Something to think about this semester…

Philosophy teachers:  What kind of discussion might you aim for in your classes. Here are some comments I’ve heard over several decades:

a. “You know how it is, if you’re going to say anything in a seminar, it has to be brilliant.”

b. “This is the philosophical method: someone puts up a position and everyone tries to knock it down.”

c. A dialogue:
Speaker One: It’s as though you stand on the top of a hill, and say to your students: This is my position, and anyone who wants to have their own position has to knock me off first.
Speaker Two: Yes, that’s what I do best.

First, some obvious things to say: There’s been a lot of discussion of aggressive philosophy and the antagonist philosophical style. But there’s something else that’s more moderate, and that one suspects a lot of us find attractive. That’s the vigorous “exchange of ideas” that is actually carried on with quite a bit of evaluation. If you pursue this as a professor, you might find yourself saying, “Well, that’s not a bad idea, but it isn’t as strong as the first one, and it doesn’t really answer these other questions.” Or,” yes fair point, but most people nowadays have learned that doesn’t cut much philosophical ice.” Students can be very good at summing such remarks up.

Secondly, the less obvious:  Research we looked at earlier this week strongly suggests that there’s a danger that such an environment dumbs down some students, and these students form identifiable groups.  White women and Hispanics.  It really shouldn’t be a surprise that styles in classes can have discriminatory effects, but now we are moving beyond the anecdotal to some ideas about how deeply seated the dumbed down reaction may be.

An opposite strategy:  to try to find as much worthwhile in each comment as you can, and leave off evaluating the rest.  Should one try something like that?  Do the results we reported on before show that those of us who like to stir up a vigorous and challenging debate have obligation to reconsider?  What do you think?