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1. I think I've had this cat in my philosophy class:

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2. A funny pic from the annals of FaceBook:

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And yes, it is that hot. I wish I had a ceiling fan... The highlight of my day was definitely going to the grocery store to pick up one little thing (frozen green beans to use as an ice pack for the fingers I broke a few days ago). Central air is deliciously delicious.

Also, the internet has been busy with the recent Supreme Court case on Obamacare. My favorites:

3. Because the internet is tubes full of cats:

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4. In which photoshoppers are historically knowledgeable and really funny:

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(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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the latest Ph.D. comic )

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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 When I read something that takes what I believe and carries it to its natural conclusion (or what seems like that), I find it very upsetting – almost violent. That happened today, when I saw a moderate-conservative friend on FB commenting on an article:

Ethicists Argue in Favor of 'After-Birth Abortions' as Newborns 'Are Not Persons'

Now, there are lots of things that made me skeptical about the post. When I loaded the article it had an ad for Goldline and Glenn Beck TV. An issue that seemed mostly secular ethics was listed under "Faith." The first two columnists listed on their contributors page are Glenn Beck and Rick Santorum. And so on. But the article certainly isn't raving. If anything, it seemed remarkably matter-of-fact given the subject matter. Apparently some university-affiliated ethicists down in Australia are advocating for a legal right to what they call "after-abortion," and what the rest of us (including me) call infanticide or just plain old murder.

The thing is, there's a lot in that basic argument that's similar to some things I've argued in the past. I don't believe a zygote produced from a human sperm and a human egg is a full-fledged person. And I don't think the fetus magically acquires the traits that make us human in one fell swoop when its head passes out of the mother's womb. Its moral status the moment before it is born is more or less its status just after it's birth. But I stop way before we get to the point suggested this article suggests those Aussie ethicists take it to, so I thought I'd try to work through why. This may only end up being interesting to me. :-)

First, the false start: that a law outlawing infanticide doesn't actually say you should kill your children, but just that it should be an individual choice. I know pro-choice people (myself included) tend to talk about giving people the right to choose an abortion even when we believe it's the wrong choice. I think there's something to be said for letting people make their own choice – and making everything illegal takes away possibilities of doing the right thing for the right reason. But as Michael Sandel put it in his very well-done book Justice, this in itself is a moral position and rests on the assumption that people can reasonably disagree over whether the fetus is a person. I would never say e.g. that people should have the right to decide whether to kill their eight-year-old child. Or even their one-minute-old child.

But I do think there's a legitimate difference the Blaze author is skipping past. There are real moral differences between a newly-fertilized ovum and a fetus about to be born. I can't necessarily point to a specific day when it is a person and before it wasn't. This is one of the things that drive me crazy about the abortion debate: as if just because I can't point to a hard dividing point, that means there's no difference between the extremes. (Evolution tells us there are all kinds of intermediate states between a chimpanzee and homo sapiens, so perhaps in some case you would struggle to know whether one of the linking individuals between the two groups, but no one would mistake one for the other.)

I am willing to accept the very real possibility that a fetus is sentient or even rational at some point in its development, and so would be a person. This was actually portrayed very well in the last Twilight movie, where Edward senses Renesme's thoughts before she is born and suddenly she seems real to him and worthy of moral consideration. As it happens, I think the law is ill-equipped to handle that distinction, but I'm thinking about the issue more from a morality standpoint anyway. Even before then, there can be reasons – good reasons – why it's wrong to kill a non-human animal. It's just not murder.

There's also another distinction that the Aussie ethicists totally overlooked if they're being fairly reported. I have no hard evidence that the Blaze is taking them out of context, but do consider the source. Also, this is so basic that if they're university-affiliated philosophers I'd be very surprised, since this is a rather significant and well-known distinction. It's that simply because you have a moral right to an abortion, it doesn't mean you have a moral right to kill the fetus. You have a right to keep it from using your body, and it may be a scientific fact that without those nutrients it will die, but that doesn't give you the right to cut its throat or shoot it if somehow it survived being separated from your body. So the mother could maybe say she didn't want to care for the child after giving birth to it, and she could surrender it to the state or someone else.

I find that a bit iffy, actually, given that the mother's had nine months to decide whether she wants the child, but I can see a few exceptions – like if she had carried it to term with the express intent of giving the child up for adoption, or if there were some new circumstances she hadn't planned on (like a birth defect where she wasn't prepared to raise the child). But this idea that it might be cruel to the mother for her to know her child is out there somewhere doesn't hold up for me. Lots of things are cruel, and we usually accept that as long as they aren't intentionally cruel. Life just stinks sometimes, whether as a consequence of our own choice or something done to us. Society can do what it can to mitigate the suffering (perhaps keeping the mother's identity a secret from the child if that's what she wants, or placing the child with parents in a different part of the country to minimize the chances mother and child will meet up.

But only up to a point. Certainly not up to the point of killing another person. I don't know enough about obstetrics or early pediatrics to say for sure this child is rational or for sure this child is sentient from the very second it leaves the womb. But it's well on its way, and it at least has the potential for those traits – a nervous system, for instance. The mother never had the right to kill the fetus, but even if she did, I'd say she had less and less of a claim to that right as the fetus/child approached personhood.

By the way, National Catholic Register, when you wrote:

The second we allow ourselves to become the arbiters of who is human and who isn't, this is the calamitous yet inevitable end. Once you say all human life is not sacred, the rest is just drawing random lines in the sand.

You're breaking your own standard in the space of two sentences. If you're saying anything with human genetic material is a human, that is a definition of human. And when you're excluding acts like biopsying (living, genetically human) cancerous cells from your definition of murder, you're also excluding some genetically-human, living organisms from the classification of humanity. We all do philosophy; some of us are just more explicit about this fact than others.

All said, I think those ethicists are either misreported or went too far (and how). That doesn't make my position that life doesn't begin at conception wrong, though.

(Originally posted at LJ; please Comment there.)

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*rushes in with noise-makers and cake*

Yesterday I had planned to write about pandemonium_213's birthday. I had every intention of writing her a nice birthday post, full of meaty science-and-faith thoughts. I'd even planned out a witty opening line about yesterday (now two days ago) being Charles Dawin's birthday, but even more importantly it was the day before our own pandë's. :-) But I got a bit obsessed with the unhappy juxtaposition of (1) Chris Brown making a "come-back" by performing at the Oscars and (2) the upcoming Valentine's Day focus on love. I couldn't quite get my thoughts to go other places, including what I'd wanted to write about.

So, first things first. Pandë, I really hope you had a first-class day. Our corner of the interwebs is better for your being part of it.

