On Minority Genius in Philosophy

Is this what genius looks like?

There’s a lot of reasons to worry about “genius” and other evaluations of general intelligence. My own character skepticism militates against the notion of measurable general intelligence, or even field-specific genius. But the report last month that women and racial minorities in the humanities are less likely to be described as geniuses is another such reason: it looks like genius is often merely a way of saying “white male.” Thus perhaps we should give up on genius and cultivate other virtues, especially if we want to create diverse faculty communities.

And yet.

My experience in philosophy has usually been the opposite: women and African-American philosophers have usually struck me as brighter, more insightful, and making a greater contribution to the discipline than their male and white colleagues (including of course myself.) I wrote my dissertation on a woman, Hannah Arendt. I’m frequently struck by the amazing work done by women and Black philosophers like Elizabeth Anderson, Angela Davis, Christine Korsgaard, Elizabeth Anscombe, Kristie Dotson, Karen Stohr, Chris Lebron, Shannon Sullivan, Sharon Meagher, Charles Mills, Noëlle McAfee, Anthony Appiah, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Tommie Shelby, Rebecca Kukla, Elinor Ostrom, and Jacqueline Scott.

And so I wonder if the error is the language and preference for genius or our poor ability to recognize it. That is: is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that genius exists, and it doesn’t? Or is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that they can detect genius, and they can’t?

There’s a plausible explanation of the feeling I have of being awed by women and Black philosophers, of course: in a field that values genius but has a bias against believing in the genius of women and Black philosophers, the only women and Black philosophers who survive the gauntlet of graduate school and job market will be those who can project that genius. They’ll be exceptions that prove the rule, tokens that demonstrate that the whole business of evaluating genius can’t be flawed because, after all, we recognized the greatness of these few scholars.

Moreover, the failure of all the mediocre and merely above-average women and Black philosophers will go unmentioned. We’ll rarely ask: why is it that almost every minority scholar is a genius? Why are all the merely-really-good and maybe-slightly-below-average scholars white and male? One possibility is that genius (of the particular sort preferred by humanities scholars) is unevenly distributed to non-white and non-male scholars: they bring a perspective that comes naturally to them (by virtue of their exclusion from the majority) that makes it especially easy to make outsized contributons. Another possibility is that average scholars are ignored when they are women or Black. What’s more, both of these explanations could hold for part of the injustice we observe: we might need to start talking about the comparative effect size of each of these explanations and not an exclusive disjunction between them.

There’s been a lot of work, lately, chipping away at the sense that the university is meritocratic. Far fewer are working on whether merit is even a meaningful characteristic to evaluate. That still seems like an important question to ask, an insightful and bright question. But I’d also like to see more people take genius as a possibility, to be “genius realists” and question whether the current crop of white, male elites just don’t have it or the ability to recognize it. I am suspicious of the effort to withdraw the merit that accrues to great philosophical scholarship just as women and Black philosophers are eligible to claim it in larger numbers. (The solution to unjust distributions of the pie is not always to throw out the pie.)

Perhaps we shouldn’t give up on genius just yet: perhaps we just need to accept that we’re not smart enough to recognize it when we see it. And perhaps, too, we can give up on the innateness of genius in favor of an account of intelligence as plasticity, as the result of environment and treatment: perhaps philosophical geniuses are not born, but trained and prepared.

Where are the start-ups in the Liberal Arts?

Yesterday, George Mason University economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen announced MRU, a modular course design platform that they’ll be using to offer free and potentially paid courses in economics, online. I’ve learned a lot from their blog since I started reading during the run-up to the financial crisis, and I plan to at least look in on their first course on Developmental Economics. It’s not a massive open online course (MOOC for short), but it’s set up to enable them to produce MOOCs. Experiments in the MOOC future look increasingly promising. But where are the startup and experiments in radical de-digitization?

If you’re a college professor in the humanities, it’s hard not to see the recent flurry of for-profit and online education start-ups as a repudiation of your model for pedagogy. Even as the evidence accumulates that students are most likely to increase their critical thinking skills during an education that focuses on close reading, analytic writing, and high expectations, we see an increasing number of resources devoted to lecturing, a model for which the internet is only slightly better-suited than the VCR was.

At the same time, many in the humanities, myself included, have worried that what drives tuition is primarily administrative rent-seeking. We look at our salaries and at the salaries of the deans, and notice that we’ve been doing more work for less pay over the last few decades even while tuition skyrockets. Meanwhile, newly-minted PhDs flood the workforce looking for jobs. So why then do we continue to work for institutions that have been steering astray? It makes sense to talk about the oppression of the poor and poorly connected, but in what sense are the folks who literally dispense cultural capital capable of being oppressed by their labor conditions?

