a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Teaching

Taking political education out of families

Political education can be defined as the process by which people come to form political judgments – how they evaluate different political parties and issues of public policy, basically. The primary context of political education is the family. It is in this environment that people are first exposed to political judgments and inculcated with political values. It should come as no surprise that, as a result, many (if not most) people remain faithful to their parents’ political orientations, as research in political sociology often reports. Fortunately, though, political education is not reducible to family transmission. As they grow up, kids become more and more exposed to different political views, be it in school or within their social network, and they can be influenced by all sorts of people and events in this process. It remains true, however, that in the absence of a strong countervailing educational process, families are the main driver of political education in most if not all countries. Should we be happy with this situation?

Family political education is deficient in many respects. The most fundamental flaw is that the main driver of political education, within families, is irrational: it is a form of mimetism. Children inherit irrationally from their parents’ prejudices and dismissive attitudes towards political opponents. Arguably, some parents make efforts to justify their political judgments by providing reasons supporting them and sometimes even try to present opposing views in a way that allows their children to understand where they come from, why other people see things differently. Nevertheless, this kind of heroic political education is unlikely to be widespread. Most of the time, political attitudes are transmitted involuntarily, typically by short comments that parents make on politicians, parties and policy debates. Hence, the larger slice of political education will not be based on reasons.

Besides being largely based on unreflective mimetism, family political education is likely to be highly one-sided. Unless parents have differing political views and do not mind exposing and explaining their disagreements, most children will lack exposition to counter-arguments and countervailing reasons. This might be somewhat mitigated by the presence, in family political discussions, of older siblings who have been exposed to different views outside the family circle. Yet we would still be very far from the ideal of deliberative democracy. And the problem is reinforced by the lack of sociological diversity within families. Some relevant social perspectives will inevitably remain excluded from family discussions.

This brings us to a third problem: families are not an appropriate environment for political deliberation. A survey conducted in 2018 by the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research of the University of Chicago found 64% of people saying they discussed politics in their family at least once a month. This may sound promising, but among them, 53% agree on most issues (lack of diversity), 9% change the subject quickly to avoid disagreements and 5% fight. This leaves us with only 32% of the 64% having political discussions who “debate things diplomatically”. You might think it’s not that bad, but it means that a large majority of people are deprived of the important benefits of genuine political deliberation.

Schools are ideally placed to address this problem. They are usually more ideologically diverse than families (although much more could be done to promote social mix in schools). They have the mission to develop children’s competencies (among which could be included the capacity to form considered political judgments). Teachers are ideally placed to play a role of moderators of peaceful and respectful political debates. They can also play a role of informants when pupils miss factual information, and of devil’s advocate when ideological diversity is lacking and the risk of group polarization is high. Hence, there are many reasons to see it as a fundamental mission of schools to develop children’s capacity for considered political judgment and to thereby create the conditions for a healthier democracy.

The main reason why public authorities (and families!) are usually reluctant to entrust schools with such a mission is the fear of political indoctrination. I don’t have the space to give due consideration to this important problem here, but a few points seem worth mentioning. Teachers’ training programs usually already include a dimension of educational ethics inviting them to avoid taking firm positions on controversial issues and to respect their pupils’ autonomy. This form of teacher neutrality or restraint is fully compatible with a political education whose aims would be to help future citizens understand the intellectual roots of political conflicts and build their own judgments on policy issues. Obviously, teachers’ ideological views are likely to influence the way they present the different positions to their pupils. However, they are much more likely than parents to do this in a balanced way, because they are trained for it, have professional incentives to do it properly, and are monitored to some extent. Hence, to the extent that parents care about their children’s political autonomy, they should be strongly in favor of such public political education.

The problem is of course that many parents, in spite of what they would publicly affirm, care more about transmitting their own values than about promoting their children’s autonomy. What it means, however, is that a publicly defendable argument can be made to justify taking political education partly out of families and to develop it more than is usually the case within schools.

Teaching through experiences – Interview with Stephen Bloch-Schulman

A photograph of a traditional seminar-style discussion.
A traditional classroom scene

The way I like to put it is students in a philosophy classroom are regularly given answers without having the questions, and by having that experience first they have a bunch of questions they can then bring to the text.

Professor Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Elon University, has published extensively on teaching and learning, especially in relation to the practice of teaching philosophy. Like many philosophers, he wants students to critically evaluate their beliefs. However, his approach to actually getting students to do so can be considered unusual – as he does not think people generally are great at explaining what they believe. For our series on Teaching Philosophy, Justice Everywhere interviewed Bloch-Schulman about his teaching philosophy and practice.

(The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Justice Everywhere (JE): So, what do you do that you think is interesting and worth sharing?

