How Democracies Die

Inspired by a particular speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention, I have gone back to read the founding documents of the United States, starting with the Constitution.

Well, let me step back and give some context to this.

I am scheduled to teach a course in political philosophy, this fall, an assignment made both more interesting and more fraught with peril by the current political scene here in the U.S.

I will be modifying a course design I used a few years ago in which I introduced the students to three whole books: Locke’s Second Treatise, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Iris Young’s Inclusion and Democracy.

The question is: How are democracies supposed to work? More precisely, the interest is in whether and under what conditions democratic forms of government both work well and provide a legitimate basis for political authority. The three whole books correspond to three broad models of democratic government: liberal democracy, republican democracy, and deliberative democracy.

I was briefly tempted, though, to build the class around the question of how democracies die, often by their own hands. Continue reading

“It is a sign of wasted effort if an activity from which students are expected to learn is not enjoyable for them. It means that they are only learning the wrong things, namely that they can’t succeed in learning what they are trying to learn – and also, probably, that they don’t really want to learn it in any case.”

 – Frank Smith, The Book of Learning and Forgetting  (New York: Teachers College Press, 1998), p. 87.

Courses with the Lid Off

I’ve started to have panic attacks about my summer teaching.

The Spring term ended last week and Summer term begins next week, so I’m in the midst of a too-quick turn-around. Still, I think I have enough time to get my syllabi and other documents in order before I step back into the classroom on Tuesday.

Oh, but what’s in those syllabi gives me the heebie-jeebies!

I am making two significant changes to my course design . . . wait. That’s too polite and constrained a way to put it. Let me try again.

I’m blowing the lid off my courses, with two explosive charges. Continue reading

Life Is Strange: Video Games and Moral Imagination (Spoilers!)

I’ve spent a little too much time, in the past week or so, playing a game on my computer.

The game in question, with the deceptively trite title Life Is Strange, is an example of what may be an emerging genre in video games: a graphic adventure game that amounts to an especially rich and engaging interactive story, with a particular game-play mechanic, some mild puzzle solving, some free exploration of the setting of each scene, an overarching mystery to investigate, and a series of tough choices that affect future (and past!) parts of the story.

In this case, the narrative device and game-play mechanic is the ability to rewind. The main character is Maxine “Max” Caulfield, an 18-year-old photography student at a high school for the arts, who suddenly finds herself able to manipulate time by undoing some decisions and trying other options. Important elements of the plot and a number of the puzzles that need to be solved depend on this ability.

SPOILER ALERT! I will not reveal any particular details of the plot, especially from the later chapters, but I will be discussing the general outlines of the game and the general outlines of its ending. If you have an interest in video games that might lead you to play Life Is Strange, and if you really don’t like to know too much about the trajectory of a story before you start it, you might not want to read on.
Continue reading

Doing New Things in Teaching (with more words added later)

(Explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often, just like at that one not-real place I found with my computer. I wrote this using a thing the guy who makes that not-real place made to help people to write more simply.)

I work at a big college (the kind that has a lot of little colleges in it). This week I went to a meeting where some of the top leaders of my big college talked about how they want a lot of us in my big college to do new things in teaching.

They said a lot of stuff about how teaching is good and how teaching matters a lot to people and how important it is to do new things in teaching . . . and especially how important it is that people in my big college do the new things before anyone else does them.

What they did not say, but I thought I heard anyway, is how they do not really know what teaching is.

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Theoretical Commitments

I have long thought of myself as something of an agnostic on matters of moral theory.

From the beginning I have concerned myself with practical decision-making, first with environmental ethics and policy and more recently with engineering ethics. I am now mainly concerned with how best to teach ethics to undergraduate students in engineering degree programs. In those efforts, I have come to think of moral theories as resources for ordinary practical decision-making, lenses through which to see ordinary basic values of one kind or another.

I could, I have thought, go on using these frameworks, playing them one against the other in expanding and enriching the variety of values taken into account in any decision, without committing myself to any one of them. As a teacher, I have thought I could offer the frameworks to students with complete neutrality, allowing them to figure out for themselves how to balance one kind of value against another. It is not for me to indoctrinate them, after all.

As I am, after a quarter century, re-reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I begin to see that such a neutral perspectivism is untenable. In fact, telling myself I am neutral among perspectives is simply false: everything I do has a frame and a direction, based on a particular – though still developing – understanding of human cognition and of the ends of human life in the world. Continue reading

Scaffolding: The Utility Template

As previously noted, scaffolding is an important element in problem-based learning:

it is an external and somewhat artificial version of a thinking process that is usually carried out internally. The idea is to direct students’ attention from the outside until they learn to direct their own attention themselves, from the inside

For drawing students’ attention to various kinds of basic values, I found the template for utility values the easiest to develop. I don’t want to go too far, just now, in speculating about why that should be the case, but I think it has something to do with the fact that utilitarianism is the product of an empiricist outlook, according to which the marks and measures of value are observable and the connections from action to its ethical implications largely a matter of empirical causality.

Here is the basic template:

Utility TemplateFor this template, focus on the action as something that happens in the world that has consequences that ripple out from it, affecting other people. This is largely a matter of material causality: my action causes x, which causes y, which causes z, and so on. Continue reading