I don't usually rant. I fancy myself a calm deliberate guy. Not only do I play a dispassionate voice of reason on the radio, I really do try to be a dispassionate voice of reason in my every day life. I don't always succeed mind you. But at least my heart's in the right place.
But I've got to get something off my chest. And what better place to do that than on a blog. I wish I could do it anonymously, like so many do. But I don't think that would work here. So what's my beef?
It has to do with Philosophy Talk and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In general, i don't have a big problem with the NEH. Actually, I kind of like at least the idea of the NEH. They've funded many worthwhile endeavors -- some of which have materially affected my own research.
But I do have a bone to pick with them -- a bone I'd like to share with everybody who wishes Philosophy Talk well. We've applied to them five different times for various grants. And five different times we've been turned down. This time around, we were turned down -- rejected, refused, denied (take your pick) -- for an America's Media Makers production grant. The grant would have given us funds to produce a special 12 part series on the Philosophical Foundations of American Democracy.
It would have been a fun series. We would have done each episode in front of a live audience at various venues around the country in Town Hall Format. Sort of a Philosophy Talk takes Democracy on the road, kind of thing.
The 12 episodes in the series would have covered a range of Philosophical topics designed to provide the American public with a deeper understanding of the problem and prospects of Democracy in the 21st Century. Shows would have been clustered around four broad themes.
One theme was called American Political Philosophies. Under this theme we proposed to do episodes on: (a) Rawls, Justice, and Equal Opportunity: (b) Communitarianism; (c) Libertarianism and (d) Neo-Conservativism & The Chicago School.
Another theme concerned Pluralism and its Challenges and included episodes on the struggle to rewrite the narrative of American history and contemporary challenges raised by Multiculturalism.
A third theme would have concerned the idea of an educated and informed democratic citizenry and how to achieve it. We intended to discuss the struggle over creation and evolution, and the role of the state in determining the content of an education more generally. The fourth theme was called something like "Our Brother's Keepers? Individual rights and Public Responsibility." We would have talked about a variety of things including whether money is speech, whether corporations are really persons, what sorts of rights and responsibilities corporations have to promote the social good. We would also have done an episode on religious freedom, religious conflict and religious tolerance and the role of the state vs civil society in mediating these.
Stuff like that. Stuff that's at the core of trying to make democracy work in the 21st century. You could think this wouldn't make great radio. You could also think that even if it would make great radio, there isn't any audience for it. You could even think that somehow the Philosophy Talk team was inadequate to the task.
But it's hard to imagine being told that these topics were "strange" and "confused" But get this. That's just what one of the evaluators for the NEH did say. I kid you not. Here's a direct quote:
The intellectual content of this proposal is strange. The philosophical foundations of American democracy are to be found in the philosophers that influenced the founding fathers as they created the Constitution. The foundations are not to be found in John Rawls and the Chicago Schoo. You could probably solve this problem by giving the project a new title, something like "philosophical ideas that influence American culture."
It is not clear what writing American history and multiculturalism have to do with philosophy--at least fundamental philosophy.American education doesn't seem to be a philosophical question, although the founding fathers excepted an educated and informed citizenry. This seems to be a special question, rather than a foundational question.Individual rights and public responsibility is an interesting question to which philosophers may have much to contribute, but it's not clear how this is the foundation of democracy.It seems to me that the topics to be considered are rather traditional philosophical topics and it may be much more important to understand (even in philosophical terms) the processes that actually move and shake the country. It might be more important to deal with "the predator state" than with democracy, the public good, or education.
But what I find unfathomable is that anybody so ignorant could possibly be allowed to evaluate proposals of any kind for the NEH. Evaluator number 4 writes as if philosophical thinking about the justification of the democratic political state began and ended in the 16th and 17th centuries, that nothing said or done since then adds to our understanding of the foundations of democracy, as if the founding fathers delivered to us our current democratic polity, and its complete philosophical justification, whole cloth.
THE PRESIDENT: John Rawls is perhaps the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century. In 1971, when Hillary and I were in law school, we were among the millions moved by a remarkable books he wrote, "A Theory of Justice," that placed our rights to liberty and justice upon a strong and brilliant new foundation of reason.
Almost singlehandedly, John Rawls revived the disciplines of political and ethical philosophy with his argument that a society in which the most fortunate helped the least fortunate is not only a moral society, but a logical one. Just as impressively, he has helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.
Ladies and gentlemen, Margaret Rawls will accept the medal on behalf of her husband.
The discussion convinced me that the content was confused and not terribly important to understanding democracy.
Still confused on the content -- what is the role on the philosophy in the program? Are we learning philosophical approaches? Or basic philosophical ideas? How philosophy can help us in the present?