Friday, May 5, 2017

You are Now Entering the No Bullshit Zone: My "Philosophy" of "Education"

Imagine that you are a graduate student or a graduate professor at one of America's leading research universities, at one of those universities that belong to the Association of American Universities. Imagine that you are taking a seminar on the production of bullshit at one of those prestigious universities. Imagine that you were given an assignment to write a seminar paper on who or what produces the most bullshit per square inch or per capita in the modern and postmodern world. What or who would you say is the leading producer of bullshit in the modern and postmodern Western world in your scholarly paper?

Some of you might argue that it is government and politicians who are the leading purveyors of bullshit in the modern and postmodern world. Others of you might argue that it is capitalists and corporations with their advertisements which are the modern version of snake oil. Still others of you might argue that the leading purveyor of bullshit in the modern and postmodern world are those leaders and followers of stone age religions and their religious institutions who seem to have mastered the demagogic rhetoric of both politicians and capitalists simultaneously.

All three of these are arguably superb choices for the winner of the master bullshiters of the universe contest. None of them, however, would be my choice for the leading producers of bullshit per square inch and per capita in the modern and postmodern world. My choice would be academia and academic bureaucrats. Faux coops and the leaders of faux coops would come in a very close second in my rankings of who bullshits the most in our modern and postmodern best of all possible worlds.

In this my first foray into the no bullshit academic zone I want to introduce you to one of the documents of academia that produces some of the highest bullshit quotient in academia, the philosophy of teaching letter one might be asked to write when applying for an academic position. Instead of bullshitting, however, I have decided not to play the nudge nudge wink wink bullshit game most play when applying for an academic position. So tighten your seat belts for it is going to be a bumpy ride.

Dear Search Committee,
So you want my philosophy or thoughts on teaching in higher education, eh? Well OK. Before I begin, however, let me note that I, unlike, I suspect, most of those who teach in colleges and universities these days whether tenured faculty, wanna be tenured faculty, or the ever growing contingent of contingent faculty, have taken a philosophy of education class. As an undergraduate at Indiana I took several graduate level courses in education including a philosophy of education course. In my philosophy of education course we talked about educational and schooling ideas from Socrates to Plato and from Aristotle to Dewey. In my class we talked about ideals of education and schooling, in other words, so let me start there, with my ideal philosophy or practise of education.

My ideal of education and schooling actually and perhaps ironically comes from a real world example, from the sadly far too few experiences I had as an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington and a graduate student and teacher at Ohio University in Athens. At IU some of my classes would occasionally hold class at restaurants near campus. The same thing happened at OU and it particularly happened in the classes I took with the brilliant Algis Mickunas. I recall with great delight the occasional class meetings Mickunas held at one of the many downtown pubs in Athens. Dr. Mickunas would talk about the subject of the class on a particular class—I took classes on Marxism, Semiology, and Phenomenology—to which we would listen amidst the wonderful informal atmosphere, and then we students would talk about what we heard. To me this almost Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian practise is the ideal, an ideal that lends itself to real education, to real learning, to real critical learning, something that cannot fully take place, in my opinion, in the highly bureaucratised and standardised settings of American colleges and universities where the emphasis is on socialisation and getting a job rather than on critical thought.

While I am still reveling in my ideal educational model let me note that my second favourite model of the philosophy of education is the Oxbridge model. When I was an undergraduate at Indiana I spent a term at Jesus College, Cantab where I experienced first hand a variant on the classical Greek education model, Oxbridge tutorials. I liked the directed reading and directed discussion aspects of the Oxbridge model and treasure not only what I learned at Camb but also how I learned.

I do, of course, live in the “real world” of neoliberalism’s making. I can, of course, be pragmatic and recognise that in the context of American neoliberal schooling practises tutorial “philosophies” and practises of education will never play in contemporary cost conscious American colleges and universities where the Prussian model has, since the 1980s, become even more Prussian, even more big bang for the increasingly limited buck. Such a bureaucratic and administration heavy schooling model, by the way, is, in my opinion, slowly but surely strangling liberal arts education in the United States.
So let’s talk a little “real world”. When I teach whatever it is I teach—history, sociology, communications, media studies, cultural anthropology, the humanities, the social sciences, I have taught them all—my “educational and teaching philosophy” in approaching whatever classes I teach, can, I think, be summed up briefly and succinctly: I try to teach critical thinking. I try to teach, at least in part, that critical ability to apply deductive and inductive logic and theory to the evidence in order to distinguish proverbial rot from that proverbial what is not rot, something which I think should be at the heart of liberal arts education.

How do I try to do this? In the classes I teach I do talk about and engage or try to engage students in the substance of the course I am teaching whatever that course. At the same time I also emphasise how social scientists and practitioners of the humanities approach the substance of whatever class I teach. I introduce students to the economic perspectives that the social sciences and humanities look at empirical evidence through, the political perspectives they look at empirical evidence through, the cultural perspectives they look at empirical evidence through, the geographical perspectives they look at empirical evidence through, and the demographic perspectives they look at empirical evidence through.

Finally, let me assure you that you should not worry about my sanity. I know that what I have said about critical thinking in this document has little relevance in much of the real academic world of go to school because it can get you a wonderful job in the wonderful world of neoliberal America. But hey, sometimes a boy has to dream.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Ronald Helfrich

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