Is Philosophy OK?

by Robert Gressis

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether it’s OK for me to be a philosophy professor.

You might wonder, “Why on earth should anyone wonder whether it’s OK to be a philosophy professor?” I have a simple argument. It goes like this:

The Conceptual Claim: Professors do three things as part of their jobs: produce research, teach, and provide service to their departments, colleges, or universities.

The Research Claim: I don’t produce valuable research, so I’m not making the world a better place with what I publish.

The Teaching Claim: My teaching probably doesn’t make much positive difference to most of my students.

The Administrative Claim: I can’t engage in the kind of administrative work that would make an important, positive difference to my university.

The Permissibility Claim: It’s OK to practice a profession only if it makes a positive difference (unless you have no realistic option but to be in that profession).

The Conclusion: Since, insofar as I’m a professor, I don’t make much, if any positive difference, I shouldn’t remain a professor.

That’s the argument, in a nutshell. Let me provide some justification for each of the premises. Well, except for the conceptual claim. So far as I know, no one really contests what it is that professors do, so I’ll leave that undefended.

According to the research claim, I don’t produce valuable research. Is that true? Of course, it depends on what it takes for research to be valuable. But rather than present a disquisition about the nature of value or what it takes for research to count as valuable, I’ll just say this much to motivate the research claim: while it’s true that some scholars have read my research, to the best of my knowledge, my work has served merely as something that may have been of a little help to a few scholars of Kant. In other words, some philosophers who spend their time trying to interpret very precisely what Kant meant may have found some of what I have written on that subject to be a little helpful. If that’s what my life’s work amounts to, can you blame me for feeling like I haven’t really produced valuable research?

Things could change; I could write something that gets lots of attention and helps a wide variety of people think through or notice some difficult problem. Maybe. But that seems pretty unlikely to me. The safe bet is that that’s not the kind of research career I’m going to have.

What about the teaching claim? Why do I think that my teaching has been of little value to most of my students? Here I rely on Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education. In that book, Caplan cites and summarizes a lot of meta-studies from educational psychology about how much students learn during college. In a nutshell, the story is this: most students don’t learn much during college. Most students don’t retain most of what they learn for long. And most students aren’t able to transfer what they learn in the college classroom to non-college contexts.

I could present to you the studies and numbers that Caplan cites (would it make you feel better if I wrote “97%” or “74%” instead of “most”?), but I think just some reflection on the claims make them prima facie plausible. If you’re a professor at a state school like mine, how impressed are you by your non-majors’ (or for that matter, your majors’) understanding of the material you teach to them? If you teach, say, thirty-six students in a class, how many of them leave your introductory philosophy course understanding philosophy as well as you would like?

If you’re like me, the answer to the question I just asked is “between three and five.” OK, of those three to five, how much will they remember from that class a year later? How about two years later? Four years later? You get the drift.

Finally, even if some small cadre of students retain some valuable core of insights from their philosophy (or whatever) classes, how many of them are good at applying these insights to circumstances outside of the classroom? If you’re a professor, it may help to think of your colleagues: how many of them do you think are extremely good at critical thinking? If you’re like me, your answer will be “most of them, most of the time, except when it comes to particularly freighted ideological issues.” But here’s the thing: anyone who is a professor is, relative to the population of college students, extremely good at academics; moreover, they practice their profession every day for decades. So it’s no wonder that they’re good at critical thinking.

That’s the thing, though: our colleagues practice. How many of our students, even our very good students who retain a lot, practice what they’ve learned every day? In most jobs, they either don’t get the opportunity, or it’s actively discouraged. So, most of our students will forget most of what they learn and won’t be able to or won’t be allowed to apply what they’ve learned to their everyday life.

At this point you might wonder, “well, the problem, Rob, is that maybe you’re not a very good teacher.” For what it’s worth, I get very positive teaching evaluations and I spend a lot of time researching and practicing evidence-based pedagogy. I’ve read a fair number of books like Make It Stick, Cheating Lessons, Small Teaching, The Spark of Learning, What the Best College Teachers Do, and others, along with lots of articles from Teaching Philosophy. I also performed improvisational comedy for seven years, in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and New York City. I’m very comfortable talking to people, I’m funny, and I really want my students to learn.

But when I try these new techniques, many of my students don’t like them. This is not the kind of teaching they’re used to, and they rebel. Moreover, a lot of the best teaching techniques require a ton of grading and very quick feedback on my part. So, my students prefer me not to teach well, and after a while it’s just easier for me not to teach well.

This takes us to the administrative claim, for as Jason Brennan and Phil Magness document in their recent Cracks in the Ivory Tower, the incentives in higher education just don’t support good teaching or, for that matter, good administration. Administrators want to please their customers (students and parents), so they want to make things easier on students, which includes increasing their (students’ and administrators’) power over professors. The most plum university jobs go to those who produce the best research rather than do the best teaching, so professors are incentivized to focus on research rather than teaching well. And, plausibly, the reason why getting a college degree increases students’ income is not so much that it builds students’ skills, but rather that it signals to employers that the holder of the degree is smart enough, conscientious enough, and conformist enough to succeed in most jobs. Thus, most students want the degree more than building skills, so they’ll prefer an easy “A” that leaves no traces on their minds over a “C” that makes them into better thinkers.

I bring this up because the kind of administration I would want to do would be administration focused on disseminating good teaching and study techniques throughout my university. But no one is interested in that, and many people are positively opposed to it. After all, getting professors to employ better teaching techniques is not only directly opposed to their self-interest (which lies in producing research that makes them more valuable), but also intrudes on their autonomy. And not only would it make students have to spend more time on their studies, but it would also require them to really buy in to the idea that learning is more important than a grade. Finally, it would require lots of university-, college-, and department-wide assessment of the “value” that professors “add” to their students. But everyone hates assessment.

To wrap it up into a neat little package, it seems like by being a professor I’m wasting my time and my talents. But maybe that’s OK. After all, it’s not like I’m harming people by being a professor; I’m just not doing particularly much good. Isn’t it OK to do something that doesn’t make a difference, either positive or negative?

This takes us to the last claim of the argument, the permissibility claim. Recall that it goes like this: “It’s OK to practice a profession only if it makes a positive difference (unless you have no realistic option but to be in that profession).” I include that parenthetical because some people have no choice – the only professions they can do are ones that are either actively harmful or not beneficial. About those unfortunates, I have no gripes. Although I get the sense that it’s no longer very fashionable, I still accept the claim that “ought implies can” and its contrapositive, “not can implies not ought.”

But what about me? I think it’s plausible that I could do something else for a living, something that makes more of a positive difference. I don’t mean the Peter Singer style “become an investment banker and then donate most of your money to charity” but simply some profession I enjoy that does more good than being a philosophy professor. I honestly don’t know what that is, but I would bet it’s out there.

Still, assuming that there is a job out there that I would like, and in which I could make more of a positive difference, is it immoral for me to stay in this job? Despite all my gripes, I do enjoy it – I enjoy doing my research even though few read it because it’s enjoyable for me to work my thoughts out. And despite the seeming impotence of my teaching, there are occasions where students swear to me that I’ve made a positive difference in their lives (though I admit that it’s rare that I believe them). So, even though what I do for a living may not be great (and how many people can truly say that they do something great?), surely it’s at least OK?

But I worry about two things. First, it may be that I’m harming my students in ways I don’t see. Laugh if you will, but there is one professor who is clearly making a difference right now: Jordan Peterson. And surely, at least some academics think he is doing exactly what Socrates was accused of doing namely, corrupting the youth. Perhaps I am doing the same, albeit only about as much as I elevate some others.

Second, if academia is as bad as it sometimes seems (to me) that it is, is it wrong for me to be a part of this whole system?

I haven’t come to a conclusion about all this. The only thing I’ve resolved to do as a result of these considerations is take a deep dive into the educational psychology literature; perhaps Caplan has presented a cherry-picked version of the findings. It could be that I’ll learn that things aren’t nearly so bleak as Caplan has made them out to be.

But if they are as bad as they seem, then I should probably stop thinking about this and probably do something instead.

Robert Gressis is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Northridge, where he has been teaching since 2008. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2007. His areas of research cover Kant’s ethics and philosophy of religion, Hume’s philosophy of religion, the philosophy of education, metaphilosophy, and the epistemology of disagreement. 






71 responses to “Is Philosophy OK?”

  1. […] “Lately, I’ve been wondering whether it’s OK for me to be a philosophy professor.” — Robert Gressis (CSU Northridge) lays out the case against… himself […]

  2. Tom Mackintosh

    I applaud you for refusing to waste your time and your students’ time, and for being determined to make a difference with your career. Such courage!

    Professor Alexander Rosenberg of Duke University has written a lot about how he believes he made a mistake in becoming an academic philosopher. Yet, he seems to have found a niche in which he makes a valuable contribution. I have found his writings to be valuable in improving my own thinking & way of life. Professor Alexander Rosenberg promotes Scientism and Atheism.

    Also, I am puzzled by your comment about Jordan Peterson. If you see him as “making a difference,” it would seem that you could envision yourself as making a difference as well. Jordan Peterson seems mainly to be promoting the philosophy of Herbert Spencer, in a somewhat disguised form that overcomes objections of conscience and “political correctness.” In any case, Jordan Peterson is teaching a Way of Life, much as did Ayn Rand, and in that sense is departing drastically from the typical mode of teaching of most professors of Philosophy and Psychology. Peterson is asserting that he knows how to live a meaningful, significant, maximally fulfilling life, and that he can teach this to others. He’s not teaching his students to endlessly ask questions. He’s giving his students what he claims are authoritative answers to the Big Questions of life. And, in his own way, that’s also what the aforementioned Professor Alexander Rosenberg is doing as well.

    In sum, if you want to be a philosopher professor who makes a difference to students, take a stand and teach your students the Right Way to Live. Give them the final answers. This is what so many people are hungry for, and which most people used to get from traditional religions. But nowadays many can’t believe the old religions.

