In 2012, Jessica L. Beyer received the Association of Internet Researchers award for her dissertation, “Youth and the Generation of Political Consciousness Online,” now been published as Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization (Oxford University Press).
The author, now a research scientist at the Information School at the University of Washington, spent several years monitoring and in some cases participating in a number of online communities which, though non-political, sometimes engaged in political discussion. Her analysis focuses on four sites. In two cases, the political concern led to offline activity, including the creation of parties that have won elections. At the other two sites, the conversation never made the leap to mobilization. Beyer’s study is series of ethnographies of the miniature social orders emerging at the sites, in search of the factors that generated or inhibited activism.
“Once I had chosen to study social sites,” Beyer explains in a long postscript on research methodology, “I had also chosen to study young people.” There’s an implicit “of course!” hovering over the remark – and fair enough, given that she did her digital fieldwork in the late ‘00s. But social sites have greyed somewhat in the meantime. Beyer’s perspective on “the generation of political consciousness online” may well apply to a broader demographic by now.
One of the sites in question enabled file-sharing, primarily of music and video, while two others were devoted to online gaming. The driving interest of a fourth cohort, the group known as Anonymous, seems harder to identify, though Beyer pins it down as well as seems possible by calling it “the nihilistic pursuit of entertainment, referred to as ‘lulz.’” Major sources of lulz (an idiom derived from an acronym: it’s the plural of LOL) include trolling, hoaxing, hacking, and “breaking s[tuff]."
The readerly appeal of ethnography usually comes from its attention to the details of everyday behavior and interaction taken for granted within a subculture. And that’s certainly true in the case of Anonymous, which -- like the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange -- has its own tightly self-encapsulating argot and code of conduct. The file-sharing and online-gaming communities also have specialized lingos and accepted norms, just as a stamp-collecting club might develop. But with Anonymous the markers of in-group status are much more sharply defined. Beyer understands this peculiarity to be a function, in part, of the design of the discussion forums that gave rise to Anonymous. Participants are never identified, even by a pseudonym, and venues do not have archives.
Because distinct identity is obliterated, “users assert their membership status in different ways,” writes Beyer. “To signal they are community members, users must use an extremely dense lexicon; show familiarity with community jokes and stories (signaling knowledge in a very particular way); articulate community values both directly and in the ways in which they frame conversations; and adhere to community norms of anonymity in all interactions, even when telling personal stories (e.g. ‘my math teacher is so stupid….’). Because of these norms of behavior, although the space is technically ‘anonymous,’ outsiders are easily spotted.”
While providing optimal conditions for digital hooliganism, these conditions would also seem to make political mobilization impossible – or, for that matter, completely irrelevant. (Misanthropic individualism tends to preclude any idea of the common good.)
But in 2008, the Church of Scientology forced a number of websites to take down the leaked video of a giddy Tom Cruise discussing his super-powers, and Anonymous responded with a campaign of attacks on its sites, accompanied by a memorable video of its own declaring war on Scientology. Faced with an angry swarm of unidentified and unidentifiable hackers, Scientology’s longtime strategy of litigation against its opponents was of no use. Members of Anonymous then joined forces with longtime critics of Scientology, many of them ex-members, to launch a worldwide series of protests outside its buildings which have continued, on and off, ever since.
Likewise, Pirate Bay, the file-sharing entity originally based in Sweden, took on the motion-picture and recording industries through street protests as well as its online activity. In 2006, it spawned a Pirate Party calling for the abolition of copyrights and patents and respect for privacy. By the end of the decade it was the fourth largest party in Sweden (with, Beyer notes, “the largest youth membership as well as the largest youth organization in Sweden”) and held two seats in the European Parliament. There are now Pirate Parties in at least 40 countries, with candidates elected to hundreds of offices at various levels of government, riding waves of discontent with intellectual property laws and surveillance.
Pirate Bay and the Pirate Parties share an ethos while remaining distinct. File-sharers can be anonymous, but not electoral candidates. While the original site administrators gave the political movement some direction, legal actions attempting to shut down Pirate Bay forced it to build anonymity into its very structure: it operates through a network of servers dispersed over an unknown range of countries, with no individual or group knowing more than a little of the system.
So anonymity, however counterintuitive this may seem, was a major factor in enabling the communities around two sites to move towards real-world activism. By contrast, the other two formations Beyer studied -- the game World of Warcraft and an online discussion-board system called the Imagine Gaming Network – required users to register and regulated their speech and behavior in ways that, she says, “undermine[d] collective group mobilization.”
