The Paradox of Phil 101

The Paradox of Phil 101

Soon the new semester will be starting, and I am once more pondering how to motivate undergraduates to pursue a philosophical life. Motivating students is a challenge for any teacher, but it is especially problematic for philosophers working under the gaze of the neo-liberal university. Student expectations are here governed by the fact that they have had to mortgage their futures to pay extravagant tuition costs. In such a context, the fundamental question asked by students when approaching a new field of study will be neither what new worlds it will allow them to explore, nor how it will foster their growth as an autonomous rational agents; rather, the only live question for students is how much of a return on investment the course will yield.

This is not an unreasonable concern given the amount of money students spend (or, more likely, borrow) to attend university. The problem emerges when disciplines concerned with non-monetary goods are forced to justify themselves under this rubric. The very concept of the liberal arts, for example, emerged in distinction from the mechanical arts used to earn a living. The liberal arts, unlike the mechanical arts, were those arts pursued by a humanity free from basic material concerns. Once the needs for food, clothing, and shelter are met, one can take the time to enjoy distinctively human activities like grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and music. On this traditional conception, to force the liberal arts to justify themselves in purely mercantile terms would be to eliminate them entirely.

Likewise, philosophy, taken with theology as the goal towards which the liberal arts aimed, would fair no better in this regard. In the contemporary university, the philosophy instructor has two main options for acquiescing to the demand to demonstrate how his course can deliver an adequate return on investment for students, but neither of them is consistent with the practice of philosophy. The first option is common but rarely explicitly stated. It justifies the study of philosophy by appealing to its relative ease. By failing to make any demands on the student, a philosophy course can expedite the receipt of the student’s purchase, viz. a university degree. Just as you expect a waiter to bring you your food directly and not make you work for it, so the professor is expected to help deliver the purchased credential with as little inconvenience as possible. I suspect that the precarious nature of academic employment and the need for positive student evaluations makes this the default option in most cases.[1] The second option, in contrast, focuses on the marketable skills developed through the course. This is the answer that professors are most likely to tell their students (and administrators). Hence, one hears that philosophy inculcates skills such as analytical reading, critical thinking, and the ability to construct persuasive arguments—skills necessary for advancement in any corporate career. The coach, rather than the waiter, is the central image here. The philosopher is a coach who will help students develop their ability to succeed in the workforce. Because it is economically necessary for students to acquire these skills, hard work can be demanded of them on this model.

The problem is that neither of these models is consistent with the traditional aims of philosophy. To take the first approach is to concede outright that philosophy is without value, and to take the second is to substitute sophistry for philosophy. From its very inception in the figure of Socrates, philosophy has distinguished itself from mere sophistry. Unlike the sophist, the philosopher is not primarily concerned with whether his arguments are persuasive (and thus lead to economic advantage and political power); however, the philosopher is fundamentally concerned with whether his positions are True and Good. So, in identifying the value of philosophy with the development of marketable skills, one thereby replaces the vocation of the philosopher with that of the mere sophist.

Yet one wonders whether any role besides the sophist remains for the humanist in today’s university. Perhaps this degradation of philosophy is necessary whenever it moves from the realm of personal practice (Socrates) or communal devotion (the Monastery) to the corporate university. This has been a worry since the origin of the university in the medieval period. Historian John Baldwin, for example, notes that the formation of the university brought with it a fundamental transformation in education:

No longer belonging to the holy monk in rural isolation, learning has become the property of the urban master who produced his intellectual goods within the atelier of his school and sold them to his students at a price to compensate labor and skill. The artisan replaced the monk as the pattern for the scholar.[2]

And with this replacement came a corresponding deterioration in quality. Baldwin takes the book as a prime example here:

As a work of penance and devotion, the monastic book of the early Middle Ages contained expensive parchment, gold leaf, wide margins, painstaking script, and artistic illuminations. Such beautiful masterpieces were obviously much too expensive and rare for the thousands of masters and students who thronged the twelfth-century schools. To supply their needs books were mass produced by publishers, known as stationarii, who employed scores of copyists working at a feverish rate. Illuminations were eliminated, margins reduced, parchment cheapened, and abbreviations increased within the script. Even the style of lettering was changed from the Carolingian miniscule, which emphasized the curved line, to the new Gothic script, which employed short, straight strokes, capable of more rapid execution. No longer the product and object of religious devotion, the book was changed into the instrument and tool of the artisan master in his urban school.[3]

If the debasement of learning was evident even then, what can be said of today when Youtube clips and BuzzFeed articles replace books altogether? Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?

© Peter Yong

[1] Concerns for physical safety can also caution toward this option.

[2] John Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, 1000-1300. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1971, 56.

[3] Ibid.

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