Oversupply of teachers and undersupply of institutional support for the right kind of teaching: looks like a recipe for a start-up!

The most fertile period for the development of new colleges in the US was the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, when the 24 colonial colleges that existed before Independence were joined by more than 600 more. Many did not survive, but this was a period of intense educational experimentation and innovation. The land-grant universities aggregated and centralized much of this process. but colleges and universities were still being formed at a rapid clip: there are more than 4000 today. Yet how many new institutions are devoted to the liberal arts? The practices I associate with liberal arts teaching tend to be cultivated on old ivy-covered campuses rather than shiny new startups. Though many schools are called “liberal arts” they do not all make a full-time practice of that pedagogy. Perhaps the problem is demand: one of the oldest colleges, St. John’s, existed before the civil war, and today it adds just 250 new freshmen every year to its Great Books program. Shimer College in Chicago has 111 students total! But I think there’s room for growth (given the evidence and such a small base.)

For all the “massive” promise of MOOCs, they involve considerable capital and startup costs. Yet the teaching profession requires little more than books, paper, pens, and (maybe) trashcans. With folks embracing their own farming, canning, paper-making, and butchering, there ought to be some unmet demand for pedagogical nostalgia of the old schools: discussions under stoa, peripatetic dialogues, and sitting around a table puzzling out the meaning of a text. Maybe the next time one of these would-be online education innovators goes bust, we should give it a shot.

The Teleological Paradox in Utilitarianism and Education

In my brief response to Community College Dean a few weeks back, I said something that I think is pretty obvious, but that is often ignored:

humanities advocates spend so much time fighting the instrumental approach to education [because] you’ve got to pretend like time doesn’t matter, or else the education won’t work.

Consider the classic paradox of hedonism articulated by Henry Sedgwick: across a whole range of domains, you cannot maximize utility if you take the maximization of pleasure as the motivation for engaging in activities that tend to be pleasurable. Your motivation matters. Even a hedonist has to have projects, and those projects are only reward to her if she takes them on for their own sake and ignores the utility she will gain.

For instance: being in love increases your utility, but if you approach a potential partner with an offer of mutual hedonism, he will rightly suspect that you are not seeking long-lasting love. “I really want to have a relationship with you, not because I think you’re awesome, but because I think it will make me happy and this seems like a good way to do it” is no way to fall in love; the potential partner will rightly say, “That’s weird, I don’t want to be loved selfishly, I want to be loved for myself.” You might think that you are then lying to your partner when you claim to love him for himself, but in fact we are impressively good at catching such lies. We have to really take that “for-himselfness” of loving seriously, to the extent that we’d even be miserable if our lover dies, in order to garner the hedonistic benefits of loving. The rational hedonist courts just this sacrifice.

You might also go to church to increase utility, but folks would think you were crazy if you went to church and said, “Hi! I’m here not because I have faith in the particular doctrines of this institution, but because I’ve been told that belonging to a community of religious inquiry will increase my utility.” Worse, like a bad Pascalian wager, you’d lose your Sabbath and you wouldn’t get the (mundane) benefits! So it is that the rational hedonist, motivated only by happiness, even courts irrationality!

Now, there’s a similar problem for education: if we instrumentalize education by treating it like a set of skills and practices, or even worse, as the acquisition of discrete knowledge, then the real benefits (especially of college education) will be lost. The real benefits of education are soft skills that are hard to “acquire” in that discrete sense. Habits of mind that enable analytic writing, close reading, critical thinking and problem solving skills cannot be learned unless the student takes a long detour through irrelevant material. So there’s a similar teleological or motivational problem to the one facing the hedonist: you have to read the Classics for their own sake in order to become a better advertising executive, even though reading the Classics isn’t directly relevant to advertising. Following Sedgwick, , T. M. Scanlon calls this the “teleological paradox” in a long footnote to What We Owe to Each Other, which can be described thus:

though the telos in question may depend on factors within an agent’s control, that does not mean that it is rational for the agent to target it and make it in that sense a matter of active demand.

In many areas, you must do things that are only instrumentally-related to your goal in order to accomplish your goal. The risk, however, is that this process of divergence from the goal might actually become counter-productive or self-deceptive: how will we know if the instrumental means supplants the true goal entirely?