I also wanted to say a few words about the topic of atheism, religion, faith and science. I can't hope that both Pandë and Darwin would approve. Annual posts thinking about the kinds of questions I imagine Pandë asking me are becoming a bit of a tradition, actually! The rest of this post is dedicated to her, though of course the thoughts don't represent her position. But I do hope the labor of love inherent in pondering deep questions will be a fitting tribute to her. (And as always, Pandë, do feel free to respond honestly, if you want to.)

Read more... )

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  (Be forewarned: deep thoughts on academia, publishing, student pedagogy, etc. to follow. Some of you may want to skip over.)

Over at Virginia Tech, Dr. Walter Ott has put together a very interesting project: an open-source textbook for modern philosophy. That's the period of European philosophy stretching roughly from Descartes to Kant, roughly coinciding with the Enlightenment and the various wars in Europe up until around the French Revolution. Courses studying it are a staple in nearly every philosophy major, and quite often the lion's share of your introductory texts are devoted to these topics.

Dr. Ott's put together a series of selections he uses in his course, all from public-domain websites (basically: anywhere you can legally get texts without paying for them; Project Gutenberg is a good example), but with an added bonus: exercises, study questions, and other things. He's also only included the parts he plans on discussing in his class, and he talks a bit in his project explanation. I don't think that he's dumbing down the texts necessarily because, as he quotes Anthony Flew, nothing is spoonfeeding which leads the student to do more work than they would otherwise have done. Dr. Ott also points out that for their papers, he has the students go to the primary text. So if they're writing about why Descartes thinks the mind and brain are distinct, they have to go pick up the Meditations section (whcih is on reserve at his university's library).

I'm not sure that will do it for me, though. I know that with many of my students, even when I say they have to quote the original text rather than the rendition I give in lecture notes, the way the material is presented usually follows along the same lines I present in class. That's with giving them more or less unabridged chunks of the philosophy and assignments that basically require them to read the material before class. I worry that students in his classes would still basically be writing about the excerpts he included in their textbook, even if they had read the original. It would be like reading the Jefferson Bible as a way to get the Sermon on the Mount. If you'd never read the canonical Bible before, even if you went and read it after reading Jefferson's redacted version, I'm afraid you'd still be reading it through the lens of the Jefferson Bible.

Of course, I suspect Dr. Ott tried to preserve what the originals said. And these days, many classes use anthologies that only quote the most interesting bits, so he may not be much worse of a source on that score than (say) Cottingham's Western Philosophy. I think I'm a bit sensitive on this point because the philosopher I'm studying (Anselm) is best known for a passage that's more or less taken out of context because of the need to find a self-contained part that can be studied. But really, if I'm going to complain about that point here, I should probably complain about half the publishing industry. *g* 

A bigger concern I have is actually the need to use public-domain translations. It's one thing to use an edition of an English-language author put together 200 years ago; quite another to use a translation. I can't really speak for modern philosophy, but I know that in ancient philosophy there's some real doozies of mistranslations. I'm thinking of the Plato dialogues that refer to the gods, which were Christianized into God by later translators. And Aristotle also was poorly translated in many public-domain versions - not incorrectly, but you lose a lot of the beauty and rhetoric you find in more modern translations (I'm thinking about Joe Sachs's very nice version of the Nicomachean Ethics). Kant is difficult enough as he is; I worry what throwing an antiquated translation into the mix might do to students.

There's also the issue of line numbers. I know in Plato and Aristotle (and Kant) you have specific references that appear in the margins of major translations. So if I point you to Republic 359b, you know precisely where to turn no matter which translation of the Republic you have. But public domain sources don't usually have line #s (if only because they're websites and it's hard to include them). This seems less common in most modern philosophy texts, Kant excluded, because the authors tend to provide series of small subsection. So you refer to the book, chapter, and section of the Treatise you're using, and in many cases the referenced text isn't much longer than a page. But I suspect with other areas of philosophy, this won't work that well.

I started off wanting to criticize Dr. Ott. But I find two conclusions popping to mind: this isn't all that different from most anthologies, and also we need public domain sources that include those line # references.

One last thing. I'm not convinced it's such a dead business model to publish books of translations in the public domain. Hackett provides good and inexpensive versions of classic texts. Hume's Enquiry costs $6 from Amazon (+ free s/h to students), and it would take about $7 to print out that many pages at my school's computer lab. That's to say nothing of the time. So if people want physical books, I think Hackett and their like might survive a bit longer.

Thoughts on all this? I know this is a pretty specialized topic, but maybe folks in other corners of the humanities have reactions? Or people involved in publishing or editing? Feel free to comment away.  
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I'm teaching an Aristotle reading tomorrow where he talks about what it means to be a good human. Before he can do that, though, he thinks he has to work through what a human is. I'll spare you the details, but asically Aristotle says that what sets us apart is that we can look at a situation and choose to go one way or the other; unlike Buridan's ass, we can move beyond our impulses. The important thing is that Aristotle defines humanity in terms of some characteristic that we actually have – not that we might have, not that we'll someday develop, not that we'll one day develop. And certainly not that we have human DNA as opposed to orangutan DNA.

This question has some obvious connections to the whole abortion debate, because a zygote or even a six-week-old fetus has very few qualities. If a human is a choosing thing, can a young fetus do this. Can a newborn baby, for that matter? Aristotle's account of humanity seems to say that a fetus's (or for that matter, a small child's) status as human depends on what it can do. If it can decide whether it wants to play with the red ball or the blue ball, then it's a human and killing it is murder; if not, then it is still alive (and so can be killed), but maybe that killing doesn't rise to the level of murder.

Preparing for class, I wanted to prepare several arguments Aristotle could give for why abortion is wrong without calling it murder, at least in some circumstances. I don't necessarily agree with them, but I thought it might be fun to discuss them anyway.

1. Potential vs. Actual Traits: Aristotle distinguishes between traits we have right now and traits we have the ability to develop. So while a fetus isn't human (since it can't make choices at this point), it has the ability to develop. Aristotle says it's important that we develop character virtues, which he sees as potential traits we should develop. (So basically, the Adrian Monks of the world should build up their courage, so they can face new and challenging situations, but they're not courageous until they've done that.) I think a story could be told here that people who have a duty to protect a particular child have a duty not to squander that potential.

(Caveats: I'm almost certain Aristotle would say actual trumps potential, so a mother has a duty to have an abortion if her life is in danger. You could also ask whether certain parents have a duty to a particular fetus. You might argue that until you accept responsibility for it, its not really your responsibility to nurture a fetus just because it's taken up residence inside you.)

2. The Duty to Care: Aristotle defines humans not just as a rational animal but also as a social animal. We develop our virtue in a community, and friendships – good kinds of friendships built on a love of virtue – are definitely to be sought after. Treating a fetus as just something getting in the way of our desires objectifies us. And to the extent that we think of it as a human or a potential human, it makes it that much harder to form genuine human relationships. This probably is more true of very young children who weren't yet able to choose, or fetuses that were old enough they were known to resemble very young humans – the concern is that by treating fetuses/infants that remind you of mature humans as things, you train yourself to think of real humans the wrong way.

