Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Undergraduate Philosophy - Joke or Ultrajoke?

I have to call out my old undergraduate philosophy department at Albright College. It wasn't perfect when I was there and it has made some changes since that have only made it worse. I will preface this complaint by saying that I wouldn't bother trying to expose the philosophy program's flaws if I didn't think it was important and salvageable - after all, I'm long gone from the place, so I have no personal stake in its survival. This is something I feel compelled to do, and this post may get refined into a letter to the chair.

When I started at Albright, the department consisted of three professors. Two of those professors have left. Their two positions have been filled by four people since their departure, and the impression created by the college's behavior in performing its job search (taking on two professors for one year and firing them after their second semester) was one of shaky job security. This disregard for young professors' need for stable employment is not limited to the philosophy department at Albright, but having two thirds of the faculty in that department axed in one year is less than professional. Perhaps those professors weren't very good; I happen to think they were far less than ideal, but you hired them in the first place. Piling one mistake on another has only made the school's already dismal reputation even worse, and destroyed any chance of hiring quality people to teach philosophy.

Albright has a pretty poor academic reputation, but the professors that made up the department when I matriculated were good. Albright had better than it deserved, and, obviously, two of the professors knew it and left for better employment (which they both now have). Albright's method of filling the vacancies was awful, and the combination of awful job security and (probably; I have some circumstantial evidence) terrible pay scared off candidates. This is a real shame.

The effect of the decrease in the department's fortunes is reflected in a sharp decrease in its rigor. One of the professors who left, a brilliant man (who was responsible for introducing me to philosophy), taught a course called "A Philosophical Tour Through Mathematical History." Auskunft could describe it better than I can, but it was, roughly speaking, an introduction to the theory of mathematics from a philosophical and historical perspective. The course involved real math, and actually counted for the core Quantitative Reasoning requirement, meaning a person could take the course and not have to take any courses in the math department at all.

Well, the course has been gutted. It used to use Morris Kline's excellent Mathematics for the Nonmathematician. This is apparently too much for the kids, so it dropped the book and dropped much of its rigor.

A "logic" course, defined as "Critical Thinking" or "Symbolic Logic," has always been a graduation requirement for philosophy majors. Well, Symbolic Logic is gone. I was told, when I wanted to take it, that no professor in the department was able to teach it, the one who had been able having already left. "Critical Thinking" touches on fallacies and deals with logic in a very informal, simplistic way, and it hardly seems possible to devote an entire semester to the junk taught in there. Still, that class is as much logic as philosophy majors at Albright College will get. This is a disgrace, and I get actually angry thinking about it. For one thing, logic is one of the things that philosophy can't get wrong. It's exact and relentless. That a person can receive a BA in philosophy without knowing any formal logic is outrageous. Many graduate schools require that applicants have taken a basic course in symbolic logic during their undergraduate study. Albright College graduates will be unable even to compete for admission to those schools, and I can only imagine that this deficiency in alumni's education makes them less attractive candidates at any grad school.

Albright - remedy this. Allow students to receive credit for taking Symbolic Logic at other regional colleges, or get the math department to teach it, or something. That the course isn't even in the catalog anymore is baffling. How can you award a bachelor's in philosophy without teaching a critical aspect of philosophy? This borders on diploma-mill behavior.

I am fairly certain that a thesis was a graduation requirement shortly before my graduation. I am also fairly certain that, by the time I wrote my thesis, it was not, and a person could take an extra course in the department and forgo the thesis. I suspect I know why the department did this - Albright College students in any major simply cannot write. They never learned the skill in high school and two semesters of basic composition aren't up to the task. I don't know what goes on in the first composition course, having tested out of it (I gather it's virtually a remedial writing class), but students in the second course are barely literate by the time they get there, so it can't be doing much. As an aside, I've seen some barely literate writing here at law school, so maybe Albright is just one failed system among hundreds. Whatever. The problem with simply accepting that students can't write is that this is college. If they can't write, they can't earn the degree; is there a flaw in that logic (it would be unfair to ask this question of Albright grads)?

I found that doing the research, thinking, discussion, and writing for my thesis was an enlightening and enjoyable experience. In fact, one would think that any philosophy major should be encouraged to think a lot about a philosophical topic and write about it. An extra course in the department is no substitute for producing an original work of scholarship about a philosophical issue. Again, those who have aspirations of graduate work in philosophy will need a writing sample and will need to know how to write a substantial paper in philosophy. Those with no such aspirations should still have a written embodiment of their undergraduate experience.

A philosophy major used to have to take two courses in the history of philosophy to graduate. These two were selected from a total of four courses offered: "Greek and Medieval Thought," "Early Modern and Enlightment Thought," "Late Modern Thought," and "20th Century Thought." Only one course is needed now, which I think is a more substantial problem that it appears. Taking one course in the history of philosophy can leave a person woefully ignorant of the foundation of philosophy or its subsequent development. Taking two courses, any of those two, informs a sense of the coherence of philosophical history and the development of philosophical issues. Let me take each course in turn and show what sort of view a person who took that course and that course only for his history requirement would get:

Greek and Medieval Thought: The course begins with the birth of philosophy with Thales, and continues through the monists and pluralists (including the Atomists) before reaching the giants Plato and Aristotle. Some study of Hellenistic philosophy and Augustine rounds out the course; I thought Aquinas might have been taught but I don't actually recall. At any rate, it may be taught differently now. The person who took just this course would have a great idea of the origins of philosophy but absolutely no idea what has happened since. Descartes, Hume, and Kant are all outside the purview of this course. No one can understand a bit of contemporary philosophy by taking just this course.

Early Modern and Enlightment Thought: Descartes to Hume, I suppose. Because so much "common sense" today is actually philosophy developed during the modern period, the course is a good way to uncover everyday philosophical assumptions. Two problems are apparent, though: the student will have no idea how philosophy developed and what solutions the ancients offered, and the course ends before Kant. Not knowing Kant is a serious deficiency; it can even lead a person to write huge, awful novels about capitalism.

Late Modern Thought: Besides being terribly named (it's actually a course on German idealism and the proto-existentialists Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), this is actually a fun course. Kant is taught, so you know it can't be bad. However, it's hard to imagine someone taking only this as his history course, having to read Kant and Hegel with little or no background in philosophy. And, though the subject matter lays the foundation for contemporary philosophy, this course will teach students nothing on the subsequent development of the discipline.

20th Century Thought: The department did something sensible and actually has a prerequisite for this course - any of the other history of philosophy courses. Thus, no one could take this without having some background in the history. Still, I can't see anyone understanding this stuff without knowing Kant, so, effectively, Late Modern Thought is the prereq.

The only combination of two that doesn't work is the first and the last, which is still possible. I don't think 20th century philosophy is comprehensible without Kant. Further, skipping two thousand years is insane. Still, if anyone has done this at Albright, I'd like to know.

The required courses used to be this (I'm going from memory): a logic course, the thesis, two history courses, two reality and knowledge courses, two value theory courses, and three courses in a related field (the field to be chosen by the student). Possibly the department's worst sin was adding this category:
Difference and Diversity. Select at least one from courses dealing with perspectives about different formations of identities (such as class, race and gender) and the diversity within them, and about various philosophical, cultural and historical traditions: PHI 130, 135, 222, 228.
Critical theory, gender identity, the social construction of reality, "hyphenated studies": these are the reasons philosophy is a joke. A department should not go out of its way to foist this muddle-headed thinking on students. I can see an additional reason why Symbolic Logic is dead: anyone having to take that would be immune to the stupefying influence of these shabby "Difference and Diversity" courses.

Albright philosophy - you need to man up. Thanks.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home