    Well, I apologize for not making a coherent, well-organized argument here. Hope this was of some use. Best wishes.

  3. s. wallerstein

    I was an English professor myself.

    Even if you only reach one student each year, in the course of, say, 40 years of teaching you’re reaching 40 people, which is certainly a positive contribution to society. A few years ago a student who I barely remembered introduced himself to me in the downtown and hugged me (I live in Chile) to show his thanks for what I had taught him. That alone made it all worthwhile.

    There are so many jobs where you end up doing something negative, working for an arms company, for the tobacco industry, for the fast food industry, convincing people to buy an even newer and more complicated smart phone that they don’t need and can’t afford, etc., so that teaching philosophy seems to a rather positive profession given the menu of possibilities you are offered in the job market.

    Now if you’re really idealistic and have the energy to study a new professional career, I suppose that a doctor or dentist or a nurse or a therapist can do more good, but you’ve already studied philosophy and I bet that if you become a doctor, you’ll see that medicine has its negative aspects too.

    So my take is that since you’ve already gone to the trouble to study philosophy, why not make good use of what you already know? Judging from how you write above, I’d say that you’re a good teacher, but obviously you can’t reach everyone and philosophy is not and never will be a mass pastime.

  4. zach

    I agree with you about research and administrative work. I’d probably even agree with the conclusion, that being a philosophy professor is immoral.

    But the teaching claim strikes me as a bit strong (and probably stronger than the argument requires).

    I concede that, two years from now, virtually none of my current students will remember much of the content we are covering. But they’re also getting practice reading, writing, and talking about their ideas. In general, practicing things makes one better at them.

    (Caplan concedes this point but argues that these benefits are not worth the tremendous costs that the present system of higher education imposes.)

    So we needn’t be too pessimistic about our teaching. We shouldn’t yet cancel our classes and give our students A’s.

  5. grymes

    Hey Rob,

    I’m wondering what you make of the following response I had to Caplan’s book. I’ve taught freshmen and seniors, in separate and mixed classes, as I’m sure you have as well. From this experience, it is obvious to me that the average quality of student writing is considerably higher among the seniors than among the freshmen. (It is also considerably higher among humanities majors than STEM majors, but there’s probably a selection effect at play there, so that’s a messier fact to deal with.) In fact, when reading Caplan, I went through some old anonymized student papers, read a couple paragraphs from each, and sorted them into ‘freshman/sophomore’ and ‘junior/senior’ piles just by guessing the students’ level based on my subjective judgment of the quality of the writing. There were, of course, some false positives and false negatives, but my guesses were overwhelmingly (~80% iirc) accurate. Again, this just affirmed what I thought was obvious and I’m no experimentalist, so maybe bias crept into my methodology, but I’m not sure how it would have. Equally obvious to me is that students’ getting better at writing–at constructing arguments as well as constructing sentences–is directly caused by practicing writing over the course of their collegiate education. (Go to Facebook and read some argumentative prose by non-college-grads.) Iirc, none of the studies Caplan cites test for this kind of learning (or its transferability). But this kind of learning is a central–arguably the most central–kind that goes on in humanities classrooms! So I’m stumped by his pessimism (or at least your extrapolation of his pessimism to the context of philosophy teaching).

    Fwiw, I buy all of your other premises w/r/t my own case too, and applaud your self-reflection.

  6. davidlduffy

    One would think that only a philosopher would try and construct such an argument 🙂 To some extent, we have to rely on cultures, institutions and organisations for knowledge creation and reproduction. There seem to be enough people who think the nature of the Kantian maxim is a worthwhile bit of knowledge to maintain into the future that there is funding for the academic enterprise (despite the “war against the humanities”). Not perhaps as much as for football, but we did have a financial crisis not that long ago. Contra Caplan, I suspect there are no greatly superior ways of passing on the higher learning. I have definitely forgotten more than I currently remember, but it is nice that when I re-derive a result or write a program, and then find I did the same thing 15 years ago, I have usually reached the same answer.

  7. alandtapper1950

    Hi Robert:

    There is another possibility. You could keep your day job, and use some of your talents and energy to communicate what you value in Philosophy to the wider world. This website is one place where you could do it (with Dan’s approval of course). There seems to be a big demand for this sort of thing, and, given the very poor level of public debate on controversial matters, a considerable need.


  8. Robert A Gressis

    That is certainly one thing I’m considering. I really want to get to the bottom of the efficacy (or lack thereof) of teaching first, though.

  9. I’m having a hard time buying any of this.

    “Professors do three things as part of their jobs: produce research, teach, and provide service to their departments, colleges, or universities.” – that is not a “Conceptual Claim,” that is a job description. I assume you have a contract; you notice that there are evaluation processes which I assume are conducted according to standards of which you have been made aware. The rest appears to me to be mere expression of angst, unnecessarily abstracted. If you like your job, or if you do not have the resources to leave it, do your job. Perhaps you can develop resources for changing careers later on. If you have the resources now, and you do not like your job, then change careers.

    There are plenty of professors who enjoy what they do, and there are plenty of students who respect and express satisfaction with their professors and their education. That dissolves the rigid boundaries of your argumentation.

    Jordan Peterson is a celebrity; I wouldn’t listen to a thing he has to say on that basis alone. My company handled the security for one of his shows recently; I skipped it to work on a heavy metal concert instead – very satisfying: great band, friendly crew, surprisingly lovely crowd.

    Stripped of the abstractions, perhaps what is needed here is not ethics but counseling. No offense intended, but offered as a possibly helpful suggestion. (Believe me, I am financially stuck in my job, and get counseling for that, and see no shame in it.) We do what we can, we do what we must, we try to do what we enjoy, and sometimes we actually get to do that. I’m not much for my present career, but it did allow me to work on a great heavy metal concert.

  10. MikeS

    Hi Robert,

    One thing I’d like to know which seems relevant is if the research takes into account how much work the students did to learn and maintain the skills/knowledge. Most of my students don’t put much work into their learning, so of course they get little out of it. But that seems to be their responsibility. Maybe whether they do or don’t work, teaching is still a waste, but it’s not obvious.

  11. ombhurbhuva

    One thinks of P.B. Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind:

    Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
    I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
    A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
    One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

  12. Hi Rob, this is insightful. As you know, I’ve had many of the same thoughts myself. But let me suggest to you that the situation is more dire than you think.

    The issue is this: if you quit your job (or had never gotten it), your department would have likely hired another competent philosopher instead. The philosophy job market is massively oversaturated and there are a large number of very qualified people who never get jobs. If you didn’t have your job, someone else competent likely would. And they would probably do roughly as well as you on teaching, research, service, etc. The difference probably wouldn’t be very great.

    So, even if teaching and research did more good than you suggest, you probably still wouldn’t make a difference relative to the counterfactual in which you quit or had never applied. Consider an analogy with doctors. It sounds like doctors do make a positive difference–they save lives! But, of course, there are tons of competent people who want to become doctors. If one competent person declined to become a doctor, another person would take her place. Thus, it’s probably false that a marginal doctor makes a difference.

    Here’s another way of looking at this. Consequentialism is false and it’s permissible for you to refrain from doing the most good possible. Sure, you may do little good by being a philosophy professor. But, if you enjoy it, then that could perhaps fall within the range of your personal prerogative, much like stamp collecting, watching telenovelas, or long-distance cycling. As for myself, I’m skeptical I could get a job that I would enjoy that would also pay me a reasonable salary. And I use some of my salary to donate to high-impact charities. I concede that I do little good as a professor. However, my salary allows me to do good and pursue projects that are interesting to me. That’s sorta good enough for the moment.

  13. Tom Mackintosh

    I agree with Alan. Many people outside the universities are seeking guidance on fundamental questions of morals, meaning and purpose in life, God, religion, political ideology, possibilities of objective truth, the meaning of suffering and death, the meaning and significance of Darwinian biology, the meaning of the ever-advancing technology, etc.

    So, a philosophy professor who is a compelling, entertaining, engaging communicator, and who has a good, comprehensive, coherent message about Life Itself, can certainly meet this huge demand of the public via YouTube, appearing on cable TV news shows, radio show, having their own mass media show, along with books intended for the general public.

    I don’t like what Jordan Peterson teaches, but I respect the fact that he goes outside the university to try to meet this need of the public.

    Why let philosophical amateurs like Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, or Tucker Carlson dominate the mass media?

    The general public needs good thinkers who can cut through the shoddy, deceptive communications that tend to dominate.

  14. “Caplan cites and summarizes a lot of meta-studies from educational psychology about how much students learn during college. In a nutshell, the story is this: most students don’t learn much during college. Most students don’t retain most of what they learn for long. And most students aren’t able to transfer what they learn in the college classroom to non-college contexts.”

    I think this fundamentally misunderstands the kind of learning college students learn, as well as the point of education (both in primary schools and universities). The point of education should *not* be “assessable knowlege”. The point of education should *not* be which facts and skills we can cram into students brains and whether they retain those facts and skills or not. This is the (entirely wrongheaded) conception of education that inspired disastrous policies like ‘No Child Left Behind’ and the obsession with whether our kids’ math and science scores keep up with China’s. The US has never had the highest standard-test scores, and yet we have been a cultural and economic superpower–as well as a bastion of social progress (however slow and fitful). Why? Because of the kind of *people* we create: people who question the status quo, who take risks in creatively pursuing their own dreams–including dreams of making the world a better and more just place-=rather than their parents’ or church’s regressive dreams; and so on.

    The point of education, as such, isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about whether my students remember anything, say, about Kant–or even whether I help them write better. The point is to *open their eyes* to what they can be, should be, and how the world should be. That is, it is about improving *people* in ways that are impossible to quantify in assessment tests, but which clearly have vast causal effects on society and the world–in terms of economic, social, cultural, and political innovation.

    Students who take an Ethics course by me may not remember a damn thing about Kant or Mill or Aristotle. But most of them will leave knowing (contrary to what just about all of my non-religious students think heading in) that maybe ethics *isn’t* just subjective; and at least some of my religious students will leave my courses questioning whether maybe ethics *isn’t* just whatever God or their pastor says. That may not be very much content they remember…but it is the *kind* of education that, in the long run, across large numbers of people, can make all the difference in a society and the world.