(Caveats: Aristotle's perfectly clear that not only can't you have a friendship with a non-human, you can't have a true friendship unless it's between equals – knocking out the parent/child relationship even once the child is born. So this only addresses the way that treating a potential human as a thing damages the mother's ability to foster future friendships with fully-mature humans.)

3. The Practical Harm of Abortion: Aristotle doesn't define right and wrong in terms of how much pleasure or pain they generate, but he does recognize its importance. Any abortion will involve physical pain, either from surgery or from cramps and discomfort as the zygote/fetus passes. There's also the psychological pain, if a woman feels like she has had to kill a human or a potential human; the lost money that went to the abortion; and the social stigma.

(Caveats: The pain a woman suffers through an abortion may be less than the pain she'd suffer by going through a pregnancy, to say nothing of either adoption or motherhood. And Aristotle's not totally averse to some suffering, if it leads you to develop character; he seems to be more against pointless or excessive pain. I'm also not sure how an Aristotelian would count the pain the fetus went through as it died. Since it's not surviving it can't have a bad impact on the fetus's future character.)

So… three ways that an Aristotelian could say abortion is not murder but it's still wrong in most circumstances. Thinking about this, I'm reminded of Bella's pregnancy in Breaking Dawn. It seems to me that an Aristotelian would almost certainly disagree with Bella's initial decision to have a pregnancy that put her life in very real danger (she's told in no uncertain terms that this child is killing her) – but once Edward senses the child's thoughts, I think at that point an Aristotelian would have a harder time insisting on an abortion. The child is increasingly human (I'd say having actual thoughts, certainly actual desires, is a key marker of being human), and at that point the parents had formed a special attachment to it, so killing Renesme then would lead to the problems I pointed out in #2.

What do you guys think. If you think abortion is wrong, would these ideas let you condemn it strongly enough without calling abortion murder? Do these ideas put enough value on the mother's right not to have a fetus take over her body for nine months, maybe even kill her? I'd be interested in peoples' reactions.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Over at his blog, my friend Dan Fincke posted a dialogue looking at the connection between goodness and God. He's created two fictional characters, a Christian named Robin and an atheist named Jaime, who start out by discussing whether it makes sense to call the God described in the Bible good. They later move to the topic of whether it makes sense to think of goodness at all, if God did not exist to create it. Jaime eventually works his* way around to an argument that the Yahweh described in the Bible can't be the God Christians claim to believe in.

I want to explain why Jaime's argument (at least some of it) doesn't really hold up for me. But first I want to go on Plato safari, because a lot of the arguments Jaime uses are eerily familiar to the Euthyphro dilemma about Divine Command Theory. I don't think I've ever explained that philosophical concept before, so I'll take the opportunity to do that now. That's section I. Then there are some important distinctions I think Jaime needs to take into account, which I'll explain in part II. Finally, I'll try to bring all these concepts together to critique Jaime's position in part III. If you know the basic gist of the Euthyphro dilemma you can probably skip down.

But first, a quick comment on Dan's dialogue. Dan usually takes great pains to use gender-neutral names in these dialogues, but these particular names sorted themselves into he's and she's rather quickly. That's because to my mind Jaime that name is pronounced HIE meh, a distinctly masculine name. As for Robin, I had a good female friend with that name so I thought of her immediately. Since gender-neutral pronouns typically drive me crazy, I'm going to go with "he" for Jaime and "she" for Robin, out of convenience. I don't mean anything else by assigning gender roles, and I hope Dan won't mind too much.


Part I: The Euthyphro Dilemma )
Part II: There's Good, and Then There's Good )
Part III: Critiquing Jaime )

I'd be interested in other peoples' thoughts. Do you think it makes sense to describe God as good, in either sense? (Assuming you believe God exists, obviously.) How do you make sense of things like the genocide of the Canaanites? And I'd welcome opinions from theists and atheists on any other point I raised, or that Dan raised and you want to talk about. Have at it!


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
fidesquaerens: (narnia)
Oh, hi weekend!

It's been a relatively good week, teaching-wise. My class covered the Apology and the Crito, both of which have to do with Socrates's trial. We had some great discussions about the nature of atheism, whether anyone really knows anything, and also when it was okay to disobey the law (and how). This semester for the first time I'm requiring my students to comment to our course blog before class to show they've done the reading, which means for every class at least half the class has actually done the reading and thought about it enough to give a drabble's worth of reflection. That seems to be making a real difference in the quality of discussion.

Or maybe it's just the fact that Plato's political and ethical material can be so fun. We'll see how it goes when we get to the more difficult metaphysical material next week. But I have high hopes for this group, and now that my head cold is clearing I feel more competent than I have in a long while in front of a class.

(Btw: if anyone's interested in following along, the course site is . My lecture notes are posted under the "Course Business" section.)

Research is going well, too. I haven't actually made more progress this week, but it's in a more definite, feeling-accomplished way than I've experienced in a good while. Makes me want to go into Manhattan tonight and go to a movie. Shall have to see if there's anything worth seeing - maybe Extremely Loud and Extremely Close? Though I'm reluctant to spend big screen bucks on something without the SFX and action sequences to make the most of it. Mostly, I'm happy because it's sixty degrees, not quite as wet as it was this morning, the week is over and I feel clear-headed and free for the first time in a long time.

Fun stuff I've posted over at FB:

1. From the "S**t my students write" website:

Biblical cats - In Egypt, cats used to be seen as the symbolic and sacred animal. However scholars who have read and analyse the Bible claim there is never a mention of cats throughout.

2. This cartoon. Because bunnies make everything better.

Read more... )
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Student papers are graded. There may be one or two stragglers which I will have to deal with, and of course the exams will roll in next week. But for the moment, I am feeling pleasantly accomplished.

I am also feeling much better in RL. Have been sick, and while I am still coughing and achy, I have lost that "feeling" of sick. If you know what I mean. So huzzah on that point as well.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
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The NY Times "Opinionator" blog has an interesting piece up:

Essentially, there was a story earlier this week where David Segal addressed the complaint that law schools are teaching things that aren't of any practical value to lawyers. The line of argument reminded me of a great line in the "Law and Order" episode "Aftershock," when lawyer Claire Kincaid complains to her father, a law school professor, that people take contracts courses without ever reading a contract. She's overwhelmed by the realities of practicing law and feels her education didn't prepare her in the slightest for what she had to face. Her dad's response? She went to a law school, not a lawyer school.

