To Save the World, Let’s Fire Some Teachers!

The New York Times has given a lot of space to the case of an elementary school teacher in California who is facing a challenge from some parents in her district because of her participation in QAnon and in the January 6 “insurrection” in Washington D.C.

The concern seems to be that even subjecting her to an “investigation” (which is all that is being sought at this point) would violate her right to free speech.

This is the kind of thinking that has left me quite distraught about the state of the world our children will have to live in. Certainly we ought to have a right to demand that those who teach our children can distinguish reality from fantasy, right? One may have the right to proclaim a belief in alien abductions, but we ought to also be entitled to say we don’t want someone so deluded to teach our children. Because teaching is certainly different from other kinds of jobs. The very job of a teacher is to aid children in learning to distinguish reality from opinion. More specifically, it ought to be the role of education to train young minds in how to evaluate truth claims, and to determine what kind of thing counts as valid evidence. Surely, someone who believe in QAnon, (or in astrology, or e.s.p., or alien abductions, as well as those who deny the holocaust or the impact of slavery in America, etc.) is demonstrably incapable of evaluating truth claims, and so incapable of teaching our children how to do this.

What I am arguing here is that this is not at all a free speech issue, but an issue of competence. That is, part of the job of teaching is teaching how to think properly, and those unable to do so certainly cannot teach others to do it. We wouldn’t allow those who cannot add and subtract to teach math. We shouldn’t (although we generally do) allow illiterates to teach high school English. And we should not allow anyone, ever, who cannot think clearly about what constitutes good evidence and a sound argument, to teach.

Maybe we need to bring back the old GRE logic test, and use it as a criteria for hiring teachers? Of course, almost all current public school teachers would lose their jobs if they had to score above 600 on the GRE logic test. But would that be a bad thing?

Only teaching our kids to think better can save our world. We ought to be giving this the very highest priority. But most people don’t seem to care.

The obvious problem we face here is that it requires some education to even know the range of possible or acceptable epistemological justifications. Most people just wouldn’t know what counts as a valid truth claim and what is beyond the pale, obviously false. Surely, we don’t want to say that anyone who opposes received opinion cannot be allowed to teach—questioning receive opinion ought to be the goal. But we want to allow only questioning that has some kind of justification beyond mere opinion, fantasy, or wish.

Related to this is the obsessive misuse of the term “bias.” In our culture, anyone who believes something because they have seen empirical evidence and heard logical arguments is accused of having a “bias.” The only “unbiased” position is one that is not influenced by anything so horribly oppressive as concrete evidence or logic. If you can believe something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you are now considered to be “unbiased.”

Perhaps it is time we return to the days when an educated person was one who changed her mind to meet the facts? I would argue this could only be done by firing any teacher who accepts QAnon as true. Or believes in astrology. Or thinks there was no holocaust. The list could go on. This is not a matter of free speech, but of competence to do the job they are getting paid for. We wouldn’t necessarily fire someone from a job as a truck driver because of a belief in e.s.p., but we ought to fire anyone from a job as a scientist who believes in such things—they have no ability to evaluate evidence, and cannot do the job they have been hired for.

When my daughter’s language arts teacher thought that prepositions were what are actually called coordinating conjunctions, and didn’t know the meaning of the word assonance, I thought she should be fired for incompetence. When my other daughter’s math teacher told her that the way to multiply 25 by 24 was to “break it down” like this: 20x20x5x4, I thought she should be fired for incompetence. In both cases, the argument was that we cannot fire teachers merely for not knowing the subject matter they are paid to teach. Is this argument convincing to other people? It seems to be.

If so, then surely my argument that teachers who have no capacity to evaluate truth claims should be fired would gain no support. I suppose we’ll just have to let them take us into the next dark age. Will any glimmer of intelligent thought survive? Where?

But such speculation is the subject of science fiction…

Is Philosophy Dead, part 2

In my last post, I complained about the state of American academic philosophy.  In particular, I picked on one essay by one philosophy professor to demonstrate the shockingly poor thinking that training in philosophy seems to produce today.  This is of great concern, I tried to suggest, because it is evidence that there is no practice left in which we might expect people today to be taught how to reason properly, and so how to arrive at correct judgments about reality.  I would add that this is part of the reason we are in the horrible state we are in right now, and why there is little hope of things getting better. When nobody is left who knows how to think, what hope do we have?  

