What do student evaluations in philosophy measure?

Philosophy teaching evaluations measure faultless wonder.

Wonder is the passion one undergoes not in learning knew knowledge, but in the prior learning that such knowledge exists to be discovered. It is what one undergoes when a whole world, as it were, opens up before the wonderer to be explored. Such wonder is faultless when the prior ignorance of what one discovers is not held to be culpable.

How is this engendered?

By teaching philosophy in the manner of a personal enrichment course. This is done best when teaching is broad, relativistic, and non-judgmental. Breadth is achieved by introducing students to a wide variety of problems or figures at a pace too fast to cover them sufficiently; relativism, by leaving what views to accept a matter of personal decision. Philosophy teaching is non-judgmental when assessment is minimal and grades are generous. Lay out the figures and problems of philosophy like a gourmet to feast on, served buffet-style, at a low cost.

What does it perpetuate?

Today, the concern to keep philosophical wonder faultless perpetuates the assimilation of philosophy to positive science. Why? Because the alternative – that philosophy is not a specialist’s domain, but rather concerns those matters closest to us from the first – brings with it an air of culpability: once philosophy is stripped of its jargon, its subject and claims become something I should have recognized. The removal of the threat of culpability, in turn, perpetuates an approach to philosophical problems as pastimes, games without any real import. A literature whose existence is self-justifying is generated, and teaching becomes a matter of socializing students into the vocabulary and opinions expressed therein. This, in turn, reinforces the racial and class homogeny of philosophy: poor people and minorities just don’t have time for that.

Can it be stopped?

In most places, probably not. Philosophy instructors who perform well on evaluations are tempted to see these as a sign of teaching quality; instructors who do not are eliminated. Philosophy departments benefit from a student body contented by their conflation of faultless wonder with actually learning philosophy – a student body happier in this way is one with more majors and minors, and this means a more secure department; and deans and colleges benefit financially from providing students courses that satisfy them as a break from the ‘real’ work of science and business.

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