That's the basic distinction here. Dr Fish describes a course he taught this semester at Yale, on the religion clause in the U.S. Constitution where his students studied philosophers like Kant, Locke, Rawles, Hobbes, and the rest. These aren't texts that will feature into a philosopher's legal briefs, Dr. Fish admits, but he thinks being exposed to them is worthwhile none the less. I very nearly said "useful" just now, but that's not it at all. In fact, Fish points out that the use of study isn't the point at all. He quotes Dr. Brian Leiter, who I associate with a major philosophy blog but who apparently is also a law professor: The criterion of scholarly inquiry is whether it makes a contribution to knowledge and understanding, not whether it ‘helps.’

I don't disagree with them. I'm studying philosophy and teaching it as part of my fellowship, and one of the questions I hate hearing is what use a certain topic is. You can question why some topics are interesting or important, to be sure, but don't demand its use, its application to things with a practical benefit. Philosophy is an art, and I think Dr. Leiter's right: the important question is does it illuminate, does it lead to deeper and truer and more nuanced understanding? Not whether it puts money in the bank.

The trouble is, law school does have to prepare you to be a lawyer. Students go into debt, often incredibly deep, and it's not fair to them if (a) law school is required to practice law, and (b) it doesn't really help them practice law. Things get even more complicated when you talk about public funding. There are sometimes special programs where the government will pay for your schooling if you work so many years in a D.A.'s office rather than in private practice. It's more common in other professions (nursing, education), but I know my M.A. school had a program like that for law school. And I find myself wondering, as a taxpayer: is that just?

I think it comes down to how we view education. If education is all about preparing people to fill a job we need filled, and we support it through taxes (whether for special programs like those, public school tuition, subsidized loans, whatever), I think you can make a case that we should only be paying for things that actually serve a public purpose. We help the best future doctors pay for med school because we want those people to go to med school - it's in our interest. But you don't take vitally needed money from other services and spend it on something that will maybe help the person become a better individual, but won't actually contribute to the roles society needs them to fill.

I personally think that's the wrong model. Democracies rely on everyone being well-educated and critical. ANd part of the purpose of society is to help each individual flourish as a human, and a big part of what that means is the freedom to think deep thoughts and learn more about things that are worth thinking about even if there isn't a practical payoff. People talk a lot about the dignity of human life; part of that dignity is the dignity to be fully human, fully rational no matter your wealth. Put it simply: subjects like law and philosophy and all the rest shouldn't just be a "luxury" for the rich. Under this model, I'd say it makes sense to help pay for even "impractical" subjects. Because even if they don't prepare you for a job, they help you become a better person.

That of course involves caring about what is best for other people and not just what they can do for me. I personally think that's a deeply moral stance, but it's one that requires a genuine sense of community. Whether that still exists in this country? Not so sure on that one.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
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There is something deeply hilarious (and deeply true) about today's PHD...

Read more... )
fidesquaerens: (Tolkien)
I swung by Best Buy tonight and they were having a very good sale on my kind of DVDs. I picked up all three Lord of the Rings, and Troy and Invictus besides. And at $4 a DVD, it came to about what I'd spend on a Friday night in Manhattan (movie tickets, popcorn, drink at a jazz bar afterward).

We'll see if I still enjoy the theatrical releases. Five moves and four states after the last DVD came out, I've lost at least one disk of all my versions. Meaning it's been years since I've relived how well PJ screwed up Denethor, and how well he nailed Gandalf. I'm going to be a good little scholar tonight and work on De libero arbitrio so I can take the time tomorrow in good conscience. I'm still in one of those rare academic hiccoughs between mountains of course-prep and mountains of grading, and I plan on enjoying it.
fidesquaerens: (academia)
A few days ago I wrote a post complaining about the OWS demand to forgive student loans since in my mind this was rewarding a bad decision, or at least offering people a do-over when they had to face the consequences of going to a pricey school rather than a public one.

I received some really good comments on that post, including two that deserved more of a reply than I could really do in a comment. So I want to talk about the two points raised. First, over at Dreamwidth [profile] dreamflower02 asked:

I find myself questioning the tuitions that schools are charging now. I believe one figure I heard is that it was gone up 900% in recent decades. Umm, that IS a little beyond mere inflation! […] You do work in academia, so perhaps you have some insight: do you know why the skyrocketing costs? Are they justified? Does any of it translate to better pay and benefits for teachers? (If so I think that would be a good thing.) Or is a lot of it going to flashy facilities to impress people?

First things first: I'm not putting myself out there as an expert. I'm a graduate student at a Jesuit school in the humanities, and as part of that I teach required core philosophy courses (human nature and philosophical ethics). I love teaching and love talking about it, so I also try to keep abreast of news in the higher ed business (it really is a business in many ways!), but I'm not a career administrator with several decades of experience under my belt. While working toward my M.A. I worked in the admissions office, mainly overseeing an outreach program sending our faculty to give talks at area high schools. I also worked on-campus jobs as a tutor, teaching assistant, and office assistant as an undergrad, and between grad and undergrad was employed by a local uni.'s accounts payable office. So while I've seen university bureaucracy from various vantage points, it's mostly been as a grunt. :-)

Still, I do like to stay informed. Dreamflower's 900% figure seemed a bit unreal to me, though there has been a huge jump. What I heard about the national average is that tuitions have risen about 400% at public schools (national average) since the mid-1970s. Is it possible that some particular state has seem a jump like that? Not out of the ball park. There may be some other comparison (say, tuition rise compared to income rise?). So I don't think Dreamflower is lying or anything, but I also doubt it's the plain rise in tuition.

Still, 400% is a lot and needs explaining. That's not just inflation, either. I see quite a few factors at work here.

First, there's the rise of what I call "deanlets" – the administrative class that has next to nothing to do with teaching. Some of them provide administrative backup for departments and liaising with parents. Much of it is devoted to the need of "accountability" (someone has to prepare those reports), both to the state and accreditation boards and auditors. There is also the middle management "creep" you'd expect in any large corporation, where the upper management wants control over more tasks and thus needs more people. There is also the service class – the professional therapists and doctors and dieticians and event planners and placement officers and security and everyone else who mans the special programs and the clubs and student services. This last group at least contributes to the student experience in more tangible ways. But there is a cost associated with this.

In many ways a university wants to be its own little town rather than part of the larger community it finds itself in. Part of this is necessary because universities are stuck where they are so if the neighborhood goes bad you may have middle-class kids not knowing how to handle themselves, resentment from the locals to the rich students who drive up housing, restaurant costs, and so on. It's also the natural result of students not being perceived as fully adult (rightly or wrongly) and needing a surrogate parent to look out for them. But all of this creates redundancies and more costs which has to be paid by someone.

