (occupational, non-philosophical) China-work on Youtube (2 videos: “Lonely Guide, Rough Planet: Beijing”). But that’s obiter –I mention it only because some of my views about rights/duties, governance, liberty, etc., are informed by by 10+ years on the mainland.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts, here (I’ve just noted the post — have not read it yet). Cheers, RH

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