Her account of how the layout of the different sites and the way they conditioned the degree of participants’ visible identity reveals a number of interesting contrasts – particularly between World of Warcraft, in which creation of an identity is part of the game, and the milieu of Anonymous, in which doing so is effectively impossible. On the gaming sites, in Beyer’s analysis, people are able to form smaller groups defined by shared interests or beliefs; they never reach the critical mass needed for mobilization in the offline world.
Perhaps, but other differences bear mentioning. Both WoW and IGN.com are commercial enterprises which exist strictly for entertainment. Individuals drawn to Anonymous or file-sharing through Pirate Bay are looking for entertainment too, of course. But they do so in ways that violate – or at best skirt – legal norms.
A gathering of stamp collectors might well include members also interested in international affairs. But no matter how passionate their discussion may become, they aren’t likely to be able to mobilize them on non-philatelic matters. I suspect gamers sites resemble the stamp collectors. They aren’t engaged in something that challenges any powers-that-be -- while Anonymous and the Pirates are, and wave a flag while doing it. Beyer's case studies are interesting, but her findings not entirely unexpected.
In 1917 John Dewey published “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy.” The essay consists of a reflection on the role of philosophy in early 20th century American life, expressing Dewey’s concern that philosophy had become antiquated, “sidetracked from the main currents of contemporary life,” too much the domain of professionals and adepts. While taking pains to note that the classic questions of philosophy make contributions to culture both past and present, Dewey felt that the topics being raised by professional philosophers were too often “discussed mainly because they have been discussed rather than because contemporary conditions of life suggest them.”
Dewey soon traveled to China, where he delivered nearly 200 lectures on education and democracy to large crowds across a two-year stay. Back in America Dewey commented on the public questions of the day, a role that he inhabited until his death in 1952. Since then, however, professional philosophers have followed W.V.O. Quine’s path in treating philosophy as a technical exercise of no particular interest to the layman:
Think of organic chemistry; I recognize its importance, but I am not curious about it, nor do I see why the layman should care about much of what concerns me in philosophy.
But is philosophy really analogous to chemistry, a domain of expertise populated by specialists? Or are philosophical questions part and parcel of everyone’s life, as far from a specialist’s tasks as anything can be?
Nearly 100 years after Dewey’s essay, it’s time for another reconstruction of philosophy.
While it is possible to point to philosophers who work with (rather than merely talk about) the concerns of non-philosophers, among the mass of philosophers societal irrelevance is often treated as a sign of intellectual seriousness.
This is a shame, since we are surrounded by phenomena crying out for philosophic reflection. Today we are constantly confronted by philosophic questions, in many cases created by advances in science and technology. Open your computer and you can find thoughtful exploration of issues as varied as the creation of autonomous killing machines, the loss of privacy in a digital age, the remaking of friendship via Facebook, and the refashioning of human nature via biotechnology. In this sense philosophy abounds. But professional philosophers have remained largely on the margins of this growing cultural conversation.
It needn’t be this way. Take the subject matter of metaphysics. Every philosophy department teaches courses in metaphysics. But how is the subject handled? As evidenced by a sample of university syllabuses posted online, metaphysics classes are overwhelmingly exercises in professional philosophy. Just as Dewey complained, classes begin from the concerns of philosophers rather than from contemporary problems. This can be seen in the leading textbooks. Consider as magisterial a source as the Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Loux and Zimmerman, eds. Their introduction begins so:
Its detractors often characterize analytical philosophy as anti-metaphysical. After all, we are told, it was born at the hands of Moore and Russell, who were reacting against the metaphysical systems of idealists like Bosanquet and Bradley…
The discussion is entirely framed in terms of the disciplinary concerns of philosophy – and only 20th century analytic philosophy at that. We find no reference to people’s actual lives, to the metaphysical issues tied to the births and transformations and deaths that we all endure, no acknowledgement that questions of metaphysics involve some of the most intimate and transcendent questions of our lives. Instead, metaphysics is a tale told in terms of professionals: Moore and Russell, Bosanquet and Bradley, Quine and Lewis.
We are not claiming that the matters addressed by such essays are insignificant. But it takes one adept in philosophy to extract the nut of existential meaning from the disciplinary shell. No wonder even the best students walk away.
Why do philosophers begin with insider topics when issues laden with metaphysics are in the news every day? The May 25, 2014 issue of The Washington Post describes a patient taking heart pills that include ingestible chips: the chips link up with her computer so that she and her doctor can see that she has taken her medicine. The story also describes soon-to-be marketed nanosensors that live in the bloodstream and will be able to spot the signs of a heart attack before it occurs. These are issues that could fall under “Existence and Identity,” one of the sections of the Oxford Handbook: at stake here are metaphysical questions about the nature of self and the boundary between organism and machine.