Much of that's a problem of university culture – doing too much, offering too much security and creating an unsustainable situation. But there are also big parts of the problem that aren't the individual university's fault. I see three main factors. First and foremost is a drop in state revenues per student. States either have lowered tax rates in response to the economy or the existing taxes simply aren't collecting as much. There's also more and more pressure on other social services that are even more gut-wrenching to cut: food benefits to the working poor, medical clinics, homeless shelters, etc. Who's going to cut $10,000 in food stamp benefits to give to colleges? But at the same time, more and more people are going to college because they can't find work. So colleges are expected to educate more students for the same amount of funding, if they're lucky. More common are cuts in funding.

Problem #2: The failure of K-12 education. I don't know just what is causing it, but I am seeing a lot of students who can't write a paper to save their life, or read a text analytically, or use a library catalog or journal index to research a topic. Not all, of course, but a substantial number. (A substantial number of my students simply have never written a term paper before college.) From people who have been teaching longer than I have, I get the definite impression this is a downward trend. That means more remedial coursework, more writing labs and research assistants to walk them through it. And that takes money. The remedial courses are additional sections that have to be taught, and the labs are usually made available "free" meaning the cost has to be paid out of student fees.

The final problem is one of goals. Is the proper end-product of a bachelors degree that you will be prepared to take on a certain job? Or is it to be a better-educated person and have the sort of meta-skills necessary to function as a contributing adult citizen? Because companies are hiring people not for a lifelong career but for a few years, they aren't interested in training employees; they want them already trained. The thinking is that you get a university-trained person and they're more or less ready to start doing profitable work – certainly within a few weeks. But many university professors simply don't view themselves as job-preparers. (One law professor I know quipped that he worked at a law school, not a lawyer school.) And many students, parents, and administrators – though not all! – still expect the old model, too. So in many ways the university works against itself with some parts pulling the university in one direction and some in others. Of course universities should produce employable citizens and not just citizens. But one goal has to take precedence, I think, or you have a lot of tension and inefficiency. It's like if your right and left leg couldn't agree which street to walk down.

So. That's my answer of why (to paraphrase a NY political party) the tuition is too damned high. It is. But surprisingly little of that money is going into actually paying professors or adjuncts. I'd say you've got less money going there than before, actually. How to fix it? I can paint the broad strokes – cut back on bureaucracy, better K-12 education that is more tied to the skills colleges actually need rather than standardized tests, more jobs that utilize associates rather than bachelors degrees and more students nudged into that system, more funding from taxes, and better integration into the surrounding communities. How to get there in practical steps? That's beyond me.

(And yes, I know, I said there were two comments that demanded a more thorough answer than I could give in comments. I'll try to work up an answer to the second comment later; it's related, but this is really long enough even for a blog post on its own.)
fidesquaerens: (music)
I'm wondering - am I the only one beyond irritated by the whinging over unrepayable student loans?

Granted, I'm feeling pretty grouchy tonight for some reason, and so maybe this is a non-issue. Or an issue but one I wouldn't bother blogging about usually. And maybe it's an issue for me because I live and work in academia, but isn't really significant to most other people. But in the last few weeks I've seen Obama touting his student loan reforms; several blog posts and news articles; and of course all the signs at Zuccotti Park. (I approve of their cause of bringing more attention to the staggering inequality in this country, and so have been baking brownies and taking them down to their care-teams about twice a week.)

It's not just irritation at the over-exposure, though. I find myself genuinely angry at the people who complain about the $115k they've racked up in loans to get their BFA from Sarah Lawrence (or my own school; one of our students was among the profiled in a recent Times article), who now want those loans forgiven. I think a lot of it is jealousy, because there was a time that I wanted to go to a private school (a few had caught my eye) but I was living in NC which had a great public university system. So I became one of the numbered throng. I got a great education with very little debt, and I don't regret the decision. But I wonder whether my outlook would be different, whether it would feel like I really belong at Fordham, and whether I would have the undergraduate liberal arts background that I think would make me fit like I fit in more, if I'd gone to Duke or its like. I decided not to, largely because I crunched the numbers and realized I didn't want a college education that I felt like I was mortgaged up to my eyes to afford - but I think on some level I still am jealous of those people who took the plunge, and are now asking for a do-over.

This is particularly frustrating given the state of public university funding - I want to scream that you don't need to forgive extravagant amounts of loans, you need to give that money to public schools. My impulse is that a college student should be able to figure out their loan burdens, and I find myself alternately rolling my eyes or seeing red (and not of the balance-sheet variety) over it. But I don't like that. It reminds me how Americans have been much more resistant to Main Street bailouts over Wall Street bailouts and has me thinking: jealousy of people who are at least roughly on my level but slightly better off in some ways is a stronger hatred than whatever I feel toward Wall Street tycoons. That might explain a lot about the American psychology. Or at least about mine.

Incidentally, in case it's not clear: I'm not proud of this reaction. In fact, I'm pretty embarrased by it. But it's the truth of how I feel, and so I thought I'd try to lay it out.


P.S. - I've noticed less comments lately, and I'd be interested to know why. I'm not sure whether things have gotten too complicated since I moved from LJ to here (too hard to comment, technically), or if it's that half the time I don't find the energy to comment back or comment on other peoples' blogs so I've broken their trust or if the topics just aren't interesting. I'm not trying to criticize anyone, honestly! But I would like to know if there's a specific situation I can help with.

I have actually thought about migrating back to LJ. But I get spam there regularly. Having someone graffiti up my living room (which is what it feels like) is insulting and frustrating, and getting a paid subscription with a company that would allow this much spam brings on a major case of DO. NOT. WANT. But I also feel like I've made things difficult for everyone else, and so I'm not really sure what to do. :-S *hugs to all*
fidesquaerens: (Star Trek)

I may have always been certifiable, but I am now proud to admit that I am now certified! I finished up Fordham's two-part training to join their LGBT ally network. I have long been a supporter of their work and I'd actually reached out to them for help on teaching philosophical concepts related to philosophy in a way that was more inclusive. I sometimes have to be offensive to jar people out of their assumptions - but I like for my offensiveness to be planned rather than accidental!

Still, I hadn't been able to attend the trainings because of scheduling. That problem is now solved. I was really impressed with the training, actually. The two-session format gave plenty of time for reflection about what we were discussing. I felt I could openly say things that weren't homophobic but were not exactly warm-and-fuzzy, like the fact that when a friend came out to me I felt I had been lied to (even though I recognized I hadn't been, and why the friend didn't come out right away). I felt like I could admit that even in a room full of LGBT-affirming individuals. Maybe I just am incapable of shading the truth, but I like to see it had more to do with good conversation.

I also was impressed with how the whole event was infused with cura personalis, the Jesuit philosophy that we are educating and caring for the whole individual. It's hard to nail down exactly why I got that impression; but I just had a real sense that they were balancing my school's catholic identity and all that implied about sexual ethics, with a true concern for the students as individuals and a drive to help them develop into adults, psychologically and sexually as well as intellectually.
fidesquaerens: (Star Trek)
Chicago schools just announced five high schools that will actually have a six-year track eventually leading to an associate's degree. My first thought was: coolness. I've always thought that not everyone is university material nor should we expect everyone to be. The thinking is that if a kid knows he isn't college-bound but can still see something useful and marketable coming out of his college years, he'll be more likely to put in the necessary work.

