Teaching Should Philosophy Classrooms Get Gritty? (Part 2)

Should Philosophy Classrooms Get Gritty? (Part 2)

Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com.

Question (continued): How should we respond to increasing pressure from students to make our courses easier? Put another way: “Should philosophy classrooms get gritty?”

Nathan King (Part II)

In my last post, I identified a pressing problem on today’s college campuses: students seem increasingly unable to handle intellectual challenges. I argued that we shouldn’t look to grit—perseverance and passion for long-term goals—to solve this problem. In this post, I suggest instead that we educate for intellectually virtuous perseverance. After explaining the main elements of this trait, I’ll explore some ideas for helping students acquire it in greater measure.

Here’s an initial definition:

Intellectually virtuous perseverance is a character trait that lies between the vices of irresolution (a deficiency) and intransigence (an excess). It is a disposition to continue in intellectual efforts for an appropriate amount of time, with serious effort, for the sake of intellectual goods (e.g., truth, knowledge, or understanding), and to do so despite facing obstacles to one’s getting, keeping, or sharing these goods.

Like grit, such perseverance fosters persistence in the face of intellectual challenges. Thus, like grit, perseverance opposes irresolution. But unlike grit, perseverance can range over long-term, short-term, and mid-range goals. Perseverance thereby gains the advantage of fitting a wide range of activities within an academic curriculum. It’s important not just for the pursuit of large, grandiose goals, but for the achievement of short-term goals, and everything in between.

Along other dimensions, intellectually virtuous perseverance is narrower than grit. Whereas grit can be excessive, virtuous perseverance cannot. Those who consistently pursue their projects for too long don’t count as virtuously persevering. They count as intransigent.

Virtuous perseverance requires that persistence in an activity be appropriate—that is, wisely chosen. So it rules out continuing in intellectual projects that are not valuable (e.g., counting blades of grass), and those that are less valuable than other projects we might pursue instead. It also excludes projects we know are not viable (say, designing a perpetual motion machine).

Intellectually virtuous perseverance further requires that our intellectual efforts aim at intellectual goods such as knowledge and understanding. This is what makes it an intellectual virtue, as opposed to some other sort of virtue.

Finally, such perseverance requires that our knowledge-seeking be well motivated. It precludes seeking knowledge just for the sake of prestige or a good grade.

There’s more to say, of course. (Heather Battaly’s helpful paper says much of it. See here and here.) But even these brief remarks suggest that intellectually virtuous perseverance is a worthy educational goal. How, then, might we foster it in our students?

The time-honored Aristotelian answer, adapted to our situation, includes at least these elements:

  • Provide direct instruction about intellectually virtuous perseverance.
  • Introduce students to exemplars of the virtue.
  • Provide opportunities for practice in (a) persevering behavior and (b) making wise judgments about the value of various intellectual projects.

For some professors, this answer might seem daunting. How, they ask, can we educate for intellectual perseverance, given everything else we have to do in the classroom? For those with this concern, there is good news. As Jason Baehr has argued, educating for intellectual virtue is more about how we teach than about what we teach. It does not require large-scale changes to our syllabi. (Baehr develops the point here. For much helpful advice about intellectual virtues education in the college classroom, see here.)

Below are a few practices to consider.

Direct instruction

  • Take a moment to introduce students to the concept of an intellectual character virtue, and to the concept of intellectual perseverance in particular. This equips students to see and seek opportunities to grow in intellectual virtue as the course progresses.
  • Clarify the intellectual value of what students are learning. If we explain the intellectual value of understanding class material, we can provide students with a reason for learning that transcends “mercenary” motives (e.g., grades).
  • Introduce students to the concept of a growth mindset. In her pioneering work, psychologist Carol Dweck defines a growth mindset as the belief that one’s abilities, including one’s intellectual abilities and intelligence, are malleable. Students with such a mindset believe that effort can make them smarter. This opposes a fixed-mindset, according to which one’s abilities are immovable. Dweck and her colleagues have argued that students with a growth mindset out-persist and outperform their fixed-mindset peers.

Introduction to exemplars

  • Appeal to inspiring episodes in the intellectual lives of the authors on the syllabus. In a course on the history of contemporary philosophy, we might highlight Wittgenstein’s perseverance in writing the Tractatus during wartime. In a course on philosophy of science, we might appeal to Newton’s labors to invent the calculus, or to narratives of women achieving success in the sciences despite overwhelming obstacles. In any number of courses, we might use carefully chosen fictional examples from literature or film.
  • Disclose our own intellectual failures and challenges by recounting obstacles we have faced in the past (say, during graduate school). We can also put our current challenges on display (say, by showing students a colleague’s incisive comments on a writing project). Students find it encouraging to see that their professors, too, face intellectual challenges.

Opportunities for practice

  • Assign term papers in two or three drafts (best suited for small seminars). Ensure that students receive extensive feedback on each draft. This helps them see that good writing comes only at the cost of extensive effort. Most of my students find such assignments initially daunting but ultimately transformative. After a bout of discouragement upon receiving my comments, they roll up their sleeves and get to work. When their final drafts display vast improvement, students feel a remarkable sense of accomplishment. They see what they are capable of, and this strengthens their resolve to work hard on future assignments.
  • Assign difficult readings in addition to easily digestible secondary source texts. Difficult readings place students near the edges of their intellectual capacities, thereby providing opportunities to practice perseverance.

We shouldn’t think that employing these practices is sure to yield an army of intellectually tenacious college graduates. But we can reasonably suppose that they can at least yield meaningful growth in our students’ intellectual character. That goal is worthy of our persistent efforts.

Can you also help answer this question? Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.

1 COMMENT

  1. Is it true that “students seem increasingly unable to handle intellectual challenges”? Or is it that students are getting better at challenging tired old teaching routines of the past?

    A student who is complaining about a difficult assignment is a student who hasn’t been sold on the value of what they being required to learn. Seen this way, the complaint is not the student’s problem, but the professor’s.

    A student who is complaining might be a student who is insightful enough to perceive that academia is mostly a system put in place for students to serve professors. Who gets paid, and who does the paying?

    A student who is complaining might be understanding that any philosophy which can’t be expressed in normal everyday language is probably hiding it’s weaknesses in unnecessary complexity. A student who is complaining might be seeing importance inflating poses clearly for what they are.

    A student who is complaining might be wondering why they are reading ancient philosophers when the entire modern world, their future, is less than an hour away from total destruction at all times. Maybe they are wondering if their elders really know anything of value about reason, or even common sense?

    Philosophy teachers are probably usually teaching something other than philosophy, and that is, the art of academia. A lot of students probably get that on some level even if they aren’t yet mature enough to articulate it.

    Every philosopher should probably be required to start their book or paper with an everyday language explanation of the value they can provide to the reader. If a philosopher fails to make that case convincingly, maybe the student is being wise in setting the book aside?

    I remember complaining about having to take two years of algebra in high school. And two years of French too. Complain, complain, complain. And now 50 years later I see that I was right to complain, for I’ve never used either one. I should have been surfing during all those many hours, just like I wanted.

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