Philosophy 391: Selected Philosophical Issues in Educational Reform

Spring 2014, CRN 26857; Meets 2-3:30 Thursdays in BSS 211 (One credit.)
Format: discussion, student presentations, lecture. All readings will be posted to Moodle or linked via Syllabus, or will be handed out in class. No texts to purchase.
John W. Powell; office 502c Behavioral and Social Sciences building;
Office hours: 1:30-2:30 MW (not F), Thurs 1-3, and by appointment. I'm in my office a lot, including most mornings other than Tuesdays. If I am not teaching or in a committee meeting, I am fairly likely to be in my office; feel free to drop in.
Phone x5753, but e-mail is preferred;

This course continues a series--two series, actually. I have offered these one-credit seminar/reading groups each semester, usually dealing with metaphilosophy, language, or Wittgenstein, since I began teaching at HSU back when the world was still in black and white. Topics have been so varied that the word "usually" is misleading. Recent topics (the syllabi remain on my website) have mostly been on metaphilosophy. I like my topics, and by now this is a long list. Topics have included the following: origins of philosophical problems and stakes involved outside philosophy; Wittgenstein's methods of questioning questions and referring philosophical uses of language to "ordinary language" (meaning conversations or narratives in which the terms or words are not at issue); nonphilosophical examples; examination of assumptions behind contemporary schools of philosophy (such as constructionism, Rorty's pragmatism, postmodernism and other attacks on philosophy); applicability problems for ethical theories; and so on. The most recent have been on justifiability of religious belief; sources of philosophical problems; consequences or effects of philosophical problems outside of philosophy; paradoxes; and then a year ago an introduction to issues about educational reform.
              These reading groups are not common either on campus or away from HSU. Here in the philosophy department they serve faculty working on problems of interest to them in a setting in which students can come along for the ride and sometimes help. Students then get a chance to engage in doing philosophy as well as finding out what philosophers have said. The department has agreed that students may use three of these one-credit reading groups, if passed with a letter grade of C or better, in place of one of the three-credit electives required for the major. The reading groups are overloads for faculty--we do not get paid for offering them. Some of us do offer them regularly as a way to keep ourselves current with scholarship, as a way to begin drafting papers or articles, and as a way to include in our teaching topics in which we have particular interests which would otherwise not come up so often or in such depth. Some of us also teach particular topics at students' requests.

             Notice Regarding Grading: I give more F's in these one-credit seminars than in any other of my upper-division courses. Here's a possible explanation. The discussions tend to be informal, the pacing of writing assignments is up to students, students are given responsibility for fulfilling the requirements for attendance, preparation, and writing. It is, apparently, easy to forget the grading requirements until it is no longer possible to meet them. I do not nag students. This semester I will call some writing projects requirements instead of suggestions (although I hate doing that), and we'll see how it goes. Although you are well-advised to keep writing and posting your work along the way, you are also free to stay in denial about your grade until it is too late.

              Description: Our ideas of education and educational reform are often a window into our philosophies of life and our views of our cultures' successes and failures. If you think everything's been going downhill since (fill in the blank here with just about anything--the advent of some particular kind of music, some broad religious or political movement, a war, the new math, affirmative action, feminism, Keynsian monetary theory, the Copenhagen interpretation in quantum theory, whatever--including smaller but symbolic developments you think are signs of the Apocalypse, from touchscreens to the Tea Party to the withering of the HSU library's book-buying budget to newspapers dying off like flies--you are likely to find those views are consistent with your notions of what is really needed in education. I've had students who think the world needs more science, more facts, more law and order, less touchy-feely cosmic woowoo emotional bullshit, and other students who think science squeezes the heart and soul out of everything, murders to dissect, teaches nothing about the crucial values of what it studies and preaches, does not teach the crucial questioning of law and order, and that science has squashed creativity out of fear of hard questions and subversion, where everything of value starts. But the same reflection of your cultural values is visible whether you look at those items as signs of a new and better world or as signs of the apocalypse--how you see education probably becomes visible at the same time. And yet, there is a tendency to think of education as (as Freud remarked regarding love) on a separate page. This ambivalence regarding whether education and educational reform are distinct subjects may be important to our work in this class, but we will have to work with particulars before we come back to it. A conviction that there is a great deal that needs reformed in education may correlate with a conviction that a great deal needs to be rethought in philosophy--and that implies that our own philosophical views may be in need of re-examination.
              I'll say a bit about the personal history that led to this course, and then comment more generally on history of educational reform. My first work on this was prompted by the then chancellor of the CSU, Barry Munitz, pressing the campuses to be more productive and more efficient. I had been working for decades to help at-risk students be more successful and realized that success was different from productivity and different from efficiency. Trying to think that through led to my essay in the journal Thought and Action about fifteen years ago on what education is for. I was getting more and more involved (or enlabyrinthed) in university governance as the movement to make higher ed more productive metastasized nationwide and begat further moves to make universities more accountable. Here then is a warning and a simple argument: If you are committed to the current productivity and accountability movements in higher ed, this seminar may be difficult to handle (although it might give you a chance to sharpen your arguments, or it might make you change your mind, though that's pretty rare). Here's the argument. If you don't know what you are producing but you are hell-bent on producing it faster and more of it, then your situation is precarious and may need to be rethought. Further, current reformers do not, in fact, know what higher ed produces. They are blind to many of the central accomplishments of higher ed. Therefore their reforms need to be re-examined. That argument is one of the main arguments in the piece in Thought and Action. To take that line of thought still further, I'll quote Will Rogers, to whom is attributed the claim that "It's not the things we don't know that get us into trouble; it's the things we do know that ain't so." That is in fact the current situation in higher ed.
              The history of educational reform is full of controversies and failures. A professor of American Intellectual History when I was a graduate student before switching to philosophy remarked offhandedly that only the history of educational reform could match housing reform (our topic at the time) for overall dreariness. There are some pieces of this which do not seem to fit together. Contemporary American education is generally judged harshly, or at least it is a favorite target for vehement criticism, though historically American universities have attracted the best of students and the best of professors from around the world. Some of that is for a mix of reasons, admittedly including some that might have little to do with education and more to do with availability of careers and money. The analysis of flaws in American education including higher ed is wildly uneven in quality. It is hard to tell what our successes and what our failures are, but that hardly slows anyone down in recommending reforms, from minor tuneups through overhauls to burning universities down and starting over (don't roll your eyes like that--it's been done). I can't say I see the whole set of issues clearly, but I am convinced that a new and different kind of analysis might be a crucial help, and that philosophical work will be part of that. By "philosophical work" I mean articulating assumptions accepted by opposing sides and finding ways not to accept them, in hopes that may show us some parts of how to rethink educational reform.
              In other words, this class will work to articulate selected main issues and some of the main possibilities for making education better in our contemporary situation. We will do this by looking at selected broad-brush history of education world-wide and then American education in particular, and then go on to examine and critique some recent calls for reform which are unpromising, doomed, myopic, foolish, unrealistic, or wrong-headed. We may take note of some clear failures if those seem to illuminate contemporary calls for reform. The philosophy comes in as attempts to dig under superficial controveries to find basic assumptions guiding reforms. Some philosophers and would-be philosophers have done work of this kind for us, and some reformers have strayed into philosophical work without knowing they were doing so--this may help illuminate what philosophy is and the possible roles philosophers can play in educational reform.
              That's not saying much about specific issues so far. Here are some examples of topics--we may choose from this list what to investigate. (Links to some of the references are gathered at the end.)

