Thursday, May 12, 2016

Diversifying the Philosophical Curriculum

Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden have an article arguing that if American philosophy departments only offer courses on philosophy from Europe and America, they should be called "Department of European and American Philosophy" rather than "Department of Philosophy". Unfortunately they rather muddle things up at several points in ways that are rather worrisome.

(1) They repeatedly slide between talking about American philosophy departments and talking about the discipline. Thinking that the former is somehow constitutive of the latter is itself precisely a form of arrogance; the discipline already includes all actively working philosophers, even if Americans don't recognize it.

This is of some significance. One of the worries with curricular expansion is that if its logic is really taken to the limit, the result is that you end up doing far more than you can actually do well. You can't have a pantraditional philosophy department. This is distinct from the possibility of philosophers acting and setting up their departments in such a way that they recognize that there are multiple traditions, thus increasing the ways in which philosophers globally and cooperatively work together in their discipline regardless of background.

(2) They muddle together the teaching of non-European traditions, the teaching of non-European texts, and the teaching of non-European figures. As a historian of philosophy, I assure you that they are very, very different things. The rhetoric would be really overheated if all they are saying is that teaching a text from Augustine (who was, of course, from North Africa) would satisfy them. They want a diverse selection of something. How diverse? Should the diversity be measured by tradition (which is the most intensive thing to teach), or by text in the canon, or by figure (the easiest)? In my Intro course I say explicitly on the first day that we will be focusing on Western philosophy and they still briefly get Avicenna (always in talking about Aristotle on cause, and usually also in talking about Descartes on the cogito, and sometimes also in talking about Descartes on the existence of God). It's still obviously about Western philosophy, though. Averroes and Maimonides were from Cordoba; one might assume that they would count, but it has to be admitted that if you just added them, you are still only including Europeans.

I do not say this to quibble, but to point out that, for all of the vehemence with which they are engaging in their advocacy, they never actually give any definite thing for which they are advocating except diversity in the curriculum, and vaguely more of it. It seems obvious that there is a level that would, obviously, not really be changing anything (as if you could just solve the problem by mentioning Confucius in passing, or assigning a reading by Augustine, or looking at one argument from Avicenna in light of its relevance to the history of Western epistemology). And the mixing together of all sorts of different ways in which we could have curricular diversity leaves us with no sense of what it would be.

(3) And it is actually precise ways of doing it that are really needed. In general, large curricular expansion requires large expansion of resources. Anyone can add a snippet of Confucius to an ethics class; a Confucian philosophy section in a course requires preparation time and resources dedicated for the subject; a stable Chinese philosophy course requires a specialist or semi-specialist slot dedicated to it in the department. You can cut down on these costs by replacing rather than adding (and similar moves), but this will only get you so much. While you do get ignorant loudmouthed jackasses who go around dismissing Mencius as 'not really philosophy, not in the way that counts' (in general they are the same jackasses who would dismiss the study of, say, Plotinus), in general pushback on these things is really due to this: you are demanding a significant expansion of time, work, and money from departments. Merely demanding 'more' in an open-ended way is not to grasp the actual root of resistance, which is that academics are reluctant to commit to something that will increase competition for resources that are often already dwindling, and lay a claim to their own time, the thing almost every academic, by the nature of the profession, considers more valuable than gold.

In short, this is not a false-advertising problem, it is a resource problem. It's not that there are no resources that could not be diverted precisely this way; the problem is by what reasonable path you can get people actually to do it in a state of limited and often dwindling resources. Garfield and Van Norden don't have any plan; they seem to be under the impression that this is just something you can up and do, since it's the right thing to do, and nothing in the argument gives any sense that they grasp the expense -- mostly in time and effort, but also in increased competition for limited positions -- that the right path involves.

But, on the other side, I think it is at least good to consider the ways in which we are limited, and I think we must oppose, vehemently, any notion by parochial idiots that they somehow get to define 'philosophy' as whatever they happen to do, and the article does press the point well on both of those fronts.

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