Of Philosophy and Basketball

06 December 2017

I’m reaching the end of a semester-long sabbatical, and will soon have to start thinking about preparing for the courses that I will be teaching in the spring semester. Sabbatical leave is something that we professors cherish. For one semester every seven years (or two semesters if you’re lucky) we are freed from the demands of teaching and the tedium of committee work to catch up on research and writing.  

I love teaching. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than cultivating young minds, and I regard making a living by teaching undergraduate philosophy is an immense privilege. So, when I’m nearing the conclusion of a sabbatical leave, or even towards the end of the summer break, I usually relish the thought of turning a new bunch of students on to philosophy.

However, this time I’m rather less enthusiastic about climbing back in the academic saddle. It’s not that I’ve soured on teaching—far from it. It’s rather that, thanks to a recent article by my spouse on a related issue, I’ve been soberly reflecting on how difficult it has become to teach philosophy to undergraduates, and why this is.

I don’t want to over-generalize. My experiences are all experiences that I’ve had in a particular academic setting, one in which the sciences and health professions predominate, and humanities departments are quite small. I often fantasize that things are different elsewhere. However, although there are obviously variations that go hand-in-hand with variations in academic cultures, I’ve heard enough from colleagues working at other schools to know that the challenges that I encounter are not unique to the university where I work.

The reason why philosophy is getting harder to teach is, I think, part of a much wider problem with American education and ultimately with contemporary American culture. To explain this, I’ll start with a vignette. Here’s a typical exchange that takes place, with minor variations, on the first day of Introduction to Philosophy.  After getting the students to introduce themselves, I ask them whether they’ve done any philosophy before. Usually, nobody has—and nobody has the foggiest idea of what philosophy is. They’re in this class because they have to get the pointless humanities general education requirement over with.

I say: “Suppose that this was a basketball class, instead of a philosophy class. What if we began with me telling you that you are going to learn basketball by reading a book entitled How To Play Basketball? Tell me, do you think that you’d learn to play basketball that way?”

A few silently shake their heads from side to side. The rest remain impassive.

I continue, “Some of you shook your heads “no.” Exactly! That would be a way to learn about basketball, but it wouldn’t be a very good way to learn basketball, would it?”

This time a few more respond, with nods.

“Tell me,” I ask, “What’s the best way to learn basketball?”

A student tentatively raises her hand, and says, “By playing it.”

“Right,” I say, and then ask her “Do you think that you need to learn about basketball to learn basketball?”  

“Well, yeah,” she replies, visibly more relaxed, “You’ve got to learn the rules before you can even play. You can do this by reading, or by someone explaining them to you. And it helps to watch the moves that really good players make. That’s learning about basketball too.”

Then I bring the conversation back to philosophy.  

“Awesome! So this class is for learning philosophy, not learning about philosophy. And just like with basketball, you learn it by doing it. But to do philosophy—to practice it—you need to learn about it. That’s why you’re going to be reading philosophy texts by some really great philosophers. That’s like watching the elegant moves of brilliant basketball players in action. The idea is that that’s going to help you learn, and—although it probably sounds really weird—maybe some of you might even find the elegant intellectual moves of these philosophers as graceful and beautiful as the moves of a superb athlete.”

What have I accomplished with this exchange? Not much, I’m afraid. The students have learned about the difference between learning something and learning about it. And they’ve acquired information about the difference between acquiring information about something, acquiring an ability to do that something, and acquiring the “feel” of it (topics that we’ll explore in the section of the course on epistemology). But I haven’t helped them embrace the idea that we’re going to be learning philosophy by doing it.

If this were a basketball class, and they were total newbies to the game, they’d get this right away and be jacked about getting down to practice. But this doesn’t happen in my philosophy classes. Even though the students know that the point of the class is to learn philosophy, they continue to behave as though it’s all about learning about philosophy.

How come? I think it’s because what’s expected of them in philosophy class flies in the face of some stubbornly entrenched assumptions. The model of education that they’ve absorbed over the years is one in which the instructor inputs information, which they then output into assignments and tests. In this impoverished framework, education isn’t about the cultivation of the intellect, the exercise of curiosity, the development of intellectual courage, the challenging of orthodoxies, or the playful exploration of ideas. It’s about mindlessly reproducing what one has been told.

This isn’t some weird eccentricity on the students’ part, or some sort of post-millennial moral failing. It is the sort of thing that all but a lucky few have endured throughout their educational careers, so it’s entirely reasonable that this is what they expect from my classes. And it’s also the mindset that animates the current obsession with so-called “measurable learning outcomes” (I make sure to tell my students that I have no idea how to “measure” what I most want them to get out of the course).

The students’ attitude towards education manifests in lots of different ways. I’ll describe a few of them to give you a better sense of what I’m talking about.

One way that it shows itself is in students’ difficulty speaking up in class when asked a question requiring them to have a point of view. This isn’t because they don’t have anything to say. It’s because they’re terrified that what they have to say might be wrong. Even though I repeatedly assure them that nobody knows what the right answers are, that there might not even be right answers, and that very smart people disagree about how to answer these sorts of questions, these assurances seem to fall on deaf ears. They’re still petrified about being wrong.

Another is their difficulty critically engaging with one another’s views. This is the upshot of not having been exposed, or exposed enough, to the crucial role of respectful, critical dialogue in education. After all, if education is primarily about memorizing what’s in the book and in the professor’s lectures, what’s the point of spending time in Socratic conversation?

The attitude also shows its face in students’ tendency to be excessively deferential. Even though I constantly encourage them to dispute what I say, and tell them that it’s a philosophical sin to accept a claim just because some authority figure tells them to, it’s a rare student that is able to rise to the challenge. When I ask them why they find challenging me so hard, they often say that that they’ve been taught not to ask instructors skeptical questions. The default assumption, lurking somewhere in the background of their minds, seems to be that expressing doubt or disagreeing with the professor will result in their being silenced or penalized.

I work very hard to turn this all around, but I’m rewarded with only limited success. Success is limited, I believe, because even the most skilled instructor in the world can’t undo a lifetime of conditioning in a single semester. To appreciate the depth of the problem, it’s important to realize that these lovely young people require more than a shift in their consciousness, which would be relatively easy to accomplish. It’s more like the intellectual muscles that would allow them to engage with philosophy more fully have atrophied from disuse. As some of them who start to “get” philosophy begin to understand, they have been cheated out of an education in the name of education.

This is a tragic waste of human potential, and I have no doubt that our nation will one day feel its consequences, as generations of citizens are trained to comply, and to do as they are told, whatever they are told.  


Comments (1)

LynneTirrell's picture


Monday, December 11, 2017 -- 10:50 AM

Great post, David. I like the

Great post, David. I like the ending especially. "even the most skilled instructor in the world can’t undo a lifetime of conditioning in a single semester." Often, we get students to stretch, and when they feel those muscles building, they take more philosophy and DO more philosophy.