As a second-year undergrad student at Columbia University, I’ve noticed that two of my courses this semester differ greatly. One is a generic introductory philosophy course, in which we read classic papers in the philosophy of mind, identity, and morality. The second philosophy course mainly covered feminist epistemology and queer theory, in which we learn the core principles of intersectional feminism, queer theory, and feminist epistemology.
Leaving aside what is taught, the courses differ greatly in how they’re taught. In the generic intro course, we’ll read some philosopher––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 as 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.
Every Monday and Wednesday I leave my generic introductory course and go straight to the second where the mood is strikingly different. 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 simply have a weakness.
Of the seven philosophy courses I’ve taken at Columbia so far, not a single one has operated even close to this way––philosophy professors are always the first to point out logical weaknesses, strong counterarguments, and alternative points of view, even when they fundamentally agree with the course material. In this class, 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.
Some highlights of the course: The professor once said that all students of color are victims of oppression (I’m black and I view myself in no such way, but I didn’t dare say so in the moment because I felt a silent pressure not to be a nuisance); she once suggested that students not come to class so that we could attend a protest against disciplining students who had interrupted an event hosted by a Republican student group; she once compared privilege to sin, and remarked about how nice it would be if we could cleanse ourselves of it; she once castigated the class, saying, “You’re part of the f**king problem!”, for the crime of having had little prior knowledge of the U.S. bail system (this was before our unit on the Prison System, so she was castigating us not for being lazy students, but for being ignorant people). She went on to swear at us in this guilt-inducing way a couple more times before the semester’s end.
Of course, I’m cherry-picking the most preacherly examples from an entire semester; my point isn’t that she’s evil or even particularly proselytizing, but rather that the atmosphere, caused as much by our silence as by her style of teaching, was bizarre––a fact made all the more striking to me by its contrast to every other class I’ve taken.
It would be exhilarating to re-learn the material covered in this class, but in a normal intellectual environment––one in where the professor readily presented the best arguments from each side of an issue, and the prevailing mood encouraged disagreement. But this class embodied the opposite attitude. Instead of feeling like I was in a temple of knowledge, I felt like I was in a literal temple, where absolute adherence to specific doctrines was compulsory. Not only did it feel morally wrong to disagree with what the professor said, but––unless you already agreed with her––the class was just plain boring to sit through.
I suspect that the students familiar with the norms of a typical philosophy class noticed how unusual this class was. But I also suspect that many students with little philosophy experience came away with the impression that this class represented what philosophy is, and that’s what disheartens me most. What I’ve found so inspiring about my philosophy professors thus far is that, despite their scary levels of intelligence, they tend to exhibit a level of intellectual humility and a commitment to fleshing out opposing viewpoints that I’ve found profoundly conducive to the expansion of my own mind. It is just that sort of mental expansion that I fear students in this class lost out on.