The Purpose of Philosophy Class


It is not the purpose of a Philosophy class to transmit information or inculcate skills, however useful that may be.  It is to introduce students to the life of the mind, with all the characterological as well as intellectual changes that requires.  It is to welcome the young man or woman into a moral sphere in which argument, honesty, and a passion for ideas reign.  This is accomplished — it can only be accomplished — through the establishment and nurturing of a relationship between the teacher and the student….

There is, as Paul Goodman argued many decades ago, a strong erotic component to all great education.  The good teacher loves his or her students, in the way a parent loves his or her children (and also, needless to say, in the way a lover loves the beloved.)

You cannot communicate that in a MOOC.

Robert Paul Wolff thinks that “everything is liable to be lost, at least everything that counts as education,” when philosophy is taught as a massive open online course (MOOC). You can read the full post here. I wonder whether readers agree with his characterization of the purposes of a philosophy course, and whether they are indeed unattainable in a MOOC.

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tnr4
6 years ago

There’s a problem in the line of thinking laid out above, which I hear a lot (since I spent the last year and change helping to create a philosophy MOOC). The problematic line is that: teaching philosophy in this way is bad or harmful. But that seems, I think, implausible. Even if the worries raised are accurate, that doesn’t mean that “teaching philosophy as a MOOC” is bad or harmful; it means that teaching philosophy ONLY as a MOOC is bad or harmful.

I’m currently teaching a hybrid philosophy class, which uses MOOC material just as an additional secondary source, and it’s fantastically successful so far. The reason is that there is so much to be taught, and only some of it is valuable in the particular way discussed by Wolff. Some of it is boring or simple or straightforward factual transfer. And guess what: MOOCS are fantastic for doing that. Why should I waste my time in class teaching the very basics to understanding my field, when every student with an internet connection can have it explained to them by the world’s leading experts, distilled into an articulate series of 6 minute segments? (And don’t tell me that nothing can be conveyed in that time; of course it can. Not Plato, and not Kantianism, but the Tuskegee Syphilis study? Totally.)

TL;DR: just because MOOCs plausibly shouldn’t completely replace philosophy doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t do philosophy. And just because we want to make a case for classroom philosophy doesn’t mean we should make a case against philosophy MOOCs.Report

DC
DC
6 years ago

I think he also takes an unjustifiably narrow view of the purposes of classes generally and the type of people in them. Depending on their background, some students need this sort of indoctrination. Many don’t. Sometimes they are already fully introduced into the life of the mind and have undergone the characterological changes Wolff extols. Philosophy does not have a monopoly on the characteristics he lists, and teachers of English, history, sociology, physics, biology, etc., are not necessarily dead-eyed drones mechanically feeding their students information without demanding they think about it. Sometimes the students in your introductory philosophy class really do just need to learn the substantive philosophy in an area they have not studied before.

Case in point, me. I am working on my third graduate degree (none of my degrees are in philosophy). I’m also, on the side, reading philosophy on my own for both enjoyment and to enhance my ability to approach my own field of study. Before I came back to school I was a practicing lawyer. If I decided to take a philosophy course at my current university it would not be because I need to be introduced to “argument, honesty, and a passion for ideas.” If I felt the teacher considered me necessary of such things, I would find it unbearably condescending. And I certainly would have no problem taking a MOOC.Report

Gross.
Gross.
6 years ago

“There is, as Paul Goodman argued many decades ago, a strong erotic component to all great education. The good teacher loves his or her students, in the way a parent loves his or her children (and also, needless to say, in the way a lover loves the beloved.)”

Unless I am dramatically misinterpreting this claim, this makes my skin crawl. I have had many great teachers. I do not think any of my teachers loved me (nor I, them) in the way a parent loves his or her children. I am POSITIVE that none of them loved me in the way that a lover loves the beloved. I think philosophy as a profession would be much improved if approximately zero philosophy professors loved his or her students in a way that the lover loves the beloved.Report

enahmias
6 years ago

Prof Wolff’s comments are interesting, and I share some of his concerns about MOOCs (which is consistent with thinking MOOCs could have a useful role in some philosophy classes). But I wanted to highlight his closing comment: “The good teacher loves his or her students, in the way a parent loves his or her children [and also, needless to say, in the way a lover loves the beloved.]”