This needs to change, for the health of our culture, and for the health of philosophy itself. Unless professional philosophy embraces and institutionalizes an engaged approach to philosophizing, working alongside other disciplines and abroad in the world at large, it will become a casualty of history.
In our opinion, the single greatest impediment to philosophy’s greater relevance is the institutional situation of philosophy. The early 20th century research university disciplined philosophers, placing them in departments, where they wrote for and were judged by their disciplinary peers. Oddly, this change was unremarked upon, or was treated as simply the professionalization of another academic field of research. It continues to be passed over in silence today. Like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentleman, who did not know that he had been speaking prose, philosophers seem innocent of the fact that they have been doing disciplinary philosophy, or that one might have reasons to object to this fact. And so even when their subject matter consists of something of real significance to the wider world, philosophers typically discuss the topic in a way that precludes the active interest of and involvement by non-philosophers.
Philosophers view themselves as critical thinkers par excellence who have been trained to question everything; but they have overlooked the institutional arrangements that govern their lives. The department is seen as a neutral space from which thought germinates, not itself the object of reflection. One finds no exploration of the effects that disciplining might have had on philosophical theorizing, or of where else philosophers could be housed, or of how philosophers, by being located elsewhere, might have developed alternative accounts of the world or have come up with new ways of philosophizing. In fact, the epistemic implications of the current institutional housing of philosophy are profound.
Philosophers once recognized that there is something problematic about treating philosophy as simply one discipline alongside the others. It was once understood that in addition to fine-grained analyses philosophy offered perspectives that undergirded, capped off, or synthesized the work of other disciplines such as physics or biology, and then connected those insights to our larger concerns. Such work lost favor in the 20th century – dismissed as Weltanschauung philosophy by analytic philosophers, and as foundationalism by continental philosophers. But reopen this perspective and questions abound: if philosophy is not, or not exclusively a regional ontology, why are philosophers housed within one region of the university?
Why is peer-reviewed scholarship the sole standard for judging philosophic work, rather than also the effects that such work has on the larger world? And why is there only one social role for those with Ph.D.s in philosophy – namely, to talk to other Ph.D.s in philosophy?
Philosophers may have ignored their institutional placement, but for other disciplines critical reflection on the structures of knowledge production has become par for the course. Perhaps the most important site for such analysis is the interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS). One influential book in STS – Gibbons et al.’s 1994 The New Production of Knowledge – chronicles the shift in late 20th century science from “Mode 1” to “Mode 2” knowledge production. Mode 1 is academic, investigator-initiated, and discipline-based. By contrast, Mode 2 knowledge production is context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary. This framework is a good rough sketch of our basic point: we are tracing and promoting the 21st century development of Mode 2 philosophy.
But make no mistake. We are pluralists on this point. We believe Mode 1 or disciplinary scholarship should continue to have a central place in philosophy. But Mode 1 thinking needs to be counter-balanced by an equal focus within the philosophical community on conducting work that is socially engaged. In part this is simply recognizing a new reality: increasingly society is demanding that academics demonstrate their broader relevance. This demand has so far largely skipped over philosophy and the humanities, but this is unlikely to remain the case for much longer. Philosophy needs to demonstrate its bona fides by showing how it can make timely and effective contributions to contemporary debates. We believe that this is best done in a way that also shows that Mode 2 philosophizing is enriched by the insights of Mode 1 or traditional philosophy.
While Mode 1 philosophy is still the reigning orthodoxy, there is a growing heterodoxy within the ranks of philosophers, sometimes lumped under the title of “public philosophy.” We call our own version of Mode 2 work “field philosophy.” There are a number of similar approaches in areas such as environmental justice, critical race theory, feminism, and bioethics that we recognize as allies. We celebrate these diverse approaches to Mode 2 philosophizing, whether they go by the name of ‘public’, ‘applied’, or by some other title. But we believe that the lack of thought given to the institutional dimensions of philosophizing has limited the effectiveness of this work. A new philosophical practice, where philosophers work in real time with a variety of audiences and stakeholders, will lead to new theoretical forms of philosophy – once we break the stranglehold that disciplinary norms have upon the profession.