    That is why philosophy is better than just OK. Over the course of history, philosophy undoubtedly birthed a better future–the future we now reap (despite its problems). We owe it to future generations to pay back the gifts we have all been given by philosophy by not only continuing to teach and research–but by doing *more* of these things, not less.

  15. You are totally in the right profession. What else is Philosophy than a means of having an opinion at which you can criticize, defend, and still make a difference?. Only a Documented Philosopher would get away with the act. Great post.

  16. “Even if you only reach one student each year, in the course of, say, 40 years of teaching you’re reaching 40 people, which is certainly a positive contribution to society.”

    It’s difficult for me to know how much I impact a student’s life because that student tells me I have. Don’t get me wrong, it’s happened, but I don’t know what to make of it. I get that the student has positive memories of the class. It’s even possible that I changed a student’s way of thinking (for the better? Who knows), but I think students, just like other people, can overrate the amount of change I made because of one or two classes I took with them (and there’s also the flip side: it’s possible that I made a positive difference in a student’s life and she never tells me, or she doesn’t know that I’m responsible for it).

    “Also, I am puzzled by your comment about Jordan Peterson. If you see him as “making a difference,” it would seem that you could envision yourself as making a difference as well.”

    Here’s the Jordan Peterson point. I actually think Peterson might be doing a lot of good; he’s linked to the alt-right, but from what I know, he’s an alternative to the alt-right. To those people who consider “taking the black pill”, he offers an alternative that speaks to them. That said, I get that many philosophers think that Peterson is a charlatan who is making the world worse, so I offered him up as an example of someone who may be corrupting the youth. But if he’s corrupting the youth, how can I be so sure I’m not? I mean, maybe I can be sure. But I’m not someone who is sure of a lot of stuff.

  17. Yeah, practice improves things in general. But from what Brennan and Magness report in _Cracks in the Ivory Tower_, all those English composition classes that students are required to take don’t seem to make *any* positive improvement in the writing of any of those students. My guess is that it maintains their writing at a certain level but doesn’t improve it because the students are so very disengaged.

    As for superior ways of passing on the higher learning, let me tell you a story. Don’t worry, it’s short.

    When I was twenty, I went to an Institute for Humane Studies seminar. That seminar was about teaching classical liberal ideas to interested students. There were about four or five professors leading the seminar, and they disagreed with each other. I got to see them argue. I talked with them about these issues afterwards. There were lots of other students who talked with them and me as well. There was no grading, just talking and arguing. I think I learned more from that one week seminar than I learned from any of my classes in college.

    I could be wrong, of course. Maybe I’m overrating that experience. But what was striking about it was that you had a bunch of interested people together trying to get to the bottom of an issue, showing off, trying to score points, etc. And for me, anyway, it worked. I wonder why college classes couldn’t be more like that.

    So, differently from Caplan, I think in principle it’s possible to establish a higher educational system that was *much* more effective. But, it would have to be a lot smaller, and would have to focus on interested students, and perhaps the grading would be done by an outside agency rather than by the professors themselves (this last idea was proposed by Kevin Currie-Knight).

  18. First, I’ve finally figured out the “reply” button, so now my responses are going to the right people.

    Second, regarding your research question: about ten percent of students, according to Arum and Roksa in Academically Adrift, make big gains over the course of their college career. Perhaps these are just the smartest students, but I doubt that. I’m guessing you need a baseline amount of intelligence, but arguably the more important thing is, as you said, motivation. If the students were motivated, they’d get more out of it.

    But most students are not motivated, so they don’t get much, if anything. That’s depressing, but for them, teaching seems mostly to be a waste.

    Now, there are cases where it’s not a waste — perhaps there is an unmotivated student who becomes motivated because of a particular teaching experience. But there are also, I’d wager, LOTS of students who become de-motivated because of the nature of the educational system. That’s a cost that matters too.

  19. You know, I think I am pretty engaging, so it’s possible my vocation is really to do public philosophy rather than what I’m currently doing.

    But there’s also the possibility of oversaturation, too. (And FWIW, I think Peterson is a step above Carlson and Shapiro, but I’ve only read reviews of his work and heard him interviewed on podcasts and the like, so perhaps if I read his work I’d be embarrassed about what I’ve written about him so far.)

  20. s. wallerstein

    You say that you’re unsure whether you are corrupting the youth or not. If you are so unsure of what is good and what is corrupt, how can you be sure that if you change your profession, your new profession will be morally superior to philosophy?

    There is something to be said for the “grass is always greener on the other side” argument. There is a very human tendency to imagine that things are better elsewhere or in another field. As a result of that, I went through a lot of changes in my life (I’m now 73), some for the better, some for the worse. So if you are unsure, maybe it’s wiser to stick with what you are doing because, as I said, one so often imagines that change will be for the better and it often isn’t.

    However, there is a wide variety of teaching institutions these days and you might seek a position in one with less conventional approach to classroom learning.

    By the way, I see that you’ve got 17 people commenting here, which indicates that you have an ability to start a good discussion and that is certainly an integral part of being a good philosopher and a good teacher.

    To use another old saying, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. That is, even if you are a good teacher, many students are not going to learn, but that’s their problem, not yours.

  21. MikeS

    “But most students are not motivated, so they don’t get much, if anything. That’s depressing, but for them, teaching seems mostly to be a waste.’

    Thanks for the follow up.

    I suppose I’d be inclined to think that if they choose to take the course, don’t try much to learn, and then get little out of it, it’s their fault and doesn’t undermine the value of your teaching. Between students who do get something out of a class and these students, we have covered most of the student body. So, I think, teaching is a morally OK thing to do.

    For students who would have gotten something out of the class but school isn’t for them, either they fall under the above or new teaching strategies need to be developed. So, I guess I’m not as pessimistic. Or I’m missing something (aren’t we all).

  22. Hi Marcus,

    First, thanks for engaging. I was hoping you would, as you seem to me to be someone who’s thought a lot about these issues and has reached dramatically different conclusions from me.

    Second, you should know that my conclusion isn’t something I’m happy about. While I get a thrill saying things that are counterintuitive, like a lot of philosophers do, this is one of those cases where my conclusion makes me unhappy. Someone above wrote that maybe I need therapy. This, actually, is the therapeutic approach I’m taking — airing my worries to the philosophical community, seeing who’s willing to hash them out with me, and then, hashing them out. I hope the discussion ends up convincing me of what you believe, namely, that philosophy is better than just OK.

    As of yet, though, you haven’t convinced me. Caplan’s most important point isn’t just that people don’t remember facts and figures from their college experience. It’s that it doesn’t seem to teach them *how* to think. He cites to some studies that seem to have rather large sample sizes that show that, while people’s reasoning abilities *in a college setting* improve, they don’t improve when they get out of the college setting. E.g., students who take a stats class gradually do better on the stats tests, but their statistical reasoning when applied to everyday problems outside the class (as invented by the social scientists who are testing them) shows no improvement over what it was before they took the class. I really would not have expected that; I would have expected that four to six years of higher education really would improve the average student’s ability to reason, at least in some specified domain, significantly. Maybe my expectation was wrong.

    You make the claim that “is about improving *people* in ways that are impossible to quantify in assessment tests, but which clearly have vast causal effects on society and the world–in terms of economic, social, cultural, and political innovation.” I hope you’re right, but do you have any evidence that you are? It’s OK not to — it might just seem obvious to you that this is the case, or maybe you have anecdotal evidence. But do you have anything stronger than that? I suppose you could say “look at the most dynamic economies and cultures, and then look at their higher educational systems. In each case, a higher educational system that emphasizes humanistic education is also a place where the economy and culture are booming.” I’m willing to buy that fact, but I’m less confident than you of the causal connection between the two.

    Take, for example, Germany. From what I know of Germany (and maybe this is wrong), they use tracking. So, the kinds of students who are permitted to attend a university are ones who have shown significant academic muster during high school. But that means that Germany is a dynamic economy and culture without trying to have the mass education we have here. Perhaps this dynamism is due to the exposure of their most academically skilled students to humanistic education (again, I’m just not confident that’s true), but even if it’s true, the following could still be true: most humanistic education, for most American students, is far more wasteful than productive (in the very broadest sense of productive you can imagine). If that’s true, then I worry that I, at least, am part of the wasteful part rather than the productive part.

  23. That’s a very astute comment that I have to think about. First, you know me, and I probably know you, but I don’t know you under that handle. Do you mind telling me who you are (or at least, how I know you)?

    Second, here’s my first pass at a reply. I agree that consequentialism is false. I’m not a consequentialist. My argument re: the permissibility goes like this:

    If it’s possible for you, as a particular agent, to do more good than bad, you should (Note: this is not a maximizing premise — you just have to get over a threshold), just as long as doing so doesn’t significantly affect your happiness or flourishing negatively.
    It’s possible for me to do more good than bad if I practice some profession other than philosophy, and I can do so in such a way that doesn’t significantly affect my happiness or flourishing negatively (I don’t know this is true, but it seems plausible enough).
    Therefore, I shouldn’t be a philosophy professor.

    So, the fact that another person will take my place (that’s actually not as clear-cut as you think, but leave that aside), doesn’t mean that what *I’m* doing is permissible.

  24. Prab

    “Give them the final answers”

    Isn’t this the antithesis of scholarship? I take it that those who have abandoned the ‘old religions’ did so after some degree of critical questioning of those religions. I know I did. So after escaping the dogmatism of the ‘old religions’, you want people now to find something else to blindly believe without question? What you are asking for when you say you wan professors to “take a stand and teach your students the Right Way to Live” is that you want professors to be the voices of close-minded thought. From the ‘old religions’ to the asserting of claims as authoritative without any opportunity for, or development of critical questioning, one is merely replacing one source of dogma with another.

