19 December 2008

Whither education? (mutter, mutter)

Thanks to Unreal Nature for directing me to an interesting 2005 presidential address paper from the Florida Philosophical Association.

I was prompted to follow the link because the extract reminded me of an eternal truth. Advertise a philosophy lecture or course and you will find at your door every alien abductionist, intelligent designer, rosicrucian, telepath, Klingon ambassador, conspiracy theorist, Jedi knight, Dan Brown devotee, and the rest, within travelling distance. (In fact, these days you can forget travelling distance: invitations to register for my last introduction to philosophy course attracted a correspondent who wished to discuss the atomic weight of ectoplasm by email from fifteen thousand kilometres away.)

But I don't recommend reading the whole of the original paper for that reason. I recommend it because the author argues (with, in my opinion, good reason) that this is a failing not in the individual but in the education systems which have produced her or him.

It's not just philosophy. Somehow, we manage to teach content which never seems to the student to have any relevance to reality. People who pass examinations in (for example) biology or history and yet never relate what they learned to (again, for example) hygiene or current affairs are not failing: they have been failed by "us".

I don't agree with Unreal Nature that Cooper (the paper's author) is "failing" in not providing Rachel (the student who expects to find out about ESP in an ethics class). It is, after all, the student's responsibility to look at the course content before signing up for it. But it is, very probably, a collective failing on our part as an educating society that the student didn't automatically exercise that responsibility.

Before anyone asks: yes, I am included in this collectively guilty "us". I have, for example, recently discussed with Ray Girvan (correction: I have droned on while Ray politely listened) the lack of even elementary critical thinking in first year undergraduate students, without acknowledging that the lack must, by definition, point to a failing in the process which led them to the point where they now are. Shame on me.

(Ray, incidentally, wondered at the time whether we were any better prepared in our own time ... and I don't know the answer to that, I cannot adequately separate memory from hindsight, but he's probably right. I suspect that the truth is that some individuals get lucky in every generation, individually encounter the necessary support, and then go on to ungratefully bewail the lack in the next generation through posts like this one ... mutter mutter grump whine in my day mutter muter...)

The link in Unreal Nature's post is, at the time of writing, hiting an Error 404 server message, but if you find the same problem the file is also available through a couple of other routes – I got my copy from here:

  • Ron Cooper, "The End is Near, or Whither Philosophy?: Thoughts on Francis Bacon, Dionne Warwick, and Scooby Doo" (Presidential address to the 45th Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association) in Florida Philosophical Review, Volume V, Issue 1, Summer 2005, pp15-24.

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