Right now, the schools have a grant from IBM because it's a new program they're trying out. But I find myself wondering what will happen when that runs out - if the state legislature or the city council or whomever pays the bills saw they were now having to pay for two more years of school, what would their response be? Maybe we don't really need world history or junior-year English so much? Maybe (as one commenter over at HuffPo argued) they don't really need six years, since many places let you take college courses and get both college and high school credit? Maybe the kids' families should pay for the last two years? (And if so, why not more than the last two, to save budget dollars?)

So I'm skeptical about the practical aspects, but actually hopeful, too. What really worries me is the message this sends and not just about the kids who don't want to go to college or aren't suited for it. Florida's Gov. Scott recently denounced anthropology and said the state needed to consider taking money away from those university departments and redirected it to STEM disciplines. This is only news because it's recent; I'm always hearing about either university presidents or politicians trying to decrease funding to less applied fields. I understand the need for results, but I think it bears asking: how is a university different from a community college? To my mind, while universities may house practical disciplines (pre-law, pre-medicine, business, nursing, education, etc.) that shouldn't be the main focus. There's something to be said for valuing all learning no matter whether it has practical implications or not.

More and more it seems like universities are being treated like four-year community colleges, and I don't like it. There's a value to the humanities and the social sciences, and it's a value everyone should have the opportunity to explore even if they can only afford to attend a state school. Really, that's what concerns me about the Chicago model. I think it will be good for lots of people - but if it becomes the only track available in an inner-city environment? Not so sure about that.

Your thoughts?
fidesquaerens: (academia)
I recently went to Oxford and back to present at a conference, the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion. It was the first conference I ever presented at, and the first conference on this scale that I had ever attended - drawing international participants, and also not just graduate students but a good mix of ph.d. candidates, postdocs, and professors at all levels.

It was a really good experience! For one thing I got to hear the other papers and realize that I can hear someone discuss (for example) various mind/body issues and whether a materialist [= someone who thinks we are our body] can believe in the resurrection, and follow along the various arguments and make a meaningful comment or two afterwards. That is a revelation to me because thisi s the kind of topic I don't feel qualified to research in, because I focus so much on certain historical periods. But I can hold my own in that setting better than I thought I would.

I also got to meet some very nice people from the U.K. and elsewhere and talk about job prospects. There are possibilities I hadn't thought about in the past, like teaching the A-level religious studies course (which apparently includes good portions of ethics, philosophy of religion, critical thinking, etc. - the kind of course I usually teach now to my freshmen). Given that I like working with people who are new to the subject and maybe won't even study it as a major, that actually sounds like a lot of fun. I think I would still much prefer to be a professor (or the British equivalent of the American professor, as I know that's a really rare position in the U.K.!), but especially if I could get on at a good school with students aiming for Oxbridge or similar universities, I think I'd get a lot of satisfaction out of doing A-level teaching.

My talk in particular went very well. philosophy-heavy account behind the cut )

That got more deeply philosophical than I meant it to! Sorry. What I was trying to say is a commenter - a really venerable scholar in medieval philosophy, actually - asked me whether these two claims (God is understood by the atheist but God is so great we can't understand him) contradicted each other. And I was able to offer an outline of an answer (b/c the issue is so complicated) that he thought was promising. That made my day. As did all the comments I received afterward, both on the substance and my presentation style. I was definitely sorry about the conference ending and having to come back to New York and get on with the more mundane life of a graduate student. But I'll manage!


While traveling I posted to FB regularly, because some people had asked me to so they'd know I was safe. It actually formed a nice little travelog, so I thought I would post it.

12-Sept at 17:31:

@Newark Int'l waiting for my flight, reading the New Republic, and listening to Three Dog Night. There's some virtue in knowing that everything I need to get done for the next few days is either already done or not going to get done. It has a lovely sabbathy feel to it. No wonder my muse always gets chatty at airports - it's one of the few times our minds aren't pulled in a thousand different directions.

12-Sept at 21:15:

I am safely in Toronto. I don't think I've ever filled out a form that was quite as confusing as the customs form - not because it was badly designed but because since I'm leaving the country inside of three hours, every other question seemed to require an exception.

The food court was surprisingly healthy and affordable. And the exchange rate is still kind. The airport is clean and quiet and the people are friendly. Kind of makes me wish I could stay a bit longer!

Next stop, Heathrow!

12-Sept at 22:27:

[While waiting for my plane I read a blog post by some Arabic-looking woman taken off a plane on suspicions of terrorism. It affected me deeply, and I still want to blog about it properly. But this was my first reaction, throwing up a link to it.]

Will post more in depth about this later, when I have the time and the necessary intellectual difference. But I wanted to call people's attention to this personal account of someone who was arrested on (seemingly baseless) suspicions of terrorism. Well worth a read.

13-Sept at 13:41:

Safe in Oxford. I am unfortunately dead-on-my-feet tired, mainly because I couldn't sleep on the plane. I did watch more episodes of "M*A*S*H" and "The Simpsons" than I have in year.

On the ride to where I'm staying I saw the Eagle and the Child, of Inklings fame. Didn't get a picture, unfortunately. I may go sight-seeing tomorrow and find it again. (Conference doesn't start until late afternoon.)

So far Oxford the town strikes me as a mix of Anderson, SC and Blowing Rock, NC. (Two towns from my childhood.) No offense intended, but given where I live now that's a rather odd vibe. But I think that is just not being settled, and hopefully when things kick off tomorrow things will feel more "normal" to me.

But I do have the internet set up and I have a bed where I can sleep and a suitcase unpacked. These are not small things!

[at this point times switch to British time, I think]

13-Sept at 07:13

Recent conversations got me thinking. The Taoist concept of wu wei (acting naturally/don't get in the way of nature) seems quite compatible with Aristotle's idea that virtue is a character capacity, i.e. flows from who we are. But then when I think about it, the comparison isn't so strong b/c Aristotle says character education + change is possible whereas wu wei seems to say no. Any philosophy-friends know of anyone who looked at this issue? (Or Taoism meets Aristotle, more generally?)

13-Sept at 09:00

There are few things in this world quite as nice as British pub chips, done right. I don't know if it's that I haven't had American French fries in ages, or if they really are this good. American fries is the nearest equivalent, but they're really not quite the same - these are bigger, less seasoned, probably more fatty, and so hot they will burn your mouth if you aren't careful.