    Do evidence, reasons, fact, arguments, and the ability to piece each of these together to achieve cogency not matter any more? If they do matter then merely asserting ‘final answers’ as authoritative, is not a good idea. The difference a professor who does what you’re saying will be making is that they will be contributing to a culture of anti-intellectualism where few have the capacity to critically question things, and those who do will be denounced for doing so. There are many times in history where scholars and scientist have been targeted by dogmatists. The very act of critical reflection is a sin for such people. But, it is the essence of intellectual inquiry towards truth.

    A professor who merely asserts things is acting contrary to the essence of scholarship.

  25. “how can you be sure that if you change your profession, your new profession will be morally superior to philosophy?” I think for some professions you can be reasonably sure. But the way I teach philosophy is to share with students what I believe while also making clear that what I believe is just one theory among many others. The worry I have about this is that I’m making the students too relativistic, despite the fact that I often explain the defects of the case for relativism.

  26. s. wallerstein

    Maybe you should emphasize the defects of relativism more if you are so concerned about students becoming too relativistic.

    If after hearing all the possible theories about any issue, the students are relativistic instead of opting for one theory or another, then maybe they are already predisposed to relativism. That’s a personality trait or something in their cultural upbringing and that’s fairly difficult to change in one semester. You do your best, you can’t work miracles.

    I myself have always been grateful towards people who outline the different ways or theories of seeing any issue or topic.
    The fact that I know that there are conflicting theories or approaches to any issue or topic keeps me from becoming dogmatic (hopefully) or makes me more skeptical rather making me an outright relativist.

    By the way, teenagers tend towards relativism. After they question the dogmas that they have been raised with, they often pass through a period of relativism, which little by little they grow out of as they take on the commitments of adult life.

  27. alandtapper1950

    There is another place where philosophers could “make a difference”: schools. I am thinking particularly of the more disadvantaged schools, where students become alienated and diseducated, but also the religious schools, where free thinking is not encouraged. Philosophy also shows how to combat the lazy relativism that dominates in many contexts.

    No modern society has built philosophy into the school curriculum with any thoroughness. Philosophers should be following the lead of Matthew Lipman in promoting a philosophical curriculum, but my guess is that few have read his work or even heard of him.

  28. You ask two questions I am interested in: 1) Is Philosophy OK? and 2) If I can’t make a positive difference teaching Philosophy should I be doing something else?

    My follow up question would be, can we answer these questions by doing ‘good’ philosophy? That is, will our best answer come from retailing an argument and otherwise keeping with the accepted and sanctioned form of doing proper philosophy? And everyone else in this conversation is undoubtedly a ‘good’ philosopher, but asking ‘good’ philosophers might be like asking foxes whether the chicken coop were OK. If your question also involves why students may not care about the materials they are introduced to, perhaps an outside perspective is what is needed.

    I think part of the problem is that so much about ‘good’ philosophy appeals only to those of us who have drunk the cool-aid. Why on earth should anyone else care? So to answer the first question we at least ought to consider that we are selling Bibles to atheists and bacon to vegetarians. Have we given students enough reason to care? A grade for their transcript? Or is something else required?

    For the last decade or so I have had this conversation in the Arts where the assumption is that we need to find space for the Arts in peoples’ lives. Especially, to those who are concerned, the Legacy Arts like classical music and opera. This seemed wrong to me and a bit backwards. Rather than finding how the arts that matter to us fit in other people’s lives I thought we should be searching for the art that already exists in their communities and in their lives to build out from there. The field is definitely moving in that direction with efforts at creative placemaking and participatory and community based museums. The change necessary is that we cease looking at the Arts as necessarily one thing that needs to be brought into the lives of the unwashed and benighted masses. Perhaps philosophy needs to let go the idea that it can only BE this one thing, holding out the feeble and largely undemonstrated belief that it will somehow matter to students.

    What we are teaching as ‘Philosophy’ may simply not be anything a student has much reason to care about. So the question is whether it simply has to be this very same thing that gets churned into classroom after classroom to dubious effect?

    Wittgenstein suggested that he would have like to have written a philosophy book consisting entirely of jokes. To be honest, his writing may not have been as nonconformist as jokes, but it certainly doesn’t look like ‘good’ philosophy. He assembled reminders for a purpose. That is one way of shaking off the dust, but surely there are others?

    You didn’t fail to make a positive difference teaching. You failed to make a difference by teaching something that never had a chance to matter to your students.

    Or so it seems (in my more pessimistic moods)…..

  29. I think you’re looking at this too much in absolute terms. Perhaps your current job simply is the best you can do. And perhaps you aren’t doing too badly, compared with Florida state representative Mike Hill, who “said God spoke directly to him about a restrictive abortion bill he had previously tried and failed to pass in Florida’s legislature.” (The Independent).
    Don’t forget to consider what might have happened if you weren’t a philosopher. You might have gone into Marketing or whatever, doing far more damage to society than you’re doing now.

  30. Michael St. Jules

    I don’t know what the content of the courses you teach now looks like, but I think it’s worth considering teaching (more) courses or modules on our obligations to help others and effective altruism. It’s possible that fitting more of this into introductory philosophy courses could be more valuable than teaching full courses on it, because of the wider reach, and it’s also an easier change to make.

    The hope would of course be to convince some students to put more of their future time and energy to more altruistic use, at all or earlier than otherwise. I suspect this could be a positive use of your position in academia.

    It might also be worth checking out what Michael Huemer and Bleeding Heart Libertarians have to say about effective altruism, as well as the Open Philanthropy Project’s work in US policy:

  31. Michael St. Jules

    In case you’re not already familiar and for anyone else reading, it’s worth checking out for how to do good with your career. Their current priority recommendations (long-term future and existential risks) do tend to follow from some specific ethical views with which you may or may not agree, but their framework, career reviews, research and analysis are helpful even if you ignore the specific recommendations.

  32. It is not possible to derive *any* ethics of teaching, including decisions about whether to teach or not, from *any* empirical studies *whatsoever.*

    Such studies are about methodology – at best – and have nothing to do with the ethics of teaching.

    The seeming effort to find empirical justification for what appears to be a deontological approach to education is misguided, to say the least. That this comes from a Kantian scholar is worse than disappointing.

  33. Seems a little rough EJ. While I find Robert’s preoccupation here sonewhat alien to my way of thinking, he seems clearly to be communicating earnestly and in good faith.

  34. Michael St. Jules

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but I think there’s a more charitable interpretation here. It’s not that teaching (or being a philosopher) is in itself ethical or unethical, but some content may not be ethical to teach or certain ways of teaching may not be ethical. If the choices for him are a) continue teaching as he does now, b) teach better at his current university even though this may not be sustainable given how demanding it will be or any backlash he’ll face, or c) something else, does he have reason to not choose a)?

  35. user1234

    Thank you for this article. I read it with much interest and I resonate with it.

    I am a soon-to-be secondary school teacher (in Switzerland), who, apart from internships lasting less than 20 weeks in total, hasn’t even got much experience teaching adolescents (aged 12 to 15). I may be just 22 years old and haven’t even got my Master degree yet, but I’ve been contemplating several aspects related to my future work for society for quite some time now.

    One aspect is “the teacher as Sisyphus” and another is “Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen” (Adorno). Being an anti-speciesist vegan and having libertarian socialist and anarchist tendencies doesn’t make it easier for me to imagine achieving many of the goals I value in my future profession, (with one of the goals being staying somewhat far away from what I myself would call insanity), especially not in “regular schools”.
    I might want to get some years of experience in a regular school to see if I can handle it (emotionally and morally) and if not, I am going to use the lessons learnt from these years (and everything before that) to establish a new school with like-minded people or at least, more realistically, visit schools which are more in line with me and what constitutes me, and analysing in which school I and like-minded people with the same intention, can have a positive impact.

    As @alandtapper1950 suggested, there might be some schools where teachers like me can have more of a positive impact than others. I’ve got an addition to make: Maybe, apart from religious schools and disadvantaged schools, schools (or departments of schools or even just courses) for students “categorised” as “gifted” or “talented” or “highly intelligent” provide for a(nother) above-average opportunity to have a (large(r)) positive impact in the pedagogic field. Ultimately, I’ve got no clue where teachers can have the best impact and I think answering that question would come down to the telos of work in pedagogics, that is, in my understanding of Aristoteles: What’s the purpose of teachers/teaching?

    Here’s a 2h25min podcast on a critical analysis of Bryan Caplan’s book on education and a summary of the podcast’s key points, but beware: I haven’t even read these (yet), still less listened the podcast (yet). I only share it without having listened/read it because it’s from one of the finest high-quality websites I know:

    They (from 80000 hours) also have a career guide which I highly recommend to anyone interested in effective altruism.

  36. Bharath Vallabha

    Very interesting essay. I like and admire the tone of the writing – humanizes a difficult set of issues in a way that anyone can follow. You probably are a very good teacher (independent of the evaluations), and your students and colleagues are lucky.

    Re the content, I think several things are getting run together.

    1) whether you in particular are bad at being an academic. And so you, as opposed to someone else better at the job, taking up resources is somehow bad.

    2) whether it is bad for you to continue in academia, in the sense that it is a better use of your strengths and interests to pursue public phil outside academia, maybe merging it with comedy (a fantastic option! – I wish I had that possibility :).

    3) whether academic phil is wrong, as in it is structurally set up so that teaching, research and admin work all have little value.

    4) If you are not sure whether (3) is true, whether it is wrong of you to be an academic, as in selling a product you think might be bad.

    Just from your posts, I doubt (1) is true. I can think of many people, taking up much more resources in a much less thoughtful way.

    Only you can answer (2). It doesn’t turn on whether academic phil is good or bad. It turns on what you enjoy, and where your talents and passion might best flourish. To leave academic phil doesn’t require thinking it is bad.

    I think (3) is false. Academic phil has tons of problems. But it is still the best place to study and talk about Kant, etc.

    Also (4) is false. Not being sure if (3) is true doesn’t mean one has to stop teaching. It just means one has to figure out if (3) is true; and nothing about being an academic stops one from doing that. Other than perhaps some social norms or habits, in which case, the norms should go, not you.