Writing Assignments and Grading:
              Attendance is required; Students who miss more than three of our fifteen classes will not receive a grade higher than a C+. Writing is also required, specifically seven pages or 1750 words. See the warning note above about the alarming number of F's given out in these seminars. All student essays will be shared with the class via the Moodle forum. Essays need not develop views; articulating or clarifying problems or pointing out relationships with other thinkers, for example, are appropriate tasks for course writing. There will be quite a lot of leeway regarding topics and whether students write many short essays or a long one, though some suggestions will be made in class and posted on Moodle. A default set of grading criteria keyed to a three part essay structure is on my website and will be posted on Moodle. Students who do not meet the writing requirement will not pass the course. That does NOT mean, however, that turning in enough words guarantees a good grade. I do not give Incompletes.

Schedule:               Members of the class will go over this document and quick sketches of the readings in order to set up what we read and in what order, after paddling around in the shallow end of the pool (I plan to start us out with three or four essays I wrote). There will in general be a new reading assignment for each class meeting, and they vary from delightful, funny, easy-to-read and profound, on the one hand, to deadly dull antiquated prose, very slow going, on the other. Look at them ahead. Be cautious about sending materials to the printer before you have checked to see how many hundreds of pages long they are. As soon as we have a list and an order of readings, students will sign up to present particular essays to the class to start discussions. If those presentations include a written summary or other handout by the presenter those will count toward the writing requirement.

Objectives: Students will learn a range of works by educational reformers and critics, and will be able to describe and critique their arguments and clarify the issues addressed by those writers. (Is that pathetic or what?) The Philosophy Department's announced major assessment goals / objectives are as follows (Some courses are to involve measuring other objectives as part of their role in General Education):
              1. Students will learn to define concepts and use traditional vocabulary of philosophy.
              2. Students will increase their abilities to use the logical methods of analysis and to critically assess philosophical arguments.
              3. Students will learn to apply methods of philosophy to specific issues and problems.
              4. Students will increase their abilities to read and analyze philosophical writing.
              For this semester, the objective we will track is number 4. Since all the essay assignments will in fact result in evidence for this objective, there will not need to be any separately targeted assignments.

Legal notices from the ed policies committee and the University Senate.

Students with Disabilities: Persons who wish to request disability-related accommodations should contact the Student Disability Resource Center in the Learning Commons, Lower Library, 826-4678 (voice) or 826-5392 (TDD). Some accommodations may take a while to arrange.

Add/Drop policy: Students are responsible for knowing the University policy, procedures, and schedule for dropping or adding classes.

Emergency evacuation: Please review the evacuation plan for the classroom (posted on the orange signs), and review for information on campus Emergency Procedures. During an emergency, information can be found campus conditions at: 826-INFO or

Academic honesty: Students are responsible for knowing policy regarding academic honesty:

Attendance and disruptive behavior: Students are responsible for knowing policy regarding attendance and disruptive behavior:

Send notes and questions to