It will take a community to institutionalize Mode 2 practices. As it stands now, heterodox practitioners (however they self-identify) exist on the margins and lead professional lives that run against the grain. As the feminist public philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff notes, many Mode 2 philosophers try to “walk a fine line between responsiveness to community needs and employment survival, pushing the boundaries of academic respectability even while trying to establish their credentials in conventional ways." It is these “conventional ways” that must change. We have to invent a philosophy where responsiveness to community needs (not just disciplinary interests and imperatives) is an integral part of one’s employment and is viewed as academically respectable.
In practice, this will require many changes, from revised promotion and tenure criteria to alternative metrics for excellence and impact. As these changes are implemented, it will be important to consider at what point the chasm has been reduced to a suitable-sized gap. After all, we don’t want to eliminate the space between philosophy and society altogether. Socrates was engaged, but still an outsider. He certainly was no pundit looking to score the most outrageous sound bite and rack up the most “likes” on Facebook. We need a people’s philosophy that reserves every right to be unpopular.
Robert Frodeman is a professor of philosophy and religion studies at North Texas and director of its Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity. Adam Briggle is an associate professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas.
About 10 years ago, I was an admissions officer at a university in London, where (typical of the British system of admitting major by major) I read essays from those who wanted to study philosophy. To be honest, the essays were largely indistinguishable from one another, presumably because the applicants were all given identical advice about what they should say.
But my interest peaked when the applicants mentioned what drew them to philosophy in the first place. Often, they cited a work of “popular” philosophy, perhaps Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, or something by A.C. Grayling or Alain de Botton. The students would not be reading such works once they arrived to do their degree. Rather they would read the philosophical classics – Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant – and cutting edge philosophical papers from the more recent past. They had been pulled in by popular philosophy, but at university they would experience professionalized philosophy, learning its special jargon, conceptual tools, and history.
There has long been a gulf between the public experience of philosophy and philosophy as it is pursued among the experts. Like other academics, philosophers focus on sharing research with colleagues, and draw on it when they teach the students who have shown enough aptitude (and paid or borrowed enough money) to get into their classrooms. Only a minority of academics try to speak to a broader audience, and when they do, the link to what they do in their professional life is presumed to be rather indirect. Knowledge trickles down from the ivory tower to the public sphere, but what comes out has typically been just that: a trickle.
This is beginning to change. The reason can be summed up in an unlovely, two-word phrase: “new media.” With tools like blogs and podcasts, platforms like iTunesU and “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), academics now have the opportunity to reach an enormous audience of people who need only an Internet connection and a modicum of curiosity. There are online interviews with leading philosophers (Radio 4’s “In Our Time,” “Philosophy Bites,” “Philosopher’s Zone,” “Elucidations”) and themed series like my History of Philosophy podcast. You can also find free philosophy instruction on YouTube and on iTunesU (traditional university lectures recorded and put online), while many conferences and professional lectures are also appearing on the internet (for instance from the Aristotelian Society, or the Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Munich).
It’s an unprecedented opportunity. So why don’t more academics take advantage of it? Many of the podcasters who host series on topics in history, for instance, are not university lecturers but independent scholars. I know, because I met them on Facebook (of course).
Of course there are plenty of practical explanations for this reluctance. New media projects require a certain degree of fearlessness when it comes to technology, and can be very time-consuming. With the heavy demands of teaching, research and administration, it’s no surprise that launching such a project may not rise to the top of an academic’s “to do” list. In theory, there could be rewards to balance the costs in time and energy. We are frequently asked to demonstrate the wider social “impact” of our work these days, on grant applications or in the Britain’s Research Excellence Framework survey. But “impact” is a rather ill-defined notion. When I first launched my own podcast, I was warned that it would not necessarily make a good impact case study in the REF: how exactly does one document the “impact” of a podcast? In any case, hosting a podcast is unlikely to help your career as much as writing a good journal article or two, which could easily take less time.
Beyond the practical issues, I suspect most academics still assume that media projects are inevitably “popular,” in the pejorative sense of being strictly introductory. A podcast or blog isn’t the place to do real philosophy or history – this view holds -- that happens in the classroom, or in the pages of peer-reviewed journals and monographs. But such worries miss the promise of new media. With no time limits and no editorial constraints, academics can make any ideas they choose freely available on the Internet. If that content isn’t for everyone, so what?
My own podcast covers the history of philosophy “without any gaps,” moving chronologically at a slow (some might say excruciatingly slow) rate. (Obviously this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. But my listeners are not just fellow academics and undergraduates. They are commuters, truck drivers, homemakers, retirees, high school students – as I say, anyone with an Internet connection and curiosity about the subject. We should not underestimate how widespread that curiosity might be, even when it comes to rather recondite topics.