  37. Dan,
    Well, I apologize for getting a bit rough. And I am certainly not casting aspersions on Robert’s good faith; he clearly thinks there is a problem here. But while Robert is writing in the first-person singular, in fact he’s making a general argument. If teaching is not in some minimal way efficacious, or in any way actually causes harm, it is an occupation not to be engaged in. But the first of these demands, “minimally efficacious,” which awaits determination via empirical research, has two problems. first called into question is what standards are set for it, and then by whom. “By whom” inevitably raises the question “by what authority.” I think it obvious that what we are really discussing is the allocation of resources, and determination of more efficacious methods of teaching; or possibly defunding teaching fields that are not, by the accepted standards, considered efficacious. But – the second problem with this – what does this have to do with the ethics of teaching? If one chooses to teach in a certain field, some government agency, or the market itself, can certainly say that no teaching positions are available in that field – but this doesn’t say whether the decision to teach was ethically right or not – and that’s true even if government agencies or private sector funding closes off positions in all teaching fields. Even by utilitarian standards, efficacy would only be meaningful to a community’s decision, my ethical duty would be to submit to the community’s will. Even deontologically, the issue is much the same: it would be my duty to submit to the community’s will; but if it is right to teach, then I should make every effort to do so in ways that would not conflict with the community’s will; deontologically, the question of efficacy is wholly irrelevant to whether teaching is the right thing to do. And from a non-moral-realist position, the question doesn’t even make sense, except in so far as governmental and private sector resources are concerned. Otherwise it’s simply a matter of finding employment in a field one feels a kind of kinship with, and doing the job the best one can.

    Robert’s second concern, whether teaching in any way actually causes harm, more clearly concerns ethical choices. But it would have to be determined that teaching inherently and necessarily causes harm, for this concern to rise above the level of mere anxiety. For without this determination, the anxiety remains a personal concern – “Am I causing harm?” not if teaching causes harm. And this has been a question for centuries – which is Robert’s real problem here. The kind of classroom instruction that we practice today has only developed over the past three or four hundred years but it developed out of models going back to the Ancients. It seems certain forms of knowledge simply cannot be transmitted to the young otherwise. It has to be shown that over the course of 3500 years much of the problems in the West have arisen not simply from lack of knowledge or wrong knowledge or misunderstandings or conflicting beliefs, but from the very process by which knowledge and beliefs are transmitted generation after generation. Here empirical research would help, but only if it demonstrated a causal connection between the practice and the harm. And I just don’t see this accomplished, nor how it can be.

    So we are left with the individual teacher’s anxiety – which is understandable, and may ebb or flow over the years. But I think generalizing this anxiety in such a way as to call into question the very occupation itself does injustice to the many fine teachers who have overcome this anxiety or learned to live with it and carried on doing the best they could.for however few students may be eager to learn.

    I’ve had bad teachers in my life – who hasn’t? – but I’ve also learned a great deal from some wonderful teachers, including teachers of philosophy. If I write rather strongly here it’s because the argument Robert makes effectively (however unintentionally) denigrates that learning experience, as well as those of my friends who are themselves teachers.

    If only 25% – or even 5% – of students actually learn in college, then being of that percentile, I claim the right of the minority to the same opportunity as provided the majority. They may spend their college careers with drink, sex, and sports, and maybe they should – perhaps that serves a socially useful purpose as well. But don’t shut down the opportunity for those like me who enjoy learning and thirst to learn more.

  38. Michael,
    As I admit in my reply to Dan, I have some personal motivation here. I have no problem with Robert sharing his personal anxieties over his teaching career. What set me off were the generalizations with their implications which could be taken as arguments against the teaching profession per se, or against the teaching of certain fields, or against the allocation of resources needed to keep these fields viable.

    The concerns you express as a charitable reading of Robert’s argument are real concerns; but I fear that Robert may be reaching beyond these concerns without warrant.

  39. I agree with this. As you will see in the dialogue we did, I think it is relatively clear that Robert’s concerns are much more a matter of his own personal valuations and anxieties, rather than reflecting anything objective about the value of teaching. I pushed back pretty hard on the idea that “studies” like the ones that underlie books like Caplan’s tell us anything useful about the significance of humanistic learning.

  40. s. wallerstein

    I agree with EJ Winner this time. If 5% of the students appreciate what you are teaching, it’s all worth it.

    I had to study two years of sciences in the university over 50 years ago. I remember nothing.

    On the other hand, I had to study a semester of introduction to classical music. At the time I detested classical music.
    However, the semester course changed my mind about classical music and now in my old age it’s the only music I listen to.

    The same process can occur with philosophy. You’ll plant in a seed in some students’ minds that will ripen with the years and others will not even remember who Plato is 20 years later.

    There is a rich cultural heritage of philosophy (including non-Western philosophy such as that of India, China and Arab cultures), which should be accessible to all university students. If they aren’t interested or motivated, fine. If they are and some always will be, an introductory university course can be the beginning of a lifelong fascination.

    I myself started to read philosophy in high school on my own, did not major in it in the university, but certainly some obligatory university courses on the history of Western culture in the university turned me on to aspects of philosophy and philosophers who I had missed when I read Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy during my high school years.

  41. alandtapper1950

    User1234: Given that you are “an anti-speciesist vegan and having libertarian socialist and anarchist tendencies”, I suggest you look for schools where philosophy is part of the curriculum. Helping school students to engage well in argument is satisfying work. They may all disagree with your views, but that’s the way things are for any teacher. For myself, I never allowed students to know my views on any controversial topic. I mentioned Matthew Lipman above; he’s worth researching. Good luck.

  42. Given all of those ideological commitments, you will have to be especially careful not to impose them upon your students.

  43. s. wallerstein

    I’m not sure how a teacher could “impose” his convictions on his or her students: he or she does not have that much power. I don’t see anything wrong with a teacher trying to convince his or her students that his or her convictions are correct or morally right. However, it would be very wrong for a teacher to grade more favorably or in any way favor those students who share his or her convictions or those who pay lip service to them.

  44. It is my job to help my students develop the skills necessary for them to come to their own views, not to convince them of mine. Especially with regard to controversial questions of the sort mentioned.

    Not only is it wrong to do what you suggest, it is a fundamental betrayal of my role as a teacher.

  45. s. wallerstein

    Dan K.,

    First of all, I’m talking about big ethical and political questions here, not about technical philosophical issues.

    You are a liberal. Let’s say that you have a student with an anti-liberal ideology, in favor of theocracy or a one party communist state. You wouldn’t try to convince him or her of the value of liberalism? I myself feel that the moral “obligation” to speak up for liberalism trumps any commitment to not “infecting” the students with your own ideas.

    However, in my experience the way that I’ve learned to develop my own views, the students developing their own views being your chief concern you say, is through confronting my opinions with those of others. I’ve argued with teachers and adults for as long as I can remember. I’ve won arguments, I’ve lost some, I’ve been convinced by sophists and had had to rectify those ideas through still other arguments, I’ve played the sophist myself, I’ve stood up for my ideas at times when it was clearly unpopular to do so, etc. It seems to me that the best way for you to stimulate your students to develop their own ideas is to state yours and argue with the students if they differ.

    Two points:
    1. Students don’t arrive at the university as empty vessels without their own ideas. Their own ideas may not have come through the reasoning process, but may be dogmas that they’ve learned from their parents or social milieu, but when you challenge them with your ideas, you force them to search for arguments to justify them.
    2. One of the first things that I and other people do when they meet a new person is to size them up politically. After a class or two, whether or not you express your political and ethical ideas openly or not, most students are going to have a general idea of where you fit on the political spectrum. Thus, isn’t it better to be “out of the closet” about your political and ethical beliefs, to express them openly and to argue for them, politely and following all the rules of the debate process?

  46. Robert A Gressis

    Wow, there are just too many things to reply to. When I have more time, I may try to offer some replies, but for now I’ll just say that I find the replies helpful to my thinking.

  47. In class? No I would not. That’s exactly what my job is not.

  48. Kyle

    Wonderful post and discussion! But I fear the typical college teacher is in a much deeper moral hole than Dr. Gressis is allowing for.

    The real question is not so much if you have any positive impact but if you have a positive impact net of the negative impact, which is the loans your students will carry for years, even decades.

    Find the Cal State Northridge debt load for graduates (drop-outs are a thornier question) and convert it to debt per credit, then figure out how many credits you have taught over the years. A few more moves will help you will get a sense of how much, on average, students go into debt to sit with you for a few hours every week for a couple of months. What percent of students never even graduate, leaving them with the non-dischargeable loans and no job to pay them off? How long does it take to pay it off? What is the role of that debt in their lives? How does all that balance against the value of your instruction, which you already suspect is negligible?

    It is complacent to think that the worth of college teaching can be measured independently of the debt imposed on naive young people. The long-term constraints upon young people caused by the expense and inefficiency of college will quite likely overwhelm any positive contribution of a single teacher’s class.

    In short, indentured children finance the lifestyle of the college professor. You haven’t begun to address the problem until you’ve taken on that point.

  49. Alessandro Sisti

    I think it takes a lot of courage to ask these questions openly, and I admire that.

    If you have tenure, one thing you could do without a massive disruption to your life is in the “research” bucket: you could aim at producing work that would be useful to a less specialized set of academics, or to the broader public.

    I can offer two examples of professors who I think have done this productively. First, a philosophy professor named Joseph Heath at the University of Toronto has a fairly conventional career s a professor, but he has (co-)authored several popular books on issues that he found important, such as an analysis of counterculture (The Rebel Sell) and an introduction to economics focused on a left-of-centre audience (called “Filthy Lucre” or “Economics without Illusions”). He also blogged actively circa 2013-2016 at

    Second, an economics professor named Robin Hanson, who is a colleague of Bryan Caplan, does much of his thinking out loud on his blog. He thinks on a wide range of topics and dips into many disciplines. His post-tenure work includes two books collecting some of his ideas: The Age of Em (a sort of ethnography of a possible future in which cheap brain emulation radically changes society), and The Elephant in the Brain (which tries to explain much of human behaviour in terms of “signalling”).