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. In metaethics, there is a response to the teleological paradox and the problem of self-deception: R. M Hare’s “two-stage” or “two-level” utilitarianism. In the first stage, our ordinary lives, we take on ordinary justifications for our projects. But every so often we reflect on the value of particular methods and motivations, and during this reflective second-stage we tweak them from the perspective of the overarching goal. Maybe we only do this at the level of institutions or laws. So, instead of saying “You should have a family because it will bring you pleasure,” we normally just advocate family life for the normal, intuitive reasons that preserve love and loyalty as ultimate ends. But at the level of policy, we still ask questions like, “Should we incentivize large or small households?” or “Should we give tax breaks for children or not?” That second stage allows us to take on the utilitarian perspective for the purposes of improving our projects. So the teleological problem dissolves, so long as we’re able to willfully blind ourselves to our ultimate motivations: we get to be utilitarians some of the time, but when it matters we can be fathers and mothers, lovers and church-goers, citizens and consumers, etc.  Virtue and deontology are then sublimated under a utilitarian perspective, called to bear when they’re best suited to some basically utilitarian goal.

The same solution works for education. In the classroom, the library, and the lab, we can embrace wasteful irrelevance, detours into difficulty, and the rigors of basic research. Then later, at the level of syllabus-construction, course-design, academic policy, project funding, or tenure-line evaluations, we can ask: “What are the instrumental educational goals that we’re trying to accomplish? What is the best (most efficient, most effective) method for achieving those goals?” Yet because we are not fundamentally committed to any particular major or method of instruction, we can also ask: “How many Classics majors do we really need? Can we get the same benefits from Philosophy or Anthropology?” The close, careful reading of abstruse literature, abstract and irrelevant mathematical work, or the cultivation of the jargonistic language of High Theory all become tools, but tools we take up as if they are ends in themselves.

The key to this process is that at the administrative or policy level we have to seriously believe that these projects matter: we have to actually commit ourselves to the claim that studying the Classics (or Philosophy or Anthropology) is more useful than studying Accounting, even if what we want are more accountants! That may seem odd or self-deceptive, but the evidence suggests we have no other choice: when we study the data and look at the Collegiate Learning Assessment, we end up concluding that the most useful education is the one that focuses on the least useful work.

So, even though we’re pure instrumentalists at the policy level, as instrumentalists, we become committed to the rejection of instrumental approaches. Not always, not if better evidence comes along, but for the time being, given our current knowledge, etc. We become instrumentally non-instrumental. When we are in front of the classroom or when we are advising students about majors, we should discourage an instrumental relationship to education. And that means that we have to discourage instrumentalism when we are deciding which programs to fund, too.

How to get a philosophical education for free

A regularly updated version of this guide can be found here.

DIY UI teach at the third-most expensive school in the country, where I regularly persuade students that they should major or minor in philosophy. For many students, this is a value question, and as I like to put it, there’s a difference here between the value of a philosophy education and its price. Specifically, it’s not clear to me that it ought to cost $200,000 to get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy… but I do think it’s worth it.

As a result of this tension, the current crisis in the humanities has very personal implications for me. In the UK, whole departments are being cut, while the US continues to squeeze the humanities even when they are massively popular and profitable. As I’ve been trying to argue, this was always entailed by the growing rent-seeking class of administrators who we have apparently hired so that we can be saved the labor needed to fire us. Frankly, I suspect we’ve had this coming for a couple of millennia now: didn’t Socrates make his name undermining the paid-teaching models of the Sophists?

Iain Pears writes critically of this trend but the upshot is actually somewhat conservative:

The combination of artificially-induced market forces and government disdain for the humanities as economically non-productive will shrink arts subjects into a ghetto where they will become increasingly studied by those who can afford to pay, at institutions which can afford to charge

I call that conservative because the humanities will again be relegated to their role in signaling status, as only richer Britons or Americans will be able to afford the tuition fees at top schools where the humanities are still taught.

Caught in the middle of this, I think we have two options: we can criticize and decry this course of events in hopes of changing it, or we can begin preparing for a time when humanities instruction is less accessible than it has been over the past half-century. In fact, we should do both, but today I want to focus on preparation.

So, here’s what I have in mind: a free syllabus in philosophy for all those students who can’t afford to attend one of the elite schools that still teaches philosophy in a decade.

Here’s how it works: combine the free online offerings of MIT’s Open Courseware, Academic Earth, Itunes U, and Youtube with other free web resources that would suffice to supply what could once only be gained by taking out student loans.

Check it out!