Furthermore, just as students in a university setting helping their teachers to see things in a new way, the audience for a new media project will respond with corrections, comments, and other sorts of feedback. So there is a chance here for a democratic and open conversation in which knowledge is shared among many more people, not just those among the academic community. I believe that more and more academics will seize that chance, even if the use of new media raises questions about the role of universities and academic experts.
Why, for instance, should students pay high tuition to learn the same things they could be downloading for free? Yet this worry too, I think, is misplaced.
If anything, following a blog, taking a MOOC, or subscribing to a podcast will bring potential students to fields of study they would not otherwise have considered. I don’t read admissions essays anymore, but I like to imagine that some of the applicants say they’ve been inspired to pursue philosophy because of something they found online.
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In today's Academic Minute, Angela Crean, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of New South Wales, discusses telegony, the idea that a woman's past sexual partners can influence the genetics of her children. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
“Turn the air conditioning off.” It was a hot July day in New York City. “Trust us,” one of my students beamed, “we need absolute quiet.”
Quanisha rose, shyly adjusted her T-shirt and started to sing. Her voice was raw and stunning. When she finished, my 16-year-old students looked at me and said, “Now we’re ready for Rousseau.” That was the day I learned that great classes contain extraordinary moments of intimacy.
In a policy climate enamored with technology and distance learning, the Freedom and Citizenship Program at Columbia University stands out for its commitment to books and teachers. For the past six years, low-income, mostly minority, high school students have arrived on Columbia University’s campus to take a three-week intensive seminar based on the Columbia College Core Curriculum. These students return to campus throughout the academic year to research a contemporary political issue, such as immigration and prison reform. As Casey Blake, the American studies professor who directs the program explains: “The goal is not only to introduce the students to the centuries-old debate about the meaning of freedom and citizenship but also to prepare them for lives as active, engaged citizens.”
Two convictions animate the seminar. One is that 16-year-olds from low-income communities can handle and benefit from a college-level Great Books course. The second is that nothing can replace personal attention. Two Columbia professors, two graduate students, and six undergraduates serve as reading, writing, public speaking, and college-prep mentors for 30 rising high school seniors who live on campus while enrolled in the seminar.
When I first contemplated teaching the summer seminar, I did not grasp its purpose. I was more or less terrified. I had just completed my Ph.D. in American history and the seminar had little to do with the subject I had studied: aging in America. The syllabus was overwhelming: one day Plato, the next Aristotle, and then on to Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, Dewey, and King. For weeks I tried to fill the gaping holes in my education, panicked that my students would look to me for answers I couldn’t give.
The first day of class I showed up an hour early, paced, and imagined the personal horrors of an oral exam on Plato. The students arrived on time. They ambled into the seminar room, some laughing, others stoic, all clutching their copies of The Trial and Death of Socrates. As they sat down, I knew that they desperately, achingly, wanted to be in this room. I recalled what the director of the Columbia Core, Roosevelt Montàs, said to me when I agreed to take on the course, “be quiet and be curious.”
When Montàs speaks about the Freedom and Citizenship Program and the Columbia Core, he often reflects on the purpose of a humanities education. “In most disciplines,” he explains, “the subject to be learned is at the center…. In this field of study, the student, the individual as a living growing entity, is at the center.” My job was not just to transmit facts and skills. My job was to create the conditions for these students to relate to, and grow from, these extremely challenging texts. Silence would be key.
I don’t come by silence naturally, but I spent years understanding its value. While working on my dissertation, I learned that sitting with an older person in need is a powerful lesson in humility and presence.
On that first day of class I sat quietly for a minute or two and waited for them to be ready. Then I took a page from Bertrand Russell and opened our time together with a question that would remind us all of the powerful, childlike core of all forms of learning: What fills you with a sense of wonder?
Their answers were tender and earnest; they ranged from observations about primary colors to small acts of kindness. And then came Quanisha. “I’ll tell you,” she offered, “but don’t laugh. I wonder what this guy Socrates is saying. I just don’t understand him. I have been up all night. I read this three times and I don’t know what he is saying and I wonder about it.” So our seminar really began, with that familiar little phrase, “Let’s turn to the text.”
It was Socrates’ description of wisdom that caused the most collective confusion. “I don’t get it,” Lanique piped, “he is wise and not wise, but wiser than other people and still ignorant. That doesn’t seem very wise to me.”