Why add the last bracketed bit (which, given the brackets, seems not part of Goodman’s view anyway)? The love one has for one’s children is (I hope!) very different from the love one has for one’s lover, both in the way it is felt and the behavior it inspires. I would hope that our love for our students should more closely approximate the type of love we have for our children (and that can, of course, include grown children, to avoid the implication of too much paternalism–but isn’t a little mat-/pat-ernalism to be expected and even encouraged in teaching and mentoring?).
But we should not love our students like lovers or treat teaching as “erotic”. That way trouble lies. Indeed, if we tried to think of our students as our (grown and mature) children (or younger siblings?), it might help us inculcate the right attitude towards them re. avoiding romantic relationships.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Not a lot of Freud fans here, I take it. But perhaps closer to your wheelhouse, Wolf is surely drawing on the Platonic view of love, in which all forms of love, erotic, familial, intellectual, are manifestations in different form and degree of the same basic desire for “the Good.”

It’s a stretch, I don’t think he means it too literally. As in Plato’s case, it’s primarily used as an analogy, no need to be so squeemish, kids.

Yeah, it’s a little icky to think to closely about, but there is, of course, a subdued erotic element in all philosophical discussion and teaching. I suspect you guys also act shocked when someone points out that wrestling is homoerotic.Report

Kristina
Kristina
6 years ago

I have to disagree with Anon here, I think we could be full fledged Freudians and still find the remarks about an erotic component to the teacher-student relationship creepy. (And I really enjoy RPW’s blog generally and am sure he didn’t mean it literally.) But I would venture to say that there is nothing necessarily erotic in the teaching relationship – at least not more than in any other human relationship, in which case it isn’t worth remarking on anyway. In fact, if the proliferation of MOOCs could disabuse people of this Platonic/erotic theory of teaching then that would be a benefit of MOOCs!Report

dmf
dmf
6 years ago

“with all the characterological as well as intellectual changes that requires” this is so grandiose a claim the mind boggles a bit…Report

enahmias
6 years ago

I love me some Freud (I mean, not in the erotic way). Of course, he’s wrong about most things (dammit, that must be my defense mechanisms talking).Report

Matt Drabek
6 years ago

There’s a lot to unpack in the quote. One quick note is that even though I agree that the point of philosophy class is not to inculcate some specific set of skills, the inculcation of a specific set of skills is an important product of philosophy class, nevertheless. And philosophers do themselves a disservice when they take the fact that inaugurating students into the life of the mind is somehow incompatible with inculcating a set of skills.

Also, it’s not terribly clear how any of that bears on the issue of MOOCs. I take it that the general consensus is that MOOCs are an effective way to teach *some* students *some* things. Insofar as philosophy coursework contains some of those some things, it can be done via MOOC. For instance, I think it’s plausible that some students would get value out of an intro to symbolic logic MOOC. For presumably obvious reasons, I doubt any students would get value out of an upper division undergraduate seminar MOOC.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

“But I would venture to say that there is nothing necessarily erotic in the teaching relationship – at least not more than in any other human relationship, in which case it isn’t worth remarking on anyway.”

Probably true, but note that Plato thought it was worth remarking on, going out of his way to declare all human activity a form of immortality seeking or, more explicitly, passion for the highest good. So, it’s not that surprising that someone sympathetic to Plato might think it worth remarking.

I think the point in emphasizing it is to remember 1) teaching philosophy is first and foremost about imparting a *passion* for truth and wisdom, not just information and skill and 2) that task cannot be done without a real relationship that includes deep care and concern for each other as persons, not just as institutional roles. If we don’t want to follow Plato in calling that “eros”, understandable, but it’s a semantic disagreement.

As to the creepy factor, it’s worth remembering that the whole gist of Plato’s discussion is that philosophy is a way of *diverting* eros from what is here being referred to as the “erotic”–it’s *false* aim–to its true aim of intellectual beauty, wisdom, and virtue. Likewise, Freud’s theory of sublimation is form of eroticism that diverges libidinal energy toward higher, more intellectual pursuits. So, reading the point in the Platonic/Freudian sense amounts to saying: the teacher/student relationship involves a desexualized form of passion, love, and care.

Which is pretty much saying the identical thing as the parent/child analogy, which nobody minded. (Frankly, I find the parent/child analogy even more icky.)Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

Love involves a concern for the good of the beloved. What is creepy is exploiting an apparently intellectual relationship in order to have sex with your students (which clearly does not involve a concern for their good). What is not creepy is sublimating the erotic dimension that can be present in the teacher-student relationship in order to stoke the fire of intellectual passion and promote a dialogical pursuit of truth (obviously involving a concern for the students’ good). On a closely related Platonic note, one thing that MOOCs cannot do very well is engage students via Socratic questioning.Report