“Just as in the law courts no person can pass judgment who does not listen to the arguments . . . so must a person whose task it is to study philosophy place himself in a better position to reach a judgment by listening to all the arguments.” — Thomas Aquinas (1224-74)
Like the character, Meno, from Plato’s dialogue, I entered college prepared to memorize my way through higher education as I did in high school. That soon changed. Colgate required three philosophy courses, in which I got a C+, D and C-.
I was exposed to ideas that were not my own! Those ideas were wildly different than the world I knew to exist! I did not want to hear them!
There, in a nutshell, is an explanation of “cancel culture.”
Technological innovation has played a huge role in producing insular and solipsistic young people who shout down the voices of others. Certainly, the self-esteem movement contributed, too, since a cacophony of young people do not appear to handle truths or ideas that hurt their feelings. As Harvard’s William Perry observed, students “demonstrate the wish to retain earlier satisfactions or securities . . . and most importantly, the wish to maintain a self one has felt oneself to be.” New ideas threaten them.
The character and nature of colleges and universities changed, too. In the1970s, job descriptions in the Chronicle of Higher Education for college and university presidents began listing M.B.A. degrees as a ‘preferred’ or ‘required’ criterion for consideration. Before the 1970s, the sine qua non for a presidential candidate was academic standing, i.e., a Ph.D., some experience in a leadership position, publications and little else.
However, academia slowly became a business, and businesses are beholden to their customers. So as administrative leaders began referring to students as “customers” or “clients,” consequences to the curriculum followed. More emphasis was given to education’s practical relevance, i.e., getting a job, rather than the acquisition of broad thinking skills.
The demotion of thinking skills meant the end for required courses in philosophy (phil), the so-called “perpectiveless perspective,” the discipline that challenged a student’s beliefs and identity. Today, students can get a degree without ever taking phil courses.
Unfortunately for my GPA, college curricula 50 years ago followed a model dating to ancient Greece, wherein a student began studies with philosophy, followed by the trivium, composed of logic, grammar and rhetoric, and then the quadrivium’s arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
The 12th century illustration, “Garden of Delights,” by Herrad von Landsberg, shows the seven liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium. They surround Socrates, Plato and philosophy, like rivers that flow from the headwater of philosophy.
Philosophy has always provided the foundation for the arts. The trivium, with its broader and basic courses, preceded the specialized courses of the quadrivium. Students began their college education with a broad and diverse education, then they specialized and declared a major. Now, students enter colleges with a major in mind — accounting, biology, music and so on — and fit the trivium in when they can. Seniors in my intro to philosophy class told me “I had to take a lib arts course to graduate; yours fit my schedule.”
The old curriculum aligns more closely with human development, physical and mental. Swimmers learn the “dog paddle” before the freestyle stroke. Kids master throwing, then they learn to pitch a curveball. Kids learn to read first, then they read to learn. Mastery of fundamental skills and knowledge precedes mastery of specialized skills and wisdom. Thinking, basic to any cognitive activity, works the same way.
And the broadest form of thinking involves philosophy, where a person can “place himself in a better position to reach a judgment by listening to all the arguments.”
Academic leaders can’t change the consequences of technological innovation, and may not be able to change the boorish, uncivilized behavior of cancel culture students. But it is within their purview to restore required philosophy classes so students can listen to ideas that are not their own, discuss those ideas, analyze the ideas, and then reach a judgment, instead of behaving like the mob that put Socrates to death.
The likely reward is more civilized behavior.
Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University.