  • Introduction to Philosophy

Start with Oxford’s Peter Millican at Itunes U.

  • Introduction to Ethics and Political Philosophy

Michael Sandel’s Justice course has drawn tens of thousands of Harvard students and focuses on themes and problems in the good life and the good society. Steven B. Smith offers a historical approach at Yale on Academic Earth. Explore special topics the BBC’s Ethics Bites or spend a semester with Berkley’s Michael Nagler considering the case for Nonviolence.

  • Epistemology and Metaphysics

I haven’t been able to find an introductory course just on metaphysics, but how about John Searle’s lectures on the Philosophy of Mind? Alternatively, take a look at this course on the ethics and metaphysics of Death by Yale’s Shelly Kagan.

  • Aesthetics

Kent State’s Jeffrey Wattles offers an Introduction.

What’s missing?

Now, self-regard prevents me from really believing that the education available online is better than the one you can get in my classroom, but I’m not so arrogant to think that I’m a better lecturer than Michael Sandel. Notable is what’s lost when all you have are these kinds of courses: you lose feedback and the interrogative experience of a seminar room, you lose the cohort of fellow students who will stay up late hashing out a passage from Aristotle, you lose the synchronicity of associations between very different courses taken simultaneously, and you lose the assessment and professionalization that a professor’s comments and counseling supply. What makes my classroom work is the seminar-style I learned as an undergraduate at Bard College, and which I try to foster at George Washington. That’s the practice of philosophy as a liberal art, a technique for free citizens to inquire together into matters of fundamental concern. You can’t learn the habitus of philosophy from an online video.

  • Special Topics

So far, the courses available online might supply the first two years of a philosophy degree. A disciplined person pursing this syllabus would have a good sense of the overall discipline, but could not be said to have “majored” in philosophy, because the free university offerings become a bit sparser at the advanced level. Courses at this level become specialized, focusing on epochs, figures, problems, and themes. Plus, this is the stage when we start really pushing students to see which ones have potential to become professional scholars, if not in philosophy than in a proximate academic discipline or as lawyers. That means it’s a much more interactive and much more textual education, and it may be less easily-suppled online.

However, it’s always possible glean specific insights and avenues for research from Philosophy Bites or the Guardian’s How to Believe series. You can dig deeper into any topic using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Herbert Dreyfus takes students through Heidegger’s Being and Time (continued here), which you can supplement with Simon Critchley’s series in the Guardian. Also at the Guardian, Mark Vernon blogs The Platonic Dialogues, and in the same vein, Chris Long offers a series of interviews on Socratic Political themes. (More from the Guardian: KierkegaardNietzscheHume,Wittgenstein, and Hobbes.)

For a while Susan Stuart’s lectures on Kant’s epistemology offered a pretty thorough guide to The Critique of Pure Reason, but they’ve been removed. Perhaps they’ll be back. I wouldn’t ask DIY-ers to brave the first Critique without a guide, but this is the point when a good library or bookstore might supply the missing manual.

  • Interaction and Feedback

The quickest way to get feedback on an idea or argument is to start blogging about it. A really ambitious DIY student could recruit a cohort of fellow DIY-ers to work with her. Start a WordPress or Blogger blog and join a community like Big Big QuestionEphilosopherMetafilter, or Less Wrong. Start writing, reading, responding, and linking, and the commentary will come. Some of it will be critical, some helpful, some mean, but you’ll learn and make connections, develop insights and obsessions, just like a traditional student.

The hardest part is finding someone to grade your work, but Virtual-TA has you covered there.

  • Professionalization

If all the instruction is happening online, and all the grading is is Bangalore, who would want to be a “professional” philosopher? With the UK cutting budgets and whole departments, and humanities instruction increasingly done by adjuncts and graduate students rather than tenure/tenure-track faculty, it appears that there may soon be fewer opportunities for philosophy instruction that there were previously.

So maybe we could forgo professionalization… except that it seems to me that an amateur philosophy student has only learned enough to be dangerous, not enough to be useful. So in that sense, my free syllabus is a failure: you can get a philosophical education for free, online, but it takes bit more than that to garner the benefits of studying philosophy. (But hopefully not $200,000 more….) If this page whets your whistle, though… well, remind me to tell you about Socrates’ art of matchmaking and midwifery when you sign up for my course. 🙂

If we love our discipline as much as the paycheck and status it promises, we have to work to combat the exclusivity of an examined life available only to those who can pay. If the internet is not yet able to take over our duties… I guess we’re going to have to fight.