It's *al*most enough to make up for the lack of Pepsi products. :-)

14-Sept at 18:15

I presented my paper this afternoon. It was well-received, both by other students about on my level educationally (doctoral students + postdocs etc.) but also by some more established philosophers like Drs. Anthony Kenny and Ian Logan. Got some criticism privately, mainly to do with minor points that didn't quite make it clearly into the condensed paper/presentation. Afterwards had a nice dinner with Dr. Logan and other Oxford profs. It's been a good experience, all round.

[and back to US East Coast time]

16-Sept at 19:14

I am back on the right continent. In North America, I mean - after a week in Oxford I think the Bronx, and even Manhattan, will be a letdown. I'm queuing for security (already went through customs) for my connecting flight out of Toronto. It was actually a near thing as I slept through my alarm this morning and so was two hours late getting out of Oxford. But I still made it to Heathrow. *crosses fingers for no more complications.*

16-Sept at 19:33

Reason #237 why Toronto's Pearson Int'l rocks: bendy straws in the food court. It is ridiculous how happy this simple thing makes me. I love bendy straws, but nowhere I ever shop at New York seems to have them.

17-Sept at 01:59

I did want to let everyone know I made it back to the Bronx safely. Would that I could say the trip was uneventful! Between a flight being rescheduled and then taxiing on the runway for about an hour at Newark, it was about 11:30 pm before I finally got my bags. At that hour I actually trusted the trains more than I did a cab (b/c with trains there are crowds and places to run, whereas with a cab I would have to get into a car alone with some stranger) and so I took first the NJ Transit train and then the NY subways back to the Bronx, and called a cab co. I know once I got here. It actually felt very safe (for those concerned about me living in the big scary city) but DRAINING after a transatlantic flight. Anyway, I am back in my apartment and so can crash.

Unfortunately there are no pictures. I discovered when I was over in England that my new cell phone did not have a SIM card so I couldn't store pictures. I did buy a disposable camera but can't find it in my bag. The people at the college where I was staying promised to mail it to me if it turned up, so maybe I will have some eventually. But really, I didn't take many anyway because I like experiencing what I'm seeing, and not through a camera lens. I feel bad for you guys that I can't share them, but I was not taking them for myself in any case. So I mainly took them to show other people. I'll post them if/when I get them. In the meantime, I at least have the memories.

One thing I didn't mention was some sight-seeing I did on Wednesday morning before the conference started. I went into Oxford proper and did some window-shopping on Oxford High Street, including the map/print shop Sanders of Oxford. What a treat! I also went into the Bodleian library and Christ Church. Aside from being a lot of fun generally, I thought that parts of Christ Church seemed way too familiar, and afterwards I figured out why. Seems parts of Hogwarts scenes in the Harry Potter movies were were filmed at Christ Church. A rather cool, fannish connection.

I ran out of time, though, before I could actually make it into the Eagle and the Child, the Inklings pub. Guess I'll just have to go back! Which I fully intend to - the library has some of the best medieval manuscripts in the world, so I doubt I'll be a stranger...
fidesquaerens: (thinky thoughts)
A Maryland university organized a philosophy course - taught at a local prison.

It's a really interesting idea, and I applaud the effort. One of my favorite bits:

"For me, education is, like, transcendent," said John Woodland, 55, of Baltimore, who is serving a life term for murder. "Whenever I'm in a class or reading a book, it's like I'm out of prison."

All I could think on reading that was, word. It's practically Platonic.

Two gripes, though:

1. Plato, taught by an English teacher? And Buddha by the philosophy guy? Maybe that worked, but as a philosopher I was a bit upset that *we* didn't get to talk about our representative.

2. That last line about uni members needing to venture into the real world? That assumes the university *isn't* the real world. And it's not the whole real world, but it is *definitely* part. It's made up of real people dealing with real situations. Too often we treat the university like it's some fairy-kingdom in the clouds. I don't buy that.

But basically, I love the idea and wish I had the challenge available to me.


ETA: Or maybe not, on the second point. Between beginning and finishing this post, I read the header on a RSS post - basically the title and first however-many characters of a post made to some website, in this case a Beliefnet blog. The header said "Biola University prof: 9/11 attacks are a depressing indictment of humani". And my mind immediately filled it in as humanities (you know, what I do). A lot of academic blogs tie everything from a drop in the Dow to the release of Justin Bieber's latest video to why we do or don't need to teach the humanities. Maybe us academics are on a different planet, or maybe I'm just self-absorbed like that. *g*
fidesquaerens: (literature)
Over at FB, my friend Dan started a lively discussion on university students and first names. A lot of the comments focused whether it was ever appropriate for a university student to refer to his teacher by the first name alone - no last name, no Ms./Mr./Dr./etc. - and, if not, why not. This isn't an abstract issue. With courses starting up next week, most of my fellow TAs TFs* and I have probably already received an email or two where the student used our first name alone. Certainly we'll get the first-name greetings within the first week or so of class, next week.

For me, titles matter. This isn't a pride thing, it's a professionalism thing. Or perhaps more importantly, it's a professorial thing, a word I claim more for its pun value than because I think of myself as a professor. I'm not, but in many ways I have to fill that function. I don't just grade exams or lead discussion sections, but have control over everything from course design to assigning final grades. And a lot of that requires that I not be my student's best friends. It requires what I called psychological distance over at Dan's initial post. I'm informal by my nature and I'm also fairly young (physically but also emotionally) - I have to fight that tendency to be "one of the guys" with my students pretty strongly at times. Insisting on a title of some sort along with my last name is one way I can do that.

Being the philosopher that I am, though, I like taking a deeper look. "I need psychological distance" is a practical concern. Do I really deserve that title? If so, why? Two potential reasons jump to mind. Either I am in some way better, or I am in a position of authority for some other reason. An example of the second type of case might be if a policeman pulled you over for speeding. You call the policeman "officer," even perhaps "sir." Why? It's not because the policeman is perfect; if he had once sped through a red light he'd still be addressed with respect, and rightly so. In this case, the policeman represents the law, something in a position of authority over the driver. So we respect that law, and we should show our respect to the policeman as the law's representative.

In many cases I really do have some knowledge most students lack. Part of this is that, to really "get" a philosopher you have to read him several times, and I've worked through the texts for multiple semesters, perfecting my lecture notes. I've also read other pertinent texts, either from later in the semester or from sources we're not covering that term. To the extent that that knowledge is a good thing, I am better than my students lacking that knowledge. At least regarding that particular knowledge - they may have the leg up on me in other areas. More importantly, I have skills in reading and understanding a text, giving a complete but focused answer to a particular question, writing a well-structured paper, and evaluating an argument logically. Most of my students don't have those skills, and they will develop them over the course of the semester. I don't totally buy into the idea that teaching is like a data transfer, especially in philosophy. Students need to work at it, they need the opportunity to build up those mental muscles in a controlled environment with help from a trainer. But even so, I know what the end goal should look like and I have some experience walking students through the process of developing those skills. I won't claim that makes me morally better, but in a philosophical sense, as in better = has some perfection that others lack, yeah, I think I'm probably better than at least some of my students.