    I am sure that you’d like the work of either professor if you like the work of Caplan, with which I’m familiar.

    I’d _strongly_ encourage you to talk to either one of these professors and/or look at their work before doing anything drastic, if you’re considering leaving academia. You can ask them about how they choose what to work on in order to balance impact with correctness, and ask how they choose to engage with the public.

    One caveat that I’ll note is that Hanson has made a lot of people mad with some carelessly-posed questions about sexuality, so I would not suggest following Hanson’s example in that respect.

  50. I don’t think this is adequately described as a moral hole. It is of course a serious issue, but a political issue; not something any individual college professor can resolve, or from which he or she should be in any sense required to redeem him- or herself. That is quite simply misstating the role and character of individual morality, as well as of the professional code. Add to which that many teachers themselves are in a precarious situation.
    An educator has two overarching obligations: to teach his or her students, and to teach the subject. To teach with conceptual and methodological clarity, and at a conceptual depth and resolution that is at once appropriate for the students, and beholden to the standards of the field.
    But this is necessarily constrained by the social, economic, and cultural political realities surrounding the classroom experience. If those constraints are such that teaching, or learning, cannot in fact happen, it is appropriate to describe them as oppressive. And the exercise then becomes one of discovering how teaching and learning can happen in the face of such oppression.
    This simply cannot be solved by any one individual acting alone. For the individual it manifests as an acute or potential, but severe, economical problem, of simply having a livelihood, but in an affluent society there is no other root cause than political will, founded in a culture and its values concerning self-sufficiency and community, co-opted and distorted through a social and economic inequality that is currently getting ever more extreme, corrosive, and delusional in its hero worship of the exceptional man, the rugged, capable loner, and its corollary of learned helplessness in everyone else.
    A solution must therefore be found in engaging in, and with, our communities, with a view to rediscovering our true values – yes, self-reliance and an obligation towards individual competence, but also yes, sharing the load, with compassion and neighbor solidarity as, and when required.

    This also, and not incidentally, lends itself well to inclusion into a philosophy curriculum. Since the students do not care about the subject, part of the onus on the educator is to show them why they should; not by inventing spurious relevance, say by dragging in elements from pop culture, kicking and spitting, and profoundly misrepresented; but perhaps by engaging them in reflection and dialog concerning their own circumstance and the material and formal constraints on the precarious classroom, and by showing how the tools and methods of the discipline can bring to this, conceptual clarity, depth and resolution.
    But it also, of course, remains an open question, opening wider and wider every day, whether that is best accomplished in a formal, academic setting.

    (Cf. Freire, Paolo: Cultural Action for Freedom; ibid: The Pedagogy of the Oppressed; also the later Habermas – cosmopolitanism begins at home).

  51. Kyle

    That’s not how the author sets it up. If he did, he wouldn’t have bothered to write. The author has given himself a fairly high standard, not simply to honor a “professional code” or teach the subject assigned by the school. Those are task-based conceptions of adequacy. You do the task well and you are good just because of you did the task well. He is choosing an outcome-based standard.

    With a task-based standard, the baseball player walks up to home plate and swings the bat. He successfully completes the task even if he strikes out every time, because he did indeed walk up to home plate and he did swing the bat. That’s basically how we judge college teaching. Gressis, however, is thinking about his outcomes, his batting average, if you will. He worries that his contribution is below the minimally adequate moral standard even though he completes the task in the ways you describe.

    I doubt many of us have a good idea of what standard applies here if a mere task-based standard does not. But seeing one’s work in terms of results and not just tasks strikes me as pretty essential to the conscientious professional. And, you can’t talk about results for college without talking about the role of debt in the lives of college students today.

    College professors today at like real estate mortgage brokers and agents back in 2008, feeding at the trough of government guaranteed loans mindlessly issued to anyone who applies. The only differences are that the applicant is now a child and college debt is non-dischargable. You can’t hand your life back to the bank and start over. You must pay and keep paying.

  52. I fear the typical college teacher is in a much deeper moral hole than Dr. Gressis is allowing for.

    = = =

    I fear this — and your entire comment — is rather absurd. I have been teaching since 1993 and have served 10,000+ students over that time. Not only am I not in any “moral holes,” I am very proud of the career I’ve had, your hyperbole and inapt invocations of indenture notwithstanding.

  53. More inapt and offensive analogies.

  54. stephen wallerstein

    From what I can see your chief criticism of teaching university philosophy is that it’s complicit in the problem of excessive student debt.

    If that is the case, then you have no criticism of teaching philosophy in, say, German universities since they are either free or very low cost. I live in Chile and the university is free for all students from the poorest 60% of the population and that will soon increase to all students from the poorest 70% of the population: thus, only students from the upper middle and upper class will pay for the university here. You would have no criticism of teaching philosophy in U.S. high schools either since they are free of charge.

    However, according to your reasoning, as I see it, not only philosophy professors are complicit in student debt in the U.S., but also physics professors, physical education professors, in fact, the entire university faculty. That is, in ethical terms no one should work in U.S. universities until they are either free or low cost or at least free for those who cannot afford to pay.

    I myself am in favor of universities being free or very low cost. I believe that Bernie Sanders has proposed that tuition be free in all public U.S. institutions of high learning, which seems reasonable to me. Until that becomes public policy, which depends on legislation, I don’t see any reason to condemn those who teach at universities which have excessive tuition fees. We could condemn the university administration for those fees as well as the whole greedy system.

  55. Yeah, no, that’s not what I meant at all. A professional code, or professional ethos, is not even remotely the same thing as doing what your employer tells you. It is a commitment to the integrity of the discipline itself. A carpenter must build structurally sound homes, and a philosopher must think clearly, and so on. And these obligations do not go away when an employer orders you to do otherwise. These are ethical commitments, but also commitments without which you could not possibly be a good carpenter or philosopher &c.
    Likewise, teaching is more than just showing up and speaking. A teacher must teach, that is, present a material and a method for learning it. And a teacher must teach the subject, not a spurious easy-breezy mockery of it, nor his own political views, nor any old thing. And a teacher must teach his students, that is, get through to them, at whatever level they are at, and there invite them into the subject, and challenge them to excel.
    But there is equally an obligation on the part of the students. They are not passive receptacles of teaching, but must actively assent to learning in good faith, and commit to excel, to the best of their ability. Education therefore is a dialog, and it is a dialog between committed, self-determined individuals.
    Since it is a dialog, and therefore a social interaction, it is a fallacy for any one individual to assume full moral responsibility. Since it is further not a context free interaction, but constrained by the social, cultural, and economic realities of the wider society, it is a fallacy to put moral blame on any individual student or teacher in the classroom, or on any group of such, for any unfortunate consequences of those constraints, and playing the blame game (or the circular firing squad) is a moral as well as a cognitive fallacy. Moreover, it prevents us from seeing the true causes, and therefore equally prevents meaningful agency against those causes. This, and learned helplessnes, is what Marx called false conscious, and what Paulo Freire identified as the psychological state associated with oppression. And if those external constraints are such that teaching and learning simply can’t happen, even if they manifest through a false conscious, then it is literally the textbook example from The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire went to jail for the crime of teaching poor people to read and write, and some of his students were targeted by death squads. We are certainly not there, but that does not mean that what is going on is not oppression, as Freire understood and used that term. And consequently, the objective must be emancipation from that oppression, and that can only begin in seeking and finding ways to regain our human dignity as competent self-determined individuals, what Freire called Cultural Action for Freedom. This is fundamentally an Enlightenment project for the 20. and 21. centuries.
    The financial predicament of college students in the US is certainly a very serious issue. For any one individual there is a straightforward, if only partial, solution: enroll at a German or Scandinavian university, where tuition is free of charge. As a Danish tax payer and voter I wholly support this policy, as do an overwhelming majority of my compatriots. And even disregarding the ethical concerns, it is simply, up to a point, sound policy, and a good use of tax payer money. But even here students indebt themselves; and even here the pressure to get good grades is such that it distorts and compromises the educational process itself.
    With that in mind, the individual teacher may find himself disgusted by the whole affair, or disgusted in himself for putting up with it. Having given assent to the professional ethos, and finding it impossible to live up to, should he leave to find a better, more fulfilling occupation elsewhere? Or, having found the magnitude of external constraints such that education proper is a near impossibility, should he stay, and attempt to find ways around that, and to engage his students perhaps, in this Enlightenment project of Freireian emancipation?
    I don’t know the answer. How could I? I’m not in academia. I’m no more than a concerned citizen. But I do know that teaching and learning is possible in more informal settings. And that thinking clearly and acting decently may be the best that anyone can do.
    One thing that does puzzle me, is how come philosophy got bundled into that category of subjects, students would expect to breeze through? If, indeed, that is the case. No one signs up for a calculus course expecting it to be easy. Philosophy done right is also not exactly easy. And, it is ultimately about how we ought to live! Preaching to the choir of course, but how could there possibly be a subject more important than that?

  56. That’s Paulo Freire, not Paolo.

  57. Robert A Gressis

    After posting my remark, I remembered who you were, Javier. Sorry about that!

  58. OK, we don’t have to call it a conceptual claim. Descriptive claim is fine.

    As I mentioned below, I consider posting my remarks and interacting with people to be the therapy I wanted. Perhaps that was selfish of me, or perhaps it’s not very good therapy.

    I think my claims do generalize. I would bet that the average professor is, when it comes to teaching, average. I think an average teacher doesn’t do much good for many of his or her students, and wastes a lot of other students’ time. Whether such a person could do more good in another job in such a way that he or she is satisfied, well, that I have no idea about. That defies averages. But I should think that anyone who is sharp enough to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and who is good enough to secure a job at a higher educational institution is probably someone who has a lot to offer a lot of other places. Maybe I’m overrating what it takes to get a philosophy Ph.D., though.

