This Student Knows the Difference Between Courses that Teach and Courses that Preach

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A criticism of higher education that is often heard is that more than a few professors use their classes far more for political indoctrination than for educating students about their academic discipline. And in response, we often hear defenders of the higher ed establishment reply, “That almost never happens because professors are dedicated professionals.”

An article recently published on the Heterodox Academy site, “A Tale of Two Columbia Classes,” is strong evidence against the latter view. It was written by an undergrad at Columbia, Coleman Hughes, to compare two philosophy classes he took in his second year.

The first class was “Methods and Problems of Philosophical Thought” and the second was “Philosophy and Feminism.”

Hughes greatly enjoyed the Methods and Problems course. As he writes, in that course, “We’ll read some philsopher – say, Thomas Nagel – and learn his arguments well enough to repeat them, and then spend much of the class exposing any weaknesses that Nagel’s argument might have. We don’t hold anyone’s views sacred, or even special. We debate with one another; I even argue with the professor at times. The prevailing mood encourages friendly but lively debate. It’s challenging, good-natured, and fun.”

That sounds like an exemplary college class. The students learned not only the subject matter (what philosophers have believed), but also how to conduct themselves as rational human beings. I tip my hat to the professor.

Alas, the “Philosophy and Feminism” class was altogether different.  Hughes writes of that class, “We read some philosopher – say, Foucault – and learn his arguments, but rarely does a single person even ask a question, to say nothing of making a critique. On the exceedingly rare occasion that a student asks a question that could potentially contradict what’s being taught, the professor has a mysterious way of answering without ever suggesting that the argument could have a weakness.”

He continues, “I got the sense that the professor was wedded to the material, such that a critique of the material would have been synonymous with a critique of her. As hyperbolic as this might sound, voicing a strong pushback against any idea that the Professor favored was nearly unthinkable.”

That isn’t all.  The “Philosophy and Feminism” professor compares privilege to sin, berates students who dared to speak up on a point where they had some knowledge that grated on the prof, and declared that all students of color are victims of oppression.

Hughes, who is black, says that he does not view himself that way, but he did not dare to argue with her.

We have all heard of medical malpractice; I think that Coleman Hughes has just testified against educational malpractice. A professional educator has an obligation to teach his or her subject matter and also to uphold the process of intellectual inquiry that goes back to ancient Greece. That means formulating arguments and testing them via logic and evidence. In that process, there is no place for personal prejudices–much less anger, as the Philosophy and Feminism professor displays.

Hughes would like to retake that class, but have it taught in the same manner as “Methods and Problems.” Such a class could be a fireworks show of arguments and counter-arguments, with the professor encouraging civil debate. But I’m afraid he would be hard-pressed to find such a course on feminist philosophy anywhere. Too often, the faculty who teach a class like that have been chosen because of their zealous devotion to certain feminist beliefs, not because of their dispassionate concern for the pursuit of truth.

Let us hope that Coleman Hughes pursues an academic career – he obviously has the right stuff.

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