In this post, I’m going to offer a counterpoint.  I’m going to give an example of an essay that makes no poor arguments at all, but with which I nevertheless disagree.  I have two purposes for doing this.  One is to demonstrate that there are some professional philosophers left who are able to think well, but that even thinking well may lead to certain kinds of disagreement.  The other is to say something about the kinds of reasoning we need to be able to perform to resolve just those kinds of disagreements, and to make any kind of intelligent decision about how we ought to live our lives given the world we find ourselves in—which is to say: to have any kind of agency.

The essay is by Alasdair MacIntyre, and originally appeared in the journal Philosophy over twenty years ago (1999, vol. 74, pp. 311-29): “Social structures and their threats to moral agency”.  I’m going to begin by attempting to summarize the essay briefly, before I explain why exactly I disagree with its conclusions without finding any of its arguments flawed.  

MacIntyre begins by asking whether the “I was just doing my duty” defense is ever adequate.  That is, can one plead absolution from the broader effects of one’s actions if those actions were part of a duty one was obligated to perform, and the performance of that duty might actually have forbidden awareness of those effects.  His primary examples are a minor functionary in the railroads transporting prisoners to concentration camps in Nazi Germany and executives at power companies in the U.S. during the 1970s. In both cases, he finds that they cannot justify the claim that they were “just doing their job” and didn’t know the effects being produced.  

The reason for this culpability, MacIntyre argues, depends on what it means to be a moral agent.  To be a moral agent, we simply must be willing and able to put our “established social and cultural order to the question.”  To do this we must be able to “step back” from our ordinary roles in society, and to “transcend in thought” our “own particular social and cultural order.”  We have a responsibility to do this, as human beings, and to ask the essential question: What does your own social and cultural order need you and others not to know? The implication is that when there is anything we are required not to know, there is going to be some kind of moral failing at work in our culture as a whole.

This prescinding from our ordinary social roles cannot be done alone, according to MacIntyre.  We need to participate in a social practice (MacIntyre uses the term “milieu”) which allows us, together with others, to think critically about all of our other social roles. Without such a social practice, he argues, our “powers of moral agency will be undermined.”  We cannot be fully moral agents in a social system that prevents such milieus from existing. And, he suggests, we are in just such a society today.  Our compartmentalization of our lives allows for a number of roles to which we must adapt.  The roles may require contradictory ethical beliefs, but we cannot asses them, or often even notice the contradiction, because of the absence of any milieu in which we can gain critical distance from the norms of our own culture.  

So far, I would agree with MacIntyre’s position.  My conclusion would be that therefore we cannot hold most people fully morally responsible, because our social system has so thoroughly done its work of denying them full agency.  

However, MacIntyre goes on to argue that in fact these people are culpable.  It is his position that they have participated in the creation of the system which works to exclude the virtues of integrity and constancy, replacing them with the “virtues” of adaptability and flexibility.  It is only with “one’s own active cooperation that the habits of mind can be developed which make such closure possible.”  Therefore, anyone who lacks full agency is responsible for this, because they must have participated in the prevention of such agency, and it is for this that they are to blame.

Therefore, the railroad logistics expert in Nazi Germany and the electric company CEO in 1970s Harrisburg, PA are both responsible for the effects of the outcomes of their dutifully fulfilling the obligation of their social role.  They didn’t know better, but they should have.  

My position would be that they could not have. That given the social system in which we live, it is only the very rare individual who has the (good?) luck to be able to “put their social and cultural order to the question.” How and why this becomes possible is a bigger question—one I try to address in my book Indispensable Goods.  But my contention would be that if you are one of these people, you have a moral obligation to attempt to produce the kinds of milieus MacIntyre advocates, and to continue trying to produce them despite the fact that, as MacIntyre acknowledges, there will be enormous social resistance to the existence of such practices from multiple sources.  

Where, then, is the source of my disagreement with MacIntyre?  

Unlike the Sartwell essay I discussed last week, MacIntyre doesn’t make logical errors.  His claims all follow from his fundamental assumptions, about which he is relatively explicit (or, as explicit as one could expect in a short essay).  My disagreement is with his assumption that there is some basic human ability which precedes and exceeds the construction of the subject in its various social roles—in what I would call its ideological practices.  His claim is that “a self…can never be dissolved nor dissolve itself entirely into the distinctive roles that it plays in each compartmentalized sphere of activity.”  I imagine what he has in mind here is something like the medieval idea of “synderesis,” a kind of natural in inborn sense of morality.  As a Catholic, and particularly a Thomist, this seems to be a fundamental premise to MacIntyre’s argument: there is some kind of soul which brings with it certain fundamental truths we all have the capacity to use, regardless of the social formation of our “habits of mind and action.”  Every individual has “qualities of mind and character that belong to him qua individual and not qua role-player.”  