  59. I think a lot of my worries apply just as much to high school. As for middle or elementary school, I’m less sure.

  60. I am not forgetting the alternative to what I’m doing. The thing is, I just don’t know what I’d be doing if I weren’t a philosophy professor. As for being a marketer, I don’t think that’s an intrinsically horrible profession, especially if you’re marketing something that’s good. FWIW, the professions I most strongly considered besides philosophy professor were: comedy writer and lawyer (in that order).

  61. “It is not possible to derive *any* ethics of teaching, including decisions about whether to teach or not, from *any* empirical studies *whatsoever.*”

    I don’t know what you mean here. Imagine there were lots of empirical studies that seemed very strongly to support the claim that teaching philosophy turned students into serial killers. Like, 50% of all people who took one philosophy class became a serial killer. That wouldn’t have any relevance to an ethics of teaching?

    I assume that’s not what you mean. So what do you mean? Is it that the only thing that matters is whether you treat someone as an end in itself and not as a mere means? In which case, the only ethical question about teaching is whether I teach in such a way as to treat someone as a mere means or not?

    Just because I’m a scholar of Kant’s religious and ethical views doesn’t mean I endorse them all. Ethically speaking, I find myself attracted to bits and pieces of Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, and Ross.

  62. This discussion has helped me sharpen my thinking.

    It’s not that teaching philosophy is inherently immoral (I hope I never said that). It’s like this:

    Most philosophy professors teach philosophy in mass-education institutions. Here are some features of those institutions:
    1. Many of the courses taught have too many students for teaching to be very efficacious.
    2. Many of the students don’t want to take many of the courses they take.
    3. Students are taught to value getting a high grade over learning itself.
    4. Many, if not most, of the students at most universities and colleges are academically un- or underprepared.
    5. As a consequence of 1-4, teaching most students is not effective and wastes most of their time.
    6. In addition, students are often paying a lot of money to take these courses that waste their time.
    7. Finally, these institutions often lionize themselves as transforming their students in profound ways, and for the better (and promise incoming students that they’ll do the same for them).

    I grant that teaching can make a profound difference to some students’ lives. I just think that, in the case of higher education as we do it nowadays, it’s not that many. And given how much money is being spent on higher education, I think it’s a fair question to ask, “is it worth it?” I also think that there’s very good reason to think that the answer is “no.”

    Now, just because an institution isn’t optimal doesn’t mean that it’s immoral to be a part of it. But I think higher education is far less than optimal. I think it actually harms a lot of its students by making promises to them that it doesn’t keep, and by making them pay a lot of money for little to no return. So, I think there’s a case to be made that many institutions of higher learning are doing a lot of bad stuff. And it’s possible that, for many people, it’s immoral to be a part of such an institution.

    Of course, I think higher education can be made a lot better. And I often try to be better by improving my teaching. But so far, my attempts at improving my teaching don’t seem, to me anyway, to have made any noticeable difference in my students’ learning. That could be because of factors 1-4 above rather than because of my limitations. And if it’s because of 1-4 rather than anything I can do, then maybe my trying to do something about it from within the university isn’t the right approach.

  63. I think i addresses a lot of these points in our BHTV dialogue, which I will post here as soon as it airs.

  64. rgressis,
    I elaborated my point in my reply to Dan’s reply.

    “Like, 50% of all people who took one philosophy class became a serial killer. That wouldn’t have any relevance to an ethics of teaching?” Again, the study would need to establish a causal connection between the practice and the result. That involves too many contingencies to be established adequately.

    We don’t need a thought experiment here, we have history. For some decades before the 1930s, Kant was taught in many a German Gymnasium (the equivalent of our high-school). We know that some 30% offf the students of these courses probably helped vote Nazis into the Reichstag, and that quite a number of these went on to become participants in the atrocities perpetrated during the Second World War. Should we hold Kant accountable for the Holocaust? Or those who taught him in Gymnasium courses? But why not the students themselves, living in a culture with traditional acceptance of anti-semitism and authoritarianism?

    Santayana, even more persuasively than Popper, argued that Hegelianism had been partly responsible for Prussian authoritarianism and imperialism. But neither he nor Popper could explain why British and American Hegelianism somehow failed to accomplish a similar cultural transformation. And Santayana reached his own prime during the very summer of Hegel’s influence on American education, in the late 19th Century. But of course British imperialism originated well before the Enlightenment, and the sources of American imperialism are rather spotty.

    But one of the problems here is that there is a difference between teaching and the subject taught – a distinction you do not make as clearly as needed. The teaching of which you write is comprised of a set of methodologies of instruction. As I noted elsewhere, the phenomena began development some 3000 years ago. It appears to be necessitated by the transmission of knowledge via written texts; and upon a reasonable presumption that many of those needing access to such knowledge would not themselves find a means of reading such texts without some social pressure to do so, whether from their parents and peers or from some legislated agency, and direct guidance by one knowledgeable in the text. The proper methodologies for teaching have been long debated and have changed somewhat over the centuries. But the basic structure of the classroom has remained much the same.

    What gets taught through such methods is another matter entirely. This is decided through the processes by which a given community decides what values, what kinds of knowledge, the community wishes transmitted. This certainly involves ethics, the concrete manifestation of which is politics. Consequently the ethical question for a teacher would be, whether in a given community the teacher can honestly accept and transmit the values and knowledge the community has decided to have transmitted. It is one thing to teach the Critique of Practical Reason as an authoritative text in ethical reasoning; it would be another thing entirely to teach Mein Kampf as such a text. The methodologies involved in the teaching of either text might be much the same; although I assume that the method of a teacher who values the spirit of inquiry with which Kant’s text begins would rather tolerate questions that the teacher of Hitler’s text would suppress, probably with threats and visitation to the local Gestapo. But let’s say that the methodologies would be similar enough for comparison. Clearly the teacher’s ethical choice is whether to teach one or the other text at all. Obviously, I would not teach Mein Kampf as an authoritative text.

    Nor would I teach the Book of Genesis in a biology course. I raise that example, because in certain states this has become a point of political contention. Fundamentalists essentially argue that, since large numbers of the state community value and believe Creationism, that this ought to be taught, virtually on that basis alone, although of course they raise many more ‘practical’ arguments based on various (mis)interpretations of science. But scrap all those; their core argument is that “we are a Christian people who believe the Bible is to be taken literally, and that is what we want our children taught.’ The argument is specious, given Constitutional law, but not entirely without ground. The community ultimately does decide what is to be taught, either through authoritarian or reasonably democratic processes. The ethical implication here is to become involved in politics.

    Socrates criticized the Sophists because, he held, they pretended to teach knowledge when they were only teaching a certain language practice. This was not entirely fair. Most of the Sophist were quite honest, that they were teaching rhetoric. There is a knowledge component to the theory of rhetoric, but the knowledge needed in the practice of rhetoric is knowledge of people, and of the basic assumptions and values of the community one addresses. We rightfully hope that philosophic inquiry can be thought through without recourse to rhetoric (although I suspect this is merely a hope, never to be fully realized). But a good teacher of philosophy must also engage a successful practice of rhetoric. That’s partly because teaching itself is primarily a practice; theories of education are merely informative of the practice, they do not govern it.

  65. rgressis,
    Let me repeat for emphasis a statement from my reply which you did not address:

    “If only 25% – or even 5% – of students actually learn in college, then being of that percentile, I claim the right of the minority to the same opportunity as provided the majority. They may spend their college careers with drink, sex, and sports, and maybe they should – perhaps that serves a socially useful purpose as well. But don’t shut down the opportunity for those like me who enjoy learning and thirst to learn more.”

    This is not an off-hand remark. First, before anyone make hay of it, I mean by “right” here the right of opportunity allowed any political or social minority established in the Constitution and elaborated in legislation and jurisprudence since. That allowed, the statement is clearly political in nature. For, if the moral claims are subtracted from your argument, then it is a political argument over best policy – which by the way has nothing to do with a personal choice to teach or not. (It may be a little hypocritical, but it would not necessarily be unethical, to continue to teach while arguing outside the classroom for the closure of your college or university). The point of my counter-claim is that insofar as what you call “mass-education” provides any opportunity at all, then closing down mass-education closes off whatever opportunity it provides.

    Now I draw your attention to the second part of my remark concerning a majority of possible students who show little interest in education and who might spend their college years getting drunk, getting laid, getting sports trophies. There is a politics to that remark as well, but there is a folk sociology, which I think has some real sociology possible behind it: “perhaps that serves a socially useful purpose as well.” I think it can be shown that it does. I think that it can be shown that life-long friendships and even marriages can be achieved in this. Interests can be explored and ambitions changed by this. Communities grow tighter or looser through this process, which for the middle and working classes really had no analog before the college boom of the 1960s.

    Opportunities have shrunk since the 1960s. There is in fact more wealth available than ever before, but the bulk of it now gets sucked upward to the well-to-do; the notion of a shared national wealth with a consequent affluence is now largely forgotten. This has certainly changed how we conceive of “mass-education” today. And the growing student debt is a real concern that remains unaddressed – or rather, it is being addressed by not being addressed: apparently some are quite happy with it. But that has nothing to do with the question of whether a humanistic education has value in itself, or whether, assuming it has, the opportunity to acquire it ought be made available to the populace as a whole.

    You write as though some absolute determination ought be made here – or even that it could be, which I think misguided. I review your 7 bullet points and I don’t see anything that was not complained about during the Middle Ages – seriously, you should review the history of your profession before arguing for its dismantling. You’re expressing an existential disappointment, that the institutions we extoll – “lionize” – are not what they are publically made out to be. They never are! That’s because institutions embody our aspirations, and sometimes our social necessities (if we’re going to have laws, we’re going to have courts, and inevitably lawyers). But these institutions do not operate mechanistically, they are systems of social behavior, interactions between men and women, who inevitably come to them with biases, agendas, self-serving ambitions, occasional ignorance or dispirited disinterest. But also occasionally with a passion to do something good with their lives, and to make the institutions in which they work realize some of the promise we publically acclaim for them. The current Administration in Washington has surrounded itself with legalistic slime like Giuliani, and (now apparently) William Barr. But it only takes one Robert Mueller to remind us what a sincere lawyer with a commitment to public service might be like.