But occasionally I run across a student who is my equal on the first question, or at least much more my equal than most. Sometimes it's the senior English major who's picking up a credit so she can graduate. Or the recent graduate who's taking a course in preparation for graduate school, or (since I teach a lot of philosophy of religion, and at a Jesuit school) the seminarian who is used to thinking about these issues and discussing them in a different context. I've never come across a student who is completely equal with me in terms of knowledge and skill at term's beginning, but some have come pretty close. What if I did meet such a student? I'd still say I owe it to the student to insist on a title. I'm a bit like the policeman who's in a position of authority not because he is better than the student but because of what he represents. (In this case I represent the rulestick that will evaluate the student's work.)

Dan actually brought up one other interesting case: religious clergy. Do they deserve a special title? Dan thinks no. Unlike with medical doctors or philosophy Ph.D.'s (or, in my case, TA's TF's), there's not really a special set of knowledge religious clergy have mastered. Dan happens to be an atheist, so that view makes sense (you can't be an expert on God's nature if God doesn't exist), but anyone who points to the mystery of faith would have to believe the same thing, right? And as a good Protestant, I don't really think that any clergyman is God's representative or anything.

I do think clergymen deserve our respect, though, and even have a right to insist on the title and the collar and all the rest. It's not moral superiority. Nearly a decade of pedophilia scandals and longer than that of televangelists shows us that a divinity degree isn't the silver bullet against human failings. Plus, titles don't really have to do with morality, at least not as most people conceive of it. (Note, I used "better" in a rather special way.) But clergy do have some special training that I think does count as a perfection. First, they have a graduate degree usually of equal length with law school. In many cases this degree gives them a sort of interdisciplinary background in psychotherapy and social work on the one hand, and in how to interpret a certain family of texts on the other hand. (Yes, they think those texts are divinely inspired, but in the best cases priests and pastors are using to interpret them using the same tools philosophers do - language, cultural context, inter- and intratextual cues, logic, etc.) Priests in particular also develop a spiritual discipline through habituation that I also think is a kind of perfection. All of that makes me think that - in some cases at least! - clergymen do deserve their titles.

What do you think? Am I just puffing myself up to insist on the "Ms." in front of my name?


ETA: I changed TAs to TFs. I always use the wrong term, somehow, because at my undergrad school the graduate students teaching courses were called TAs for teaching associates. They had their own courses, though, like we do. Our term is teaching fellows, or in my case STF, senior teaching fellow. Don't want to give people the wrong impression about the kind of position I'm talking about, since in many cases a TA is someone helping a professor teach a large course.
fidesquaerens: (politics)
Over at the Times, Stanley Fisk has been hating on philosophy. Okay, perhaps that's not quite fair. He's perfectly happy that philosophy can be interesting and significant to the person who does it - but he argues that unlike religious ideology and political beliefs, philosophy doesn't really influence our daily lives. It doesn't make us more or less likely to be good people, wealthy, happy, etc. It won't drive us to act one way or another - and it won't be taken into account by those judging our actions.

Frankly, Mr. Fisk seems to have a pretty shallow view of human nature. Our beliefs do matter - practically. Let me give an example from my neck of the woods. I study philosophy of religion, which looks at arguments for God and other beliefs concerning religion and tries to apply philosophical rigor to them. One area that gets a lot of attention is something called the the problem of evil. It was put most succinctly by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

In a nutshell: the kind of God people tend to believe in (all-powerful, all-good) is inconsistent with the existence of evil - if one exists the other can't. That seems nice and abstract until you lose several people close to you, especially in traumatic ways (accidents, suicides, homicides, etc.)If you believe in God then you are faced with the realization that the God you always believed was good and all-powerful let this happen - and the natural conclusion seems to be that either God does not exist or what happened to you was somehow good. That can be hellish to live with. And speaking personally, knowing that some of the greatest minds in history had struggled with it was a comfort. It also led me to reevaluate my own belief in God. (Perhaps God existed but wasn't exactly the kind of person I always believed in?) For me, philosophy had a fairly practical consequence, a good one in this case. And not just for me; I often hear from my students - freshmen who have to take the course as part of a general education requirement - that they got a lot out of working through this particular philosophical position.

Not everyone is religious, so let's take another issue. Over at, John Paul Rollert looked at how talk about the importance of job-creators flies contrary to Adam Smith's view of capitalism. To be fair, economic philosophy is not my home turf, not by a long shot. I have never read Adam Smith, or for that matter Karl Marx. So I can't stand here and say that Mr. Rollert read Smith correctly, and that it's the workers and not the tycoons we should be supporting. I'm also not an expert on tea party rhetoric so I can't say that this is what people mean when they talk about job creators. But let's say Mr. Rollert is right. Certainly this is the kind of issue that should be important? It's the kind of issue we would want to resolve, right?

Ideas evolve, of course. Maybe what people mean by capitalism isn't what Mr. Smith meant, just as maybe what people mean by God isn't what Epicurus assumed. But if that's the case, then what I call radical capitalism - the idea that capitalism will solve all ills, and that if we just got out of the market's way everything would be hunky-dory - either needs to match what Smith actually argued for, or else you can't use Smith to defend your view.

Why should this matter? That seems to be the heart of Mr. Fisk's argument. According to Fisk, to say that (for example) the debt ceiling debacle wouldn't have happened "employs the same reasoning that leads some people to believe that if only terrorists, tyrants, and jihadists would read our constitution, the Federalist papers, and a few pages of John Rawls, they would come to their senses and become followers of democracy." But I don't think so. Terrorists and the like are a very small group relative to the population they represent. They're extremists and they get their "persuasion" through raw power. But duly-elected politicians? They get their power because they represent a certain portion of society's beliefs. The Tea Party caucus is in Congress because people voted cor them.

If those politicians don't represent their constituents any more, there's an obvious solution: vote 'em out. If on the other hand, they do represent their constituents, you're saying large portions of society don't care about things like consistency. That just doesn't fit with my experience. Yes, people can run short on time and energy and not have the resources to get beyond their first reaction. But in my experience, given enough thought and information they want consistency. They don't like you saying (for example) that you're a Christian while you espouse beliefs they think are un-Christian. And so I have to believe that if they actually read Rand and Smith as much as they read the Bible, they similarly wouldn't like you saying you're pro-capitalism while espousing beliefs that are un-capitalistic.

So maybe it wouldn't make a difference if the Tea Party leaders read Smith. If they are truly terrorists (and I'm just using Mr. Fisk's position; I'm not calling them that myself), if they're truly beyond help, I have to live with that. But thinking about what capitalism means would still make a great deal of difference to those people who put them in power. And that's philosophy, too.


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August 2012

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