My position, on the contrary, is that all of our “qualities of mind and character” are socially produced, and so we have none that are external to our social milieus, that are not produced by them.  The result is that it is an unusual occurrence, highly unlikely and perhaps fortunate, if one is able to “put to the question” the fundamental assumptions of one’s culture.  For me, this imposes on such individuals a moral obligation to attempt to produce and expand any milieus which allow for such critical thought.  But it also, perhaps unfortunately, makes it impossible to blame the majority of people for their failure to engage in such critical practices, and so to blame them for the horrible effects of their actions so long as they continue not to know what their society needs them not to know (and so what their society has done everything it can to prevent their knowing).

Now, it may be that there are those who do know exactly what it is that most people must remain ignorant of in order for our society to keep running, and the power company executives MacIntyre mentions may be among those people. That is, it is conceivable that there are some people, in positions of power and influence, who exactly work to prevent the production of critical practices that might threaten their power and wealth.  This might be what MacIntyre has in mind, and why he finds such people culpable.  

My own suggestion, though, would that there is no such group of manipulative folks in power.  Rather, I suspect that those in power are just as deluded and mistaken as those being oppressed, and that they really cannot, for the most part, successfully prescind from their assumptions and commitments.  At least, not enough to engage in critical thought about them.  

How might this disagreement be resolved?  Certainly not by logical argument, since either MacIntyre’s position or my own could be advanced in a perfectly logical way.  Instead, we would need to turn to empirical evidence about the world to demonstrate which is correct.  Do we have some inborn “individuality” that transcends our sociality?  Or are we thoroughly the product of sociality (at least, at the level of our reasoning mind)?  One of the reasons I believe the latter claim is exactly the argument MacIntyre advances in this essay: that we never seem to be able to think critically about our social order without “social relationships of a certain kind, forms of social association in and through which our deliberations and practicals judgments are subjected to extended and systematic critical questioning.”  This seems to me to be true, from my experience.  For this reason, my own experience has led me to believe that we cannot, on our own, absent social practices which facilitate it, make any real progress in critical evaluation of our roles, our norms, and the implications and effects they entail.  

That is to say, I could only be persuaded to change my position on this with evidence, with examples contrary to my belief.  But if someone were to offer such examples, I would be more than happy to shift my fundamental assumptions.  In part perhaps because if I were wrong on this point, it would be easier to cast blame on those who go on destroying the planet and oppressing others while believing they are just being good and moral citizens; but more because this is a much more hopeful reality than the one I inhabit.  If everyone has the ability to think critically about their roles, norms, and assumptions, if we don’t have to wait for the creation of a social practice in which to do this (which social practice is always going to be silenced by the existing non-critical practices), then it should be far more likely that many people will wake up to the horror of our world, and the possibility to change it, once we witness the devastating  economic and social consequences of the pandemic, of global capitalism, of institutionalized racism and sexism, etc.  I would like to believe this will happen—but my experience argues against it.

In conclusion, then, I would suggest that perhaps philosophy was not always as dead as it seems to be now.  MacIntyre is, after all, an academic from an earlier generation.  So maybe we can’t learn anything from philosophy, or any academic discipline, in today’s profit-driven universities.  But there still exist, in older texts or even recent writing by older thinkers, some clues as to how we might go about thinking our way out of despair.  But only collectively. 

Is Philosophy Really as Dead as it Seems?

I had considered writing something about the ideological nature of academic disciplines for Imaginary Relations, but I don’t know that it would be a productive project.  I cannot conceive of anyone who would be interested in reading it, so I’ve given it up halfway through.

I am still bothered by this problem, though.  It has left me wondering if there is any value at all in any form of institutional education, beyond simply the purchase of credentials and the pursuit of a better job network.  At this point, I cannot see any.

I’ve discussed the absolute uselessness of the discipline of English before.  The worst writer on any university committee will always be the English professor, who will turn out grammatically incorrect or syntactically awkward sentences full of malapropisms, and never make a point.  High school English teachers see it as their job to show students their favorite movies, and leave it to history teachers to teach students how to write a research paper.  I think it’s high time English was eliminated from secondary education in America (it is already beginning to be eliminated from colleges).  