  66. TheDudeDiogenes

    I have followed the discussion on this piece since it was posted, and as far as I can tell, no one seems to share my main criticism of this piece: it comes across to me as, basically, navel-gazing. I mean no disrespect to Prof. Gressis – the piece is clearly written and tightly argued – and I genuinely appreciate very much (parts of) the discussion that has ensued, but the amount of anxiety that the Prof. expresses over whether his job is moral or not, seems completely over the top to me, when compared to what I would consider actual, major, moral issues (poverty, to take probably the most obvious example).

    Of course, just because there are worse problems in the world than any suggested one, does not mean that the suggested one is not actually a problem, but, I guess I would say, “Have some perspective! (And maybe get some therapy.)” Moral anxiety as deep as that expressed in this piece, about one’s employment, seems indicative to me of a highly atomised, overly-individualized view of morality. Adjusting that view strikes me as far more urgent a matter than what Prof. Gressis actually wrote about.

  67. Kyle


    Sorry that you are shocked by the analogy to indentureship. But it is incredibly common among writers and researchers on the issue.

    The United States have two industries marked by over-investment and high personal debt: housing and higher education. Both sectors have grown enormously over the past 50 years precisely because government guaranteed loans incentivized creditors to make bad loans. The creditor can’t lose. Only the government and the borrower can lose. And they often do.

    We now know that one of the causes of the 2008 financial crisis was the issuing of bad mortgages. The mortgages were based on bad appraisals and issued to people who could not pay. When the market crashed, people were trapped in those homes. They could not sell them. At best, they could walk away.

    We also know that there is a student debt crisis. Student loans were issued to young people for educations that could not lead to the loans being paid back in a reasonable way. Here, too, the government picks up the tab for the defaulted loans. The creditor is off the hook but the students are trapped with the loans for the rest of their lives because, unlike mortgages, they are non-dischargeable.

    What you seem to be saying is that, although you may be working for an organization involved in issuing these bad loans, were available to study the problem, work with colleagues to address organizational policy, and guide students around this danger, it is absurd to suggest that you might have had any kind of duty here.

    I disagree.

    If you were a senior partner at Lehman or Bear Stearns in the 2000s, you had some responsibilty to address your companies over-reliance on CDOs. And, if you are a tenured professor, you have some responsibilty to address student debt at your college.

    Maybe the real problem is that, if our schools was more careful about loans, there might not be money to pay our salaries. And, if that’s true, our life-styles are indeed financed by bad loans doled out to children.

  68. You’re not listening. The way you’ve misrepresented one of my previous comments, suggests you either didn’t actually read it, or, if you did, did not bother engaging with.
    You present two charges. Firstly, that the debt trap of college students in the US is a very serious problem. That is very clearly true, and no one here is contesting it. But the second charge, that therefore college professors are culpable, or have incurred a moral debt in benefitting financially from this student exploitation, fails on several counts. You fail to establish culpability, in that college professors are not responsible for instituting this policy, nor is it in their power to institute a policy change. Your analogy with mortgage loans is misleading, in that the bankers were responsible for their loan policies, and did have the power to change those policies. You further fail to establish your claim that college professors benefit, in that higher education is offered free of charge, in Denmark, Germany, Chile, and many other countries around the world, and college professors in those countries make comparable salaries. So it is not the case that those salaries are predicated on financial exploitation of students. It is further the case that in those countries, tax payer funded higher education is widely regarded as not only morally right, but as fiscally sound policy. It is simply a good investment. Free of charge even extends to foreign nationals, and is even then regarded as sound policy, up to a point: it attracts talent, both on the student side, and on the faculty side. Students still incur debt, as they have to make a living, pay for books, &c, but nothing like the debt trap of US students.
    And you finally fail in that the extent of your recommended policy appears to be that college educators ought to quit their jobs; a policy that if widely adopted would result in the wholesale abolishment of higher education in the United States.

    You very clearly care very much about this issue, and that is commendable. It is in fact why I bother responding to you. But the question is: do you care enough to actually do something about it, starting with a careful analysis so that we will know what the root causes are? Or do you only care enough to play the blame game?

    Since other nations have this issue more or less sorted, it seems appropriate to consider the particular issues of the US – of which you know more than I ever will. Yet as this is also in a wider sense part of what appears to be an assault on higher education in general, with demotivated students focused on grades rather than learning, and tenure track positions being canceled, educators laid off and either told to reapply for their old jobs on much more precarious terms, or not rehired at all, and so on: y’all know the litany better than I do. And since this latter is not at all peculiar to the US, but extends, as far as I can tell, to nearly the entire world, it is necessary to consider this as a global trend, while also considering the maladies peculiar to each nation.

    First and last, these are issues of policy. If you must blame, blame congress, or the state assemblies. Or blame the bankers, who once again stand to profit from the misery of ordinary people. Or blame the super-rich, who ultimately seem to be the only few to profit from this inordinate wider mess of neoliberalism and neoconservativism. But I think that frankly, it would better if, for the time being, you did not blame at all. This needs to be a global conversation, and one needs to act as if inviting everyone to join – everyone, that is, who can agree to the norms of conversation.

  69. Hi ejwinner,

    Thanks for your sharp comments. Sorry it’s taken me a while to get to them. I’m not used to there being hubbub over something I say or do, so it’s pretty emotionally draining to deal with this. Emotionally draining in this way: I think about the comments a lot while I’m not at my computer and come up with responses, counter-responses, etc.

    Before I respond to your comment — and I don’t yet know what I’m going to say, so this should be interesting, at least to me — I want to note some things you wrote: “If I write rather strongly here it’s because the argument Robert makes effectively (however unintentionally) denigrates that learning experience, as well as those of my friends who are themselves teachers” and “Robert’s second concern, whether teaching in any way actually causes harm, more clearly concerns ethical choices. But it would have to be determined that teaching inherently and necessarily causes harm, for this concern to rise above the level of mere anxiety.” In other words, you’re saying that I’m denigrating you and many others with my words, and also you think that I would need empirical demonstrations of the harm of teaching for my worry to rise above mere anxiety.

    I think there’s a tension there. On the one hand, I have caused a harm, or at least done something wrong, by writing my article — I have denigrated you and many others. And yet in order to justifiably worry about the harm of my teaching, I need empirical demonstrations! I don’t think so. If your first criticism goes through, then my anxiety is justified, no? Isn’t it quite easy to harm or at least wrong people in all sorts of subtle ways through your teaching, just like it’s possible to harm people or wrong them through your writing?

    Maybe you can say that when you say that I’m denigrating you, you don’t think my denigrating rises to the level of a harm or a wrong. If that’s true, then OK. That’s an interesting conversation — non-harmful or non-wronging denigration. But if you think I owe you and many other teachers an apology, then surely I’ve harmed or wronged you, no?

    If teaching is as important as you say, then surely it can involve harming just like it can involve helping, no? Or maybe there’s something about teaching where the teacher is not to blame for the wrong but is to praise for the harm. That’s certainly possible — maybe the idea is this: on the one hand, teachers can only harm if their students are dead-set on not learning or misinterpreting, or whatever. In that case, the harm is the students’ fault. On the other hand, teachers can only help if the students want to be helped. But in that case, they’re to praise for the help.

    OK, this comment is already too long, so I’ll respond to your comment in another comment (if the software lets me).

  70. Ejwinner wrote, “Robert’s second concern, whether teaching in any way actually causes harm, more clearly concerns ethical choices. But it would have to be determined that teaching inherently and necessarily causes harm, for this concern to rise above the level of mere anxiety.”

    I don’t think I have to say that TEACHING *inherently* or *necessarily* involves harm for my argument to work. First, it’s not directed against all teaching. I have no worries about piano lessons, for example. My worries are directed against teaching in a mass-education context. Is teaching in a mass-education context *usually* bad (where *usually* means “for most teachers”)?

    So, this discussion has made me realize a few things. For some teachers, no matter their mass-education context, teaching is either permissible or positively praiseworthy. Dan, for example, has changed the lives of lots of students (I get the sense that it’s around 1,000 or so) for the better. He has made them into more virtuous people in a way that their families and surrounding social institutions have not. How can I fault him for that? Obviously I can’t. I should praise him. So, to teachers like Dan: you’re amazing, and if a lot of teachers in higher education are like you, then we’re in very good hands after all.

    But I would guess teachers like Dan are very unusual. I certainly never had a teacher like that as an undergraduate or graduate student (though I still keep in touch with one of my teachers from my undergraduate education, I think of him as a friend who has showed me a few important things), and at most two of my students (I’ve only taught about 2,500 students in my time at CSUN) has indicated anything like that to me.

    Perhaps I’m the odd man out here. Perhaps, as Dan indicated in the diavlog, I’ve just led a particularly barren existence as a teacher. Still, what should teachers like *me* do? Surely, ejwinner, you’ve had teachers who weren’t influences on your life? Haven’t you had teachers who made no difference to your life, who didn’t seem to try very hard, who didn’t have good or inspiring pedagogy, who seemed to care more about other things than what they were teaching? If so, what percentage of teachers do you think fell into this category? I would bet it’s more than 50%, but I could be wrong.

    I’ll get to your rights of the minority point later. Have to run!

  71. Robert, I don’t think we should get too lost in the particulars of your teaching or my teaching. I reject this entire way of thinking about one’s work. There is almost no job you couldn’t apply this sort of “you could be making more of a difference” logic. But the while way of thinking is perverse. For one, if I’m right in “Morality Everywhere” this ubiquity constitutes an informal reductio; for another, it gets ethics backwards, placing people in the service of principles, rather than the other way around; and finally, rather than constituting a genuine ethical outlook, it is really an expression of anxiety. The person who labors under such “concerns” needs a therapist, not a moralist.