I smiled knowing that my students cared and were close to understanding something of great value. “Let’s look closely at what he says when he is off investigating those who might have a claim to wisdom,” I said. “But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom….”
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
Gabriel spoke up, “I think he is saying that you’re not wise if you think you know something that you don’t know. It’s like a person who knows a lot about one subject and just because of that he thinks he knows about everything.”
“So, how would you describe this definition of wisdom?” I followed.
“Maybe wisdom is just knowing what you don’t know,” he replied. Laura and Genesys smiled. Now we could all remain in the classroom and claim to be wise, just by admitting what we did not know. Fabulous!
“But wait,” questioned a soft voice to my left. “Is that enough?” Fatoumata leaned into our seminar table. “How can it be enough to just say you don’t know? Don’t we have to do more? Don’t we have to figure out how we could learn about a subject?”
The class found its rhythm and my students, drawing deeply from their reading of the Apology, debated the contours of wisdom, knowledge, and learning for the greater part of an hour. The morning ended with our own working definition of wisdom that we would try to apply to our future seminars, “Wisdom is being upfront about what you don’t know and then carefully, ploddingly, figuring out how you would learn more about it.”
Thus began an intellectual journey short on ego and long on responsibility. As one of my own professors at Columbia, Andrew Delbanco, reminds us, the founders of America’s colleges thought learning could be blocked by pride. This is what Socrates gave our classroom: he allowed us to let go of pride while holding onto obligation.
From big questions, we launched into big problems. With Hobbes, we discussed the human proclivity toward violence, and with Locke and Frederick Douglass, the agony of slavery as well as the challenges of securing freedom. My students began to articulate a definition of freedom as the essential right to develop oneself and to a find purpose. The day Quanisha sang, our philosophical conversation about freedom grew more intimate.
It began with a question posed by Mysterie. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” she read. “Why does Rousseau think we are born free? Is anyone really born free?” My students pounced; everyone had a contribution. That day their comments didn’t just come from the text, it came from them. They talked about the challenges of living with a parent suffering from drug addiction, the lasting effects of physical insecurity, and the oppressive emotional state that can be induced by racism. That summer we didn’t just discuss freedom as an abstract concept; we discussed what that word meant to us as individuals, as members of families, of learning communities, and as citizens of our shared country. Our seminar became a model for education that was not only about absorbing facts, but one that was beholden to our world as it is and as it should be.
“If for Du Bois,” began Afroza in our last week together, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, then the problem of the 21st is empathy fatigue. Human suffering is just so great; how do we know what to do first?” Kevin nodded but offered his own response, “I think the problem is really about access.”
Reyna agreed, “Some people can access the best of what we have, technology and education, and others can’t. It is completely unequal.”
“Isn’t the problem really then poverty?” posed Maisa. Kisairis and Joangie nodded. The nodding continued but the shoulders around the seminar table started to slump. Heebong voiced our collective sense of defeat, “but what can we do about those issues. They are so … big.”
We could have ended there. If I were alone, I probably would have. But we were in a classroom and we had started with Socrates.
“We need to get wise,” said Fatoumata, at first quietly and then emboldened by a chorus of her peers, “We need to get wise.”
These extraordinary students then started designing a plan of study, a course of intellectual action to learn how to tackle these problems. Their plan of action required knowledge produced by biologists, physicians, psychologists, philosophers, politicians, and sociologists, to name only a few. These students understood that the great human problems of their generation were at once structural and personal. To solve them, they would need a STEM education and a liberal education, the sciences and the humanities.
As the distance closed between 4th-century Athens and 21st-century New York City, between ideas and our actual lives, and between my students and myself, our collective education took on its full purpose-driven force. My students came to this course because it was a means to an end – college. They left the seminar almost embarrassed by the shortsightedness of that goal. As one student put it, “Now I want to go to college not just to get there but to really learn something, so that I can give back; it’s not just about me and my success but about what I can do with it.”
We are in a period of exceptional innovation in the way education takes place. We must test and develop ever-new forms of virtual courses to convey skills while containing costs. But while doing so, we cannot forget the value of an education that is personal and beholden. This July, over 40 individuals, both teachers and students, learned about freedom, citizenship, and the purpose of knowledge by reading significant books and talking to one another around a battered old wooden table. The results were wondrous.
Tamara Mann is the John Strassburger Fellow in American Studies at Columbia University, where she teaches in the Freedom and Citizenship Program. The program is a partnership between the Center for American Studies and the Double Discovery Center at Columbia University and has received financial support from the Teagle Foundation and the Jack Miller Center.