My interest lately is the absurd pointlessness of the discipline of philosophy in America.  Almost nobody would take a college philosophy class, unless they are required to take a course in ethics for their particular major.  And with good reason.  Most college philosophy professors are caught up in arcane absurdities, and when they try to speak of something relevant to our world, they simply reveal a stunning stupidity.  Now, what I have in mind here is more than Raymond Geuss’s  claim, which I mention in the introduction to my Indispensable Goods, that philosophy departments serve to produce the “ideological carapace” that protects our economic and political system against “criticism and change.”  Surely that is the goal of all humanities.  But in the process it seems to produce the kind of poor thinkers Bertrand Russell lamented a century or so ago—thinking so obviously absurd that it must take years of training and careful winnowing to produce an entire department full of such idiots.

Let me offer just one recent example.  In a recent essay in The New York Times, in the column called “The Stone” for which each installment is written by a different academic philosopher, the latest essay makes once again the tired case that humans are really animals.  This should be familiar by now as the standard philosophical support of neoliberal ideology, in which our current construction as self-interested and competitive capitalist subjects is claimed to be hard-wired into our brains.  Then, it is a short step to arguing that we are poor reasoners by nature, so we’d best stop trying to think and let experts or technology do the thinking for us (after all, thinking is unnatural, and only leads to suffering, etc.).  Surely we don’t expect brilliance from anyone promoting any version of this neoliberal rubbish.

But let’s just consider two, only two, of the shockingly poor arguments made by Crispin Sartwell, a professor of philosophy at Dickinson College, in his essay “Humans Are Animals. Let’s Get Over It.”

First, he makes the claim that since we, like squirrels, a “have eyes and ears, scurry about on the ground and occasionally climb a tree”, therefore the idea that we are unique and different from squirrels is a delusion we had best get over.  This is his major argument in this essay.  The absurdity should be obvious.  Apparently, judging by the comments submitted at The New York Times online, it is not to most people.  So I’ll point out the obvious (as I so often find myself doing, usually to no avail).  

This is sort of like saying that since a cow and a boulder are both big brown things sitting in a field, it is not only foolish but morally wrong to draw distinctions between them.  We ought to be getting all our milk from boulders!  

Clearly, we are unique as a species.  We have the capacity for symbolic communication, which no other species on earth does. As a result, we have the capacity to change the planet to an extent no other species has ever done, and to become aware of our instincts and decide whether or not we want to follow their urgings.  Anyone who doubts this difference, who doubts we are different not in degree but in kind from all other species of animals, is just deluding himself (interestingly, the proponents of this myth are overwhelmingly, but not universally, men).  He is sitting at a computer reading this, or typing a comment into his twitter feed and sending it out over the internet, and denying that he is any different from animals.  She is wearing a mask and social distancing while awaiting a vaccine for a new virus, and denying her difference from animals.  This kind of denial of reality is astounding.  But philosophy professors seem to see it as their job to render college students confused enough, muddled enough, deluded enough to participate in this denial.  

One more error (there are at least four that I can see on an initial reading, but I won’t bother to list them all).  Sartwell argues that since the belief in human uniqueness has sometimes been used to evil ends, the belief must be false.  This is sort of like arguing that since the theory of evolution was used to advocate eugenics, then it must be false that evolution ever took place and we should stop teaching it.  

Okay, that’s only two. But clearly astoundingly stupid errors, made by a professor of philosophy at a university.  The claim used to be that we need instruction in philosophy to teach our citizens how to reason better.  If this is the kind of reasoning philosophy teaches, wouldn’t we be far better off without it?  

Clearly, philosophy is a dying discipline.  I expect in the next couple of decades most American colleges will no longer have philosophy (or English) departments at all.  Many already do not.  

One more candidate for an institutional practice that might facilitate the effort to make explicit our assumptions and commitments seems to have given up the effort.  Philosophy is now the attempt to pander to students’ ideological beliefs, or to use cheap rhetoric to justify the ideology necessary to keep global capitalism running.

The publication of an essay like Sartwell’s should make all professional philosophers ashamed.  For the rest of us, well, we can at least steer clear of Dickinson College.  Although I doubt it’s much better anywhere else.