Stephen Bloch-Schulman (SBS): I’m quite taken with Eric Schwitzgebel’s critique of intellectualism about belief – as he understands it, the intellectualist view is that we can know what our beliefs are by simply looking inside our own thinking, that we are transparent to ourselves.

I think the opposite is true, I think that we are very opaque to ourselves. I’m not really interested in merely asking my students what they believe and then critically examining what they say, because I don’t actually think that that’s what they believe. What I’m trying to do instead is find ways that students can reveal their beliefs to themselves and to me, rather than asking and assuming what they say accurately reflects their beliefs. I construct all sorts of experiences for them to have wherein they will reveal to themselves, and to me, what their beliefs are without them knowing that that is what they are doing.

Student use of ChatGPT in higher education: focus on fairness

From the long-form essay to concise term definitions, ChatGPT can be an apt tool for students in completing various assignments. Yet many educators balk at its use: they emphasize that ChatGPT makes errors, claim that its use is cheating, and that students using it learn nothing.

What sorts of policies should educators adopt? Our options fall into three main categories:
1) Explicitly forbid the use of ChatGPT.

2) Have no explicit policy: ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

3) Explicitly allow the use of ChatGPT.

In this post, I look at these three options from the perspective of fairness. Since fairness thrives on transparency, 3) seems to me the fairest of them all.

Should we deprioritize grades? Or not grade at all?


A snippet of a 19th century report card

If you have any experience teaching, you likely have experience grading. Grades are often considered an important part of teaching, for example because they are thought to motivate students. However, while grading, ranking and classifying has become the norm in many places (a development which only really kicked off in the late 19th century), many teachers are trying to move away from crude metrics. Some even go as far as doing away with grades completely. For this post in our series on teaching philosophy, Justice Everywhere spoke to Dr Marcus Schultz-Bergin (Cleveland State University), about his attempts to deprioritize grading and his experience with going completely gradeless in one Philosophy of Law course. He has detailed his experience on his blog, and a version of his reflections on gradeless teaching has also been published in a new book about “ungrading”.

Teaching Philosophy “Outside the Walls”

A photograph depicting an audience listening to a lecture in a traditional lecture hall

An audience in a lecture hall

How do you get undergraduate students excited about philosophy? How do you show students that studying philosophy isn’t just about reading complex discussions about the nature of reality? Philosophy teachers the world over are increasingly facing external pressures – from Rate my Professor to government funding bodies and everything in between – to make their courses popular, engaging, or “useful”. Many are also aware of other factors that may encourage re-thinking the way in which we teach philosophy and to move away from traditional  styles of teaching, for instance concerns about accessibility or Western-centrism. One of the things this series, Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century, sets out to do is to canvas different ways of teaching philosophy. We hope that these discussions serve to inspire and provide ideas for those considering adopting different ways of teaching and assessing students.

For this post, we spoke to Dr Sjoerd Griffioen and Dr Merel Semeijn from the University of Groningen (Netherlands). They run a module called Buiten de Muren (Outside the Walls), which is a required module for second year BA Philosophy students. In the module, students identify a societal issue they want to tackle, a relevant ethical theory or concept (broadly construed), and create a creative final product. ‘We really ask them not to write a standard academic paper about it, or do a standard presentation, but to really come up with something else – because it will probably be the only time in their academic career that they can do that’, Griffioen says. ‘Of course we supervise them very intensively. Because it does happen that students start with a brilliant idea but then they run into problems and we have to turn them towards something that might be a bit more pragmatic. But the principle is that we give them a lot of freedom to come up with something other than a standard academic paper. “Outside the Walls” means to think outside the walls of academia – outside the box, if you will.’

“What I would like is for people to come at the world with lots of different ways of seeing things”; Dr Liam Kofi Bright on the philosophical canon

Detail of Raphael's The School of Athens

Detail of Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, depicting among others Plato and Aristotle

In 2020, Dr Liam Kofi Bright (LSE) was interviewed by the Dutch newspaper Trouw [in Dutch]. In that interview, he outlined his case for getting rid of philosophical canons. “The Dutch far right got very angry with me on Twitter,” Bright says. “A quite prominent far-right politician said what a terrible person I am, and a bunch of her followers agreed.” But much of this anger was based on a misunderstanding of Bright’s argument. “They assumed without really reading what I was saying that my objection was to the particular people on the canon, so say Descartes, because he was a white guy from Europe. And they, being the far right, didn’t like that. But actually my objection isn’t really to any particular items on the canon at all.”

To start off our new series of posts about teaching philosophy – titled, unimaginatively, “Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century” – we caught up with Dr Bright in August 2021 to discuss his argument, and to learn more about what teaching philosophy without teaching to the philosophy canon might look like.

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